John's Mini Cooper Blog

The care and feeding of Baby Blue

Welcome to Baby's blog.  I'm planning to chronicle the travels and travails of my first race car.   You are all invited to check in on us once in a while.   And please, feel free to offer advice.  I have a lot to learn. 


Au Grattan weekend is always a treat.  The track is very scenic and quite challenging


This was the Spring Brake weekend at Gingerman Raceway.  I started the weekend with a fresh motor.  John Van Raalte did the work.  The bottom end was like new, and the top end was completely rebuilt, with new valve guides, valve seats, etc.  I've been paying lots of attention to the head torque, since I never want another blown head gasket if I can avoid it.  We retorqued the head after the first session.  On Saturday I qualified second behind JP Van Raalte, with a  1:44.847, just .02 behind JP.  I had an intermittent loss of power in the second half of the sprint race, which turned out to be due to a loose coil mount that allowed a short of the coil terminal against an oil line fitting when turning to the right. I finished second!  There were also troubles with the auxiliary radiator, as it was leaking at the end of the race.  Replaced the rad Saturday nite with a new aluminum one.  On Sunday I started 3rd behind JP and finished 2nd behind JP.  We had an incredibly close race that had the crowd cheering (see the write-up in the VSCDA newsletter.)  Racing with JP both days was super fun.  Both the drivers and the cars are very evenly matched.  Now, if I can just qualify ahead of him  .  .  .


The clutch problems are fixed and the new head gasket held the entire weekend.  The car ran great!  But a new problem surfaced--brakes.  I know, they say that to be fast in a Mini you shouldn't be using the brakes, but I do.  On Saturday they got hot enough to cause burns if you touched the wheel rim.  During Sunday's race I braked harder and deeper than in qualifying and boiled the fluid, resulting in an off road excursion at the hairpin.  Fortunately there was no damage to me, the car or anybody else.  Now I need to find a way to cool the brakes down. 

This time the crew consisted of Rob, his lovely wife Jackie, and David Marcuzzi, an Italian engineering student and Alfista.  Fortunately there were practically no repairs needed, but Rob and David did a great job checking pressures, rotating tires, retorquing the head, adding fuel, helping me on the false grid, etc.  They were incredible.  And Jackie went way above and beyond, bringing lots of healthy and tasty food, lots of water to keep us hydrated, and generally making it easy for Rob, David and me to focus on racing.  Thanks, everybody!!! 


Time for Spring Brake!  After what seemed like an endless winter, the racing season finally arrived.  Racing bud Rob Ritt kindly offered his facilities and his help to do a final check and corner weighting on the car.  So on Thursday I drove to Rob and Jackie's in Baroda.  Unlike last year's mad all-day prep session, this year things were much more relaxed.  We put the car up on Rob's scales and found that the front weight balance was a bit off--around 70 pounds difference.  After a couple of tries we got the weights down to only 6 pounds apart.  It put the rear weights off a bit more, but on a front-drive car it's not that critical--the inside rear spends most of its time up in the air in the turns anyway.  We had time to take the car to Gingerman Thursday night for the test and tune session.  Unfortunately it was damp and a heavy fog had set in, so I only got in about 6 laps before the track was shut down.  It was just as well, because both the traction and the visibility were horrible.  But at least I could tell that the car was running and handling well.


We took Friday off and just worked on getting the car set for the races and just hanging out.  It was nice and relaxing.  On Saturday I ran in all four sessions.  The car ran great and I could tell that the handling was more balanced than last year.  Of course the fresh Hoosiers (ok, they were fresh last season but at least they'd only had 10 minutes of scrubbing in) helped too.  The car is really predictable, the rear end rotates nicely, and I'm able to put the power down quite early in the turns.  The limited slip diff makes a huge difference.  The car is very different than my GTI in that respect.  The GTI has an open diff but it has comparable power to the Mini.  With the GTI have to wait til I'm mostly through the turn before I can get on the throttle, which is frustrating. 


Anyway, I had the fastest practice time for Group 2, which was a very fun session.  In qualifying I ran into traffic but had a great dice with Tim and JP.  A session like that is why I like vintage racing so much--being on the track with friends driving closely-matched cars and just having a ball.  JP was behind Tim and I was behind JP for most of the session.  JP drove very well, and he could pull away from me once he got his revs up on the straights, so the three of us spent nearly the entire session nose to tail. 


I was behind JP at the start of the sprint race.  His steering wheel lock decided to lock up in the turn onto the main straight, just as we were about to get the green flag.  Whoa!  JP went straight off the track at the end of  the Phoenix straight, barely threading the needle between Mike Fisher and Tim.  But we got the green flag.  I spent nearly the entire race behind Mike.  My car worked better in the turns but I couldn't get around him, and I definitely couldn't pull him on the straights, so that's how it went until the Mini's motor started to have an intermittent miss.  The miss gradually worsened until the motor died on the last lap.  Too bad, as I had nearly finished the race!


I came in on the hook and we went to work trying to figure out what the problem was with the motor.  Rob and a couple of other guys that Rob knew, Gary and Pat, really went to work on it.  Gary is a retired auto shop teacher and Pat has raced Brit cars for decades, so it was fantastic to have both of them, plus Rob, on the team.  After trying several other things Pat whipped out his compression tester and we found that the head gasket had blown between the center cylinders.  We had 200#-60#-70#-200#.  I'd also been having problems with the clutch not fully releasing that appear to be internal and will probably require the motor to be removed, so rather than try to replace the gasket at the track, which we could have done, I decided just to pack it up for the weekend.


Rob and I hung around for the races on Sunday.  Pat came back with his father and his son, it was great to meet them.  The last race was over early in the afternoon, then I  headed home to Traverse City.  It was a great weekend--lots of great racing and camaraderie.  I can't wait til the next race!



Au Grattan was held on August 15-17.  This was my first race weekend.  Just a few highlights--

With the rear toe problem fixed, the car handled like a dream.  It turns in and rotates easily and predictably.  I rejetted the carb again and now it's exactly where it should be.  Much better.  The throttle stop I'd installed didn't work properly and would trap the throttle and wide open.  Not fun going into turn 12 in top gear.  Harold, a friend of Duck Waddle's, was kind enough to do some welding for me and now it works like a charm.

I qualified tenth out of 27, which I felt great about.  The car is working great, and it was fun being back at my home track.  Tim Covert and I diced for quite a while in the qualifying session, and then he was kind enough to point me by so I could get a clean run.  But a section of the sump gasket flew in the last session on Friday.  I didn't run the morning session on Saturday, just the qualifying session, and more of the gasket blew.  I wasn't able to fix it so unfortunately I didn't start either race.

Many thanks to Rob Ritt for again providing me race support.  It's always a great time and I learn a lot from Rob about being organized and disciplined in my approach to maintaining my car. 



Last Saturday I completed the Midwestern Council wheel-to-wheel driver's school at Blackhawk Farms.  The Council did an impressive job.  Everybody associated with the school was committed by my learning to be a safe and competitive driver. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  The aluminum chunks in the sump did prove to be from the broken up windage tray.  I removed the engine/transmission from the car and took it to Van's in Leland.  John and JP were happy to take on the challenge--they had worked on A-series motors before, but never a Mini version with its drop gears and transaxle living below the motor in the sump.  Fortunately the windage tray chunks hadn't done serious damage, although the oil pump and bearings had to be replaced.  They found the Jack Knight straight-cut gears in good shape.  The ratios are super-close, with first gear being a usable gear for tighter corners.  The Omega pistons had just the right clearance to the bores.  Actually, everything checked out exceptionally well.  Whew, what a relief.  After John and JP were finished with the motor I reinstalled it in the car, and Tom Pixley was on hand to help me fire it up.  It seemed to run ok, but after a few minutes there were some strange sounds coming from the rear (passenger's end) of the motor.  Could the rear main bearing be going?  Certainly not on a freshened motor, we thought, but why take chances?  We shut it down and grabbed some beer to reflect.  Not wanting to take a risk, we decided that it should be looked at by John and JP, which they kindly agreed to do the following Monday morning.  They heard the same sounds, but John, with his stethoscope, thought that it sounded like gear noise.  They kept the car to ponder it further.  After some research, they concluded that the straight-cut drop gears, which are unique to Mini motors, were chattering once the oil warmed up.  A post on the Vintage Mini Racing website confirmed that this is a common complaint with this type of drop gears.  Normal condition for a Mini, nothing to worry about.  Whew again.


Rob Ritt had offered to help me ready the car for testing at Gingerman before the driver's school.  Our plan to corner weight the car turned into an all-day thrash to get the car ready for the track. THANK YOU ROB!!!  We never did corner weight the car, but we got a ton of other things done.  Rob figured out the fouled plug problem, then we checked the front and rear toe and found that some accident damage had caused the right rear to have lots of toe out.  Then there was a stripped blind suspension bolt to fix--THANK YOU AGAIN ROB!!  All this was done in 90 degree heat and 100% humidity.  We turned up at Gingerman about an hour and a half later than we'd planned, but we got in some good laps.  The car ran very lean, so I changed the main metering jets to the largest I had, but they weren't big enough.  I had to do something or the motor might not make it through the school.  But the handling proved to be actually pretty good.  Yes, it did like to turn left pretty well, but it was predictable and controllable.  The car rotates nicely in that direction.  It doesn't rotate as well turning right, but at least it doesn't push badly.  I had made some educated guesses about the initial suspension settings that turned out to be spot-on.  I'd unhooked the front bar, left the rear bar in place, and set the front shocks at half-soft, with the rears at full soft.  And we used 25# for the Hoosier TDs, both front and rear.   

The following morning, before I started out for Blackhawk, I put in some drastically smaller air correction jets, in hopes that it would enrich the mixture enough so that it would run reliably for the school.  I would have to wait until after the first track session to see how well this would work. 

The school.  What a trip.  Friday night I met some wonderful Midwest Council people.  Everybody I met was warm, welcoming and helpful.  I took the test that evening.  Because I live so far away, I'd been given permission to skip the Sunday classroom, but that meant I only had a CD/ROM to prepare myself for the test.  And I had to get 95% or better on certain aspects of the test or I wouldn't be allowed to take the track portion of the school.  The pressure was on.  Again, the  Midwest Council people were very helpful.  Woody, who monitored the test, was very supportive and offered some tips.  I PASSED! 

Saturday morning dawned hot and humid.  The land at Blackhawk is like a sponge, and the thunderstorm the night before soaked everything.  We started with the usual van rides and then a conga line, like the Spring Break school.  What I wasn't prepared for was the green flag dropping five minutes into conga line, the first track session of the school.  WE WERE RACING.  There were some very fast cars in the group, with some very capable drivers.  My favorite was a second-generation Mazda RX-7 IMSA GTU car.  I sure gave the mirror a workout looking for him.  The Mini ran well, considering how little development time it's had.  It definitely liked to turn left more than right, because of the right rear toe-out, but it was manageable, and overall it stuck pretty well.  The motor was still running a bit lean but it was in the ballpark.  The track itself was a bit intimidating.  I'm used to more runoff area like at Grattan or GingerMan.  The oak trees loomed large in several spots, and in others the tire walls seemed awfully close to the outside of the turns.  So I was careful and didn't have any hair-raising experiences.  Except for the two wheels off at 100 mph at the kink in turn 6a.  At least there was a lot of runoff area, but I didn't need it. 

We did a total of seven sessions that day.  Imagine spending the entire day in a steam bath, that was the driver's school.  We were either on the track, in the pavillion getting group feedback (it takes a village . . .) or enjoying a 10-minute respite before gridding for the next session.  I drank 5 quarts of water and sweated every drop of it.  We got lots of feedback.  I was black-flagged for moving up a space in a race start (Midwestern Council seems to have a different philosophy about this than most other clubs) but also I got lots of compliments for safe passes, using the mirrors, staying on line, etc.  The final session was a five-lap race.  We were gridded slow to fast, and I was in the third row.  We lined up behind the pace car, circled around toward the start/finish, me in first gear, and got the green flag.  I nailed it and realized that I was going to be able to pass the first two rows going into turn one.  That super close-ratio dog box with the long first gear paid off.  It was a good clean race with lots of passing going on, and no incidents.  At the graduation ceremony the class got compliments for good clean heads-up driving.  I was most impressed with everybody in the group.

After the ceremony, Rob and I packed up and headed north to Road America, he in his MazdaSpeed and me in the Jeep towing the Mini.  It was nearly dark by then, and the drive was marked by heavy traffic in Milwaukee, detours and fog--lots of fog.  It was a long trip that late in the evening, but it was a great feeling having the driver's school under my belt!



If you were at Spring Brake, you know that I didn't make the driver's school because of an engine issue.  As I was changing the oil a few days before the school I discovered a small piece of aluminum sheet metal in the sump.  It's likely a chunk of windage tray, which isn't the end of the world but it will require removal of the engine/trans for inspection.  And I'm sure there will be other things to do while the engine is opened up.  Due to the logistics of shipping the engine/trans unit out of the area, I'm thinking of taking it to Van's Garage in Leland.  In addition to being VSCDA members, they work on a variety of exotics, and one of their guys is a Mini owner with some Mini engine experience.  I'm thinking of a freshening, and not a major upgrade, as more power isn't what I'm looking for at this point in my racing career!  I'm open to your thoughts on my choice of shops.  Before I discovered the chunk of aluminum, the engine was running great--smooth, good power and no odd noises.  Tom helped me do the initial start-up.  It went so well we were done and drinking beer within 45 minutes.  Not a drip or a leak of any fluid, even the beer.  My German car doesn't do that well (you should see the puddles of Beck's underneath it.)


So what else has happened since the January post?  Let's see.  I moved the seat forward 2" after taking it to the upholstery shop for some work.  The steering wheel mount is nice and adjustable, so I took the opportunity to move it up a bit so I could see the gauges.  I got a nice set of Revolutions from Steve and Sue Bonk.  Steve said that they were the last Revs to be imported from England, so I guess that makes them authentic vintage parts.  All others will be coming via China, using new molds.  Seems like that's the way of the world these days.  I also have a fresh set of Hoosier TDs mounted on the Revs.  I set the front ride height at 3 1/4" under the sump fins for more ground clearance.  Doing that was ridiculously easy, probably the easiest thing I've done so far!!  5 minutes at most.  A few weeks ago Tom did a mock tech session.  Things looked pretty good, though he discovered that the brake lights were run through one of the fuel pump switches, which didn't seem like the best of ideas, so I rewired it through the ignition toggle.  I also made a set of alignment bars to set the toe, screwed down the shift boot, and ran a AN-10 hose from the Accusump to the oil filter mount.  There's an interesting story.  The old line was an AN-6, which is way too small.  If it were an artery in my heart I wouldn't be doing anything strenuous.  But the oddest thing was that the old line had been shorted to the electrical system at some point, and some of the braided stainless had melted away, exposing some partially-melted hose.  The spot was on the underside of the hose, so I'm glad I decided to replace it or I would never have noticed that little accident-waiting-to-happen.


The auxiliary radiator (actually it's a heater core from a Ford Fairmont) was pretty iffy.  The inlet and outlet taps are soldered into sheet brass, with no reinforcement.  It was never designed for a racing environment.  So I fabricated a piece of copper tubing as a brace, to fit in between the two taps (you can see where it would be in the photo below.)  There is a nice saddle fit between the copper piece and each of the brass taps.  I soldered it all up and it's about 1000% more rigid now. 


I also unhooked the front bar.  It's a 1 1/4" hollow bar that was built for NASCAR use.  The previous owner told me that he liked a car that pushed a bit, but this seems like mega-overkill.  The front bar is approximately 5 times as stiff as the rear.  I'm going to try it with only the rear bar, which is a common set-up for Minis, and see how it goes.  The adjustable shocks should be helpful for tuning.


So that's it for now.  I enjoyed going to the Spring Brake, even though I couldn't be in the driver's school.  Pouring beer at the Friday night dinner was a great way to meet people.  There was quite a contingent from the Grand Traverse area--just look for the M22 t-shirts.  It was good seeing the Rusty Nuts gang, and finally meeting Jim Osthoff.  What a great group.  Thanks to Rob for helping me with the GTI.  Oh, and be sure to buy a print from Mike Pixley and help out with the water pump project!!!



Well, a lot’s happened since my last post.  The broken rear brake line was the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.  There have been lots of other issues, most of them pretty minor, but ones that need to be taken care of before the car’s ready to race.  Basically I’m going over the entire car, taking nothing for granted.  I hope that by May it will be solid and ready to race.


I’ve converted the car to a dual master-cylinder brake system.  When the rear line broke it took out the entire brake system, not a real confidence-builder.   It convinced me that I needed a safer system.  So I replaced the broken rear line and shortened the sway bar ends by 3/8” (actually Tom did, using his trusty cutoff tool.)  Presto, no more interference.  I ordered a dual master cylinder from MiniMania and installed it.  While I was bleeding the system I discovered that there was no pressure to the left front brake.  It turns out that one of the nuts that secures the oil cooler to the front crossmember was clamped down on the braided SS line that runs from the right corner to the left.  That totally blocked the line.  That was quickly fixed with a new line, and the brakes now seem fine.   But the fact is that there were two major faults with the brakes as delivered by the previous owner, which tells me that there is no way that the car could be considered to be ready for racing without a complete going over.  So here I go . . .


The bolts holding the trans to the engine block looked a bit loose.  The Mini trans lives in the sump of the engine, so these are very important bolts.  Most of the bolts were torqued to about 1-2 lb/ft or less, and many of them had washers that weren’t perfectly seated because they were too large in diameter and they were caught on the side of the sump!!  So a trip to the hardware store for the proper washers, and back to the shop to torque every bolt up tight.  I did discover one non-standard bolt (not the correct 12 point, but an oversize hex head) but it holds fast and should be ok until the next time the engine/trans assembly is torn down.  I will need to keep an eye on these bolts to make sure they stay snug.


Since bolts, nuts, and torque values seem to be a recurring theme, I’m systematically going over the whole car to make sure everything’s properly snugged down.  In checking the head nut torque I discovered a couple of nuts that didn’t feel quite right.  I pulled the head so I could check all the studs, the block threads, etc.  I also spoke with Jamal, one of Mini Mania’s engine builders, and he gave me some good advice on what values and techniques to use. I also got some good advice from Tim Covert, while at the Detroit Car Show.  Fortunately I have lots of experience with the ARP studs on my VW GTI’s head and everything looks very familar on the Mini.  But there are things like the “11th” stud, which gets a much lower torque value that the Haynes Manual doesn’t mention.  Also the threads into the Mini engine's deck are much shorter than the VW's!!  Hopefully my learning curve will keep me a step ahead of more troubles!  A new head gasket is on the way from Mini Mania and then I can button things back up.


I’ve also inspected the Accusump, cleaned the oil cooler, and will be checking and cleaning all of the oil lines.  One line looks a bit funky—the ends of the braiding are sticking outside the cuff—so I made a new one.  After all of this is done I will be able to reassemble it all and pressure up the Accusump. 


I’ve also replaced the right rear wheel bearing set, checked out the rear brake shoes, and have done several other various little chores.  Also, the front ride height seems ridiculously low, with only 2” clearance (maybe a bit less) under the sump.  Tom’s offered to give me some chunks of aluminum to use as rub blocks, and I’m going to raise the nose up by maybe an inch and see how that works.  I’ve also been accumulating safety gear, such as the suit, balaclava, gloves, shoes, etc.  I’m hoping to be able to find a day for testing at Grattan before the driver’s school in May.  Lots to do . . .



10/26/07  Tom Pixley went with me to Brevard NC to check the car out, and it looks like a keeper.  I'm super thankful that Tom could go so soon after his trips to Chicago and NYC.  Tom and the guy I bought the car from, Bob Marcum, swapped lots of vintage racing war stories.  We had a very nice drive down on October 13 and likewise on the October 15 return trip--just be sure to avoid I-75 north of Toldeo! 

My first British car in 37 years!!  The previous owner bought the car in 1978 and has vintage raced it since 1987.  It seems very well prepared, but not wanting to leave anything to chance, I'm going to go over it from stem to stern this winter and make sure that everything is ready to race.  I'm planning to go to the Gingerman driver's school in May to get my novice's license, and by then she should be ready to roll. 

The first mechanical issue is the brakes.  Rolling it off the trailer I discovered there weren't any.  Funny, they seemed ok driving it around the lot in NC.  A rear line was cracked-the end of the rear sway bar was hitting it!  How could the car have been raced that way?  It couldn't.  Probably the first of many unanswerable questions I'll have.  Anyway, this weekend's plans are to shorten the bar end so it doesn't hit the line, install the new line, bleed the brakes, etc.  I'm thinking that I may want to install a dual master cylinder, just so I have SOME brakes in case a line fails again!!