Maxing out on Mini madness

Historic Winton – All Mini Race

Report by Chris Ralph. Pics by Phil Wisewould

It’s the 60th birthday of the Mini and the revolutionary little devils are throwing parties all over the world. Historic Winton this year featured a special 5-lap Mini Dash on Saturday added to the weekend’s regular card of historic touring car races to finally settle who really is Tiny Tintop Top Dog…

The history

British amateur racers knew a good thing when they first saw Alec Issigonis’ astounding Mini-Minor roll off the production lines in 1959. The BMC ‘A’ Series engine was already a staple of motorsport – so, chaps, we’ll just bolt the hot bits on the tiny 848cc engine, clamp battle bowlers on our heads and away we go! Their light weight and amazing on-rails understeer handling put them right into contention, from the outset.

Then John Cooper, the man whose racing cars had been winning since the late 1940s and fresh from two F1 World Championships in 1959-60 with Jack Brabham, persuaded his good friend Alec to let him have a crack at it.

Enter the Austin and Morris Mini Coopers in 1961 with race-tuned 997cc engines, twin SU carburettors, close ratio gearboxes and front disc brakes – good enough for Rhodesian John Love to win the British Saloon Car Championship in 1962.

A short stroke 998cc version came along in 1964 but by then the whole car had been upgraded to ‘S’ specification: 1071cc in 1963, 970 and 1275cc in 1964. It was all over for the powerful but heavy Jags: Minis now ruled, along with Lotus Cortinas from rival F1 tyro Colin Chapman.

More touring car championships followed and a string of Monte Carlo Rally wins from 1964-67 (with the ’66 win disallowed because of a headlight infringement…). The Issigonis Mini went on to become arguably the ‘winningest’ car in motor racing history.

The build up…

Here in Australia Minis are still winning historic touring car races, especially when the track is tight and/or flowing. The Winton short track is a favourite hunting ground and traditionally Historic Winton puts on David and Goliath battle between Minis and the mighty Mustangs and Camaros. This year the HTC contingent came from pre-1965 Group Nb, so the Minis would be even more dominant.

The 5-lap Mini Dash looked to be something very special to watch. Interstate rivalry is fierce between Victoria, SA and Tasmania, while a quick WA punter, Syd Jenkins, came over for the fun. In the tradition of 60s UK champion Mini racer Christabel Carlisle, rapid local lady Linda Devlin was guaranteed to be at the pointy end.

For the world’s fastest octogenarian Mini racer, Ted Brewster, it marked a lifetime of racing the little cars. At 83 Ted is still a force to be reckoned with and not averse to getting the ancient elbows out as he fights off the sort of young Mini charger he was once himself, in the 60s.

When Ted came back to revived Appendix J historic racing in the 80s in the car he drives today, a younger racer, Len Read, was among his closest opposition.

Len had two young sons, Danny and Adrian, helping out in the pits and yes, it was inevitable that they would go Mini racing too. But this Winton would mark the first time in 20 years that the three of them raced as a family, let alone all in Minis. This story gets even neater: Danny would drive a car Len sold years ago and has repurchased. It’s a veteran of more than 100 race meetings and “always was a fast car”. At a recent Winton test, Len offered to lead Danny around the track to jog his memory, as he hadn’t raced for 20 years – Danny passed him on the first lap and disappeared into the distance…

‘Overseas’ racers can’t be discounted – last year’s Makulu Driver of the Meeting at Historic Winton was 18-years old Taswegian Jeremy Bennett who made a return in the car passed down to him by the widow of the Apple Isle’s legendary Mini ace, the late Kit Ellis. Fast man Rodney Creed would also cross Bass Strait to take up the battle.

But the favourite for this event had to be Adelaide’s Jason Armstrong, who set pole at last year’s event with a 1.07.5 lap, a clear second ahead of the Mustangs and Camaros. He returned with fellow fast Crow Eaters Rob Ford, Ian Pringle and his own 16-year old nephew Sam Nenasheff (who had his first race only weeks before at Mallala Historic) to protect SA’s excellent track record.

The Mini Dash
Qualifying went like this: Armstrong, Bennett, Devlin, Ford, Creed, A. Read, Nenasheff, Pringle, Jenkins, L. Read, Brewster, Quentin White. With Armstrong clearly ahead by a second at 1.08.1 the next nine lap times covered a scant two seconds. Danny Read was a non-starter after gearbox woes but his Dad’s generosity would let him run into the three scratch races to come.

It was always going to be Jason Armstrong who was to win by four seconds, but thereafter the battle was mighty. Young Jeremy Bennett grabbed the start over Linda Devlin but in a brave move on Lap 1 she shoved the light blue Mini down the inside at the end of the back straight and two-wheeled it into the esses. The Tasmanian Teen didn’t give up, glueing himself to the Henry Draper machine as she flung it around, incrementally eking out a .7 second gap at the flag and setting a lap time of 1.09.0. A few seconds back a tight trio of Ford, Creed and Adrian Read, then the battle pack of Len Read, just a tenth ahead of his good customer Ian Pringle, Nenasheff, Jenkins and Ted Brewster with local Quentin White a DNF.

It was, in the end, under six minutes. But every second would have seemed a lifetime for Ms Linda Devlin whose fighting second place would have made Lady Watson aka Christabel Carlisle, claim her into the Swift Sisterhood.

The Mini drivers returned to the pits all smiles, and started fettling for the three further scratch races to come…