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When Cars Beckon – Can-Am Mini Challenge 2017

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Cars are a funny thing. They are the reason that you're here reading this article, they're probably the catalyst for a number of your friendships, they often motivate our actions and influence our decisions, and on one particular morning, cars were the reason that my alarm had gone off far too early. I found myself sitting on the tarmac as the pilot awaited permission to be the first plane to take off that morning. No matter what make or model of car drives you, or whether you exercise your automotive passion on snowfields or race tracks, there's no denying the power that the silly four-wheeled, fuel-powered objects have over your life as an enthusiast. We spend our weekends wrenching on them, we spend our mornings washing them, and we spend our paychecks improving and maintaining them out of love for all things automotive. Beyond that, cars have a special power to draw people together and forge relationships over a common love. This past fall, it was one humble little marque that would welcome people from all over the world to celebrate with a weekend of racing, and I was on an early morning flight to partake.

In 2014, I returned to my old home state of Ohio for my first Can-Am Mini Challenge race at MidOhio (read more) and from that weekend on, I waited eagerly for another like it. With the original plan set to wait another 5 years for the next event to be held in 2019, it was with great excitement that I read the announcement that an earlier date had been set.  It took only a few moments for me to clear my schedule and before long, September had come, my plane was touching down at the San Francisco airport, and I was making my way north of the bay. When I arrived, I found the paddock in a fervor as drivers got their cars ready for the practice day. In the Mini paddock, I found a group of familiar faces at work on their cars and rolling out towers of race tires. As if 2014 was just yesterday, the same drivers and mechanics had reconvened on the other side of the country, simply to celebrate an affinity for the small British car that first rolled onto the streets nearly 59 years ago.

For many of the Minis in attendance, the race track is a place of comfort, spending much of their life racing around the North American continent for decades, battling it out in SCCA competition. With lap times set at Daytona endurances and MidOhio runoffs alike, the Can-Mini Challenge rejoins the North American cars that contributed to the Classic Mini's long list of motorsport success over the years. From the widebody, fiberglass paneled Fortech Minis that raced in the GTL class to the metal-clad cars that often competed in the CS class, there was a place for everyone on the one-make grid. 32 cars spread between 4 classes, spanning the spectrum of racing preparation, sat ready for the race weekend ahead.

This time around, the team at Mini Mania, one of the US's Mini parts importers, decided to pull out all of the stops. Leading the team, Mini Mania's founders, the Racine family, brought four drivers to the grid along with 3 of Europe's top Mini Cooper Champions. Endaf Owens, known for his Mini race fabrication work at Owens Fabrication, was quick to jump behind the wheel of the pink tube-framed GT5 spec Mini. Well acquainted with extreme Minis and racing circuits, Endaf fought hard towards the front of the pack all weekend. Joining him were Jonathan Lewis and Rene De Vries from the Master Pre-66 races. Well versed in racing the earlier models, both Jonathan and Rene buckled into Mk1 Minis from the Mini Mania stable. While Jonathan Lewis piloted the #00 1964 Austin Mini, Rene lapped Sonoma in a recently restored Cooper S. Reaching completion just last year, Mini Mania breathed new life into the #62 Cooper S, once raced on the three-car Peterman-Unsbee Racing Enterprises (P.U.R.E.) Mini team, and after 45 years since its last win, the Mini Challenge stood as its return to racing. Joining it on the grid, Mini Mania's team leader, Don Racine drove its sister car, the #61 P.U.R.E. "Bumblee" in a similar yellow livery. As the only two remaining cars from the team's early 1970s SCCA championship ventures, it was great to see them reunited on the tarmac.

The P.U.R.E. team's reunion wasn't the only one of the weekend. Further down the aisle, the Fortech team had quite the presence as well. Originally founded in 1970, Fortech racing teamed up with Seven Enterprises in 1977 and began racing with the wide "fortech" arches that are so well known in Mini racing today. For the first time, 3 of the original Fortech cars were in attendance along with many of the original crew members. Doug Peterson, the original driver, joined in on the weekend's festivities and wrestled the wheel of a familiar friend, Toybox Racing's yellow Fortech Mini. A hard fought battle earned Doug the second place podium right behind another Fortech Mini, Huffaker Engineering's Black #77.

While the track was abuzz with the small four-cylinder racers, locked in battle for position all weekend, the competitive atmosphere was cast aside as drivers and mechanics joined each other back in the paddock after each run, lending tools, swapping stories, and helping each other with diagnosis. With cars and drivers reunited once again, the atmosphere was one of long time friendships and enthusiasm that permeated through the tents. Though the Minis garnered much of the attention at CSRG's annual historic races, it couldn't take away from the core purpose behind the event. Auctioning off charity rides and prizes to all excited spectators, the event has raised $830,000 since 2004, benefitting the success and wellness of Sonoma, California's children. With such a great purpose and wonderful camaraderie throughout the paddock, it was an event that really left a lasting mark on my heart. To see BMC's little Mini pull together so many great people and help push forward an important cause was just a reminder of the special roles that cars, and our passion for them, play in our lives. As I reminisce on last year's Mini race, I'm already looking forward, as there's another planned for this fall on the other side of the country. I have a feeling these Minis will have me waking up too early once again to board a plane, headed for Watkins Glen as September rolls in.