MINI at Mid-Ohio: A Crash Course in Kickass Race Culture
A storm was brewing at the Mid-Ohio race track, and it wasn’t the typical type of gale one might expect to find during the first of the month of May. For years the MINI race team has been the eager underdog in the Street Tuner Class of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Series, a rabid little beast with surprisingly sharp teeth and an insatiable appetite for trophies.
But this year things looked a little different for the MINI race team, both in a good and a bad way. On one hand it had been five years since the series had participated in a race at the Mid-Ohio track, so much of the competition was unfamiliar with the brake-destroying 16 turn, 2.4 mile long race course; whereas portions of the MINI team had indeed spent some time on the track. Unfortunately, rain was also looming on the radar, Mid-Ohio was still just as slippery and hilly as hell, and the pit crew had just discovered that one of the cars had a compromised steering rack which needed to be replaced pronto. In short, an action-packed IMSA race weekend was in full effect.
LAP Motorsports team leader Luis Perocarpi seemed to be taking it all in stride. As a complete car guy and MINI fanatic, the race veteran has seen and experienced much over the years. When asked how he was doing under such duress, Luis merely looked at me, smiled, and said something about how it was “just another day in the pits.” Surefooted and polite, the man reminded me of a mentor I once had back in college, forever overseeing everything, and always encouraging.
With his inviting smile, respectable race pedigree, and sharp sense of humor, it was easy to like the Latin MINI lover almost immediately. “Having a top quality team of specialists makes all the difference in the world,” Luis says to me as he flips a grilled piece of chicken. He makes a sweeping gesture toward the crew of volunteer technicians and crew of engineers. With questions complete, and the broken component within the car’s steering system exchanged, it was about time for warm-up, followed by loads of lightning quick laps.
The term “grassroots racing,” has never seemed more appropriate than when watching this team work. From four of the weekend’s technicians being of Cincinnati MINI stock, to the down-to-earth approach everyone had when it came to meeting and greeting fans in the paddock prior, the feeling of community in this team was undeniable. Hell, the guy in charge of the grille happened to also be the man in charge of the entire operation, all of which added up to old fashioned racing fun and lots of learning.
The team itself isn’t the only part of the equation that’s completely comfortable with being in its own skin either; all three of the LAP Motorsports MINI race cars are just as grassroots as the rest of the operation. They may sit atop a set of KW coilovers with upgraded brake pads underneath, and most certainly sport all of the expected safety additions and weight reductions, otherwise these cars are pretty much stock. While much of the competition is packing tuned ECU controllers, larger intakes, and fancy exhaust upgrades, the MINI team rolls with almost entirely stock components, and relies instead upon the prowess of the people behind the wheel.
Speaking of such, the young man seen here in the middle is Colin Mullan, the newest member to the team who, at just a fuzz past 16 was making his debut with MINI in the #52 car. While it boggles the mind to think that someone without a driver’s license had been allowed to race for so long, the young man’s agility, familiarity with the track, and level-headedness helped the team prevail throughout the course of the day.
And prevail they did, with Mike LaMarra in the #73 JCW MINI as well offering consistent speeds and pit stops all the way up until it was time for the final driver change. Although the #37 car had been repaired in time for the starting grid, it split a CV axle boot late in the race and had to be retired, leaving the Pombo brothers, Mat and Mark, room to take the team onward to victory.
With first and second place trophies in hand, and a grinning Luis Perocarpi in the middle, it was a jubilant finish to a day fraught with peril and high performance driving for the LAP Motorsports MINI team. They had not only given the Porsche and BMW teams a thorough thrashing, they had also taken the lead in regard to championship standings, putting them that much closer to conquering the entire season.
Looking over the sea of faces on the podium that afternoon, as well as witnessing the enthusiasm of the crowds at various bends and banks along the length of the track I realized two things. The first was that despite all of its spartan commodities when compared to say Barber Motorsports Park, Mid-Ohio was still one of the most fun and challenging race tracks in North America, a MINI JCW driver’s dream of a rollercoaster. As for the second, it was that while MINI may have taken the limelight that day, everyone within the IMSA organization seemed thrilled to be racing there once more.
So it truly does take a village, with this particular team offering an energy and approach unlike anything else I’ve encountered in the motoring arena. These guys are outperforming automobiles that cost far more than what a JCW costs brand new, with less power and fewer aftermarket upgrades to boot. It’s the classic “David vs Goliath” story but done with a grassroots race community vibe, one where entire families come to the paddock in order to participate and spectate, and the team behind the cars are just average technicians with spare volunteer time on the weekends.
There is no ego here, nor are any of the team members putting on airs about who they are and what their job entails. It’s motoring magic in its most humble form, and gives an undeniably good reason for you to root for the miniature underdogs next time you tune in to the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Series. Hell, better yet, check out this year’s race schedule and go see the LAP Motorsports MINI race team compete in person. Chances are you’ll get invited to hangout with everyone in the paddock, snag a few autographs and photographs, hear a story or two, and maybe even win a hot lap in Luis’ custom-spec JCW equipped MINI hardtop. Just tell them that the guys over at 95octane.com sent you.