First published March 2017.
RACING MY ROAD CAR – by Nigel Raeburn.
In the first half of the 1960s it was still quite normal to race your road car – saloons and sports cars. I was lucky enough to just fit into the end of this era, and had a short ‘career’ as a racing driver in the second half of 1965. I took part in four races in my 997 Mini Cooper, two at Lydden Hill, one at Snetterton and the last one at the Boxing Day meeting at Mallory Park.
Many club race meetings at that time had a race for up to 1000cc saloons which in practice meant mainly Minis, and these were the races I did. In the races I did perhaps half the field were in their road cars – mostly driven to the circuit and home afterwards ready to go to work on the Monday – and half in race cars trailered to the meeting. A year or two later most of the road cars would have disappeared as the sport became more specialised, sadly.
My Mini was reasonably standard. When I bought it, second hand, previous owner a Lord, it had a superb Downton engine which gave this 997cc car the performance of a 1275S. Unfortunately however, it was also very worn out, and one night returning to Cambridge after a small rally, cruising at approaching 100mph on the clock, there was a huge explosion and the car filled with smoke. A con-rod little end had given up the ghost and there were holes in both sides of the engine block. A replacement engine was sourced by John Aley and he re-built it for me into a slightly modified engine, still 997cc, but not of the quality or performance of the Downton one – maybe close to a 970S – and this was the engine I raced.
Apart from the engine there were a few modifications I can remember – a straight-through exhaust, rev counter, Sprinzel bucket seat, smaller steering wheel, Koni adjustable shock absorbers and Ferodo VG95 brake pads. It was my everyday car – daily commute, longer regular weekend commutes etc.. Driver preparation for the races was period too – no overalls (collar and tie of course), just a crash helmet and driving gloves.
So how did my races go? Well, they started well and went downhill from there! My very first race was at Lydden Hill in Kent which was a very new race circuit in 1965 – I’d never been there before – and after practice I was on the front row of the grid, 3rd fastest overall! Jim Clark look out! There were a few factors which made this possible – mainly that practice was in the wet and I was using road tyres – Pirelli Cinturatos – which worked very well in the wet. I and my Mini-enthusiast friends had decided that Cinturatos were the only Mini road tyres which could withstand the rigours of racing – other makes wore out in 10 laps. Cinturatos were excellent all-round tyres. Another reason making my good performance possible was that Lydden suited my car – there were no long straights and it was almost constantly curving. I’ve not been there recently but from looking at a circuit map and photos of recent rallycross the circuit does not appear to have changed that much over the years. In the race itself, in the dry by then, I held on and I think finished 4th. The winner was Dave Morgan who went on to be a top F2 driver in later years.
A few weeks later I had my second race at Lydden – starting mid-field this time after dry practice. In the race I had a half-spin at what seems to be called Pilgrims now but I kept going and finished the race about 6th as I recall.
My third race was at Snetterton – a circuit I already knew quite well from taking part in quite a few sprints and the CUAC ‘Grand Slalom’ which was like a multi-venue sprint using the different corners in turn for separate sprints. So I was quite hopeful, but on the day my car developed a slipping clutch which hindered progress considerably. I recall a fellow competitor advised the use of Coca Cola to try to restore the clutch grip but it did not seem to do much good! Also the circuit at that time still had the long straight parallel to the A road and placed quite an emphasis on top speed – which my car was not especially good at, particularly with a slipping clutch. I do remember having to take great arm-fulls of opposite lock through the Esses – the handling needed some work on it really! I finished quite near the back.
So to Boxing Day at Mallory Park. I think Brands Hatch had a Boxing Day meeting for some years and Mallory had started to try one too. Father Christmas was in attendance. It was an icy cold day, and my friend Tony coming to support me crashed his TR3 en route and arrived with cuts on his head – not a good start! I think there were still some icy patches on the circuit when my race started. A lady driver rolled her Mini early on and although she was OK the car caught fire quite dramatically – it was not an encouraging sight to pass a blazing inverted car each lap! Near the end of the race I recall being passed by Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams as he lapped me on his way to victory – he cut closely across my ‘bows’! I finished well down the field. After Lydden these other circuits did not suit my car so well.
After that four race career in 1965 I realised the days of racing a road car were coming to an end, sadly, and stuck to other forms of motorsport like autocross and rallying. I’m glad I had the chance to do some racing however – in my mind I recall the tension and excitement of the starts as being the most memorable. I guess today’s youngsters will be karting as their equivalent introduction to racing, although maybe track days can give a little taste of what racing your road car was like.
My Mini-Cooper which I raced seen here in an autocross.
A map of Lydden Hill circuit much as I remember it from 1965.