CONGRATULATIONS to the Fortech Mini
on winning the Can-Am Challenge!
Read all about it! Mike Kearney tells the whole story of the birth of the CanAm Challenge, modifications to the Fortech Mini, and what happened on race day.
The 1380 Fortech Mini Goes to the CanAm Challenge
- by Mike Kearney
The birth of the Mini marked its 50th anniversary in 2009, and I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something special. The English have Goodwood and The International Mini Meet. I wanted to organize something to celebrate the Mini here in North America. The idea of an all classic Mini race was born, and it led to the CanAm Mini Challenge.
I discussed the idea with several participants at the 2008 Mini Challenge at Sears Point, and the following week called Canadian racing couple Rachel and Andy Nelson. Both were on board for the CanAm and Rachel offered to manage the web site and many of the organizational steps for the event. Now we had the crew on board to make the CanAm happen. The event would take place in Minnesota, on the weekend preceding the national “Mini Meet East Meets West” event, and was convenient to many Canadian entrants.
Only 10 classic Minis entered the 2008 Mini Challenge, but despite the small turnout the racing was great. Joe Huffaker had literally coasted his 77 car down the hill from his Huffaker Engineering shop adjacent to the track to race with his long time friend Doug Peterson in the Fortech Mini. The racing was great, two close finishes, both won by Joe. It was here that I made the decision if we are going to have a 50th anniversary Mini race, I wanted to give Doug a chance to win it. The Seven Enterprises 1380cc motor program was born on that day.
Let's Get It Started
The motor was certainly a crucial part we needed to be competitive, but the car itself was in need of a complete makeover. Over the next six months every system in the Fortech Mini was replaced or rebuilt, including suspension, brakes, and a complete paint job. I knew if we could reduce the weight it was like free HP. We were able to take off 100 pounds with new carbon fiber roof, doors, boot lid and the SCCA ballast removed. We had to get all this done and start a development program for the 1380, and the clock was ticking.
We already had a 1380cc all-out GTL Mini engine in competition in Randy Arbogast’s tube frame Mini. It was built using many of his former 1310 engine parts, the main change was a 73.5mm overbore but it was a start to see what problems could come up if we decided to build our own. The dyno showed there was a definite advantage in HP, 122 at the wheels and in torque. The engine proved very reliable and our decision to build our own big bore was made based on his success.
I got together with Seven’s head machinist and engine builder, Steve Maxwell, to plan what parts were needed. We wanted to push the compression and maximize the head and cam to see what we could come up with. This actually took quite a few months to research. Richard Longman made a special head for us, just a bit different than a standard GT17. Dema Elgin had some cutting edge ideas on the camshaft. Add in a 4340 steel billet crankshaft (FOR123) and Carrillo 6-inch rods and I thought we had the pieces for a good motor.
All the parts finally came together, but time was running out. We missed a scheduled test day but were able to get a date at Sears Point a week later. Trouble was, we still had our SCCA 1310 motor in the car. We decided to test anyway just to make sure the car was good. We then changed motors back to the 1380cc and went to the dyno. The numbers were fantastic: 126HP at 6,100 RPM!! We then changed motor back to the 1310 for use in the June Sprints at Road America a week before the CanAm, saving the 1380 for the later race.
The June Sprints
For 35 years I have wanted to run the June Sprints, SCCA’s premier National event. The timing was perfect for us to finally participate in this race, as it was close to Brainerd and just one week before the CanAm. We had been retired from SCCA racing since 2004, so some updating was required to the Fortech Mini. The facility is fantastic, and it was great to see all those dads with their sons and daughters on Fathers’ Day watching the races. Unfortunately that ended up being the highlight of the weekend for us ¬– except the track food is the best anywhere!
Road America is not a good track for a Mini, with too many long straights and slow corners heading uphill which are a disaster for a momentum car like the Mini. During the race we hit a Honda that was stopping to miss a spinning car. We did some damage to the Mini, ending the weekend for us, but it was all fixable.
Greg Wold's Shop
I made a call to Minneapolis racers Greg and Kermit Wold, and they graciously let us use Greg’s race shop to make repairs and install the 1380. What a blessing that was, we had AC and a clean floor and great guys to help us. We had a fun three days at the Wold’s and hope someday we can return the favor in California. The car was again ready to go, so back into the trailer for the trip to Brainerd!!
The CanAm Challenge - Saturday
The excitement had built up nicely for the CanAm. Rachel had built a dynamite web site, sponsors were onboard, and vendors were providing generous raffle prizes, event T-shirts and more. Entries were coming in and we had hopes of getting over 40 cars, although in the final count 27 Minis started the race on Sunday. The tough economic climate was an impediment to some who wanted to participate, and I know there were many who wished they could be there with us.
Saturday started off very well for our team. This was Doug’s first time on the track with the new 1380 cc motor. I was very anxious to see if he could feel the extra power and if the car felt more responsive off the corners. My son Chris was timing every lap both Joe and Doug completed. It always is amazing to me how fast a good driver can learn a new track. Joe and Doug were quickly reducing their times and in the end they were separated by less than one-tenth of a second, Joe just ahead of Doug.
I caught up to Doug in the trailer and he told me that this was the best motor we have ever had in the Fortech Mini and he wished it could have been in for the SCCA June Sprints. Everything we found on the dyno translated to the track, which is not always the case. The torque off the turns was exceptional and the motor pulled really well in fourth gear to 8,500 RPM. The 1310 will eventually also reach 8,500 RPM in fourth gear, but the 1380 did it in a shorter time and felt like the Mini was actually accelerating. We couldn’t wait for the qualifying race to begin that afternoon.
It had rained in the morning but the sun was out for the 20 minute qualifying race. It was obvious from the start this was going to be a serious race as both GT5 drivers were driving very hard to stay in front of the other. The lead was changing just about every lap. I could see a definite difference in the Fortech’s performance on the back straight and coming off the 90 degree corner before the bridge. In the past Joe has been able to stretch out a lead but this time it seemed we could stay with him and even get by on several occasions. At the half way point Doug had finally got by the Huffaker Mini and started to pull ahead slightly. I could tell Joe’s tires were not as fresh as ours and that was the difference. The race ended with the Fortech Mini first overall. It is a fantastic feeling of accomplishment to win a race against first rate competition and we have never raced against anyone more competitive than Joe Huffaker. Walking back to the trailer I had a view of Joe’s Mini in the air and four brand new Goodyears going on for the CanAm race Sunday. It actually took until Sunday morning but there were new shoes on the 77 car for the main event.
Saturday evening, Seven sponsored a BBQ dinner and we had the best time with all the Mini racers and families. (See Gallery 2 for photos of the event.) Rachel had organized a feast to behold, and Andy did all the cooking, even in the rain. Those Canadians are a tough breed, and great racers too! We gave away fantastic door prizes and every driver got something to bring home. Not even the rain could dampen the spirit of the evening, something I will always remember. Rachel and Andy were the backbone of the event, it would not have happened without their contribution.
Sunday and the CanAm Mini Challenge was about to take place. It took a year’s worth of planning, sponsors were very generous, Rachel did a fantastic job in organizing the event and keeping the interest high, Charlie Pollet of Ohio made great souvenirs for each driver and I did what I could to make this a memorable day. To those that did overcome the financial challenges in these difficult times I say thank you for participating. It occurred to me, in less than an hour it would all be over with and for me this might be the last time we would all get together. My most memorable part of the event was about to happen. I love tradition – “back home in Indiana” at the 500, “Start your engines” in NASCAR – and the CanAm had its own pre-race drama. The cars had been called to the false grid well before the start, I was standing at the top of the grid and looked back at 29 Mini race cars all being surrounded by friends and crew, it was really cool. At that point I really felt we had pulled it off, we had a professional event and then the national anthems of Canada first then the United States were played, it was very rewarding for me to be part of that moment.
I told Doug “this is it, my friend, so wring its neck and go for it”. One thing for sure was Joe was going to be a very hard guy to beat. Fact is we had never won a race against him when he had new tires on. I was just hoping the motor would make the difference, keep us in the race and see what happens in 18 laps. The start was so much like every race with Joe, he took off and opened up a two second margin on lap one. The FWD Fortech Mini does have to warm up the rear tires for a few laps before it can go 100%. Joe’s RWD car has always been able to exploit this and in the past been able to hold this lead to the end. I noticed after three laps Doug was actually catching up to Joe; I really believe the motor made the difference and I could see the separation disappear on the back straight. Catching up to Joe is one thing, but passing Joe is quite a different matter. The cars seemed to be dead equal for the next eight laps. Doug did manage one pass under braking at the end of the straight but Joe was back by next lap. I have not really talked to Joe as of writing this, but I am pretty sure he was surprised to see a mirror full of yellow Mini that late into the race.
Lapped traffic was going to play a part in this race at some point with both GT5 Minis turning faster times, eventually lapping all the vintage Minis. I had noticed about half way through the race, the rear of Joe’s car was sliding out on the hard left hand turn before the bridge. Most of the spectators were watching here. Joe’s car control is fantastic; I have watched him drive this car to three SCCA National Championships and never lost it in a corner once … until the next lap. With Doug inches behind, the 77 car turned into the hard left hander and could not complete the turn and spun around, losing about 17 precious seconds. That was the race for us, it was in the bag, as we were able to run the remaining laps to the checker flag and win the CanAm Mini Challenge. It was not the “to-the-wire” finish I had hoped for: although we won the race, but did not actually beat our rival. I wish the last six laps could have been run at full speed with both cars pushing each other to the limit, but sadly that did not happen and actually this is probably the last time we will see both these cars race against each other. Still, it was a thrill to accept the first place prize at the end of the event, along with the drivers in the other three classes that made up the event.
Thanks again to all who participated in the CanAm weekend and especially those who put in many hours of effort to make this a truly unforgettable Mini event. I hope everyone had a great time and a safe trip home. Enjoy the rest of your 2009 season.
Mike Kearney, Owner
Fortech Mini # 11
See the complete photo gallery!