Project 64

It took two years’ preparation and 13,000km to get us to Bonneville Speed Week (11-17 August): a legendary, crazy week in the middle of an ancient lake in the centre of a vast and crazy continent.

The sun’s hot rays beat down relentlessly and reflected up at us off the Salt, but the pressure to succeed made the sun seem of minor concern.

We were here to attempt to break a sub-1000cc Land Speed Record with a 1964 Mk1 Mini Cooper 970 S, powered by a Frankensteinian motor – mostly A-series, part BMW, part blood, sweat and tears. That meant exceeding 131 mph (210 km/h) in a 48-year-old Mini.

We had a bunch of supporters. Most of them believed we would do it, the rest wanted to believe but doubted it was possible.

The Cooper was beautifully presented but completely untested and here we were, standing on legendary, tarmac-smooth salt plains that stretched to distant blue hills.

The following ten days or so would be filled with highs and lows, smiles and tears. We would learn a huge amount about our wee Mini and ourselves.

Bonneville presents a lot of challenges; just figuring how everything happens can be a bit confusing, but there is plenty of advice on tap. The altitude is 1,286m which is complicating for a car tuned at sea level, plus as the day heats up the air gets less dense, as if the altitude was increasing (2,100m was the highest we measured).

Having a turbo-charged car, as we did, helps. The salt surface itself isn’t like anything else you’ve ever driven on. A good driver helps here – we had that in young Nelson Hartley.

The distances are big. If you’re Kiwis, you’re almost 13,000km from home, and its 10km from the pits to the start line. Depending on where you are in the queue for the start it can be 500m to a loo.

Thinking ahead helps with all of these.

Of course, the hardest bit is we chose a car designed to be an economical run-about, that goes around corners quickly but never went that well in a straight line, for our record attempt. Having a lot of power, oodles of motorsport experience and a beautifully prepared car helps there.

The car did have a lot of power – about  280 bhp on petrol. More importantly, it was pulling 9000rpm on the dyno before we came over: good for 150 mph (241 km/h – it’s the USA so everything is done “old school”). 

We were running a 970S Cooper motor – chosen for its big bore and short stroke (which reduces the load on the centre main bearing) mated to a BMW K1200 4 valves per cylinder head (lots of breathability and no pushrods), fuel injection, intercooled IHI turbo, especially machined cams... It was a pretty special engine, based on a Specialist Components kit but then developed further to suit our needs.

The other factor is aerodynamics. Minis have a reputation for being ‘flying bricks’ and having poor aerodynamics. What just about everyone forgets is that they have a tiny frontal area – one of the biggest factors in calculating the drag coefficient of a car. Add to that the lower density air at altitude and you’re going quicker than you might think.

The record class we ran in was I/BGCC – I for engine size between 750 and 1000cc; B for blown (turbo or supercharged); G for gas (petrol); CC for competition coupe, which restricted body mods to an airdam and a smooth underbelly panel. The car we were aiming to take the record from was 26 years younger.

Our first two runs were 113 and 126 mph (181 and 203 km/h) – the plan was to settle in and let Nelson get a feel for the car. No one was betting we’d have the motor out on the first day of racing.

It was looking promising, but the main bearings had failed. The engine came out, spares put in and we were racing again by 3:30 the next day. Nelson took the Cooper to 138.7mph at the 2¼ mile point, a speed that showed we could beat the 131mph record, but the motor was out again by 6:30pm. This time it was clear that changes were necessary.

It was the same problem as before, but worse: bearings and crankshaft. Perhaps the nay-sayers were right – maybe the A-series just wasn’t able to handle that sort of power? If anyone was thinking that, they kept it to themselves.

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