“Time Attack” is a far simpler premise than wheel-to-wheel racing. Swapping positions and trading paint at any level is glamorous and sexy to most audiences, but Time Attack is either something people have never heard of or is discredited as your typical track day with additional steps. In reality, though, Time Attack as a concept is a beautiful middle-ground for those with a bit of track driving under their belt but may not be interested in (or ready for) wheel-to-wheel competition. There’s none of the risk of your opponents accidentally bumping you off of the track, and all of the onus to go fast is upon you as a driver to extract from the car you’ve built for class competition.
GRIDLIFE prides itself in offering a gateway into Time Attack through a host of different series, with the most accessible being their “Sundae Cup” class. It uses the humble Honda Fit as a class benchmark, with other small hatchbacks racing alongside it. These are cars that are easily accessible, low power, low maintenance, and rulebook restricted to minimum costs. Year after year of seeing it dominated by Japanese steel got all of us at FCP Euro thinking: Surely, there has to be a European alternative to the Honda Fit that’s just as inexpensive to purchase and assemble. Surely, there has to be something affordable from Europe that carries the engineering prowess to dethrone the Honda Fit from the Sundae Cup pedestal.
A few weeks before the second annual GRIDLIFE Circuit Legends festival at our home-away-from-home at Lime Rock Park, our fierce hundred-horsepower answer to the Fit was back at our Milford HQ. For $2,000, we picked up a 170,000-mile base-model 2009 R56 MINI Cooper from a scrap yard. Despite its location before purchase, it seemed to run incredibly well aside from needing a few motor mounts and was just what we were looking for. Many of the Coopers from the era were built with creature comforts, but our lack of sunroof and six-speed manual meant we had the ideal starting point.
However, it didn’t take very long for us to figure out exactly why a seemingly rough-but-ready Cooper had ended up with a fate as scrap metal. The engine mounts turned out to be in pretty decent condition, but the front subframe to which the mounts anchored was not. It had rotted so significantly that the lower engine mounts broke free from their intended locations, causing the engine to sway back and forth like a trapeze act. The rear subframe was also in a pretty dire state, and yet, aside from both subframes, the car’s underside was pretty immaculate.
With two weeks to prep the car for hot-lapping at Lime Rock Park, FCP Euro’s Professional DIYer Mike Hidalgo lept into action, replacing both the subframes as well as some ancillaries while underneath the car. Being a scrap-boud vehicle, Hidalgo also took the time to replace and refresh nearly the entire cooling system with heavier-duty parts from Rein Automotive. From there, the Cupper was treated to a full slate of fresh Pentosin oils to ensure the car would be safe from high-temperature oil shear on track. After that, though, the Cupper wasn’t touched at FCP Euro HQ, and for good reason.
In order to show just how little is required to have a fun and competitive car in the Sundae Cup class, we set out to benchmark and build our MINI in the handful of hours between Friday’s end and Saturday morning at Lime Rock Park, surrounded by all of our competitors.
The plan was to have Cory Martin, of CRP Rein Automotive and an expert in wheeling a MINI Cooper around the track as a byproduct of his own R53 Cooper S, double-drive our unmodified R56 with me, alternating drivers across the three Sundae Cup sessions of Friday. As prepared Honda Fits galavanted around us, we’d be on our scrapyard suspension, skinny wheels, and dry-rotted all-seasons, aiming to familiarize ourselves with the MINI as well as to gather a baseline on how the car should perform.
From there, we’d pull the car into the pits, and project “MINI Cupper” would begin.
All of the tired suspension parts and street-oriented brakes would be tossed for motorsport-ready bits to take on the Fits and Mazda 2s at their own game. Of course, a roll-cage, six-point harnesses, and Sparco bucket seats would also be there to keep us safe. And to make our “MINI Cupper” look the part as well, we would be wrapping the car in a proper racing livery while the entire build was going on in the paddock with the car on jackstands. Then, come sunrise on Saturday morning, Cory and I would resume our alternating sessions, piloting the MINI Cupper through the last three sessions of the weekend.
The day before Circuit Legends, we loaded up the little MINI’s interior with everything we’d need to turn it into a proper Time Attack racer: upgraded brake pads as per allowances in the Sundae Cup rulebook, a thick rear sway bar to allow the car to dance a bit more in the corners, wider Enkei wheels and some soft and sticky Falken RT660 competition tires, and not all that much more.
Taking to the track Friday morning, Cory and I each drove our first sessions with the car, mostly as we bought it. As you’d expect, the car wasn’t at all competitive with the front-runners in standard trim, but during those sessions, it didn’t really matter for either of us; after Cory got out of the car following Sundae Cup’s second session of the day, we shared in the mutual amusement of piloting the squishy and wallowy MINI Cupper around the track as it skated and squealed on tires too old for effective use even on public streets. The times weren’t fast, but the car was an absolute riot to drive.
To close the first day of competition, we swapped the stock wheels and tires for the 205-section Falken RT660s on our lightweight Enkei wheels. With that swap alone, Cory shaved a massive 5 seconds off of his best time with the 175-width all-seasons, an incredible feat on such a small and fast track. Cory’s comfort in the car was clearly growing as the Cupper grew closer to its final form, and we were both excited to find what it was capable of.
Following the session, our team gave it a few minutes to cool off before springing into action at about 3:30 p.m. The assault began as the interior was removed and unbolted, the carpet was ripped out, and the front suspension was dropped in preparation for stiffer bits. While all of that was happening, our friends at RabidWraps began dancing around the organized chaos as they attempted to get the MINI Cupper looking proper before daylight was gone.
Our one-night build progressed steadily as the sun dropped, and an audience grew around the Cupper. As no surprise to anyone familiar with GRIDLIFE and particularly Sundae Cup, a good portion of the spectators were our fellow competitors. Though you might expect they were surveying to emphasize the rulebook or get a peek at their competition, it was quite the opposite; everyone was excited to see how the car would do in the morning, and therein lies the best part about GRIDLIFE competition.
A major part of the Sundae Cup series isn’t just that it’s affordable or that it hones driver skill; it’s the people you compete with along the way. While everyone is on a quest to finish as high up the order as possible, you’ll rarely find a Sundae Cup driver going faster than you who doesn’t offer to let you follow their line in your quest for shaving time or a competitor in the same car with some secret alignment tricks to get a bit more grip out of the car. Sundae Cup competition is tight, but the class itself is even tighter. Every Sundae Cupper wants to have fun with their friends on the racetrack.
We wrapped the build before midnight and got a bit of rest, eager to both unveil our micro-time-attacker and to see how it would perform on Saturday morning for our final three sessions of the weekend.
After missing the first session of the morning while we had the car re-inspected by GRIDLIFE’s tech inspection team, Cory was the first to take to the track in the fully prepared MINI Cupper for the second session. At a track he had never driven in a car we had built the night before, he shaved a massive 3 seconds from prior best with the stock suspension and the RT660 rubber. The Bilstein dampers had made a massive impact, and the car was certainly shaping up to be fast.
My final session would come on a hot and slick track for the final run of the weekend. I wasn’t optimistic that I’d be able to defeat the mighty Hondas that had dipped into some incredible lap times in one of the morning’s cooler sessions (running a 1:04 at Lime Rock with less than 100 horsepower is, frankly, absurd), but was still eager to see how I could improve on my own time.
The RT660s, upgraded brakes, and the phenomenal Bilstein dampers to handle the car’s improved and newfound racing spirit proved to be pretty potent by the end of my outing; a 1:06 wasn’t quite good enough to dethrone the fastest Hondas in the group, but it did mean I had shaved just under 10 seconds off of my prior laps in the Cupper the day before.
With a bit more time in the MINI Cupper, Cory and I were confident that we would’ve been a real threat in the 6-hour build. As we head into the off-season, the MINI Cupper will remain dormant for a bit, but we can promise you that this $2,000 scrapyard-special-turned-hero with a few parts off of our shelves will be back next season with the intent of taking the throne from the Hondas.
And as for us? Well, for an all-in cost of well under $10,000, resulting in a car capable of turning endless hot laps for years to come. We’re just ready to have fun with our friends again as we get faster and faster.
FCP Euro’s Mercedes Expert and longtime “Silver Arrow” tinkerer. Lover of oddball vehicles, and former owner of two 6-speed W203 C-Classes, a Kleemann-modified 5-speed R170 SLK, and a 1987 190E 2.3-16. The current owner of a daily-driven and AMG-swapped W208 CLK430, a 6-speed W203 C350, and a Honda Fit driven in GRIDLIFE’s “Sundae Cup.” ••• Instagram: @danny_playswithcars