Calling a NASCAR racer a “stock” car is a gross overstatement -- they haven’t been even remotely stock for several decades. These race cars are purebred, single-seat racing machines that bare only superficial resemblance to their street-going counterparts.
Let us count the ways: Under the hood, a Sprint Cup car features carbureted, pushrod V8s that may have once ruled the roost on American roads, but that went the way of the dodo long ago. Four and six-cylinder powerplants with modern fuel injection have been the norm for close to 20 years now, but not in NASCAR. Sprint Cup cars are built on a standardized chassis these days, so even if you see any resemblance to a street car, you’re basically looking at decals, as even the “headlights” are stickers on the race cars.
But there is one top-level racing series where not only do the cars have to originate from a production car, they have to remain street legal as well. It’s called the World Rally Championship, and it’s hugely popular outside the United States.
What Is Rallying?
In this type of racing, teams of drivers and navigators (also known as co-drivers) race flat-out on “special” stages. These are typically gravel or dirt roads closed to other traffic, where their high-revving, turbocharged, all-wheel drive race cars compete at the edge of traction -- and sometimes beyond.
While these special stages make for great fun for the crowds gathered in person or in front of the TV, the teams are required to drive on open, public roads between these special stages in what are called transit stages. Because their race cars need to be street legal to do so, they must have working doors, lights, turn signals and other basic equipment required for registration. They even wear license plates. It’s this requirement, plus some rules in rallying that say the race cars have to be built from production vehicles, that give it its claim to being the most “stock” kind of racing going.
Sometimes during these transit stages, drivers will even get speeding tickets. Can you imagine the spectacle of Jeff Gordon getting pinched for speeding, cruising from Bristol to Martinsville in his Sprint Cup car? Okay, that actually sounds sort of cool, but the utter impracticality, not to mention brutal noise, of driving on public streets would make that an awful proposition.
But understand that despite the production car origins of World Rally Championship race cars, these are not grocery-getter Camrys, but real race cars through and through. David Lapworth, Technical Director for Prodrive, one of the most successful rally teams of all time, reminds us that, “Yes, you can trace its roots, but I don’t think we would pretend that [a WRC car] isn’t a real race car. Yes, you can see the standard body shell. You can see the engine block and cylinder head came from the production car and you can recognize that the suspension is of the same type as the road car.” But beyond that, it’s all racing car.
A New Team
After 20 seasons running Subarus and bagging three hard-fought championships with them, Prodrive will campaign a Mini Countryman in the WRC for 2011. The Countryman won’t be in U.S. consumers’ hands until early 2011, but Prodrive has had their development program going since early 2009.
While many U.S. consumers are familiar with Mini’s cheeky advertising, their history in Europe includes a notable role as a giant killer on the European rally scene, where the diminutive original Mini Cooper defeated the likes of Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and V8-powered Fords. Mini achieved victory in many rallies and even scored the 1965 European Rally Championship title (the equivalent of today’s world title). Prodrive has a lot of history to live up to and the last thing it wants to do is tarnish Mini’s rallying heritage.
The MINI Countryman WRC (MINI/BMW).
Building The Car
It’s no easy feat turning a regular car into a safe, durable and competitive racecar. The first step, of course, is choosing the car and Prodrive liked the fact that the Countryman has a relatively long wheelbase, which offers a good starting point. That BMW wants to promote the newest Mini certainly doesn’t hurt.
According to the rules set by the governing body, a minimum of 25,000 cars must be built in the “family” and at least 2,500 of a certain model within that family. Lapworth told AOL Autos, “The starting point is that we have to show that the rally car is based on a genuine mass production car... And we have to keep a lot of the body panels and a lot of the mechanical components from the production car.”
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Prodrive doesn’t actually buy its cars off a showroom floor and strip them down to the bare body shell. They receive a bare chassis, which in the case of a modern unibody car, is frame, floor, roof and some body panels in one structure. They also use factory doors, hood, hatch and some other minor pieces like door handles.
As with any race car, safety is paramount. The chassis is reinforced and a heavy-duty roll cage is installed. A rally car sitting on its roof like a bug with its feet in the air is hardly an uncommon site. Chassis reinforcements also help make the car durable, a particularly important trait in a racing series that focuses on gravel roads and where the cars regularly get airborne.
In the engine bay, that factory block and cylinder head contain a whole host of race-only parts made from exotic materials you are never likely to find on a street car. Virtually every moving, rotating or reciprocating part in the Mini’s 1.6-liter, turbocharged engine is custom built for racing.
The driveline, too, is 100-percent custom. Although the Countryman has all-wheel drive available, the sophisticated front and rear differentials and six-speed sequential gearbox that make a WRC car competitive are used rather than the stock setup, which likely would not survive more than a few minutes under brutal rally conditions. The regulations allow for fitting two-wheel drives cars with these trick all-wheel drive systems, but Lapworth reckons that when starting with an all-wheel drive production car, “The job of preparing the car is a bit easier.”
The suspension, too, looks more or less like the road car and must have the same geometry, meaning the relationship between the various parts and where they mount on the car can’t change. But not a single stock piece remains: Shocks, springs, anti-roll bars and bushings, along with steering components, are all customized for the Countryman racecar. Prodrive significantly lowers the high-riding Countryman to make its suspension work all that much better.
When rallying at night, a rally team needs all the light they can carry, as driving at ludicrous speeds on gravel gets that much harder in the dark, so the lights have to be more than mere decals. Although they look like the factory units, the headlights are much brighter -- and lighter -- than stock. Along with those lamps are usually four rally lights, each one considerably brighter and way beyond road legal. Technically, those lights need to be covered on the transit stages, but few drivers are likely to be pulled over for such an infraction.
The MINI Countryman WRC (MINI/BMW).
With all of the development work going on, Prodrive plan on running about half the season in 2011, with an eye on being competitive in 2012 and shooting for the championship in 2013. Lapworth waxes philosophical when speaking of Prodrive’s dedication, telling us, “You have to absolutely understand where the performance comes from and make sure your effort is apportioned to it correctly. Because you’ve got to be smarter and harder than your opposition, just pure effort alone is only part of the equation. You’ve got to direct your effort into the right places. And rally regulations are not as open as, say, a Formula 1 car. We’ve got perhaps 50 percent less areas to work in so we’ve got to be even more focused.”
It’s been almost 50 years since Fireball Roberts could go down to his local Pontiac dealer, buy a Pontiac Catalina with a 421-cubic-inch Super Duty V8, prep it a bit for racing and win the Daytona 500. Granted, World Rally cars don’t exactly roll off the production line and onto the starting gate. They are highly customized and extremely expensive racing machines, created by talented and experienced engineers and technicians. As Lapworth points out, a World Rally racecar “is a real racing car under the skin, but you can trace its DNA back to the road car.”