The Mini racing story in Sri Lanka began in 1964 when the Late Priya Munasinghe raced a standard Mini 850 in Katukurunda. At the time it would have been a curiosity to see this diminutive car; dwarfed by the Ford Anglias, Peugeot 203’s, Fiat 1100 and Hansa Borgwards which were seen regularly on the race track at the time. Then, Priya made his Modified Production Car debut in the Mini Cooper S in 1969 at the Asian Road Race, which by the way was the only time they had a race meet at Galle Face - before the recent Colombo Night Races. This was the race where the little Mini comprehensively beat the competition; despite it being airborne after clipping a sandbag in the final lap! Priya Munasinghe became a household name in the 1293 cc Mini Cooper beating cars that were way more powerful than the Mini. Many of Priya’s challengers had cars with an engine capacity that was 2 or 3 times the engine capacity of the Mini. These included India’s Maharaj Kumar Ganadityasinh Jadeja’s Jaguar, Dr. Rossi’s Ferrari, Nihal Jinasena’s Lotus Elan, David Pieris’ Arpico Special with a Formula 3000 engine etc. The Mini with its transverse front engine driving its front wheels was all about handling in the corners rather than straight-line speed. Priya went on to race his Mini even in some Indian race events where he dominated.
We spoke to some people who have closely associated with Priya during his racing career. One of them; Mohan Vannitamby told us about the time when Priya’s Cooper S was being prepared for racing at British Car Company. He recalled the expert tuner who would tune the twin carburetors of Priya’s car – Ruben Seneviratne and the mechanic who went with Priya to all the race venues - Sirisena (“Konda” Sira). Mohan’s son Ravin is one among the current lot of enthusiasts who still race Minis in Sri Lanka.
It is said that Priya Munasinghe’s race Mini was the catalyst that increased sales of Minis in Sri Lanka, and indeed that enthusiasm continues to this day.
We also spoke to M. Iqbal who started racing Minis where Priya left off. In the 1980’s and right up to the early 2000’s Iqbal’s name was synonymous with Minis – winning race after race; even successfully competing against the more sophisticated machinery that had started coming on to the race tracks by then. Even though officially retired from racing, Iqbal continues to be very much involved in the Mini community in Sri Lanka through Cosmic Auto Spares – his business which specializes in supplying Mini spares and performance equipment.
Omar Lebbe is another iconic figure who raced Minis in Sri Lanka and I think that I would not be wrong if I said that in the short span of time that he raced Minis (1993 to 1997), Omar mastered the art of squeezing every little bit of power out of the tiny Mini engine and left an indelible mark on the history of Mini Racing in Sri Lanka. His Longman engined Mini was virtually unbeatable be it in track racing, gravel racing or hill-climbs.
Talking of hill-climbs, I personally had a close look at Omar’s Mini just before a Radella Hill Climb event in Nuwara Eliya. Taking part in the “Specials” category, the Mini was prepared just to suit the track on the day. The car had no radiator. The water jackets were filled with water and the inlet and outlet hoses were connected together. The battery was removed and so was the starter motor; and the alternator supplied current to the spark plugs. At the start line, the car was push started; and absolutely screamed up the hill in first gear (only)! As soon as he crossed the finish line, the engine was knocked off – to save it from overheating.
Without a doubt, the driver with the most number of years experience in racing Minis in Sri Lanka is Yoga Perera. Says Yoga “It was my friend Iqbal who pushed me towards Mini – I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Minis were already on the scene with Priya Munasinghe, Leslie N De Silva and Iqbal himself. I raced my first Mini in 1983”. In 1989 Yoga won the fastest time of the day with a new course record at Radella Hill Climb in his trademark Mini. That was in the face of competition from the likes of Rodney Mason in the Formula Ford 1600. Yoga continues to race Minis to this day in his modified Kent powered 1400 Mini.
Ajith Keerthi is another Mini racing veteran who echoes the words of many others in saying “The Mini has very good handling. You get an adrenalin rush with it that you just don’t get from any other car”. He started his racing career in 1984 in the Mini 1000 class, and thereafter races in the 1050cc modified class. He has also raced in the Mini 7 class and Mini Saloon class. “Lots of people race Minis for the pure love of it” he says. His car was modified in the UK and he is a regular at all the major racing events.
Another diehard Mini race driver in Sri Lanka is Hafiz Cader. He is a veteran of Mini racing, having raced virtually Minis only since 1994, and continues to race to date. “It’s a car that one could maintain on a relatively low budget... and taking all these into consideration – I choose Mini to be my racing partner.” Hafiz reminisces that when he started racing there weren’t many Mini’s on track as compared to now. When asked about how racing the Mini makes him feel; he responds “It’s a surreal experience! The feeling behind the wheel of my racing Mini… waiting for the last set of lights to go off, a bit tensed to get a good start and then it’s the power of man and machine thereon!”
Mahen Madugalle is another senior in the Mini racing scene. Says Mahen… “I took my first standard 1000cc Mini and entered for the Mahagastotte Hill Climb. After my run clocking 48 secs or thereabouts, Leslie N. De Silva came across and told me that the timing of 48 odd seconds was about the same timing that he used to get in his Standard Mini himself! I was thrilled! The Mini is the next best thing to a certain intimate activity that brings immense pleasure” says Mahen!
Other race drivers who made an impact in the local racing scene in Minis include Rohith De Silva, TGN Gamini and Casim Wahab.
The Mighty Mini Club of Sri Lanka has played a pivotal role especially in bringing one-make Mini events to the local racing calendars. Started by a group of some 20 Mini enthusiasts back in 1996, the club has grown to currently having a membership of over 500.
Nishath De Alwis is the current president of the Mighty Mini Club. Nishath has loved Minis ever since he set his eyes on them before he had completed his first decade in life. “It was at Katukurunda at the age of 8 that I saw the Mini being raced by drivers including Omar Lebbe, Cassim Wahab, Neomal Kirthsinghe, Yoga Perera and M. Iqbal to name a few” he tells Motor. “At that time, there used to be 10-15 cars on track at a time and they started in one line – there were no grid positions. It was really exciting to watch! At that time the races were categorized according to Power-to-Weight ratio. You would see a tiny Mini racing alongside a 2000cc Ford Capri, and while the Capri pulled ahead on the straights the little Mini would dance ahead in the corners. This was instrumental in developing my interest in the Mini”.
Nishath was instrumental in activating the Mighty Mini Club to create an entry-level Mini-exclusive race event with the support of then-President Thishan De Silva and the MMC committee. They worked hard and had many discussions with SLAS (the controlling body for Motor Sports in Sri Lanka) over several months, and finally a new event called the SL-E Mini 1275cc class was created. Nishath believes that creating such novice level classes will help develop racing in Sri Lanka. Prior to that, the Mini 7 racing class was also established and is competing to date. Stalwarts of the Mighty Mini Club like David Todd, Nimal Gunaratne, Namaz Fouzie and Ameen Deen played a crucial role in bringing the Mini as a separate racing category in Sri Lanka.
One of the most senior drivers still in active racing, Jeffrey Mason started racing from the age of 17, and even built his own car as well on a Mk1 chassis, with the aim of breaking the Mahagastotte record at the time. When Motor asked him why Mini, he replied “the Mini is a relatively cheap way to get into racing. It’s nice, it’s fun to drive and to race”.
Although a relative newcomer to Mini racing as such, Saman Hemantha Kumara is a well-known name in the Mini racing scene as ardent watchers will see “Race Prepared by Saman” adorning many a Mini’s roof. He is the crack mechanic who has been tuning and preparing Minis for racing for over 25 years. He is responsible for many a fast Mini, including Yoga Perera’s Mini which has the honour of being the fastest Mini in Sri Lanka, putting out over 170bhp at 8500rpm from a re-worked Kent engine that was built in England. “Whilst the interest in owning and driving a Mini is increasing, the interest in becoming a Mini specialised mechanic is declining. Not many young people want to become a Mini mechanic” says Saman.
Namal Silva’s green Mini has featured heavily in Motor and is sponsored by us as well. Namal has liked the Mini from the time he saw the car for the first time. When Motor asked Namal his story; he smiles and says “I got the first Mini for my wife, but ended up turning it into my race car! So I had to get her another Mini and got her a nicely appointed one with an automatic transmission”. On racing the Mini, Namal says “It’s a very steady car in a race and has exceptional handling. But it is difficult for everyone to get used to a Mini under racing conditions. You can’t just get in and race it. You must work at it, get used to it and put in effort. Once you get the hang of it, the adrenalin rush is immense”.
Dilan Perera is another of the current group of Mini racing drivers. From his childhood, Dilan liked the body shape of the Mini and he says it was his dream to own one. His first car was a Mini. Now he has ten of them, including two racing Minis. He races in the Mini 7 class and the 1050cc modified class. He also has an original 850, Wagon, Clubman, Van, Riley and Pickup. “With the Mini, it’s pure and clean fun, and the rush you get is very addictive” says Dilan.
Also into Mini racing are Neel Weerasinghe, Malinda Sirisena, K Parameswaran, Suresh Kumar, Lalin Perera, Deepthi Samarakoon, Upendra Weerawarnakula and WNS Tissera. While not exhaustive, there is well north of 25 Mini racing drivers who currently take part in the Mini racing classes in Sri Lanka.
Owning a car that is over 50 years old and indeed racing one of them competitively is no mean task. It often takes months, if not years rebuilding these cars, and then preparing them for racing. And from what we have found out from the people who do race them; we have come up with one common reason as to why they do it. That is ... Minis are ADDICTIVE!