In the U.K. there is no arguing that some of the best racing comes from Formula 1, sports cars and rallying. But there are plenty of short track series that could go toe-to-toe with any of the big series in terms of entertainment and excitement. There is a young, but quickly growing series that is sure to gain a lot of attention in years to come.
Well let me layout the basics of the car and you can make your own judgement. Known as a UK Modified, it is about the size of an original Mini Cooper, weighs about 571kg (1260lbs), powered anywhere from a 1,000 to 1,300cc motorcycle engine putting out about 200hp and race on both shale and tarmac. And they are made to be driven aggressive and fast.
After racing Legends cars for five years, Preston had finally had enough of the amount of money being spent, the competition causing him to spend that money and as he put it “having there be more politics than in the House of Parliament.” Like any racecar driver, you never hang up your helmet; you just look for the next thing to drive. A friend of Preston turned him on to the Mod Lites and after doing some more research and watching some videos, he instantly became hooked.Founded in the United States, these cars started life as a Dwarf car, or sometimes called a “truck body” to some as they had a more square shaped frame that made a truck bed like rear clip on some. The cars had a Ford Model A look to them for a while before some evolved them into the current Modified Lite chassis and bodies, based off the bigger Dirt Modifieds. Their popularity grew all over the U.S. and word went international, eventually making its way to the U.K. with 30 year racing veteran and driver of the No. 36 UK Modified, Micky Preston.
“I like the concept of the Mod Lite, well really of the whole car in general,” Preston said. “It has a motorcycle engine, small car, easy to work on, easy to transport, engine doesn’t cost a fortune. I liked the idea and then we went for it.”
After finding about eight other racers that shared Preston’s same interest and excitement for the cars, the vision of brining the little dirt cars over to the U.K. started to become a reality. But there was still one big problem, even if they were to easily ship a few over. They had nowhere to race them. It was a risk they were all willing to take, according to Preston because they figured even if they weren’t able to find a place to race, at least they had a new toy.
But as with all things meant to be, there came hope in the form of dirt track promoter, Steve Reece of Startrax Promotions. After Preston told Reece about his plan, Reece gained enough interest and curiosity that if they bought some cars he would find them a track. So with a group of drivers in place and a potential track ready to go, the fun of actually buying the cars began. But it wasn’t as easy as Preston expected it to be.
He reached out to many builders in the U.S. expressing interest in the cars and wanting to bring them to the U.K. To his surprise, nobody responded. The dream was going to be crushed quicker than it was thought up, until they found a saving grace with Peter D Motorsports in Arizona. They had two new cars and as luck would have it ended up getting two other used cars in at the same time. So they bought those four and had Peter D looking for a few more. But at the same time the financial economy in England dropped and four guys had to back out. Preston and three others had already sent the money for their cars, so as Preston said, they were in a bit of a conundrum, but decided their best bet was to continue to press on.
After the success of the first race and couple other demonstrations that Reece added the new cars to at the end of 2008, they decided to grow their fleet by building two more cars based off of the Peter D car. Which surprisingly turned out to be more expensive than purchasing and shipping the cars over from the U.S. Interest in the series really started to grow after the builds, according to Preston, as now people were able better see how exciting the racing between these cars can be and ended up ordering five more cars from Arizona (three Pro Race Cars, one Peter D car and one Lightning chassis).The cars arrived (two used Pro Race Cars chassis & two new Peter D Chassis Motorsports car), but now with only four cars instead of eight, it came down to Reece’s decision on whether the cars would be raced or simply be the new toy. By the end of 2008, even though there were now only four cars, Reece allowed a demonstration race at Belle Vue Speedway in Manchester. Preston, Matt Lomas, Richard Keeling and Burt Finnikian became the first four drivers to put on a race with the UK Modified, which is what the Mod Lites came to be known as in their new home across the pond.
“After that it became easier to gain some more races at different tracks because obviously we got a few more cars,” Preston said. “Since then it has steadily built up.”
One of the drivers whose attention was caught by the high powered little cars is BriSCA F1 veteran and driver of the No. 28 UK Modified, Simon Panton. After a few too many hard hits where at times caused him to have about six hours of memory loss, he decided it was time to find a more non-contact based racing series.
“So when we did the searching around it was really only the UK Modifieds and one or two of the cheaper Formulas that kind of ticked all of the boxes,” Panton said. “So I got in touch with Micky about having a go and he sorted me a go out. Pretty much like everybody else, just the power to weight got me hooked straight away.”
Panton sent out emails to some of the major Mod Lite players in the U.S. and eventually teamed up with Walt Breeding, who is involved with Pro Race Cars and Team USA (TUSA), an international racing division for Mod Lites and Dwarf Cars. Even though the UK Modifieds are not part of the full TUSA program, due to keeping with their current rules and low costs, they still stay in close contact with Breeding. Panton bought two cars from Breeding and began racing in 2011 with a field peaking at 12 cars.
And as Panton started to get his feet wet with racing the cars, it became clear that he made the right choice.
“I refer to them when I’m talking to people; it’s like a go-kart on steroids. They just are that awesome, especially on tarmac. I’m not particularly a fan of driving them on tarmac; I’m a shale, dirt man through and through, but they are just absolutely unbelievable. It is the right style of driving for shale, which is the tail hanging out slinging the dirt. Love them.”
It is a feeling that seems to be a common feeling among all who get to drive these cars, but even with that both Preston and Panton agree that the UK Modifieds are in a good place, but one of the problems stunting the growth is car count at each race.
“There have been a lot of people who always said, ‘I’ll have one of them,’ but not until there is more of them,” Preston said. “There are lots and lots of people who have said it, but if they would have all had one, there would already be 30 cars.”
There is hope for next season as both Preston and Panton have heard of a family that have become fed up racing the BriSCA F1 cars and could potentially bring three to four more cars. There are also plans for other cars to be shipped in and possibly a few others to be built over the winter as well. This could lead to a 12 to 14 average car each race with the potential for 20 or more in the near future. It is something Preston expressed a lot of excitement about as he said, “I really think it is going to explode into a big series.”
A quarter mile track is the biggest venue they go to. So as Panton stated, at the same time as much as they want more cars, there might be a possibility of limiting the amount of cars that race since it would become almost impossible for someone to start in the back and make their way to the lead by the end of the race on a small track.
Both Preston and Panton tend to look over the series as Startrax promotes it, but they have found that, there are so many new tracks that want the UK Modifieds added to their fixture, but they have to turn them down. On average there are about three races each month and Panton stated that everybody in the club like the current schedule where they have the off time to spend time with family and work on their cars. Also they already race at some of the top shale tracks in the country alongside the other popular series. Along with the fact that they like to just stay loyal to the tracks that first gave them a chance, according to Panton.
The overall consensus of the group is that they are happy with the series’ steady progression and are looking forward to what the future of the UK Modifieds might be. But overall enjoy racing each other hard while the helmets are on and being best mates helping each other out while the helmets are off, as summed up by this story by Panton:The series currently runs at eight different tracks around the U.K., including Coventry, Birmingham, Belle Vue, Stoke, Sheffield, Barford, Buxton, Skegness and Kings Lynn (first five are shale and last four are tarmac) with 25 races a year. And thanks to the used tires they buy off of Formula Renault teams, they can even race in the rain with ease.
“I do the meeting report that goes on our website and I put on there that Jeff, the lad in [car] 56, that the Coventry [race] previous, he was following a car. There were three cars in a row. The first car spun out. The second car saw him and spun out to avoid him and Jeff was unsighted and crashed into him. So I put on the website that Jeff was unsighted and he was. Jeff is a bit of a joker, so he went down to the local pound shop and bought a big pair of clown glasses. And he turns up at [the next race] Birmingham with a big pair of clown glasses on. I asked him what are you wearing them for and he said, ‘Well you put that I couldn’t see so I’m making a point that I can.”
“That is just typical of how we are. Off the track we have a great laugh and we help each other. As soon as somebody crashes, everybody is there, ‘Are you OK for bits? Do you need any help?’ Etc. etc. Ultimately we know when we are only averaging 10 to 12 cars we need to keep all cars on the track, to keep us looking good. The camaraderie is probably one of the best bits of it.”