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RACING: One Lap of America in Two Special Toyota Sienna Minivans

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“It’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow,” says the old adage.

That’s what was on display at Palmer Motorsports Park in Central Massachusetts, as part of the annual One Lap of America when Toyota brought out two special concepts: the Sienna R-Tuned Concept and the Sienna SE+ Concept.

The vans were in Massachusetts to compete in One Lap of America, the successor to Brock Yates’s “Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash,” an outlaw race that sent teams tearing across the country to protest the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. In 1984, Yates revised the concept to pit teams against each other at legal race tracks, where competitors drive from track to track in long transits at legal speeds.

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To equalize the field, some of the track events are held at road courses, like the newly inaugurated Palmer Motorsports Park, while others are at drag strips, circle tracks and a mix of other facilities.

Competitors can make any modifications to their cars, but here’s the clincher: They have to run on the same set of tires for the entire competition, and the cars need to remain street legal.

This year, Toyota decided to enter one of the most unlikely vehicles in its fleet: The Sienna minivan. In all its 4,300-pound glory, the Sienna would provide the basis for a race car.

Toyota Technical Center teamed up with performance tuner DG-Spec to transform the stock Sienna SE into a legitimate Swagger Wagon, with a host of suspension mods that put this grocery-getter uncomfortably in the rear view mirror of a lot of high-performance cars.

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The interior was gutted, but the power rear doors still work and the power rear windows still operate as they do from the factory. The instrument panel is completely functional, and the air conditioning still blows cold (the rear AC system was deleted), but behind the race bucket in the driver’s position, fabricators installed a four-point roll bar with provisions for a six-point race harness.

Unlike a race seat in any other car – that would simply get bolted to the floor – fabricators had to build a frame for the seat to keep it off the floor and get the driver in a comfortable position. It’s about the easiest racing bucket on the planet for a driver to climb into, because of all the space in the cabin.

The suspension is where the Sienna R-Tuned starts to reel in more sport-oriented competitors. Modifications included DG-Spec/MCS double-adjustable coilovers up front, and DG-Spec/MCS double-adjustable aluminum-body shocks at the rear. The shock mounts were completely custom, and DG-Spec built a custom ride-height adjust system to optimize handling on the track, and during the long transits between the tracks.

The universal challenge for race teams is selecting the appropriate tire. If you’re driving a Corvette or a Porsche 911, the tire landscape is wide open, but you’re notably limited in tire choices when you’re stuffing them under the wheel wells of a minivan. The Sienna rides on Enkei Bright Silver RPF1 18×10-inch wheels. DG-Spec custom wheel spacers and some pretty serious positive wheel offset allowed the Sienna R Spec to run Bridgestone Potenza RE-71R 275/35R18 DOT radial tires.

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Hauling a tank like the Sienna R-Tuned to a stop is just as important as forward progress, so brake mods included Carbotech XP12 racing pads up front and XP10 racing pads at the rear. TRD provided stainless brake lines all around.

Body modifications are sparse. Other than the yellow stripes, the Sienna R Spec got a carbon fiber hood and a roof rail delete.

The most surprising feature, though, is the engine. With the exception of a DG-Spec/Burns Stainless R-Tuned Performance 3” Cat-Back Exhaust, a DG-Spec Custom Cold Air Intake and an OS Giken Super Lock Limited Slip Differential, the engine and transmission are bone stock. At idle, the van is nearly silent, but at full rip, it’s hilariously raucous as it negotiates pouring rain and Palmer Motorsports Park’s nasty elevation changes. In stock form, the Sienna puts out a respectable 266 horsepower. With the few modifications, that power increases to somewhere north of 300.

It’s amazing to watch the Sienna R-Tuned make its way around the track. In testing, the R-Tuned outpaced a Chevrolet Camaro SS with a 6.2-liter V8. At the Streets of Willow Springs, just north of Los Angeles, the Sienna R-Tuned turned a blistering 1:27 lap time.

In its time at Palmer, the team of Sean Morris, Craig Stanton and Top Gear USA host Rutledge Wood ran a 6:17.157 lap time, good enough for first in the Truck/SUV category, and 14th overall, beating out cars like an Audi R8, a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and a 2007 Chevrolet Corvette Z06. Throughout the weeks of competition, the R-Tuned held on an won the Truck/SUV class handily with a total of 160 points.

Along with the R-Tuned, Toyota also showed off a second concept that it had along for the ride: The Toyota Sienna SE+. The Sienna SE is pretty attractive on its own, but the SE+ does it one better, for a minivan you could legitimately describe as “sporty.”

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The SE+’s badging goes dark, along with the dark tint chrome grille surround, front and rear bumper light bezels and door handles. TRD badging is completely foreign on a Sienna, but it looks at home here. The body-colored roof rails almost disappear, except for the black rub areas. Front and rear lamp lenses are smoked to the point of blackness.

The 19-inch wheels are pushed out as far as possible with the same DG-Spec 10mm spacers as on the R-Tuned, and they’re sprayed laser black. Slim 19-inch tires are fairly hard to come by, so it rides on  235/50R19 Pirelli P Zeros that cars like the Ferrari F40 would’ve worn in the 1990s. Braking improves with G-LOC GS-1 performance street pads.

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We got in a series of laps around Palmer Motorsports Park with Top Gear USA host Rutledge Wood during a two-hour deluge that had water running across the track in sheets. Nevertheless, the van stuck to the track surprisingly well, with two passengers up front and another two comfortably seated in the rear, watching DVDs.

Toyota has no plans to build the SE+ at the moment, but the reaction to the R-Tuned and the SE+ through the competition, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it offered before too long.

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One last editorial note on the subject of Brock Yates and One Lap of America: Thanks to the generosity of Tire Rack, today’s One Lap of America supports the Brock Yates Tribute Fund through the Alzheimer’s Association to raise money and awareness of the fatal disease.

Yates’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis became public in 2011. In a piece announcing the Brock Yates Tribute Fund on the Hemmings Blog in 2013, Kurt Ernst wrote: “In 2011, Yates attended a panel discussion on the Cannonball events at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, aided by his wife Pamela. Though occasionally slow to respond, Yates was as witty as ever, and appeared to be quite lucid given the tragic circumstances.

“Today, just two and a half years later, Yates requires the kind of monitoring that can only be provided in a full-time care facility. Aside from the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Yates is in very good overall health for a man in his 80th year, his son reported.”

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Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at