A Different Kind of Race Car

By James Walker, Jr.
Mar 25, 2013 | Saturn | Posted in Shop Work , Buyer's Guides | From the May 1999 issue | Never miss an article

Most people who own a television (read here: you) are probably pretty familiar with the Saturn product—a cute, reliable commuter car targeted at single buyers who like to have a free donut while their car is in for an oil change. You probably also know that these same Saturn owners are invited to retailer picnics, new owner clinics, and get birthday cards for their cars in the mail. However, if you are shopping for a performance car, you are more likely concerned with what’s under the hood or skidpad numbers.

To put it another way, we have been invited to share a few of our Saturn Club Racing experiences with the readers of GRM, but in the process we hope to generate some interest in one of the best-kept secrets in racing—the Saturn SC2.

So, Why Would Anyone Want to Race a Saturn?

This is a question my wonderful wife wrestles with daily, but when you look at the recent successes of Saturn racing efforts—SCCA Solo II E Stock National Championship (1997), SCCA World Challenge Manufacturer’s Championship (1997), two SCCA Showroom Stock C Runoffs top-15 finishers (1998), LeMans GT1 Category Champions (okay, so I made that last one up)—one has to think that these cars have some basic competition potential.

Of course, another question quickly comes to mind: “Then why are there are so few Saturns competing?” One theory is that since Saturn is the new kid on the block, the word simply is not out yet (possible). Another reason could be the relative lack of aftermarket support and information available (probable). And finally, a contingency program from Saturn sure would help (bingo).

Solo II Classification

In general, all unmodified 2-series Saturns (check out the catchy sidebar on page 66 to find out what “2-series” means) are classified in SCCA’s Solo II E Stock, while modified 2-series Saturns compete in C Street Prepared. Unmodified 1-series Saturns are classified in H Stock, and modified 1-series Saturns compete in D Street Prepared.

There have been a whole bunch of E Stock Saturns showing up for the Solo II Nationals each year, and many more are competing around the country in local events. Show up to your local club’s event, and chances are pretty good that there will be a Saturn or two running through (or over) the pylons. Saturns of all ilk are also ripe for the SCCA’s new Street Touring class that combines elements of both Stock and Street Prepared. Cars must remain emissions-legal, but certain bolt-on suspension and engine upgrades are allowed.

Club Racing Classification

The 1997-’99 SC2 and SL2 (see that same useful sidebar to decode that cryptic string of letters and numbers) are classified in the SCCA’s Showroom Stock C category. As far as we know, there are only two SSC cars in the entire country. Why? Remember the contingency comment above.

The earlier 1991-’94 SC2 models are only classified for road racing competition in Improved Touring A, but there are not a lot of Saturns showing up at the American Road Race of Champions. To the best of our knowledge, there is one ITA Saturn running around the Northeastern U.S.

Which Models Are Best for the Street / Autocross Enthusiast?

Out of the box, both the Saturn SC2 and SL2 are the clear-cut choice for the sporting daily driver or for the occasional autocross competitor. Both cars combine the rev-happy 16-valve engine with four-wheel independent suspension, front and rear anti-roll bars, 15-inch wheels and low curb weight to make for an agile performance package.

Although the SW2 station wagon combines these same elements, the lack of rear strut tower bracing and the additional 65 pounds way up high do not make for the best combination. While the 1-series siblings might seem attractive due to their lower curb weight and H Stock classification, the smaller front anti-roll bar (and the lack of a rear anti-roll bar) does not do much for the handling, and the torque-heavy SOHC engine is better suited to running to the grocery store.

Which Models Should Be Considered by the Road Racing Enthusiast?

If SCCA Club Racing in SSC is your ultimate goal, the subtle differences between the SC2 coupe and the SL2 four-door sedan become more important. We selected the 1997 SC2 for the following reasons: • Lower coefficient of drag (0.310 for the SC2 vs. 0.318 for the SL2);
• Higher top speed limiter (124 mph for the SC2, 108 mph for the SL2);
• Lower curb weight (SCCA limits the SC2 to 2375 pounds, the SL2 to 2385 pounds);
• Shorter tire diameter (SCCA limits the SC2 to 205/50R15, the SL2 to 205/55R15).

In ITA, you don’t have much of a choice—you are required to run a 1991-’94 SC2 coupe, period. These early SC2s do have some slight advantages over their newer SC2 counterparts, though: shorter wheelbase (99.2 inches for 1991-’96 vs. 102.4 inches for 1997-’99) and a lower curb weight (weight savings of about 100 pounds).

So, for the sake of discussion, let’s say that you have decided to purchase a 1997 Saturn SC2. Good choice. We will now walk you through what modifications the Saturn really likes (from our experience), what to stay away from, and where to get the parts and information you need to build your car for street / autocross use and road racing competition.

How Do I Prepare a Competition Saturn?

When the time comes to prepare your Saturn for either high-performance street or competition use, you will learn very quickly that there are not a lot of knowledgeable Saturn aftermarket tuners. One glaring exception is SPS—The Saturn Performance Specialists.

While several companies sell a few Saturn bolt-on pieces here and there, SPS takes the time necessary to develop and test all of their products before offering them for sale. Most of the products we will be mentioning are available from their catalog or through their Website at www.spswebpage.com. (Yes, they are a sponsor. How did you guess?)

In addition, you should be forewarned that working on a Saturn can be a very ego-boosting experience. Since the cars were designed from a clean sheet of paper, a high priority in the original design was serviceability. Nearly everything on the car comes apart with a handful of sockets, wrenches and a flathead screwdriver. If you ever go back to owning any other vehicle after working on a Saturn, you will realize how spoiled Saturn owners can become. I have a friend with an F500 race car, so I get a good dose of this several times every race season. Trying to troubleshoot his cooling system last year was like trying to replace the wing of a 747—while it was in flight!

Time To Trade In Those Magnetic Numbers

All Saturns employ a steel spaceframe covered by polymer body panels (sort of like a tube-frame race car, but without all the tubes). In fact, the only metallic body panels on the car are the hood, roof and rear decklid. As testimony to the polymer panels’ durability, our 1997 SSC car has experienced two full seasons of on- and off-track excursions. With the notable exception of a rear quarter panel where a Neon front wheel machined its way completely through the plastic (he made the pass, too), the panels look as good as new. Examine any other Showroom Stock car after similar exposure, and you will be reaching for the body hammers—the Neon owner was.

In addition to providing great durability, the spaceframe / polymer construction helps to drastically lower the vehicle’s weight. Most Saturns weigh less than 2400 pounds—even with all of the power accessories and creature comforts added in. Our SC2 tipped the scales at a lean 2288 pounds right off the assembly line, and the final race car, complete with cage and full interior, weighs only 2390 pounds.

Wheel and Tire Selection

Regardless of the car you drive, wheel and tire purchases separate the proverbial men from the boys. Without the proper wheel and tire combination, all the money you spend on your trick suspension parts and aggressive brakes will be wasted. I know this is trite, but it is where the rubber meets the road (no more bad puns, I promise).

Weighing in at a hefty 16 pounds each, the stock SC2 aluminum wheels are neither the most attractive nor lightest wheels you can fit in the Saturn fenderwell. They are sized as follows: 15 inches in diameter, six inches wide, 50mm offset and a 4x100 bolt circle.

For competition use, we do not recommend upsizing the wheel diameter. It looks great on the street, but the larger 16- or 17-inch wheel increases both rotating mass and rolling radius, negatively impacting gear ratio—and the Saturn needs plenty of gear.

If it’s legal under your racing regulations, you should find the lightest 15x6.5- or 15x7-inch wheel you can afford. If you buy from a reputable source, they will make sure the offset is correct for your application, but be sure to ask since there is not much clearance between the Saturn wheel and the rear strut—especially if you run aggressive camber angles.

Tire size is dictated primarily by wheel width and strut clearance. From the stock 195/60R15, the first step is to change to a 205/55R15. This size works well for most high-performance street applications and is the size we use on our SL2 project car. For competition use, however, the sidewall is too tall and flexible. For road racing and autocrossing alike, the tire size of choice is the 205/50R15. There are multiple advantages to running this size tire: This size is commonly available in R-compounds. The shorter sidewall decreases flexing, and the decreased rolling radius numerically increases gear ratio by about five percent. Some successful Saturn autocrossers have been known to run 225/50R15 tires on only the front axle in order to change the handling balance of the car. If you run this configuration, keep in mind that wheel spacers are mandatory to keep the front tires from crashing into important things like brake lines. The tire is also way too wide for the six-inch factory wheels (although we have seen it done). Due to these clearance issues, we do not recommend running this size on the street.

For most competitors, the choice of tire manufacturer is more often than not based on what the fast guys are running. Our testing experience has shown that our SSC car works best with 205/50ZR15 Hoosier R3S03 Radials. Since the Hoosiers are a little wider than most other 205s, we use 5mm-wide H&R wheel spacers to generate adequate tire-to-strut clearance. (Past experience with other tire brands has shown that spacers are not necessary with any other currently available 205/50ZR15 tire.) Without the spacers, which are approved by the SCCA, the tire would eat right through the strut—especially with the large static camber settings we use. As with any tire, investing in a good pressure gauge and pyrometer will help you to quickly and accurately determine optimum tire pressures and alignment settings.

More Power!

Although in stock trim the Saturn powerplant makes a respectable amount of horsepower and torque, you can never have enough of either. It sure is disappointing to watch that 140-horse Nissan walk you at the start of the race, time and time again.

In E Stock, SSC and ITA, you really can’t do much with the engine—legally, anyhow. We have found through dyno testing that a fresh rebuild with a K&N air filter, Red Line racing oil, and a two-inch open exhaust (no muffler) from the cat-back will net about 130 horsepower at the crank, up six from the advertised “stock” rating. It may not seem like much, but that’s about a five-percent power increase.

Further testing with aftermarket spark plugs and plug wires made no difference—evidently the stock ignition system is pretty robust at these power levels. Finally, for ITA, SPS offers a great tri-Y ceramic-coated header. If your car is slated for off-road use, scrap the cat while you’re down there. For those of you not limited by preparation rules, take heart: in addition to the modifications listed above, the Saturn powerplant will respond quite well to basic hot-rodding techniques. Keep in mind, however, that you should not expect small-block V8 power from the little 1.9-liter engine.

Increasing the compression ratio will go a long way towards making more power, and there are two simple ways to raise the compression ratio with the Saturn 1994-’97 DOHC engine: shave the head (taking off 0.50mm will bump the ratio from 9.5:1 to about 10.2:1); and install the flat-faced intake and exhaust valves from a 1991-’93 DOHC engine (this alone will bump the ratio up 0.3).

You also want to get air in, and then get it out. On our project car, we have had success with Extrude Honed intake and exhaust manifolds, SPS enlarged throttle body (52mm, up from 50mm) and SPS powerstack intake with K&N filter.

With all these modifications and an otherwise stock exhaust system, our project car runs consistent 15.8s in the quarter mile (stock 2s run about 16.5 seconds). More extensive exhaust work planned for next year should hopefully bring that time down into the mid-15s.

Transaxle Trivia

Sorry, but there are no big secrets here. In both E Stock and SSC you can legally change your transaxle fluid—that’s it. We use Red Line D4 fluid, and after one season of abuse—and without a single fluid change—the transaxle internals looked as good as new. (Crew chiefs note: that also included a few too many 8000 rpm downshifts.) The transaxle appears to be bulletproof at these power levels.

The ITA crowd and street car folks have a few more options. Although it’s very hard to come by, a limited-slip or torque-biasing differential makes a world of difference. Our project street car is equipped with a Torsen torque-biasing differential, and exiting corners on the throttle is no longer a waiting game. (If only it were SSC-legal.) Changing the final drive gears is also ITA-legal, and with the incredibly low 0.73:1 fifth gear ratio you will probably want to super size your final drive, but we do not know of anybody with parts on the shelf today.

When shopping for a spare transaxle, be aware that even though the internal ratios are different, both the 1-series transaxle and the 2-series transaxle are mechanically interchangeable. We know of at least one competitor who purchased a 1-series transaxle and found out the hard way that the ratio change is not favorable. I bet he would have managed to get great fuel economy, though.

Whoa Power!

Warning: Do not go into this section thinking that you will learn how to magically shorten your Saturn’s stopping distance. As with any other automotive application, making changes to your Saturn’s braking system will not have a significant impact on stopping distance. If you want to stop in a shorter distance, go buy stickier tires. However, in order to compete on a regular basis, changes to your stock braking system are absolutely necessary to increase fade resistance, improve pedal feel and reduce wear.

Rotor heat storage and dissipation is the number one brake system concern of any Saturn competitor. Stock Saturn rotors perform adequately for autocrossing because the brakes are allowed to cool between each lap, but for road racing, the rotors are not large enough to store the heat generated by lap after lap of 100-mph stops. Unfortunately, Club Racing rules prohibit the use of larger rotors, so the heat must be dealt with in other ways. (Note that ITA drivers can—and should—use brake cooling ducts, but the rest of us are not so lucky.)

The first line of defense is a quality brake fluid. Several are on the market, and if you stick with one of the brand names, you should be safe. Don’t cut a corner here, or you will find out going into Turn 5 at Road America that your fluid isn’t up to the task.

For street and autocross duty, changing your fluid once per year is probably enough, but for the road racers, bleeding the fluid between every race is mandatory. In fact, we bleed our fluid between every track session (four times per race weekend). It might sound unnecessary, but the first time you forget, it will come back to bite you. (Want to see our battle scars?)

The next upgrade should be brake pads. In this area, autocrossers and road racers have very different needs, and a great autocross pad should never be used on a road race car. If your Saturn sees both autocrossing and road racing duty, you need to consider separate pads for each type of event.

Autocross-specific brake pads will typically generate peak output at lower temperatures than road racing pads, and do not need to get hot before they start to “come on.” A good autocross pad will also have great initial bite and allow the driver to modulate the pedal throughout the stop. SPS’ Kelate Metallic autocross pads meet all of these criteria, but like most autocross-specific pads, they will fade quickly at higher temperatures, so they are not suitable for road racing applications.

Road racers will require a pad which operates at higher temperatures without a loss in performance. During one of our test days, we used thermal paint to determine our rotor operating temperatures and found peak temperatures as high as 1100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because of the high temperatures seen on our SC2, an insulating liner between the friction material and the backing plate was deemed to be mandatory for our application. Expansion grooves were also necessary to prevent the friction material from cracking as heat built up—and we found through experimentation that one expansion groove is not enough for a Saturn. We use two grooves exclusively to prevent premature pad disintegration.

The only brake pads we have found which meet all of our road racing requirements are manufactured by PowrPad. Other materials we have tested in our application have debonded, cracked excessively or transferred excessive heat to the brake fluid. And although the PowrPads have the ceramic liner and twin expansion grooves, they only last about two or three race weekends before they need replacing. You can’t have everything, I guess.

The only other tuning you can do to the braking system is to vary front and rear friction materials to change the braking balance of the car. We think of it as using the brake pads as a bias bar. In 1998, we chose to use a slightly more aggressive rear compound to help the car turn-in under trailbraking conditions, but in the rain, we could use a less aggressive rear material keep the back end in line. In either case, this parameter is best evaluated by each individual driver.

Finally, unless your Saturn came equipped with ABS, you are stuck with rear drum brakes; however, you can easily convert it to rear disc brakes using factory parts. The rear knuckles and bearings are the same for the disc and drum cars, so you can complete the entire job without even having to reset your alignment. Best of all, SPS has recently assembled a kit which includes all of the hardware necessary (even fasteners) to complete the job in your driveway in a few hours’ time. The serious competitor will not hesitate to make the switch—and it’s SSC and ITA legal to boot.

Suspension Science

Before going any further, please keep in mind that what the chassis engineer likes and what the driver likes can be 180 degrees out of phase with each other. Unlike other vehicle systems, chassis tuning is as much art as it is science. The only underlying truism is if it gets you to the checkered flag first, then it’s right. With that in mind, we have found that the Saturn suspension should be attacked as a system, and that randomly replacing individual components without some forward thought can actually have a detrimental effect on chassis dynamics. What we will roll out here are a series of upgrades in stages, but remember that the first step toward the improved chassis of any Saturn involves swapping in some real wheels and tires. The first stage involves firming things up. A strut tower brace, although illegal in SSC, will make an immediate difference. Keeping the stock springs in place but replacing the struts with KYB units will raise rebound damping rates without keeping the springs from doing their job. Adding a larger rear anti-roll bar (16.5mm diameter) from SPS will dial out some of the factory understeer, but keep in mind that if you choose to add a front bar as well, you will negate part of this effect.

These changes will make for a fun-to-drive street car with minimal impacts to ride comfort. For the street, alignment should be kept reasonable, with no more than 1.25 degrees negative camber front and rear, zero front toe, and a hair of toe-in at the rear.

The next stage is to upgrade to a high-performance street setup. H&R sport lowering springs, when combined with Carrera street struts, make for a firm, but tolerable ride. With the installation of the H&R springs, an SPS three-way adjustable 16.5mm rear anti-roll bar can now be used to make fine chassis adjustments. (Note that we recommend leaving the front bar stock in this configuration.) Adding 10mm to the track width with spacers makes for wheel clearance and helps to reduce body roll a small amount.

Alignment can now be turned up a notch, but any more than 2.0 degrees negative camber front and rear will wear out street tires in a hurry. Front toe-out should be set to the driver’s preference, and rear toe should depend on what type of racing you are doing—zero toe for road racing, and (gulp) some toe-out for the autocrossers. Be aware that at this point, you are close to crossing the line between daily driver and weekend warrior. At scR motorsports, we used these same components in our 1998 SSC trunk kit and found the handling balance to be ideal for road racing.

Teaser line: For 1999, we have re-engineered the SSC trunk kit with the assistance of H&R, SPS and several others. At the time of this writing, the package has not been voted on by the SCCA Comp Board, but by the time you read this, something should be official—one way or the other. Be sure to visit our Website at www.teamscR.com for the latest on the 1999 allowances.

For the ITA-curious, there are coil-over kits available to transform your suspension package from high-performance street to full-race. At this stage, springs are best determined by experimentation and driver preference, but rates are available to suit any taste. Camber plates, minor geometry changes, and better bushings are all fair game, but with so many schools of thought on how to set up a front-wheel-drive race car, we won’t go there. Experiment and find what works best for you.

What Doesn't Work and What Are the Weak Links?

Our self-generated list of broken parts, lessons learned, and dollars wasted:

• Suspension bushings are a great idea if you can replace them all the way around. If you replace only some of them, you might get unwanted understeering or oversteering.
• Don’t upsize the front anti-roll bar unless you are prepared to go with a huge rear bar. Use springs instead to control front roll angles.
• If you lower the car more than 30mm, be prepared to replace front axles on a regular basis—the resulting axle angles will eat the CV joints.
• If you do end up road racing, buy a whole bunch of rear wheel bearings. Over the course of nine races, we went through five pairs. Front bearings are a little more robust—one set should last six races or so.
• Don’t spend money for any Saturn engine components which claim to magically add 15 horsepower. They don’t exist, and unless you only run on the street, they’re probably illegal anyway.
• Spend real money for quality brake fluid and brake pads. Saturn racers will curse the day they shortcut this critical area.

Putting It All Together

Now that you have been saturated with Saturnalia, you are probably sitting back and saying to yourself, “Self, this sounds like any other GRM article.” Well, you are right—the preparation and maintenance of the Saturn SC2 is as simple as that for a GTI, Miata, Civic or Neon. Contrary to popular belief, the Saturn does not require special care or feeding, and in most cases is actually easier to maintain than other popular marques. To sum it all up, there is no silver bullet which will enable your Saturn to heroically catapult to the top of the pack, but when you combine the light weight, agile suspension, flexible powertrain and growing aftermarket support for the Saturn SC2, you might just realize that Saturn provides one of the most competitive packages to campaign, no matter what your end goals. Get ready to run “rings” around your competition.

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