Project Rally Saab 99 | Magazine Series Part 5: Let’s Go Rally

Photography Credit: Tom Heath

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the June 2008 issue of Grassroots Motorsports; for more updates, visit here.]

 

A racing team can live or die by its attention to detail, since it’s all too easy to overlook a critical element. Taking a car to its first motorsports event can be logistically and technically challenging—especially when it comes to stage rally events, where teams often encounter the unexpected. We’ve been using checklists to keep track of nearly every task, from remembering sunscreen to packing the right number of spare tires.

We’ve spent the better part of eight months restoring and preparing our 1977 Saab 99 for its new life as a stage rally competitor. With just a short month to go before our Saab’s rally debut in Cheraw, S.C., at the 2008 NASA Rally Sport SandBlast Rally, our to-do list was getting mercifully shorter. 

The Measured Mile

A rally car’s navigator is more than just a talking ballast. This person reads the route instructions and tells the driver where to go. Navigating a rally requires a very accurate odometer with two separate trip meters, both of which can be zeroed independently. 

We installed a Brantz International 2 rally computer in our car. It’s about the most basic dual odometer that you can find, and the large red LED readouts are very appropriate for our historic-themed Saab 99. We got ours from Checkpoint Racing for $299. Another $49 purchased the required wheel sensor.

We mounted that sensor to the right-rear wheel hub to isolate it from wheelspin. The sensor takes a reading each time a wheel stud passes by, meaning four pulses per wheel revolution. Those pulses are then counted by the trip meter, which can be calibrated to accurately count the distance down to a hundredth of a mile.

Look Who’s Talking 

The environment inside a rally car is quite loud. A free-flowing exhaust and the cacophony of flying gravel pelting the floor pan make it very hard for the occupants to hear each other. 

To make communication easier, an intercom with helmet-mounted speakers and microphones is needed. We mounted a Terratrip Terraphone Clubman system that we found used on SaabRally.com for $75— they are about $200 new. We simply attached the unit to one of the roll cage’s main gussets, placing the system right behind the seats.

While we were working in the dash area, we installed a remote kill switch from BatteryCutoff.com. This solenoid-operated kill switch disconnects the battery and the ignition circuit with just a flip of a dash-mounted switch. The beauty of this little beasty is that you only need to run a low amperage wire into the cockpit. The solenoid does the heavy work of dealing with the high-amperage wires that lead to the battery. 

Per Schroeder performs a last-minute check under the hood of Project Saab 99 while impatiently waiting for the call to the line. Photography Credit: Tom Heath

Final preparations included the BatteryCutoff.com solenoid-operated main power cutoff unit, a Brantz International 2 rally computer to keep close track of the miles traveled, and a sensor for the Brantz computer that counts the lug studs as they go by. Photography Credits: Per Schroeder

Knobbylicious

Tires are one of the defining elements of a race car—they do most of the work regarding handling and power delivery. The same is true of a rally car. 

We asked rally legend John Buffum of Libra Racing for some thoughts regarding tire selection for our vintage Saab. He suggested we try a Michelin L82 in a 14/62-15 size, which would be appropriate for our 15x5.5-inch Shelby wheels.

We ordered up six of these tires, giving us one spare to carry along plus another to keep in service. While top teams burn through tires just as quickly as their road racing counterparts, privateer rallyists like us can go several seasons on a set of good tires. 

Loaded for Bear

With our checklists fully checked, we loaded up our Trailerworld trailer and Nissan Xterra—the Pathfinder called in sick that day—for the trip to South Carolina. We arrived Thursday evening and got a good night’s sleep before the official activities began on Friday. 

This was our driver's third rally, so we needed to complete our final Novice Competitor Orientation that morning. This was an entertaining and informative three-hour lecture led by head organizer Anders Green. The NCO walked the new competitors through safety guidelines and the general procedure of how a rally runs, including some discussion on the Time-Speed-Distance aspect of transit stages as well as how to read the TSD-style Tulip instructions. 

Once that was complete, we headed off to registration. We showed our licenses and registration paperwork for the rally car and our service truck, plus the insurance declarations for both vehicles. Everything was in order, so we could then get our brand-new rally car through tech inspection. 

NASA Rally Sport’s Mark Bowers was the head technical inspector at the event, so it was his job to assign our car a logbook. During his thorough inspection, he found no significant issues. He did note that our mounting brackets for the fuel cell could be improved, however, and suggested a pair of fore and aft bracing straps. We can fabricate those before the car’s next event. On the plus side, he had good things to say about our Kirk Racing roll cage.

Dawn’s Early Light

Saturday morning dawned bright and cold without a hint of clouds in the sky. The Saab was covered with frost, but it started right up as we got ready. 

Our two-man team—Jason Grahn served as our navigator—braved the chilly air as we checked intercoms and hooked up the ChaseCam onboard video recorder. (By the way, you can watch external and onboard footage from the event online at grassrootsmotorsports.com.) 

We then drove over to Parc Expose and the starting area at a local restaurant. The schedule released cars onto the course in one-minute intervals. We were slated as the 25th car out, and waiting for those 25 minutes to pass before we could take the green was just excruciating. When our time finally came, we started the transit stage that led to Special Stage 1. 

Sand Storm

Special Stage 1 was one of the longer stages at a little more than 14 miles. As we climbed the long hill that kicked off the stage, we began to realize that the surface was a lot softer and sandier than we were led to expect. 

There were deep ruts, and the soft, sandy patches felt more like deep, powdery snow. This fine ground cover had the power to completely kill the car’s momentum. We had to take some sections in second gear just to keep the engine speeds high enough for the tires to churn through the silt. The alternative was to bog down and get stuck.

During this first stage we made another disconcerting discovery: The spinning wheels and rough terrain would occasionally jerk the transmission out of gear. While bouncing through particularly bad sections we had to physically hold the gear lever in place. Certainly a limited-slip differential would have helped our cause. 

Our times for this first stage were pretty slow; we were several minutes off the faster two-wheel-drive cars. We got closer on the second and third stages as we got the knack of keeping the engine speeds up through the sandy snares. 

Sand Trap

About a mile and a half into Special Stage 4, we made a left turn and started climbing through soft ruts. A trio of safety triangles came into view, meaning another competitor had come to a stop ahead of us. We were soon met by not one stuck car, but four. Stalled cars dotted the hillside.

We slowed down, analyzed the situation, and then got stuck ourselves. We got out of the car and attempted to manually extricate it. No dice. As the rest of the field stacked up behind us, the sweep truck came out and started pulling cars up the hill. 

We were proud to see that the four-wheel-drive Ford F-350 sent to retrieve us also fell victim to the sand. A second sweep truck was then roped to the first, and this train of three vehicles—with our Saab as a little Swedish caboose—made its way up to solid ground. Now we know why they call that stage Sand Trap.

The soft terrain at Sandblast was heavily rutted by the time we hit the stages, and we eventually got stuck along with several other competitors. We felt vindicated when the big 4x4 sweep truck got stuck, too. Photography Credits: Jason Grahn

Dark and Loud

After the frustrations of the fourth stage, the fifth and sixth ones were a little less eventful. While buzzing along pretty well, we noticed that the exhaust note seemed to be changing from a growl to a blat. We figured out that the flange between the downpipe and the resonator was slowly separating, but since we weren’t near the service area we had no choice but to soldier on in our now earsplitting Saab. 

As the sun set on the Sand Hills of South Carolina, we flipped on our bank of Hella auxiliary lights and started the seventh and last stage of the rally. This final stretch was probably the most fun. The combination of darkness, screaming exhaust and a surface that was more gravel than sand made our final push to the finish a dramatic one. 

We flew past the final finish control and rumbled into the Main Time Control to hand in our timing card. We finished 21st out of the 31 cars that started the event. While we weren’t the fastest out there, we weren’t the slowest either. More importantly, the Saab successfully completed its first rally event.

Our Saab buddies at SaabRally.com did well, as Luke Sorensen and John Iden finished eighth overall. That made them the fastest two-wheel drive car at the event. Their M1/G5 turbocharged 99 is a blast to watch as it screams by. A long-travel suspension and well-engineered reinforcements make it a formidable competitor. 

Laundry List

As we drove our loud and dirty car onto the trailer, it was mostly unscathed from the 200-plus miles of rally. Our list of things to do had grown considerably, however, since the event highlighted more needs and wants. 

First on our list is a limited-slip differential as well as a five-speed transmission. A stronger engine would also be nice. 

We’ll see what we can get done before our next event in May at Rally Tennessee.

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