Project Rally Saab 99 | Magazine Series Part 7: Participating in Two Events in Two Weeks

Our Saab’s preparation schedule seemed rather luxurious during our last installment. We had 90 days to ready the car for Rally Tennessee, giving us plenty of time to rebuild the engine, strengthen the chassis and even install a limited-slip differential. 

Now the time had come to see if all that work would pay off. We had two rallies on our schedule—Rally Tennessee, then the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally two weeks later. Thanks to the tight turnaround time between events, a major problem during the first rally could keep us from making the second one.

Call it an example of multitasking, but we broke in the new engine with a 1000-mile round-trip drive to Atlanta and back for the GRM Speedfest at the Classic Motorsports Mitty. We even dynoed the new engine while we were there, happily spinning the rollers at Balanced Performance to the tune of 112 horsepower, some 30 more than our old engine’s baseline.

Tarmac Time

The second entry into our Saab’s logbook would be NASA Rally Sports’s Rally Tennessee, an event held entirely on the twisty-turny asphalt surrounding the cute little town of Linden, Tenn. The event is held on a great selection of tarmac and chip-sealed roads that feature plenty of elevation changes and blind crests.

We loaded the Saab onto our Trailer World trailer and hitched it to our Nissan Xterra for the trek north. This combination gets about 13 mpg on the highway at 70 mph. 

The rig was well-loaded with spares and tools, including a backup alternator, starter and a few extra tires. We even sprung for some fresh tie-downs for the trailer—a new set from Trackside Tim kept the car from moving around on the trailer during the 10-hour hike.

The rally car sailed through scrutineering; the inspectors noted our improved fuel cell mounting points and quickly approved. Jason Grahn, our co-driver, met up with us and we headed out for recce, a reconnaissance drive that gives the driver and co-driver a chance to adapt the stage notes to their particular needs. We revised some of the notes to include braking zones before blind crests so we could keep the car from sailing out of control.

The event started out smoothly enough, with our team taking some time to get up to speed. We’ll be the first to admit that blind crests scare the snot out of us, even with our excellent co-driver giving us the notes well ahead of time. We also took some time to get comfortable cutting corners, and driving strategies slowly but surely came to us as we progressed from stage to stage. There were a few times where we dipped the nose of the car well into the ditch to gain some traction-adding camber.

We’ve been using the Spec Focus competitors as our benchmarks, and while we finished behind all of them at Sandblast earlier in the year, we found ourselves beating one team and finishing on the heels of another. After trading stage wins with the USUK Racing.com Spec Focus team of Simon and Kieran Wright, they beat us overall by just 53 seconds at the end of the event. 

We averaged close to 60 mph through the nearly 85 miles of special stages for a total time of 1:15.06. Clearly our new engine and other improvements were making a difference.

One problem that made our event a little more exciting than expected was a loose engine mount that allowed the transmission to pop out of gear whenever we encountered hard cornering, throttle-lift and even small bumps. We scavenged a replacement bolt from a fellow rallyist and replaced it during one frantic service. We kept a wrench in the car so we could tighten the bolt between stages. 

Quick Turnaround

That one engine mount was the extent of our mechanical issues, so thankfully there were very few items on our to-do list before heading out to Pennsylvania for our first Rally America event. We could mainly concentrate on cleaning the car and converting the setup from tarmac to gravel.

First off, we gave the car a bath to remove the dust, mud and even small chunks of asphalt that peppered the Saab’s flanks. When the car was once again resplendent in its coat of brownish paint, we changed out the Superlite wheels and Toyo Proxes RA-1 tires in favor of Shelby Minilites and Michelin L82 gravel rally tires. The gravel tires were in great shape after Sandblast and looked ready for another event—the corners of the tread blocks were still nice and sharp. 

Our new engine churns out 112 horsepower on Balanced Performance’s dyno—that’s up 30 ponies from our initial testing. Rally America requires a head and neck restraint, and our co-driver rented his from Safe Drives. We had a blast rallying with NASA on the curvy roads of Tennesee.

We also unbolted the Addco anti-roll bars, since we wouldn’t need them for the rough gravel stages in Pennsylvania. A rally car needs quite a bit of compliance and wheel articulation—just about the opposite of what you’d get from good anti-roll bars. 

We then applied the Rally America visual package, which included new numbers, number backers, class designations and a windshield banner. The $40 package is actually quite reasonable for the amount of vinyl decals it contains.

After that, we just had to make sure that the engine mounts would stay attached. We found a longer 10mm bolt and through-bolted the engine mount. We figured that this would hold a lot better than the two separate studs that were screwed into either end of the Vorshlag mounts. 

On the Road Again

The Saab and Xterra were once again loaded up with spares and tools, and we hit the road to Wellsboro, Penn., for the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally. The 18-hour tow was uneventful, aside from the eerie green skies and tornado warnings we encountered while sailing around the Beltway in D.C. We cruised into Wellsboro, unloaded the car, and got our gear together for tech inspection.

Rally America’s scrutineering is much like NASA’s, although they do make sure that all of your basic vehicle systems like headlights, horns and even reverse lights are working properly. This sanctioning body also requires SFI spec 38.1 head and neck restraints. We used a HANS Device sourced from ApexPerformance.net, while co-driver Jason used an R3 that he rented from Safe Drives.

Enough Rough Stuff

The event started on Friday with Stages 1 and 2, both of which were held on land owned by event sponsor Waste Management. These proved to be some of the toughest sections of road ever seen by competitors—some say worse than the legendary roads of the New England Forest Rally. 

One feature particularly surprised us, simply labeled as a crest. This “crest” launched our Saab airborne and straight into the face of the next crest. We slammed back into earth with enough force to tweak our robust skidplate. Since we felt no ill effects, we scrambled on. Others were not so lucky, as several competitors suffered event-ending impacts there.

However, during our next service we discovered that the landing did break something: One of our rear shock absorbers was down for the count. Saabrally.com buddy Luke Sorensen hit the local auto parts stores in search of a replacement. He found a suitable Gabriel shock in stock and for $16—fortunately the Saab part number cross-references to a Jeep. We were back in the game.

Our right-rear shock broke in two after a hard landing. We replaced it with this Gabriel; a few notations with a Sharpie made it look the part.

The replacement shock didn’t feel any different from the vintage Bilsteins we had been running. You know, we can’t really complain about the Bilsteins; we purchased the set of four 30-year-old shocks at Carlisle for $80. Most of our competitors will spend many times that amount on a single rally-spec damper.

Stage 3 capped off Friday evening at the Tioga County Fairgrounds and resembled a fast rallycross. This gave the competitors a chance to show off in front of the crowd while providing a breather from the rough travels through the Pennsylvania woods. Despite our lack of horsepower—in contrast to the turbocharged factory-backed meanies—our vintage Swede hit the yump in front of the spectators with authority, earning a round of applause. 

The bulk of Saturday’s stages were held on the faster, more traditional STPR roads of Asaph and Germantown. Once again, we started out slow and steadily got up to speed. The previous day’s tighter and more technical stages kept us ahead of our USUK Racing Spec Focus rivals, but they quickly outpaced us on the long straights and fast turns. While the Wrights’ Focus certainly had the edge in power, we were probably a little too timid on the faster sections. 

Keeping our foot down while top speeds eclipsed 70 mph on narrow and bumpy two-track gravel roads was an exercise in testicular fortitude, and we were working on growing a pair. Our average speeds on these fast and mountainous stages rose from the mid-40s to more than 50 mph toward the end. 

The event wrapped up with one more pass through the rough stage at Waste Management—this time in the dark—and a final spectator stage at the Tioga Fairgrounds. Once again, we found ourselves nursing along a car with a loose engine mount. Despite the new bolt and nyloc nut, we still lost that mount and had to cobble together a fix just to make it to the finish. 

We made it through all of STPR’s 13 stages with just a few new scratches and scuffs, finishing 22nd out of 41 original starters. Some 15 competitors didn’t finish, and we were blissfully happy to cross the finish line at the end. We came in fourth out of seven entries in our Group 2 class, right behind the Wrights.

Laundry List

Our rally car will now take a few months to rest as our driver attends to his newly supplemented family. Rally West Virginia falls right near our expectant mom’s due date, and it’s the last event anywhere near the Southeast for a few months. 

In the meantime, we’ll be once again reworking our engine mounts to prevent future issues. We’ll also be sourcing new revalved Bilstein shocks and improving our mud flaps and guards. We’ve also discussed setting up a crib in the garage so we can keep working on the car when we’ve got baby duty. You can see onboard camera footage as well as additional pictures online at grassrootsmotorsports.com

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