The Long Run

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I went to North America to see a Swedish manufacturer demonstrate its durability with a record-breaking 20 days at Talladega, Alabama, in a trio of production Saab 9000 saloons. We mentioned this briefly last month, but the full list of records—all but two of international rather than World status—is appended.

I can confirm that the trio of cars utilised all felt of sound production quality when driven around the World’s Fastest Speedway on the day after record running was completed. All indicated the equivalent of 145 or more on their LHD kph speedometers.

The culmination of a plan conceived by Olle Granlund, Saab engines and transmissions chief, in 1984, this record breaking spree was turned into a true test of enduring speed by uncharacteristically bad weather.

Track conditions featured standing water on all the straights of Talladega’s 2.66 miles during the earliest section of the Long Run and supervising NASCAR officials asked Saab to consider withdrawing. A team featuring the kind of men who relished arctic rallying and who ruled what is now World Championship rallying did not have to think too hard about carrying on, undeterred even when local power supplies ceased.

Saab’s Long Run commenced on October 8 1986 and finished on the 26th of that month with 132 mph World records established at 50,000 and 62,100 miles.

The heavy rainfall and thunderstorms pulled back even Saab’s experienced driving team — which included triple RAC Rally winner Erik Carlsson amongst 25 self-styled “stupid Swedes”. This can be seen by the 137.010 mph pace on the first hour, falling back rapidly as both weather and some mechanical problems intervened.

What went wrong? According to Saab the biggest upset was a weakening of fuel/air mixture promoted by the effect of gravity (up to 1.5G) at full speed around the highest bankings. As the cars worked towards lighter fuel load their petrol pumps strained to collect and deliver the contents of the standard tank, so the team shortened, by five laps, the interval between refuelling stops. Nevertheless, two cars had to have exhaust valve repairs and one fuel pump was also required.

Routine services at the usual Saab intervals were carried out. The former rally mechanics (and Ronnie Peterson’s former crew chief) were egged on by new blood from the Saab vehicle proving department. Thus service times were slashed, to average less than five minutes, including oil and filter changes.

Average consumption of four star Shell at 5,500 rpm and full boost of the water-cooled Garrett TO3B turbochargers equated to 10.5 mpg. Shell also used their TMO (Gemini in the UK) motor oils, consumption of which was “most moderate” according to Saab.

Pirelli P600 tyres of production 195/60 R 15 dimensions were used, 120 covers being allocated per car. They were changed every 24 hours at the rear, with the left front wheel changed every six hours and replaced by the right front tyre, which in turn had already been used for six hours. I became giddy trying to compute how long the tyres really lasted, but I can tell you that Saab engineers confirmed that the inner tyre was taking the most scuffing as it ran around the bankings.

Saab went to considerable lengths to establish the production line status of their five door saloons. Apparently ten such cars were picked from the Trollhattan Saab lines by a FISA representative, the company than selecting three examples that were sealed in the presence of a Notary Public and later run-in over 621 miles before air-freighting directly to the USA, together with a mound of publicity material that dwarfed the spares supply.

Once in the USA, supervision and all the timing involved was taken over by NASCAR. The Bill France organisation also owns both Daytona and the little-used Talladega.

During the eighties I have driven two other record-breaking marques, both coincidentally on Pirelli tyres, albeit competition covers with some production ingredients. First was VW’s submarine-style ARVW diesel special.

It had run up to 225 mph at Southern Italy’s Nardo track in 1980 with Keke Rosberg sharing the driving. Yet it was equally brave of VW to let me out on the Wolfsburg track in the rain, on skinny slicks, at 25 mph.

In August 1983 came the feat I particularly relish although, as for VW, I did not experience the cars concerned at the scene of their triumphs, which was Nardo once more. Daimler Benz ran three pre-production 2.3/16 versions of their 190E saloons to prove the worth of their Cosworth 16v alliance.

All the Nardo 190s were rated at the standard 185 bhp, but they did run a ride height reduction system that improved aerodynamic drag. They could not be said to be in the production trim of the Saabs for the attempt pre-dated production.

Nevertheless, the 2.3 litre saloons ran for more than 200 hours with only one engine fault to hinder progress at a steady 150 to 154 mph. At 50,000 kms they set a World record for the 2.0 to 3-litre production car classes of 153.96 mph. The World records they set at 25,000 kms and 25,000 miles were also within fractions of the same speed: the slowest of those mentioned was equivalent to 153.45 mph.

Some of these record-breaking Mercedes were available at Hockenheim, then suffering almost the same 40°C temperatures that had obtained in Italy, and driving them was among the most impressive and enjoyable experience of my motoring life. They were a little more rattly and brutal than the swishing Saabs, but it was a lot of fun exploring their rear drive handling on a road course, rather than carefully aiming the Saabs around a tri-oval.

The Saab experience was more relevant; same course, same cars, and a real attempt to impose production values. Yet the sheer sustained speed of the 2.3/16 commanded my respect. Even today’s turbo 16 valve Ford Sierra is only able to touch 150 mph as a maximum, not exceed it for eight days . . .

While we were at Daytona, Saab took the opportunity of showing us a round of the Barber Saab Pro Series, in which all 30 single seaters come from Mondial Cars at Bangor in Northern Ireland and are powered by mildly tuned 16 valve turbocharged Saab power units of the kind found in 9000 Turbo 16 and the 900 T16.

Once again, there was plenty of British interest. Aside from the chassis there were three British drivers, including David Hobbs’ son, Gregg. Even the dry sump systems came from Titan Engineering!

The cars come on BF Goodrich Competition T/A R covers, 195/50-15 fronts and 245/45-16 rears. Despite such dimensions the rubber seems to have a job warming to its task. The cars looked very tough to drive around Daytona’s fiddly infield section, the drivers unable to blast up to the claimed 160 mph maximum on the bankings.

To extract 205 bhp at 5,700 rpm rather than the production 175 bhp at 5,300 revs, boost goes up from 12.1 to 13.1 psi. Then there is the competition exhaust system (though top manifolding remains the same) and 98 octane fuel, the norm for Europe but outlawed in the USA, where Saab’s emission version of the 16 valve produces “only” 160 bhp from the usual iron block 2-litres.

One of the mechanics (with the inevitable English accent) told me the power units were “no bother, once we had learned to mount the electronics away from the vibrations of a racing car.”

Over 36 laps we watched the gallant Saabistes launch their Mondials at each other, and at the tightest corners you will find outside a Waitrose car park. The result was an easy win for All-American Willy Lewis, a modest 38-year old who started his driving career in a Saab Sonnet. Which makes him something of a rarity amongst men I suspect, never mind within the racing driver fraternity.

My biggest surprise in Alabama came just outside the Talladega speed bowl. A single story building, labelled International Motor Sports Hall of Fame, contains the rather weary shape of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird.

Surrounded by NASCAR stockers of all ages, Bluebird straddles a turntable behind a board of contemporary cuttings and a caption that reveals she is “The most famous car in the world.”

The point from Bill France Sr’s outlook is that the car ran a two way average of 276.82 mph (managing 330 mph in one direction) and apparently inspired much of Mr France’s obsession with speed. So the British could be said to have inspired that all American NASCAR branch to motor sport, aside from apparently providing half America’s current competition technology, maintaining it, and providing an impressive selection of fast drivers.

The 30 ft, 5 ton record breaker from Britain is also credited by the Talladega caretakers with having the most powerful V12 ever installed in a car. They add, “No car built anywhere and powered by one engine, driven through a conventional transmission, has ever travelled as fast as Bluebird.”

I will leave our experts to ponder those statements. I can only tell you that I wandered over to “Mad Dog IV” and wondered where men like driver Art Malone ever found the courage to drive that tail-planed contraption for 500 miles beyond 150 mph. I’ll take a nice cosy seat in the saloon, thank you. JW

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