My World Speed Record
Saab at Talladega - Ten Years Later
It's been ten years since I helped Saab to set an international speed record at Talladega Speedway in Alabama. Several souvenirs of that once-in-a-lifetime experience still reside within view of my computer: a Peltor helmet with my name on the side, a photo of myself among the other American journalists who helped to set the records, and a model of a Saab 9000 presented as a trophy for setting a fastest lap during the record attempt.
To understand the Saab 900 Talladega Challenge we must go back ten years prior, to 1986. In October of that year, Saab took three examples of their new model, the 9000 Turbo, off the production line and drove them at top speed, non-stop at Talladega International Speedway. At the end Saab owned 2 World Speed Records and 21 International Speed Records up to 100,000 kilometers in the Federation Internationale de L'Automobile's (FIA) 2.0-liter supercharged category. The record established for 100,000 km was an average speed of 213.299 km/h (133.312 mph). It was known as "The Long Run."
In 1996, Saab decided to attempt to break eighteen of their own records up to 25,000 miles with 2.0-liter 900 Turbos, plus establish records in the 2.5-liter and 2.0-liter normally aspirated categories with V6 and four-cylinder engined 900s. It was called "The Saab 900 Talladega Challenge." To get better media coverage of the event, 120 international motoring journalists were invited to participate as drivers, though one of the Turbos would be driven strictly by Saab test drivers and employees. Teams from different countries each spent a day behind the wheel, and the records fell daily as the engines loosened up a little and became quicker as the miles passed.
The U.S. contingent was the last of the invited driver groups, so we would be aiming to break the records established earlier during the eight day run. While the 900 Turbo piloted by the Saab factory team was driven 24/7, another couple of Turbos, the pair of 2.5-liter V6s and the solitary 2.0-liter 4 would only be on the track 12 hours a day and at the hands of the journalists.
As one of the journalists invited to participate in The Saab 900 Talladega Challenge, I was hoping to be able to keep up a pace good enough to help Saab set some records. It wasn't important to me to be the fastest, but I sure didn't want to be the slowest.
Simo Lampinen, Finnish former rally driver for the Saab factory (as well as for Triumph, Ford and Lancia), gave some brief instruction on pit procedures, driver changes, and driving the high-banked Talladega tri-oval. The journalist drivers were then given a few laps of individual instruction by Saab factory drivers. As we went out onto the track and onto the 33-degree banking in one of the 900 Turbos, my stomach made a jump and I thought I was gonna puke. I got over it quickly and listened intently as instructor Uno Dahl demonstrated the fast way around Talladega. The G-forces were tremendous and the track had some sizable dips and bumps in the surface, especially noticeable at speeds exceeding 100 mph. He took one lap at rather slow speed (maybe 40 mph) to demonstrate the banking and what areas to avoid. The banked surface at slow speed gives the illusion that the car is going to flip right over. After a couple of laps, Dahl pulled into the pits and we switched places.
I tried to follow his line to the letter and did pretty well getting used to the car, the track and the speed. A couple of laps later and we pulled into the pits for my solo run. Since this was only practice and there were two 900 Turbos out there still working on records, I tried to stay out of their way. But the car I was driving, the #7 Turbo, clearly had a little more top end than the other Turbos. I hoped I would draw that car for the following day's run for the records. Our driving assignments were handed out at dinner that night, and I was scheduled for the #3 Turbo at 8:00 am, the #5 V6 at 3:55, and the #4 V6 at 5:50 pm. That meant I would be driving the final shift in the #4 car, after sundown. Though I wouldn't be in the #7 Turbo, I did get two shots at the V6s. The first of the journalists would be hitting the track at 6:40 am, so everyone headed to their rooms early for a good night's rest.
Weather on October 24th was good, with clear skies and some wind, but not enough to affect the record runs. Well before my turn at the #3 Turbo arrived, I was suited up and ready. Len Emmanuelson of Motor Trend was in the car before me. He hopped out, then helped me to get strapped in, the pit manager gave me the signal to go and I headed out onto the track. It took over a lap to get up to full speed, then it was a matter of sticking to the plan for fastest lap times. The G-forces in the banking were so strong that I found myself using the muscles in my right leg and foot, which was already mashed to the accelerator, to hold myself steady in the seat.
Though it was 55 minutes, or 48 laps, before I was called into the pits, it seemed like a very short amount of time. When I handed the car over to John Matras, I discovered I had worked up quite a sweat despite the cool morning temperatures.
I busied myself with journalistic work for a few hours, trying to capture my experience while it was still fresh, then suited up for my next driving shift with plenty of time to spare. When the #5 900 V6 arrived in the pits for re-fueling and the driver change, I was quite prepared. Though we were warned not to try drafting like the NASCAR stockers do it, that is nose-to-tail, it was impossible not to notice that the cars picked up a little top end speed whenever they were within 100 yards of the car ahead. Though I stayed several car lengths behind (I was trying to stick to the fast line on the track. Sure, that's it!), I could see that the top speed on the speedometer gained a couple of mph on the straights, and lap times improved a little whenever I was within ten car lengths of one of the slightly faster Turbos.
My final driving shift came immediately after sunset in the #4 V6, which was good for awhile as the sun wasn't in my eyes, but as it got darker, even the high beam headlights weren't enough to light up the track a decent distance ahead, especially on the banking which gave the illusion of trying to drive on an ever increasing slope. The only lights on the track itself were at the main grandstand, with the yellow caution lights casting small puddles of light at various places around the track. All this meant was that it was even more important to stick to the fast line around the track and not go playing on the higher lane in the turns.
Finally it was over, my driving shift and the end of the record run for Saab. When they called me in I was instructed to drive the car behind the pit wall, and into an area equipped with tools for more extensive repairs. No sooner had I shut off the engine than Saab engineers began draining the fluids in preparation to tear down the engine. As I stepped back and watched, the FIA inspector snipped the seals off the engine and transmission, and the technicians proceeded to dismantle the still hot engine for evaluation.
After that, all of the participants - from Saab, NASCAR, Michelin, track workers and the invited drivers - were treated to a celebratory Southern-style barbecue. There I learned, much to my surprise, that I had set fast lap of the day in a V6 while driving the #4 car, a time of 1:05.115 on the 2.66 mile oval, for an average of 147.063 mph. For that achievement, I was awarded with a model of a Saab 9000 Long Run record car, presented to me by another international rally ace, Erik Carlsson. And my name was added to the FIA record books as one of the 12 drivers who set a 12-hour record in that same 2.5-liter 900 V6 at an average speed of 139.231 mph.
During a visit to Sweden in 1997 for Saab's 50th Anniversary as an auto manufacturer, I was surprised to see the #4 Talladega Challenge 900 on display at the airport in Gothenburg. Friends took a few photos of me standing next to my record-setting steed.
In 1997, Saab created a special edition for the street known as the 900 Talladega. It had special trim and badges, but was no different from the regular 900s in suspension or drivetrain. I would bet that few of those who have 900 Talladegas know why they have that particular name, because Saab in the U.S. did little to promote the record setting Talladega Challenge.
Altogether the Saab 900s set 40 International records at distances ranging from 10 kilometers to 25,000 kilometers and from 1 hour to 24 hours. Most of those records have not been challenged.