It’s been awhile since I’ve done any kind of racing, I believe it was New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in what would be the last race of The Carbeque Saab 900. The rain came down so hard and cold that the windshield fogged to the point of opaque. I had to use a rag on a stick to clear it on the front straight, which is not idea since each wipe would often reveal another car doing nearly 100mph a foot away from me. It was important to make sure it was as clear as I could get it before the funnel directed everyone into a condensed stream of wet track carnage that swallowed car after car.
We made it out of that alive somehow, a worthy sendoff perhaps. It wasn’t until recently that a few friends of mine asked if I would like to join their team for the upcoming spring race at New Jersey Motorsports Park. The car was the legendary Saab 96 known as ’34Later’, fielded by a rag tag group (aren’t they always) that called themselves Full Nelson Racing. The captain, Eric Nelson, is a high end Aerospace engineer that finds sanctuary away from the daily rigors of advanced math and the demand for extreme precision by tinkering and playing around with this old Saab.
34Later is an ice-racer that found a new home in crapcan racing when the team owner decided to get into the newly formed racing genre in the mid 00’s. This came after years of dirt track racing in the summer and ice racing in the winter with a number of drastically different types of race cars. 34Later itself has gone through multiple generations, including starting with a 3cyl two stroke oil burner eons ago. Sometime recently, the 96 was swapped with something a little more conventional, a 1l 3 cylinder Suzuki G engine and transmission commonly found in the Geo Metro and Suzuki Swift. Since the team isn’t the type to just leave it that simply, the desire for creative forced induction hit hard (the NA G10 engine makes around 60hp), and the car was supercharged. Every race it changes as little things are added and tweaked.
In its current trim, 34Later now runs with a used turbocharger from a BMW 335i. The N54 is an inline 6 cylinder that features twin turbos that each have their own exhaust manifold. By using one of these, you effectively get an advanced modern turbocharger with a header built in. It bolted right up to the three cylinder Metro engine……well with the help of a ‘very well made’ adapter. The G10 3cyl engine features a 9.5:1 compression ratio, which is a little on the high side when you are attempting to input enough boost to double the horsepower. Because of this, a water injection system must be employed in order to cool down hot spots in the combustion chamber and prevent pre-detonation when running on 93 octane fuel.
The engine wets its whistle by means of all mechanical CIS fuel injection. Our VW readers know what we’re talking about. Using a large flapper diaphragm in the intake, the engine uses airflow to push a lever that opens fuel flow. More air, more flapper deflection, more fuel. It’s a beautifully simple system that the team never thought it needed to change. Fresh for this race was a Microsquirt ignition that was custom wired.
The electrical harness had been cobbled and botched together for many years, so it was a great opportunity to completely rewire the car, and this would end up beneficial to us. We were actually able to keep an eye on the Air-Fuel Ratios and various temperatures from the paddock with remote telemetry, pretty cool.
The suspension is all original (from 1969), and utilizes ball joints and shock absorbers from same era. The front uses double wishbones and the rear is a solid beam. This design carried through the 99 and onto the Classic 900. The Saab 96 is the epitome of ‘they don’t make it like they used to’.
You will find grease zerks on the ball joints, and as long as everything is nice and lubed they tend not to ever go bad. Granted this car has been a race car for awhile, enduring massive abuse. Those were the days when engineers made things in an attempt for maximum longevity, before carmakers realized that this was bad for profit. That’s not a conversation for this story however.
On the road trip down, we had a quick stop at Stable Energies to pick up a new racing seat belt harness for the car, we were at the track applying the final zip ties and running tests. We rendezvoused with the team, who had just sealed up an exhaust leak in the turbo flange. All that was left was some tweaking to the critical water injection system and a few practice laps. The next day we strapped in our team leader Eric, who took the green flag at 10am. We all stood and watched in anticipation.
Historically in the first few laps, something would go wrong and it would come back in. Not today, the black and tan 96 went around and around, it even appeared to be making passes. Gone are the days of holding up traffic, the day at the dyno resulted in right around 100hp, and the car was really putting it to good use. With 225 width tires, we were flying!
We continued on through the rest of the day only coming in once or twice to check on the injection pump. The analog gauges (seen mounted on the hood) display water flow and water pressure. As tricky as it was to just navigate the course and staying out of trouble, we always had to keep an eye on them. It was hard to tell if the system was cutting out or the gauges were being a little sticky, so we brought 34Later in to make sure we didn’t melt anything around mid-day after some of the telemetry was looking a little suspect. They quickly bled an air bubble out of the water filter and sent it back out.
At 6pm the checkers fell and we celebrated a basically trouble free (albeit HOT) day on track by having a beer and hastily taking down all of our pop up tents and throwing all the tools and electronics into the tow vehicle.
A tornado warning was issued and the wind was picking up. Multiple members of the team got That Call from their parents (we’re adults, we know a storm is coming) and we finished packing and headed to the garages. That’s where we would spend the next few hours waiting out the weather.
A number of teams that were planning on camping actually ended up retreating to a mezzanine above the NJMP pro shop. When I went to check it out, there were a few groups of people sleeping on the floor or on cots, as well as a select group of folks that actually brought their tents up. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to sleep up there, I still stayed in my tent that night.
The sound of rain and wind was soothing in the same way the sound of the 3 cylinder engine pouring its heart out on track is. At 100mph you have to be calm. Live like you mean it and everything will be all right (not always sound advice). Anyway, we survived.
The rain would continue through to the morning, meaning we would be starting in the wet. No big deal, the car handled great in the rain. Only problem was our tires were basically slicks at this point, which is bad for grip. No matter, we held an obvious advantage purely based on chassis dynamics and began moving up position. Eventually, as we passed the second place car and carried on gapping the competition, we realized the leader in our class (a Triumph TR8) needed to have an issue if we were going to win. They were never anticipated to run this well, and were placed in our class accordingly. However, they were consistently running 20 seconds a lap faster than us in their V8 powered wedge, so the best we could do is perform a flawless race and hope.
Our pit stops went well and we lost little time refueling the car and switching drivers. The track experienced periods of wet and progressive drying, which really favored our little Saab. Unfortunately, the tiny solid disc brakes in front and drums in back were getting tired, and we had to slow down. With a multiple lap gap to third and 4th, we took the checkers comfortably in second place.
The team went wild, a podium finish the first time out with the new ignition system felt amazing. This car had spent plenty of weekends in race paddocks apart, and nursing along on the track holding up traffic. Not this weekend, 34Later was back and driving it felt like going into battle in an old seaplane. It shook a lot, it was loud, it wasn’t super comfortable…but visibility was good and it had just enough power to hold our line through a corner instead of having to give it up to avoid holding up faster cars. Best of all it was scrappy. There were even turns where we could actually pass higher class cars based purely on grip and handling, only to get passed again on the straight. We took our battles where we could, regardless of the apparent futility. It was fun!
Punctuated by the huge thunderstorm on Saturday night, this will be a weekend to remember. The team was awesome and now all I can think about is what parts to put on to make sure we can do even better next time, whenever that may be. At the end of the weekend, three Saabs made it onto the podium in their class in one way or another. The winner overall was a Saab B234R powered 300zx.
Saabs of Anarchy finished 3rd in B class in their Saab 9000, after having a win dissolve due to an unscheduled pit stop. We ended up 2nd in C, but it felt like a win. Even if Saab is no longer producing cars, we are still able to keep them right in front of everyone at the race track, and that’s fun to think about.