TWO Strokes of Salt….Chasing Land Speed Records.
Last winter I wrote an article about wanting to take a two stroke Saab,
along with Bertil Sollenskog, to Bonneville Salt Flats this August. Beril
was working on his third attempt at Bonneville falling short the prior
years with engine failures with his 1966 Monte Carlo, two stroke. We
choose a 1967 Saab Sonett II for our car thus avoiding competing directly
with Bertil. Our class record was only 96.683MPH, a number we felt we
We started work this past May with a Sonett that was literally rusted in
half. We sent pictures to officials at Bonneville to be sure we were doing all
things correctly, even though we had a good idea of what we could and
could not do based on our trip to Bonneville last October 2010 to clarify rules
for the class we would run in. We were quickly notified that our 1967
Sonett would not be allowed to run (for a class record) given it needed a
minimum of 500 car production now, even though in October 2010 we
were told that a Saab Sonett was considered to be a model 97 and all years were
considered to be the same. It seems a new rule in 2011 was catching us by
surprise. We never could get clear info on the rule but decided to play it
safe and make our car a 1968 V4 instead of a 1967 II. The rules require
all the exterior pieces be that of a 1968 car, as it came from the factory.
So out went our flat two stroke hood and in came the bulged V4 hood
needed for 1968 status. Engine swapping is allow from the manufacturer so we
could still use our three cylinder two stroke engine as planned with Sonett
II side draft carbs. All was good now and we proceeded to make our new
car chassis whole again and accent it to 1968 Specs. The engine class we
ran in was 750cc and down so I did what Bertil had done, used a standard
70mm, 850cc, longnose triple carb block and have it sleeved down to
66mm to meet the 750cc size limit. We also made a 940cc motor “just for fun” to
The only part of the car where I had no clue what to do was how to
make a roll cage that the safety inspectors at Bonneville would pass. Ask any new
driver at Bonneville and they will tell horror stories of things that they
had to modify on the salt to be able to race. Here is were my old friend
Marty Adams and his brother Chris (Adams Racing Chassis) came into
play. Marty had wanted to help all along with the car and keep saying he would
take care of the roll cage and not to worry about it. With only 8 weeks to go before Bonneville we needed a roll cage fast. Marty and Chris cage through with the limited time we gave them to create a great looking and really strong roll cage, capable of beating the inspector high demands on the salt flats. It is good to have smart and fast friends!
I had used a 1967 Sonett II, serial #104, as a “test car” to dyno and
test my motors since our Bonneville chassis would not be done till a day or
two before heading out to the Salt Flats. This helped us prove out our
motors and work out some bugs. Final dyno numbers showed the 750cc
motor making 73 HP at the wheels and running up to 115MPH on the dyno. We
were excited and felt like we had a good chance of setting a new land speed
record with our Saab…if we could only get the car done on time! I spoke
many times to Bertil about our car’s progress and in late June told him we
would not make it. I gave him our hotel reservations and figured if we
made it we would “camp out on the bend”, an area that thousands of
people use outside the flats. Even up to two weeks away, I told Bertil that we
were just a 50/50 chance of making it. There was some much to do to
make a “new” car and so little time. Any snags now and the Salt would be lost for
I had a couple other things working against the salt too. As many of you
know, I have own a transmission business in Fort Dodge, Iowa for over 30
years. We employee about 35 people currently. That fact did help us at
times because I could recruit people to help as the needs arise. However
you still need to keep the business going and meet payroll. Good thing I
have awesome help there. I also have been a football coach for over 20
years and in late May was offered a job as the defensive line coach at
Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, a NCAA
Division II school. I decided the salt could wait if need be, but the need for me
coaching was greater so I took the job at Black Hills Sate. But I did
worked a deal to take a “week off” during two-a-days for salt
time…unheard of in the football world. I also let the head coach know we
had a less than 50/50 chance of getting the car done in time. And
actually, missing the August Speed week is not the end of the world. You
could go to Salt Flats the first week of October for the World Speed Finals
and if you missed it in August. Trouble for me was my daughter is due
October 3rd with our first grand baby. What’s a Saab guy and a Daddy to
do! So i decided to not push the car and if we got it done, we would go in
August, if not we would see what October brought us. Little did I realize
my crew chief Steve Davis would grab the bull by the horns and “will” the
car done for an August run with history!
Given all this, the car came together day by day and I left to coach
football in Spearfish, (nine hours away from Fort Dodge, Iowa), August
5th, one week before the start of Bonneville. Davis, Verlyn Gregerson and the rest of my
crew finished the car without me and put decals on it as they loaded it
into the trailer to head west to the flats! On August 11th my crew picked
me up in Spearfish,SD and off we went, only a few hours ahead of Bertil
and his crew from Chicago.
Friday and Saturday August 12th & 13th
We got to the flats late Friday morning and setup “Camp Bonneville”
and put our car into the difficult safety tech inspection area. Between
getting the car 100% done for the inspectors and going though “Rookie
Orientation” we wasted two days, finally getting the car on the slat Sunday
Sunday August 14th
We ran twice Sunday afternoon and only achieved speeds of a
little over 95MPH. A far cry from the 115MPH we ran on our dyno back
in Iowa. Ok, this was not going to be so easy after all! This higher
altitude, drier air and stickier salt surface real do steal poor. I ran
into Tom Kreger who I had met in October with his record running 1958
Saab 93b, fitted with a Yamaha motorcycle engine. He was very happy to see
the car on the slat and said he hoped to run his in October. Also we were
watching and hearing from Bertil’s team, who had set up pitting right next
to us. They too were having issues going over 98MPH with there 96. We
did some talking and did some playing and dialing in with both our engine and
chassis the rest of Sunday afternoon. We decided to go home about 7pm
that night and retry in the morning to over take the class record of 96.683MPH.
As we were leaving the slat, we met the record holder in our class, a great
guy named Mark Brinker from Houston, Texas. He was running a 1959
Deutsch Bonnet with a 750cc, 2 cylinder, 4 stroke motor. He and his crew were
delightful to meet and told us they were glad to finally have some stiffer competition in their class. He also informed us that he had ran over 98MPH today which thereby qualified him to attempt to set a new land speed record Monday morning. The way land speed records work at Bonneville is you make a “down run” with your car, and if your run exceeds the current class record, you then must “impound” your car till the next day. Then at 7AM you attempt a “backup run” or “record run” on the same course. If the average speed of the two runs exceeds the current record, you then are the new Land Speed Record holder in that class. Brinker and his crew felt confident there car would set a new record. (which he did the next morning at 96.886MPH)
Monday August 15th
When we arrived the next morning we headed out to the starting area
and the car ran hard and fast. The modifications we had made paid off. We hit
100.458MPH and landed our self in impound! Just were you want to
be. Once in impound you have 4 hours to make adjustments to your car. We
finished up and headed over to our pits to see Bertil. At this point Bertil’s team
was still struggling with the 98MPH barrier and was beginning to get
frustrated. It did not help matters that a rookie like me had came along
and already qualified to attempt a land speed record the next day!
Especially since with out Bertil’s help, I would not even have been there.
For that matter it was Bertil’s dream I was running on. Set a land speed
record with a two stroke Saab! I had stolen his idea and for now, the
chance to make history with a two stroke Saab.
Tuesday August 16th
We had decided to not make any changes to the car but run a
sound “record run” to make history and keep it simple doing so. In fact that was my
whole goal the entire year since Bertil had sparked the dream in me. Keep
it simple. Do what you know works. Run with known good reliable parts.
Having driven two stroke Saabs all over North America, I felt I knew what
it takes to keep a Saab stroker alive. Keep it simple. After all, Dick
Catron had set a record with a two stroke engine (with a larger engine
running in the 1,300cc and down class) way back in 1964! If Catron could
do it in 1964, than why could we not do it today in 2011? K.I.S.S. was
used by our team on every decision we made. So we towed the car to the starting line at 7am on Tuesday and ran a conservative speed of 97.479MPH for our “backup/record run” which gave us a new land speed record of 98.968MPH. We had did it! Ok, now time to play! I gave Davis and Gregerson the rest of the morning off because they needed time to enjoy the Speed Week. they had worked and been fed like slaves up to that point. I instantly headed off to the pits and installed a new head we had made that would raise our compression from 10/1 ratio to 15/1 ratio. I had read an article written about Dick Catron from back in 1964 where Saab USA of New Haven, made his a special engine. It seems Catron was having trouble getting his car to run fast enough for the land speed record, so Saab USA stepped in, made this special “15/1 compression ratio head and motor” and had it air freighted to Catron to run the final day of competition…were at last, he set a new land speed record!
Well no help from Saab here, but I knew It might take a higher
compression head to set a record. Also, the knowledge we had stolen from
Bertil told us the same thing…more compression! Since I was using the
K.I.S.S. method, it prevented me from trying this experimental head on the
only 750cc motor I had. As Bud Clark had told me earlier, “with a 15/1
ratio head, it’s like pulling the pin on a hand grenade…it’s only time
till it will explode!” Last thing I wanted was to blow an engine before I
set a record. I felt we had enough engine the way it was to beat the old
record, which we did, and then play. Armed with a new head with lots of compression, we set off Tuesday afternoon to exceed our old/new record…which we did easily, running 101.653MPH on our “down run” Back to impound and more
playing. Yes we were lucky, but we had also done our home work and had a plan. Many
phone calls and tips is what we were using to break speed records that guys like
Bertil had given us. In fact, Bud Clark was a main tech guy for me also.
As was Niklas and Frerick from XP Extreme Power in Sweden, along
with Peter Backstrom at the Saab Museum and as well as David Baugher who builds
more two stroke than anyone I know. Again, it is good to have smart friends!
Back in impound we brain stormed and I took Davis’s and Gregerson’s advice on mod’s for the next day. Davis has been around auto racing most of his life and Gregerson is a Champion Motor Cross rider himself, both with a lifetime of experience to draw from. We made more chances and waited till morning.
Also at this point the frustration level at team peaked with the blowing of there new motor late in the day. We decided to help were we could, and mainly just encourage Bertil and team to keep working. Our easy success did not seem fair given all Bertil did
for me and our team through the last year. The day ended for Team Bertil with broken hearts and melted pistons. We gave them a quick hand lifting the blown motor out and setting his old motor from last year (which had a water leak) back in the 96 Monte Carlo. We all hoped tomorrow would be better day for them.
Wednesday August 17th
On Wednesday morning at 7AM we ran a smoking hot 109.574MPH for our “back up/record” run. With that run we had an average run of 105.613MPH to blow our record from the day before apart. Ok, let’s keep racing! We headed straight out after our newest record was confirmed by the Bonneville Officials and ran a down time of 108.671MPH which again exceed our new record of the morning of 105.613mph. Back to impound!
By this time Bertil and his team had made several runs and were dialing in their car too. Cheerful reports soon came to us that Bertil and his team had ran real fast (over 105mph) and were now being pulled to impound. As Bertil talked excitedly to me on the phone we guided them next to us in impound where for the first time I know of, TWO Saab two stroke were sitting together waiting to make historic land speed record runs the next morning! What a moment that was. Bertil with all his hard work had finally hit “pay dirt” A chance for a record…if only we could both run strong in the AM. We felt pretty sure we could run faster but I opted to just “bump” my record a bit and that way we would spend the last day of racing for us playing with our 940cc motor. Bertil’s teamed hoped the water leaking from the motor would not destroy their chance for glory the next morning.
It had been a good day and we all celebrated by going out together as “Team Saab of Bonneville”. It was a good night too but we had to rise early for our record runs so it was an early night.
Thursday August 18th
The next morning, Thursday, we got some excellent pictures of the two Saabs in the beautiful salt flat sun rise and headed to the starting line. We ran first with our Sonett and ran slower than our down run, only 106.215mph, but it still bumped our average speeds to 107.443MPH for ANOTHER and final Land Speed Record.
Bertil ran next and they had that car smoking hot! It ran over 109mph to give Bertil his first Land Speed Record of 107.282MPH! Easily beating
the previous record of 103.978MPH set in 2008 by a car named “Evil Tweety”.
Wow, all was great! TWO Saab two strokes had smashed two old land speed records! The trolls of Trollhattan had smiled on us both! We both enjoyed our time in the official record area, where your car is checked to be sure it meets all class requirements. Bertil was so happy and proud of what he had done. We were proud of them too. It was only fitting that the man that inspired our dream, had achieved his too!
I was also glad for his team because we had supplied/sponsored a few parts to Bertil for
his effort. I had rebuilt a transmission and crankshaft for him. I had also repaired one of
his engines cranks and given him an old 850cc block. As for me and my team, we spent the rest of the day installing the 940cc motor and playing with it. We ran out of time and had to settle for a maxium speed on the salt of 112.578MPH with a TWO STROKE. The
time to leave the salt had came for us. We packed up and headed east about 7PM
Thursday night. But Bertils team now had victory in the smiles and confidence in their voices. And Bertil was sure they could crack the 110mph mark. They ran some more and did just that. They spent the night again in impound, then on Friday AM, they bumped their own record with a blistering average speed of 110.113MPH. That’s fast my friends! With the newest record in their possession, they too headed east Friday afternoon.
There you have it…TWO Saab two strokes breaking old Saab stroker records and Land Speed Records at Bonneville International Raceway! Thanks to all who support both teams in prayer ans spirit!……..Safe Saab’in, Tom Donney