Swedish Delight - 2000 Saab 9-3 Viggen Ecopower Pikes Peak
In 1915, exceptionally wealthy entrepreneur Spencer Penrose started construction on the Pikes Peak Highway in an effort to replace the dangerously narrow Pike’s Peak Carriage Road dating back to 1888. This earlier path tot the top of Pikes Peak mountain in Colorado was much beloved by tourists, who traveled it in their thousands. The massive numbers quickly overwhelmed the road’s capacity however, and it was closed to the public in 1902.
Spencer Penrose owned hotels, resorts, power stations, copper mining companies, a printing company, a hospital, a zoo, numerous banks and insurance companies. His vast fortune enabled him to take extraordinary financial risks, which lead him new, much wider toll road to re-open the formerly popular tourist location and turn a significant profit.
As the road neared its completion in 1916, he thought of a brilliant way to promote his new creation. Two years before the construction of Pike’s Peak Carriage Road, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler had invented the automobile. Now, 20 years later, it was enjoying ever increasing levels of popularity.
Realizing this, Spencer Penrose set up the Penrose Trophy. To celebrate his new road’s increased efficiency over the old carriageway, he awarded a 43 inch trophy covered in $10,000 worth of silver and gold mined in Colorado to the man who could reach the summit of Pikes Peak in the quickest possible time. After two days of competition, the main event was won by Rea Lentz in the Romano Demon Special with a time of 20 minutes and 55.6 seconds.
The outbreak of the First World War prevented the event from being held again until 1920, before the Second World War cut competition again in 1942. After another grueling war, the hillclimb was back in full force in 1946. That same year it would also become part of the United States Auto Club Indycar Championship, an arrangement which would last until 1970.
During this time, the event was an exclusively American affair. It took until 1982 for a foreign car to win, as John Buffum powered to victory in his Audi quattro. Audi was back with factory driver Michele Mouton in 1984, and she took the short wheelbase Sport Quattro S1 to victory in 1984. She was back in 1985 and managed to set the first overall record for a foreign car and driver on the mountain.
By the late 1990’s, the European invasion lead by Audi and Peugeot had been supplemented by the advance of Japanese manufacturers like Suzuki and Toyota. One thing that had been missing though, was Swedish involvement in the Race To The Clouds. To former Saab and Toyota factory rally driver and rallycross legend Per Eklund, this was a disgrace.
Eklund started out rallying at the highest level for Saab in 1970, and stayed with the team until 1979. From 1980 to 1984 he raced for Toyota Team Europe, with a best finish of second in the 1981 Rallye Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). In 1982 he made headlines by finishing fourth in a privately entered Saab 99 Turbo in the Swedish Rally by beating numerous four wheel drive cars in heavy snow.
In 1971, Eklund started competing in the relatively new sport of rallycross with a Saab 96 V4. Together with compatriot and future World Rally Champion Stig Blomqvist, he defended the honor of the Swedish manufacturer against more developed entries from Ford, Mini and DAF.
Over the years Per Eklund realized rallycross was his true calling, and he became a formidable combatant in its arena’s during the 1990’s. In 1999 his crowning achievement came, as he scored his one and only European Rallycross Division 1 Driver’s Title, a category now known as Supercars.
With the ultimate success finally attained in rallycross, Per Eklund looked to other challenges. He found it in the by then incredibly popular Pikes Peak International Hillclimb. He had dreamed of competing on the legendary slopes of Colorado’s most famous mountain, and cleverly utilized his status as ERC champion and his connections to Saab to make his dream a reality.
Saab was eager to join in on the fun, since the company had only just become a full subsidiary of American automotive giant General Motors. Keen to expand their new asset’s marketability on their home soil, GM felt a Saab participation in one of the nations most famous motorsport events was nothing short of a masterstroke.
With the plans laid out, Eklund contacted Swedish tuning firm Trollspeed, based in Saab’s home town of Trollhättan, to turn the 2.0L B205R turbocharged four cylinder engine from Saab’s 9-3 into a fire-breathing hillclimb monster. In stock form a 2.3L, 225 horsepower version of the engine was already powerful enough to wrestle the steering wheel away from its driver in the sporty Viggen model.
For the average consumer then, it was all terribly exciting, but Per Eklund needed a bit more to propel him up the treacherous and massively steep mountain pass. To give him the extra push he desired, Trollspeed completely rebuilt the engine, and achieved positively mind-boggling numbers.
With the help of an excessively large turbocharger supplied by Garrett, the Swedes managed to push the little four pot to 750 horsepower at 8000 rpm and 702.31 nm (518.0 ft lbs) of torque at 6500 rpm. A six-speed short ratio sequential transmission developed by specialists Prodrive delivered the gigantic figures to all four wheels, ensuring traction under virtually all circumstances.
As with older Saabs and most Audi's though, the 9-3's engine was relocated in a longitudinal position in front of the front axle. This was done to enable the car to use equal-length driveshafts in front, which could take far more power than the standard transverse setup. O major downside of this layout however was its negative effect on the 9-3's weight distribution.
With so much weight so far forward, the car had a tendency to understeer in tight corners, much like its ancient forebear, the innovative Audi quattro. Little could be done to combat this issue, but the tubular chassis car’s overall weight of just 948 kg (2090 lbs) softened the blow somewhat.
From the outside the car kept a rather characteristically understated appearance, as it sported even less aerodynamic aids than its rallycross counterpart. This was due to the 9-3 running in the second-tier Open-class, which did required almost completely stock bodies in a stark contrast the vastly more extreme Unlimited-class which headlined the event.
Along with the Open and Unlimited Class, the 2000 event featured a myriad of other categories and vehicles. Sidecars, Sprint cars, pickup trucks, quadbikes, open wheel cars, motorcycles, vintage stock cars, showroom stock cars, luxury sedans and full on big rigs.
Eklund was a complete rookie to the art of racing at the Peak, and the total lack of safety precautions was a far cry from the relatively safe world of rallycross he had become accustomed to. His car had been built with an exceptionally strong rollcage built into its tubular structure, and as Eklund wryly noted, he was going to need it in the event of a crash, since there where no guardrails whatsoever on the 12.42 mile (19.9 km) course.
Despite his reservations about racing on the mountain, Per Eklund put in a stellar performance. Despite hefty competition from a Hyundia Tiburon, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Mitsubishi Evo VI, Lancia Delta Integrale, and a Ruf CTR2 Sport, he clocked a time of 11:21.58, setting a record for the Open class in the process. the time was not only good enough for a victory in the Open class, but also second overall.
The Unlimited cars of Rod Millen and Koichi Horiuchi had both failed to finish, leaving only Larry Ragland in his stupefying GMC Envoy to take the overall win. Ragland’s straight six powered SUV was part of the new High Tech Truck & SUV-class.
The straight-six powered truck managed to pip Per Eklund to first place by four seconds. Nevertheless the Swede couldn’t be happier, as he had achieved his dream of winning at the most famous hillclimb on the planet.
Per and his Saab were back in 2001, but he was unable to replicate his rookie success. A disappointing time of 12:08.30 was far behind on the Open-class record he had set himself, since he suffered a flat tire and the loss of second gear. Luckily though, no one else managed to improve on his previous time.
With victory in the restricted Open category already in the bag, Eklund started to drift towards the far more extreme Unlimited-class. In that environment, his engineers would have complete and total freedom to do as they please, which would give him a positively spectacular machine.
Finally deciding to make the jump, Per Eklund once again called upon the services of engine wizards Trollspeed. Excited by the extra freedom presented by the switch the Unlimited-class the jolly Swedes squeezed out 100 more horsepower from the tiny Saab engine. With 850 horsepower on tap, Per Eklund could confidently take the fight to the big boys.
Another benefit of the Unlimited-class was the ability to modify the 9-3’s rather boring and rounded bodyshell. Traditionally, Unlimited Pikes Peak cars had featured crazy aerodynamic aids. This was due to the high altitudes at the mountain, at which the air was much thinner.
As a result of this, the higher the car went, the lower its power would become and the lower its maximum attainable level of downforce would become. To combat these problems, Unlimited teams used turbocharged engines and ludicrously big wings.
At Pikes Peak, Per discovered the only other Unlimited-class competitor was his old friend Stig Blomqvist, who was driving an old Group B Ford RS200 modified to take on the mountain. Unlike the Open category then, Eklund had very little in the way of opposition. All he could hope for was trouble-free run, unlike the one he had endured the year before.
Fortunately, this was exactly what he received. With the car turned up to eleven, Per Eklund was able to leave everyone in his wake. With a smooth run, he clocked a time of 11:13.2, comfortably ahead of his old teammate Stig Blomqvist, who could only manage 11:47.45, a whopping 34 seconds slower.
This made Per Eklund’s performance more than enough to take the overall win, which made him realize a goal he never thought would be possible. Although he was still some 9 seconds short of Rod Millen’s 1997 record, it didn’t matter at all. He had won the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb overall, and nobody could take that away from him.
The Saab 9-3 Viggen Ecopower Pikes Peak special was the tool with which rallycross star Per Eklund was able to realize a lifelong dream. Through his strong status as the 1999 European Rallycross Champion and his connections to Saab, he put together a world-beating car which conquered the most famous mountain in America.
Although the 9-3’s base layout was not particularly well-suited to rally racing, its massive power and low weight combined with Eklund’s incredible skill made sure it earned a place in the record books. As a matter of fact, Per Eklunds Open-class record stands until this day, as the course was partially paved over before 2002 edition of the most well-known hillclimb in the world.