Iowa's Saab Story
Passion is something that can lead people down strange twisting roads. You meet someone with crazy passion for an idea or a dream and you tend to walk away, shaking your head thinking “there’s no way that will happen!”
For Tom Donney, passion is just a way of life and pushing a two-stroke Saab Sonett II to 124 miles per hour is not only a dream, but he’s made it a reality. It took some passion mixed with some ingenuity to get it accomplished.
Donney admits his addiction to Saabs. He may have one of the largest collections in the United States, numbering somewhere around 125+. As a kid he was introduced to the unique world of Saab by his family…his Dad actually driving home to Iowa from New Jersey a $200 1964 96 with no generator (that’s another great story) and his older brother’s first car, a red 1963 96 850GT. Tom still owns both.
The cars, engines blown, sat under a tree in the family’s back yard a few years later when Dad told young Tom he could have one of them if he could make it run. Passion kicked in. Tom really wanted a car of his own and he promptly tore down both engines, taking parts from each to put together his first car. He then proceeded to drive around the house. Round and round he went, smoking up the neighborhood until the neighbors called the cops.
Why not simply drive the Saab on the street? Young Tom was too young for a driver’s license. But the stage was set. It was Saabs from then on.
At age 16 Donney began his professional career in automotive repair, working in Omaha, Nebraska for World Wide Imports, fixing Saabs and other brands of vehicles. The Saabs, however, were his favorites. No, they were his passion. Nothing could break him away from the marque and today he owns everything from a 1950 Saab 92 to a pair of 2008 9-7x Aeros and most everything in between.
But let’s get back to making a Saab Sonett II go 124 miles per hour. “We started the whole process of racing a Saab at Bonneville in 2010, but didn’t start actually building the car until May 2011,” Tom explains. “I was inspired by Bertil Sollenskog who was from Chicago and had run a Saab 96 in 2009. I just had to check it out.”
The 2010 trip (which Tom made with the shop manager of his business, Steve Davis) started a project that now has visited Speed Week four times in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016 and broken land speed records for the class the little Saab competes in every single time. For you sports fans, that translates as “four-peat” and comes from a rookie racer bringing an unusual ride to The Salt with no more compensation than getting a place in the historic Bonneville record books.
Tom owns Fort Dodge Transmissions in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The company employs 35 talented souls who didn’t realize when he returned to Iowa in 2010 after his “salty” visit, that they would be part of a grand plan to bring a land speed record home for a little two-stroke Saab. But they found out soon enough.
In 2016 the Speed Week event at Bonneville celebrated its 68th official year of racing through the auspices of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). The event grew after Salt Lake City native Ab Jenkins in the mid-1930s took a car out to the salt to “go fast.” Up until that time the area, which at one time encompassed over 90,000 acres, was considered impassable in a vehicle though a rail line was completed across the flats in 1910.
Each year racers from all over the world trek to “the fastest place on earth” to attempt to break land speed records with virtually any type of powered vehicle that can be imagined. Donney, after reading up on the history of Saab automobiles on The Salt, figured he could build a Saab that could be a land speed contender. “The whole idea just appealed to me.” So the project began.
“I chose a Sonett II because I’ve always liked the Sonett,” Tom explains. “It also meant I could use a two-stroke motor rather than a modern four-stroke which all cars are built with today.” Having driven two-stroke Saabs virtually his entire life, it also seemed to be a logical choice…if you consider racing at Bonneville logical.
In 1966 the Sonett II first appeared and was designated Model 97. It came about from two prototype vehicles that were developed independently and had a production run of only 28. Another 230 units were built in 1967 with the two-stroke engine which struggled to compete in the U.S. market, eventually being replaced by a Ford V4 and renaming the car the Sonett V4 in 1968. Only about half of the original production of Sonett IIs has survived, according to Tom, so using one for a land speed challenge is remarkable.
The Sonett II uses a fiberglass body bolted to a box-type chassis and a roll bar added to support the hard top. Unfortunately the Sonett II Tom wanted to use also included incredible amounts of rust, which broke the car completely in half once the body was removed. But Tom was persistent and his crew went to work replacing metal and welding the chassis back together. At this point (May 2011) there were just three months until Speed Week in August. Most race teams, in preparing for Bonneville, will spend an entire year in the building and preparation process.
The Sonett II also has a hinged front hood section that allows easy access to the engine, transmission and front suspension. Because Tom wanted to compete in the 750cc class (GT body, J class) the engine cylinders had to be “reduced” by 4mm each, a daunting task but one easily handled by engine rebuilder Hubert Adams who Tom says knows Saabs “inside and out”.
That wasn’t the only help he needed in order to get the Saab to Speed Week, however, and Tom called on the likes of David Baugher, Bud Clark, Peter Backstrom of the Swedish Museum and the crew at XP Extreme Power. “Bruce Turk even sent me a two-stroke racing block to “inspect” so we could learn more vital information for my engines,” Tom explains.
“I gave Marty Adams of Meyer Saab (the oldest Saab dealer west of the Mississippi) and his brother, Chris Adams of Adams Racing Chassis, just two weeks to make a roll cage for the Sonett. And it had to meet the extra tough Bonneville standards!”
And of course Bertil Sollenskog played an important role. “I could not have done this without the help of Bertil,” says Tom. “We talked on the phone constantly.” Because Tom’s Saab is a model 97 and Bertil’s was a model 96, they raced in different classes. Bertil pitted right next door to Tom and his crew at Bonneville, so they shared ideas, parts and knowledge.
On August 11, 2011 the Bonneville crew of Tom, Steve Davis and another longtime employee, Verlyn Gregerson, headed to the Bonneville Salt Flats. The little Saab sported new colors and also special graphics that followed the theme “Feel the Sting”, making use of a school mascot, a Yellow Jacket, which Tom says is most appropriate because the car sounds like “100,000 angry yellow jackets swarming at you!”
A 22-hour trip followed and the team arrived late Friday morning, where they set up camp at the infamous “bend in the road”, a place where racers and spectators gather to set up their home away from home during Speed Week. Just surviving a camping expedition at “the bend” is an exciting experience in itself.
The next two days were consumed in safety tech inspections, setting up the team’s pit area (you don’t get to camp on The Salt) and going through Rookie Orientation. The team wasn’t able to get the Saab on the course until Sunday afternoon, running twice and achieving speeds of 95 mph which was well off their dyno projections of 115 mph. Because Bonneville sits at a higher altitude, has much dryer air and has “sticky” salt on its surface, racers tend to slow down as power is stolen by those elements.
“We played with the engine and chassis the remainder of Sunday before leaving to go back to camp.” Tom explains. On the way out they happened to meet the current record holder in their class, Mark Brinker of Houston, Texas. “We were trying to break Mark’s record of 96.683 mph he had set with his 1959 Deutsch Bonnet with a 750cc, 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.” Mark also let Tom know they had managed to run 98 mph that day.
By Monday morning the modifications had been made and the Sonett immediately clicked off 100.458 mph! They had run above the current record which landed the car in impound. “Just where we wanted to be,” Tom said.
At Bonneville you make a “down run” and if that run exceeds the current class record, you then must “impound” the car until the next day, though you are allowed a 4-hour window when you can make adjustments. “We decided to play it safe,” Tom describes, “and run a sound “record run” and just keep it simple.” Tom says he tried to adhere to that idea throughout the entire project build…keep it simple. Do what you know works. Run with known reliable parts. “Having driven two stroke Saabs all over the country, I know what it takes to keep a Saab stroker alive. Keeping it simple works.”
Tuesday morning arrived with the Sonett sporting new spark plugs and a fresh tightening of every nut and bolt. “We ran a conservative 97.479 mph for our back up run, giving us a new Bonneville record of 98.968 mph.” This was the first time since 1964 that a Saab two stroke had achieved a record at Bonneville.
Needless to say the entire crew was excited and happy to have broken a land speed record on their very first trip to Bonneville and Tom gave Steve and Verlyn the rest of the day off to enjoy the total feel of Speed Week and the 500+ teams that gather on The Salt every August.
Many more stories and experiences have come since that first trip and the little Sonett broke its own record two more times in 2011 before heading for home. On August 17, 2011 the car went 105.613 and August 18, 107.443 mph.
Tom returned with a team in 2012 and broke more records, this time running 109.514 mph and then bumping the record again to 115.619 mph.
Not to be outdone, of course, Tom and his 2013 crew managed a record breaking 121.203 mph making it the third year in a row for the “Yellow Jacket” to make the record “feel the sting.” “Our fastest time that year (122.033 mph) actually exceeded the next engine class record for engines up to 1000 cc,” Tom says, “but they wouldn’t let us run in that class because the engine was too small.”
Heavy rains turned the Salt Flats into “Lake Bonneville” and forced the cancellation of the 2014 Speed Week in August. And 2014 also began with the unexpected death of Tom’s friend Bertil Sollenskog in June. But conditions did dry up enough the first week in September for races to be run by the Utah Salts Flats Racing Association and Tom and crew showed up with Bertil’s Monte Carlo to attempt to set some new records for his crew and his widow Pat. Tom was able to set a new record of 111.472 mph on September 6, 2014 and Bertil’s main driver, Pavel Osovets, set the last and final record of 112.642mph on Tuesday, September 9, 2014.
Speed Week was cancelled again in 2015, but this time before teams actually showed up at Bonneville so everyone had to wait until 2016 to get back onto the SCTA courses. The anticipation for the 2016 Speed Week event was evident as the automotive press picked up on the efforts of teams from all over the world eager to make another run for records. And the “Yellow Jacket” was no different.
Donney had begun a process of modifying both the exhaust and intake manifolds in hopes of eking out a few more horsepower. “We were running about 104 hp at the wheels according to our dyno tests,” Tom explained, “and the stock Sonett had a top speed of 100 with 850cc at sea level. You have to figure that Bonneville steals at least 10-15% of your top power so every little bit helps when it comes to creating horsepower.”
Every race team was following salt condition reports during 2016 and Donney was no exception. “We were in the process of upgrading to a new setup in this two-year downcycle and by June we were hearing the salt didn’t look good.”
Because the manifold setup was still in the experimental stage, when the official go ahead came for the event to happen, Donney said he wasn’t adequately prepared to run the systems the way he had planned. “We waited until the last moment thinking the event would cancel, then when it didn’t we were too deep in the new research which wasn’t where it needed to be.”
So off his team went again, this time setting a record at 123.075 mph, exceeding it two days later at 123.265 but failing to back up that run because salt conditions were simply not good enough to provide an ideal surface. They were able to allow Steve Meyers to obtain his rookie license and break a record. According to GPS speed measures, the little Sonett did hit the 124 mph mark so even without the new setup, the Saab pushed the record even higher.
Will the Sonett be back? Remember that first reference to passion and how it pushes people to travel down strange twisting roads? The roads are no longer strange and definitely not twisting so it’s pretty certain you’ll see the Yellow Jacket back on the salt in 2017.