Sunday, Oct 31st, 2004 - from a Turbo! Posting.
I'm pressed for time, so here's a reasonably short version of the story.
Soon after moving into the corner office at Saab in May of 1979 I was already thinking of ways to get Saab involved in serious motorsports in the United States. During that era, the IMSA GTP series was getting headlines, with huge attendance at each event. Those not familiar with the IMSA GTP series can see some representative images of the competing cars at:
Obviously there was no way I could even dream of Saab competing at that level of racing. In the first place, the small displacement Saab engines wouldn't work. In the second place, the costs of competing at that level were so high I might as well dream of taking Saab to the moon!
But IMSA had a parallel series called "Camel Lights," using smaller displacement engines. These cars ran in the same events the GTP cars. See a few examples of Camel Light competitors at:
While clearly far less expensive than the GTP cars, this at least looked it might be possible. But knowing the current Camel Lights series champion, I phoned his and asked what his racing budget was for a season. "Around one and a half million; but that doesn't include the cost of the car and the backup car" was his answer. That brought my thinking to a screeching halt. No way could Saabs marketing budget handle that level of expenditure.
Then one morning Saab Cars USA, Inc. PR boss Len Lonnegren happened to mention he had heard Skip Barber was planning to launch an open-wheel "spec car" race series, and that it was to run on the same IMSA programs as the GTPs and Camel Lights!
I phoned Skip and invited him to come have lunch with me, mentioning I had heard about his plans for a new series, and that I would like to know more about it.
Over lunch I learned he had a deal to use small displacement 1600 cc Dodge engines, naturally aspirated; but that nothing had been signed as yet. I asked he didn't think turbocharged Saab engines sounded a lot better. We briefly discussed this concept, with me allowing that I might be able to handle supplying the number of engines and spare parts he needed for the planned 30 cars to be built by Mondial in Northern Ireland. I of course had no authorization to do any such thing. But then, nobody in Sweden had told me I couldn't, either. :-)
From that point all quickly fell into place. Saab provided engines and spare parts, plus technical advice via an engineer nicknamed "Turbo Anders" who flew over from Sweden rather frequently once things got rolling.
Frankly, I don't recall the power output, or whether it changed over the decade that the Barber Saab Pro Series ran. I believe the engines were basically "stock" at around 225 hp the entire time, with only necessary modifications required to adapt them to installation in the mild steel tubular frame Mondial chassis; basically a Formula Ford 2000 design. Since Saab wasn't competing against anyone, reliability was far more important than absolute top performance, so there was no point in tuning the engines for more power.
With 25 to 30 cars coming to the starting line at each of the hugely popular IMSA GTP/Camel Lights events; with multiple TV broadcasts of each Barber Saab Pro Series race (including global television coverage of many of them); all for a total annual cost to Saab of the equivalent of a couple of pages of four color magazine ads, I felt then and still feel that the program was a hell of a deal for Saab...as well as an extremely effective marketing tool in a hotly competitive market.
I retired in September of 1991. Sten Helling briefly followed in the corner office, then Bill Kelly, and then GM longtimer Jim Crumlish. Apparently the Barber Saab Pro Series didn't fit into Mr. Crumlish's marketing strategy, since at that time Saab was doing virtually nothing to support the series other than supplying the engines.
Skip phoned me one day, saying he really needed a bit more support from Saab, or he was going to have to find support elsewhere, which probably would mean changing the engine supplier. By this time the cars were getting quite elderly and tired. Skip was obliged to order an entire new fleet of cars for the series; so this was the time to change engines if that had to happen. He asked if I were willing to meet him at Norcross GA to participate in a meeting with Mr. Crumlish, helping present a case for continuing with Saab engines.
I did, with Skip and I presented the cost/value scenario as we both saw it, and proposed a reasonable level of financial and other support from Saab. The answer was "No."
The following year the series ran as the Barber Dodge Pro Series. The cars were entirely new fleet of carbon fibre composite monocoque chassis race cars built by Reynard, powered by 3.5 liter V6 Dodge engines tuned to around 265 hp and coupled to six speed Hewland sequential gearboxes.
I leave it to others to judge where dropping out of the picture was the right marketing decision for Saab.
I hope this adequately explains things.
Santa Barbara CA