An unlikely Saab story wins hearts in Oregon
By Colin Bane
PORTLAND, Ore. (April 25, 2015) -- Privateer regional competitors are some of the fan favorites at Rally America events, especially when they're campaigning cars as crowd-pleasing as Garth Ankeny's cherry red 1969 Saab Model 96 Deluxe, which is being piloted by Tom Kreger and co-driver Russ Kraushaar in Group 2 this weekend at the Oregon Trail Rally.
"We don't see a lot of Saabs racing anymore, at least not in the United States, but they're great little rally cars," Ankeny said on opening night of the Oregon Trail Rally, as fans gathered around the car, camera phones in hand, during Parc Expose at Portland International Raceway before the Wagons Ho! regional rally at Oregon Trail Rally.
For Ankeny, a Portland local who owns Trackside Motorsports and A-n-T Tire & Wheel, it's important to bring rally history into the present. He first got hooked on Saabs in the mid-90s after a few drinks with Satch Carlson at the Rally of the Lost Patrol lead to him digging a car out of the mud in Carlson's field.
That car, which had run the Acropolis Rally in Greece in 1970, was shipped over from Sweden for the Trans-Canada Rally the following year. Ankeny was intrigued and as he got to work on the car, he also began digging into Saab's rally legacy. The 96 racing in Oregon this week is the second Saab he's restored: he built it from a shell in 2006 and has been racing it in Northwest rallies ever since.
"What's so nice about Saabs is they're pretty indestructible right from the get-go," Ankeny said. "Saab did that for a reason: the Finns and Swedes drove them on gravel roads, so they work really well in the gravel and they're really forgiving and easy to drive. They're front-wheel drive, and the motor's kind of out over the front tire so you've got a lot of the weight over the front of the car, which gives you kind of a pendulum effect in the car. It rotates really nicely for a front-wheel drive and gets good traction."
Ankeny's 96 has an 1800cc motor with two carburetors and dual exhaust, with a four-speed column-shift transmission -- all carefully and lovingly sourced.
"It's all pretty rare stuff that you can't find very easily anymore, but it's all factory Saab stuff they built back in the late 70s and early 80s," Ankeny said. "These cars, this exact model, were raced all the way into the '80s. This model started in '65 with the long nose like this one, and they really didn't change a whole lot over the years: these cars were very durable. They do well in the snow, in the mud, and they're fun to drive. Everyone should be driving one."
If he sounds like a bit of an evangelist for the car, it's because he is. He has since restored five other Saabs for various clients, and hopes to see them all racing.
"If we could get them all here together, we'd have a great vintage field," Ankeny said. "That's kind of what we're shooting for."
This weekend he let his friend Kreger take the wheel because he's recently been too preoccupied with -- what else? -- restoring yet another Saab.
"Garth called and said, 'Do you want to drive my car?' I was like, 'What's the catch?'," said guest driver Kreger, who lives in nearby Battle Ground, Washington. "He says, 'No, really, do you want to drive it? And you can have my navigator, too.' It was too good of a deal. I have kind of a soft spot for Saabs, as you can probably tell."
Kreger and Kraushaar finished fourth in their class and 29th overall among regional competitors in the Wagons Ho! rally on Friday at Portland International Raceway. But, to judge from the roar from the grandstands as they bounced across the finish line, they might as well have been first.
Vintage rally car drivers tend to have their own definitions of victory, anyway.
"It's only had three DNFs in 10 years," boasted Kraushaar. "In these cars, finishing strong is winning."
Photo: Scott Rains