Bonneville SAAB Story or . . . How I Raced Three Cylinders and Broke Land Speed Records!
Rare 1968 Saab Sonett II makes up the base of this land speed record holder
The temperature is about 100 degrees, there’s no wind and what shade there is comes from an overhead tarp stretched from the side of a trailer. But Tom and Patti Donney are busy moving around their race car, methodically checking it over and getting ready for another trip to the starting line last August during Speed Week 2013.
Getting the couple to break away and actually sit down to talk about their passion for speed seems, well…awkward. You learn right away that Tom and Patti aren’t just talk. They DO. With no reservation.
The little ’68 Saab Sonett II sits at center stage of this passion that began just three short years ago and has culminated each of those three years during fabled Speed Week which happens each August on the Bonneville Salt Flats, a desolate, but perfectly flat expanse of salt outside Wendover, Utah.
A full cage and chassis was built to fit the Saab plastic body. (Phone camera photo)
The head is off the Sonett’s three cylinder block, but Tom is willing to take a break and Patti grabs a couple of chairs to escape inside the trailer where the relentless sun has a bit less impact. Unless you’ve experienced Bonneville, it’s hard to imagine anyone actually having fun doing this.
“I came out here (Bonneville) in October, 2010.” Tom begins. “Just wanted to explore what Bonneville is all about and see what it might take to bring a car out here to race.” It seems simple enough and you learn in talking with Tom that simple is generally the rule when he looks at things. “I never did the “racing thing” before this, but I was intrigued and wanted to see what the learning curve might be.”
Tom and Patti Donney have been married 32 years, have three grown children and Tom has a number of passions. Patti is heading up the pit crew this year (2013) along with David Roe and Isaac Poldervarrt. None of the pit crew has been here before, but that hasn’t stopped the little race team from Iowa to break land speed records all week long. And Patti is enjoying it!
Three cylinders…ready to rock The Salt!
Tom talks at some length about the Sonett II and Patti interjects details, but it’s obvious this is one of those passions she shares. The heat? The long days? The hours and hours of driving just to get here? Doesn’t seem to be an issue for either of them. But then, when Tom determines he is going to get something done, Patti knows the journey will be exciting! Tom Donney is not one to let much of anything stop him from achieving a goal, whether it’s accumulating 125 Saabs for his personal collection, building a successful transmission repair business that ships worldwide to being a defensive line football coach at a South Dakota university…wait! Football coach too?
Tom Donney has been coaching football for over 23 years. Currently he handles outside linebackers and long snappers at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota and has been through the high school and community college ranks. But doesn’t he live in Fort Dodge, Iowa? Yes…it’s just another part of the story.
Patti Donney headed up the support team in 2013. She let no detail go undone!
“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’s from Chicago and had run a Saab 96 in 2009. I just had to check it out.”
That 2010 trip (which Tom made with the shop manager of his business, Steve Davis) started a project that now has visited Speed Week three times in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and broken land speed records for the class the little Saab competes in every single time. For you sports fans, that translates as “three-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.
In 2013 the Speed Week event at Bonneville celebrated its 65th official year of racing through the auspices of the Southern California Timing Association. 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 for virtually any type of powered vehicle that can be imagined. Tom 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.
The control room. Looks a bit different than the stock Sonett driver’s compartment.
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.
“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 just a logical choice…if you can consider racing at Bonneville logical. “I still own the very first two Saab two-strokes my family owned.” And that’s just part of the 125 Saabs Tom owns, but that’s another story.
Sonett IIs are rare. 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 at Fort Dodge Transmission 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 nose is off. Let the thrash begin.
The Sonett II uses a hinged front hood section that allows easy access to the engine, transmission and front suspension. The three-cylinder two-stroke engine generates 60 horsepower (45 kW) and the car in stock form was rated with a top speed of 93 mph (150 km/h). 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 that could be 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, and still do.” Because Tom’s Saab is a model 97 and Bertil’s is a model 96, they race in different classes. Bertil is pitted right next door to Tom and his crew at Bonneville, so they are sharing ideas, parts and knowledge. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
At the line and the starter is ready. How about it team? Get a move on!
Remember the part about Tom being a football coach? Well, that aspect of his busy life was about to become more of a priority and he was faced with meeting his team obligations while faced with a Bonneville deadline that was rapidly approaching.
“I was actually gone for the final week of finishing the car,” Tom describes, “because I had to get to Spearfish to begin my coaching duties.” He had been able to use another Sonett II as a “test car” before he left that allowed him to verify horsepower on a dyno and actually drive the car so he could get a “seat of the pants” feel of the usable RPM range of power. “I was able to make one final dyno test the last day before leaving for Black Hills with the actual Bonneville race car and engine, but no fiberglass body. All our tests showed we were making good power out of the little 750cc motor and encouraged us to believe we had a good chance of setting a new land speed record on The Salt.”
On August 11, 2013 the Bonneville crew of Steve Davis and another longtime employee, Verlyn Gregerson, headed to Spearfish to pick up Tom for the trip out to Utah and the Bonneville Salt Flats. “Of course he had to show off the car which we had painted Black Hills State colors of green and yellow.” The little Saab sported new colors and also special graphics that followed the school theme “Feel the Sting”, making use of the school’s mascot, a Yellow Jacket, which Tom says is most appropriate because the car sounds like “100,000 angry yellow jackets swarming at you!”
A 12-hour trip followed and the team arrived late Friday morning, the 12th, where they set up camp at the infamous “bend in the road”, a place where a great many 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 drier 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 happen 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.
Once the plastic body panels were removed, the Sonett literally broke in half. Tube chassis and cage, here we come!
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 this 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.”
This won’t stop Tom and crew from heading out for The Salt again in 2014. There are still more records to be broken by this Saab lover who never imagined back when he was a kid and fell in love with Saab that he would be a part of Saab history.