SAAB: ALASKA TO FLORIDA IN 96 HOURS
by Larry Roberts
April 17, 1998
Last week I got a press release from Saab regarding its latest highly-touted sports sedan, the 9-5 turbocharged five-passenger hatchback. Normally I don't get involved in writing about new cars (moonroofs, leather upholstery, six-pack CD players and wood veneer dashboards are too rich for my simple tastes), but this promotional piece got my attention. It announced the results of a 5900 mile journey taken in two of these new cars that went from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Key West Florida in a little over 96 hours.
It's always been my contention that cross-country racing it the real test of man (and woman, in the case of the Saab event) and machinery. No crowds to perform for, no planned pit stops that can make or break a win, no track crews to remove debris that might obstruct the performance of the performing athletics.
The Saab event wasn't really a test of speed and endurance so much as what might have been called a publicity stunt a few decades ago. The two 9-5s started in minus 45 degree weather and I have to admit that in spots, the going got pretty arduous. The first 300 miles were over frozen gravel roads, another spot was axle deep in mud and a stint took place around Calgary when that area was experiencing its worst snow storms in over 100 years. There were three drivers in each car and one would driver while another acted as navigator. The third snoozed on the split-back rear seat, I assume with feet sticking into the trunk area. According to the press release, the crews took no time out to rest and pressed on 24 hours a day.
Endurance racing has a long, time-honored history in this country. In '03, the team of Fetch and Krarup drove a single-cylinder Model C Packard from San Francisco to New York in a record time of 61 days. It was a memorable record for two reason: there were no roads to speak of across the country and no automobile had achieved the feat before.
In 1908 an American-built Thomas Flyer driven by George Schuster and Montague Roberts won the car-killing New York to Paris race in 169 days in the dead of winter. For years, the car was the centerpiece of the world-famous Harrah Museum, restored to the exact condition it was in when it pulled into Paris, verified by newspaper photos of the day. It was sold off only after the death of Bill Harrah.
During the early days of the automobile, Cannon Ball Baker was an American icon whose exploits were bigger than life and although he did some circuit racing, his claims to fame were the cross-country records that he set. In 1915, he drove a Stutz Bearcat from San Diego to New York in a time of 11 days, seven hours and 15 minutes. The next year, Baker chopped four days off his own record driving a Cadillac. Baker was an amazingly durable driver and set over 120 records. He unofficially made his last coast-to-coast record of 53 hours in 1933. As a side note to history, his reputation was still high in 1948, so much so that he was appointed the first NASCAR commissioner. In that same year, he set a stock car record in a Nash up Mt. Washington at the age of 66.
In the '60s, Baker's name was revived for the "Sea to Shining Sea" unofficial high-speed cross-country runs whose contestants was well-know auto writers, racers and other automotive "dignitaries." This in turn set the tenor for the forgettable "Gumball" movies that centered around implausible races across the country.
The current cross-country race that most closely emulates those early events on this continent is the Baja 1000 Rally that runs from Tijuana to La Paz down Mexico's Baja peninsula. From first-hand experience, I can attest to the fact that these types of long-distance events are not for the feint-hearted.
The Saab 9-5 run from Alaska to Florida averaged just a whisker under its goal of 60 MPH, and my hat is off to the drivers. And if the hot-shoes of CART, the IRL and NASCAR wanted to really achieve memorable records, they'd follow the lead of those stalwart Saab pilots.