LeMons: Forget LS swaps, drop a turbo Saab engine in your Z-Car

We know a certain garage in Pennsylvania where the crazy shadetree mechanics gather in great shoals. There, the 24 Hours of LeMons team Rust in the Wind cultivated one of the most bewildering engine swaps in series history: a turbocharged B234 Saab engine wedged into a Nissan 300ZX. Such strange ideas, while not commonplace, aren’t uncharacteristic in the series, but Rust in the Wind have somehow managed to win several races with their Swedish-Japanese contraption. However, after an encounter with New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s wall in October, the NiSaab (as its owners call it) is headed to the great road course in the sky. Let’s take a look back at its racing life.

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Actually, before we even get that far, the NiSaab wasn’t Rust in the Wind’s first LeMons car. In 2009, the team turned up to Stafford Motor Speedway in a horribly rusty (even by LeMons standards) 1984 Nissan 300ZX with the original VG30 3.0-liter V6 under the hood. Not content to run a naturally aspirated V6, the team plumbed a leafblower into the intakea practice familiar to Roadkill’s followerswith the leafblower and engine throttles linked.

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The leafblown engine might have given a slight power bump at low RPM but probably restricted the engine higher in the powerband, the team said. Ultimately, the engine overheated and barely lasted through the race with the team’s last driver pounding the everloving crap out of the V6. The engine seized just feet past the checkered flag and the team vowed to use a different powerplant in their next build. Still, their dedication to bad ideas earned them the Dangerous Homemade Technology award (a trophy that the Fun Police have since discontinued in the interest of not rewarding people for dangerous ideas).

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When it came time for a new 300ZX to build for LeMons, the engine choice was logical: Boosted Saab engines are cheap, plentiful, and make pretty darn good power for LeMons.

Wait, did we say “logical?” We meant “achingly confusing.”

Nevertheless, a running-ish $600 Saab 9000 and a $150 Nissan 300ZX shell later, the plan came together. The early days of LeMons allowed a Roadkill-able cooling setup (i.e. no hood) so the crazy turbo plumbing and the canted Saab block (based on the old Triumph Slant Four) provided no problems aside from visibility issues.

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Of course, the astute will note that all Saabs are front-wheel drive and the 300ZX is, of course, rear-wheel drive. In order to make the engine happy, then, Rust in the Wind had to fabricate a gerrymandered adapter plate for the Nissan transmission’s bellhousing. One would think the switch to a longitudinal arrangement would affect engine oiling under cornering loads, but the engine suffered no adverse effects.

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Naturally, the engineers on the team were not content with just an engine swap. They also mounted to the roof a massive, articulating wing. The initial setup brought the wing into a high angle of attack when the driver stepped up on the brake and then left the wing at that angle for two seconds after the brake was released. However,  a brown moment during testing when the aero suddenly failed mid-corner led the team to redesign the wing in 2013. The reworked design left the huge wing at a high angle of attack normally and let the driver manually toggle it to a more streamlined angle by holding down a button on the steering wheel.

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More importantly than any of that, of course, the team remembered to route their blow-off valve properly.

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At the new car’s debut at Stafford in 2010, the NiSaab clocked the fourth-fastest lap of the weekend and its biggest drawback—beside typical first-race issues—was getting collected by the Trailing Throttle Oversteer Chevy Corvair that was (unsurprisingly) exhibiting trailing throttle oversteer. The damage was superficial and from their pace, it became clear that Rust in the Wind had weaponized an otherwise-docile Z-car.

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When 2011 rolled around, LeMons HQ mandated hoods on all cars to keep flaming engine parts from piercing windshields and so forth. Having long ago discarded their 300ZX’s hood and knowing it wouldn’t fit anyway, Rust in the Wind cut up an old wheelbarrow and stitched it back together over the engine bay.

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It looks pretty close to stock.

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When the car returned for its second race at New Jersey Motorsports Park, the team found mid-Saturday that their Saab motor, on which they had cranked up the turbo boost by 15 percent or so, had pulverized the 300ZX’s transmission. A team member arrived at LeMons HQ to serve up a dish of gear remnants.

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Through some form of witchcraft, the team mended the transmission overnight enough to engage the transmission in fourth gear only and limp along all day Sunday with a surprising lack of issues otherwise. That earned officially earned them the Heroic Fix trophy and unofficially crowned their car The World’s Fastest One-Speed Saab-Powered Nissan 300ZX.

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The team replaced the trans and continued plugging away at East Coast races until October 2012, when Rust in the Wind just barely edged out the sleeper Honda Accord run by the Bill Danger team at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The two cars each led significant chunks of the race, but Rust in the Wind resided at the front for the last 67 laps and hung on to win by just 13.4 seconds over Bill Danger’s Accord. The cobbled-together NiSaab was no longer merely a bizarre idea; it was a bizarre winner.

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Just five months later, the team backed up that win with another close victory at Monticello Motor Club in New York. The NiSaab spent much of the race chasing the Duct Tape Motorsports BMW E30, but a late pit stop for the Bimmer meant Rust in the Wind inherited the lead in the final hour with the long-suffering Team Pro Crash Duh Nation Alfa Romeo Milano in close pursuit. In the end, Rust in the Wind held on to a narrow win of just more than a minute with an axle screaming for mercy by the race’s end.

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The implausible combination of turbo Saab engine and oversized-wing-on-Z-car somehow looked like perhaps the magic bullet in LeMons, but the very next outing in 2013—again in New Hampshire, which will become a theme)—proved that small failures can have big consequences. A failed coolant hose let the engine overheat. The team tried to salvage it with a head gasket change Saturday night, but the overheating had also massively warped the head. The gasket change was futile and for the first time in years, the NiSaab failed to take the checkered flag.

Before the coolant hose failure, however, the NiSaab’s onboard cameras caught the complete and utter devastation of the Rusty Dragon Racing Volkswagen Golf’s Honda A18 engine at about 40 mph. As one might imagine, Rusty Dragon’s story is one of the longest, most convoluted, and abysmally puzzling things to have ever happened in LeMons. Naturally, we’ll tell their tale here in due time.

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Rust in the Wind managed a couple more Top 10 finishes until, once more at New Hampshire in 2014, the NiSaab took a knock to the rear bumper from an inattentive racer under full-course caution. The jolt was strong enough to break the turbo off the exhaust manifold. It was a bizarre failure and, even stranger, a scenario that repeated itself (minus the turbo failure) at the car’s next race in 2015. Even for good LeMons teams, wins are hard to come by and failures occur unexpectedly.

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Finally this year, after more than two years of tough breaks, the NiSaab found itself at the front of the field at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park in Connecticut. And yet again, Rust in the Wind found themselves racing hard with another long-suffering runner-up team, the Massholes’ Ford Escort ZX2. The Massholes led something like 75 percent of the race, but a late-race charge from the quicker NiSaab snuck them past the Escort with less than 30 minutes remaining.

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The Massholes stayed glued to Rust in the Wind’s bumper until the race’s final lap, when the ZX2 transmission broke, giving the Saab-powered 300ZX its third victory by 31 seconds. There have been several three-time winners, but none whose total margin of victory measures less than two minutes across three races.

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The NiSaab, however, met its untimely demise at—you guessed it—New Hampshire Motor Speedway last month. Starting the soggy second day of racing from the lead, the driver spun the car on the day’s first lap and plowed into the wall, also collecting the second-place Massholes. With the chassis already well worn from 17 races and probably somewhere around 10,000 race miles, Rust in the Wind elected to scrap their 300ZX tub. However, expect the healthy drivetrain to reappear in a new shell, maybe even with a fresh hood redesign.

Something to Say?

3 thoughts on “LeMons: Forget LS swaps, drop a turbo Saab engine in your Z-Car

  1. ”One would think the switch to a longitudinal arrangement would affect engine oiling under cornering loads, but the engine suffered no adverse effects.”

    Wasn’t the 9000’s B234 based on the earlier engines (201, 202 etc.) H series engines, that were put in Saab 900 and 99 longitudinally? That would explain why the oiling didn’t fail. Gotta love those Swedes for making a FWD motor run RWD easily.

    1. The B234 was a new design, with a non-slanted block, compared to the B201/B202, altough it shares the bolt pattern between the head and the block with the older engines. (B234 is a long way from the “Triumph Slant Four”, even B201/B202 is a long way from that Triumph engine…)

      Great to see the use of a Saab engine in a non-Saab vehicle! 🙂

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  2. Funny they spent all that effort for nothing. Its cool but the stock vg30et could have done easily 450hp for under $700 dollers and cheaper if you can pull the right strings swap was pointless other then to act a clown

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