EXTREME DRIVING: 300-HP SAAB 900 TURBO COUPE MARKS SAAB'S RETURN TO RALLY COMPETITION NORCROSS, Ga. -- Few motorsports are as punishing on a vehicle and grueling for driver teams as off-road rally racing. Continuing a decades-long heritage of Saabs in rally competition, Saab Cars USA, Inc. is again sponsoring a 300-hp Saab 900 Turbo Coupe in the 1997 Michelin/SCCA PRO Rally series. Campaigned by 1995's PRO Rally Group 2 champions Sam Bryan and Rob Walden, the Saab 900 rally car was a spectator favorite during the 1996 season, featuring eye-catching Monte Carlo Yellow exterior paint and Saab's unique "Find Your Own Road" graphics. Team Saab, in its second PRO Rally season, is again competing in the Group 5 class with a potent turbocharged 2.3L powerplant, conservatively rated at 300 hp. PRO Rally is flat-out racing against the clock, one vehicle at a time, on courses ranging from unpaved logging roads to desert trails. Rally cars hurtle down twisting wilderness tracks at speeds averaging between 30 and 90 mph, contending with mud, rocks, loose gravel, snow, ice, water crossings and hairpin turns. With a wild, sideways-through-the-corners driving style, and the hazards of weather and night running, the sport's unique challenges are clear. Saabs have been demonstrating their competitive spirit and tenacious flair for handling rough roads since the Swedish automaker's very beginning. Only a few weeks after Saab's December, 1949, start of production, a 25-hp Saab 92 was entered in the Tour of …stergštland winter rally. To Sweden's surprise, the rugged little car won. Over the next five decades, Saabs racked up many significant victories on the international rally circuit, piloted by such rally legends as Erik Carlsson and Rolf Mellde. In the U.S., Saab's rally heritage dates back to 1956, when three factory-fresh Saab 93 two-strokes conquered challenging weather conditions and harsh terrain of the 1,500-mile Great American Mountain Rally in the Northeast to take the overall win (as well as first, third and fourth place in their class). For many Americans, the resulting Saab news coverage marked their first introduction to the uniquely styled Swedish automobiles. Skyrocketing costs and changes in international rally rules in 1980 prompted several carmakers, including Saab, to withdraw from producing factory-prepared rally cars. The closing of Saab's competition department left Saab rallying in the hands of private contenders. In recent years, U.S. competitors have included a vintage Saab 96, a classic 99 EMS and several first-generation Saab 900s. Sam Bryan and Rob Walden took the 1995 SCCA/Michelin PRO Rally Group 2 championship in a 1980 Saab 900 before being awarded a sponsorship from Saab Cars USA, Inc. Team Saab driver Bryan, an engineer and long-time rally enthusiast from Kent, Washington, and co-driver Walden, owner of Scandia Autosports in Seattle, prepared the new car for the tortures of rallying. Equipped with a 2.3L engine from a Saab 9000 Aero, programmable electronic engine management and traction control, an XTRAC six-speed manual transmission and necessary safety equipment, the Saab 900 Turbo Coupe came out of Walden's shop weighing only about 2,600 lbs. With at least 300 hp, the rally Saab rockets to 60 mph in less than five seconds. As Team Saab gained valuable experience with the powerful new car, and fine-tuned its equipment and electronic systems, they encountered a few setbacks during the 1996 rally season that kept them out of contention for the Group 5 championship. However, the team came back strongly in the end, capturing a class victory in the season's last race, followed by another victory and third place overall in the first national rally of the 1997 season, the Wild West PRO Rally in Washington state. Crashes are an inherent part of rally racing. Just as Erik "On the Roof" Carlsson had his mishaps, so has Bryan. "I don't want to pick up Carlsson's nickname, but I've experienced the shiny side down, too," Bryan admitted. "But Swedish steel and structural integrity go hand-in-hand, and we simply fix the bodywork and look forward to the next race. The Carlsson tradition I want to continue is one of victory. I know that our Saab has the power, outstanding handling and ruggedness to make a fine showing in the 1997 season."