The Saleen Cup

Saleen Automotive was founded in 1983—rising out of Steve Saleen’s racing career. Nicknamed “GAS SALEEN”, he competed in Formula Atlantics before being hired by Pontiac. He started building his signature vehicles when Ford Motor Company debuted the fox body mustang—becoming a crucial figure in the dawn of the 5.0 era, and now, 35 years later, he’s embarking on a new venture, launching the Saleen 1.

The Saleen 1 or S1 as its commonly known, was announced in 2019 as an upcoming road car, but before the first customer has even received their vehicle, Saleen has taken it racing. For Steve, “racing always improves the breed.” 

According to him, “racing the S1 has accelerated the learning curve, the durability, and the drivability of the streetcar.”

He prides himself on his company’s history of racing. “One of the things that has always differentiated our company,” says Saleen, “even though I’ve driven in Formula cars and Indy car…, the primary racing efforts that we’ve always done since I started the company is to race the vehicles that we built.” Saleen Automotive has raced almost everything in their catalog’s history of cars, starting with Mustangs, then sport trucks with the Ford Ranger, and winning their category in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the Saleen S7. 

For Saleen, he wants his customers to see that the cars they buy have racing in their soul. 

The S1

The framework for the S1 dates back to before 2005 when Saleen was still building the S7. Saleen Automotive had planned to build and launch a second “supercar” (the “S” in the title stands for “supercar”). The new vehicle would be called the S5, but the plans got shelved when they got a call from Detroit. Ford Motor Company wanted them to help build the second-generation Ford GT40, the 2005 Ford GT. 

Saleen Automotive was involved in the “engineering and certification work, [including] the complete build and assembly of the Ford GT”. A decade later, they rekindled the plan. The new “supercar” would be a smaller, more affordable, and it would be made in higher numbers than its S7 sibling. 

The S1 is a mid-engine all-aluminum chassis, carbon fiber bodied sports car that is powered by a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine making 450 horsepower and weighing less than 2700 pounds. 

The street version will start at $100,000. Although it doesn’t have a large V8 like the new Chevrolet C8 Corvette, Steve regards it’s smaller 4-cylinder engine as a major benefit because where they lose in “ultimate horsepower, we gained almost 1000 pounds in weight savings which translates into: go faster; corner better.”

For Saleen Automotive, racing is a part of their DNA.

According to Saleen, the US government defines a supercar as “a two-seater, mid-engine car, capable of speeds in excess of 180 mph, and costs more than $250,000.” That would mean the S1, the new C8 Corvette, the Dodge Viper ACR, and greats like the Ferrari 250 GTO would not qualify, but to Saleen’s Director of Motorsports, Gabriele Cadringher, that rigid definition is incorrect.

Cadringher, a 35-year veteran of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) says very eloquently in his Italian accent that “a supercar cannot be defined by a definition written by someone sitting behind a desk. A supercar is not only price, it is a way of life—something which is extreme and unique—A supercar is a dream.” To him, “the best definition of a supercar is something which someone dreamed to drive.”

In Cadringher’s definition, passion is valued over a set of rigid requirements. It centers on how a supercar makes us feel, and how it separates itself from the routine vehicles that get us from point A to point B. A supercar transcends the rudimentary, becoming something special and memorable. 

Cadringher believes that the S1 exemplifies the true essence of the word supercar in an abundance of areas, including its four-cylinder engine. 

He points out that most 4-cylinder turbo cars, for sale from manufacturers, struggle to get past the 350-horsepower mark, but the S1 is making one-hundred more horsepower. Steve Saleen credits some of the additional power to the design of their engine block. 

Unlike most engines that are separated from the chassis with motor mounts and urethane bushings, Saleen designed their block castings to be a stressed member, making it a structural part of the chassis. They say that this allows them “to have less flex, higher rpm, and [have a] higher level of horsepower with minimal distortions to the block.” 

The all-aluminum chassis and the carbon fiber body also lend themselves to the exotic. 

A supercar is not only price, it is a way of life—something which is extreme and unique—A supercar is a dream.

The racing and street versions differ in that the aerodynamics have been altered. Where the Cup and GT4 variants need to meet the series rules that allows more airflow through the front radiator, and the addition of a rear wing. Another change is that the racing versions use 18-inch wheels to use racing slicks. The variants share the same brakes, engine, suspension pickup points, and geometry. The racing S1’s use the same aluminum chassis with the addition of a reinforcement bar to aid in driver protection.

Tuning and ECU’s are different. The streetcar receives a custom Saleen designed ECU while the racecars are equipped with a competition standard Motec ECU. 

Asked if the racing versions diverge greatly in the feel of what a customer will experience, Saleen could only say that the streetcar will offer the “same thrill and the same driving experience.” Jokingly, he says that the streetcar “will be a lot more comfortable,” due to streetcar having air-conditioning, “but the level of performance will be very comparable.”

The Saleen Cup

They would first race the S1 in their own signature championship, which would pit drivers in similar cars.  

A series populated by like cars would benefit both the drivers and Saleen Automotive because it guaranteed that there were no unfair advantages as every car is identical comments Cadringher. Since Saleen owns the vehicles, the drivers only use it for the race. This keeps the drivers’ cost down because the racers are not paying to maintain the cars. The S1 benefitted in that the Cup hastened its development. With multiple cars being tested in different locations, by a grid of drivers under varying conditions, this resulted in it developing much faster than if Saleen only used their fleet of street mules described Steve Saleen. 

The Saleen Cup would race in the SRO Motorsports Organization. The same organization that ran the Blancpain GT Racing Series. 

The first race was in July 2019 in Portland, Oregon. The S1’s rolled out onto the track covered in iconic liveries meant to spur emotions. 

Martini, Marlboro, Lucky Strike, Lotus, and Gulf themed cars sat on the racing grid. There were even S1’s wearing the Home Improvement and Zebra stripes. 

That concept came directly from Saleen himself. He says it’s hard to tell the cars apart when watching racing on tv, “I look at them and I refer to them as Skittles—it’s really difficult to tell one car from the other and who the driver is, and after a race has developed… Since we own the cars, I thought it would be better for us to apply the graphics application, so we came up with three levels… iconic, from yesteryear of different graphics; one is Saleen graphics of our race vehicles, and the other is contemporary.”

Steve Saleen Times a Lap on his phone’s stopwatch in the night race of the Saleen Cup

The drivers were as unique as the colors on their cars. There were multiple ages, a number of women drivers, and even the first autistic driver. They would compete in two different classes, “Pro-Amateur” and the “Young driver” category. Winning the championship would award a paid factory GT4 drive.

In the Portland race, the cars were separated by a wide margin, but throughout the season the cars got faster, and the competition became more fierce. 

By the final race of the season at Las Vegas Speedway, the “Young” category was decided in the final race of the weekend. Carter Fartuch won the final race, tying the points leader, Austin Riley. Fartuch was awarded the championship because he had won more races throughout the season. 

Paul Terry won the Pro-Am Drivers Class. Both Fartuch and Terry will represent Saleen next year in the S1 GT4 in the SRO GT4 Championship. 


Riley was awarded the Scholarship Award of $25,000 and a chance to compete again in the Saleen Cup with all expenses paid. 

The Saleen Cup showed the return of Saleen to competition racing; it debuted a new car to the world; it helped perfect the streetcar, and it helped new drivers find another way into serious competition. 

The Saleen Cup and GT4 will return in 2020. 


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