Saleen Automotive brought out two of their Saleen Cup Cars to The Thermal Club in Thermal, CA this week. The cars would be driven by automotive journalists on the track. This was the first time that anyone other than Saleen or Cup drivers had been behind the wheel.
Test driving a new car is nothing new, but done right it translates clearly how it feels and why it is either good or bad. Since the Cup car is a bona fide race car, it is important to have someone who can harness its potential while still giving an honest take of how it stacks up to other racing cars.
Instead of just opting to jump into the car and give it my best Bobby Unser impersonation, I felt it best to really do the car justice and have it driven by someone with decades of experience behind the wheel. It was a job for Driveline’s resident race car driver, Rick Knoop.
Knoop is one of the legends of IMSA. He scored the first race win in a Mazda RX-7 and set records racing as a part of the Busby Racing team, winning in legendary monsters like the Porsche 935, 962, and Mazda powered Lola T616. His career highlights include wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, and the 1000 Kilometers in Monza, Italy. He even helped develop the BFGoodrich T/A Radial for street and competition use. Although he no longer races full time, he regularly tracks his historic Can-Am McLaren M8F-972 with almost 1000 horsepower—in my opinion, he was the perfect person to put behind the wheel of the S1 Cup for laps around Thermal.
It’s beckoning to be driven if you have a good foundation.
The two cars that journalist would be driving, were 2019 Cup spec cars. They were liveried in a contemporary yellow scheme and a Sunoco tribute paint job.
The S1 Cup with its aluminum chassis is propelled by a 450-horsepower turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine. It pops and bang as its non-muffled turbocharger ignites fuel in the exhaust pipe during shifts. They would be driven on The Themal Club’s 1.2-mile North Palm Circuit.
Lapping alongside was Saleen’s S1 Cup development car equipped with secretive upgrades. The development car was driven by Saleen test driver and WeatherTech Sports Car Championship driver Eric Curran.
The day started as all track days do—with a meeting. Bright and early at 8:30am, Rick got his first impression of the track and the event, “I found it a double shock when Steve came up to the driver’s meeting and he looked over and said ‘there you are’”. Fellow race car drivers who haven’t seen each other in decades, Saleen was pleased that Knoop came out to test one of his latest’s creations. “I blended in nicely and the comfort was there,” said Knoop who didn’t want to be seen as a celebrity, but just another participant in attendance.
Being a famous race car driver does come with certain expectations, as Knoop describes, “There is always going to be a gunner going, ‘Oh man, I wonder how he’s going to do on this thing’;” however, as Knoop says he doesn’t let that get into his head, “I rise above the occasion and make sure this isn’t a game.”
The S1 would have been daunting to all but the most skilled auto-journalists, but for Knoop, being a veteran of turbocharged monsters and ground effects cars, testing the S1 was just like being back in Busby Racing and getting into a new car for the first time—“You learn the car, you try to find the rhythm of the track and then you experiment with pushing the limits.”
Strapping into the S1 Cup, Rick was greeted with a pleasant surprise of the personality of the car, “It did surprise me a little bit on my out lap. I got off of the rev limiter that is installed in the cars for pit lane and gave it a good little push with the throttle and it lit off the rear tires, and I did a nice little drift, and I thought ‘Indeed, this car is perky!’”
It was inspiring me to go a little bit further every time and not wreck the car. It’s a cute little car that is all business.
The large turbocharger meant that this car has a dynamic powerband where you have to account for the added power when the boost hits, “There is a surge that comes on in those cars, but once again—it’s cold tires. Once I do my normal kind of lap and get some idea of the visibility, the scan of the instruments and the paddle—the first session of the 5 or 6 laps was basically what it was supposed to be: you don’t put it through the fence, you download. Now the second session, you get good feedback and the tires are up to speed and grip.”
After two sessions and about 14 laps in the car Rick was able to give his verdict of how the S1 Cup compares to race cars that he has driven and raced, “the car is balanced—it turns in… It’s a real healthy car that is beckoning you because it doesn’t have any nasty habits. I like it! I’d love to drive more of it, but in the short amount of time that I had, I got a few ‘that a boy’s’ from the guys, who were saying ‘Man, you were going okay at the end,’ that’s because the comfort level.”
Feeling comfortable in a car as Rick described is the amount that you can predict what the car is going to do, and as comfort grows, you can push the car more, “I was getting with it, but I didn’t want to ever take anything for granted, and it was inspiring me to go a little bit further every time and not wreck the car. It’s a cute little car that is all business.”
Knoop was joined by Curran in the S1 Cup development car during his second session putting two experienced drivers on track at the same time, “The second session when Eric came out with me, it would be interesting to see the lap times. It doesn’t matter, but lap times are lap times.”
I know potential and I feel that me and that car could go places, even at the tender age of a guy in his sixties.
Driving the car in the small amount of time that we had, Rick got a taste of what the S1 Cup offers, “I would prefer to test by myself and at least have some acclimation to the car and to find the rhythm of track, but when it’s all said and done the S1 is a blast to drive—it’s fast! I’d love to be back at the track with it today and say, ‘Now let’s do it.’ I know potential and I feel that me and that car could go places, even at the tender age of a guy in his sixties. It’s beckoning to be driven if you have a good foundation.”
Holding his day-glow yellow helmet at the end of the drivers debrief, he reflected on the day. He says, “Eric Curran—outstanding job!” Speaking of the lead development driver, “That’s a lot of work to make the car go like that.” And he had a thought to his fellow racer who was long ago known as “Gas Saleen”, “I hadn’t seen Steve Saleen for 30 years and it was like he was my neighbor, it was that much of a blend in.”
Picking up where they left off, two men still finding ways to go fast around racetracks, Saleen making the cars, and Rick still driving them.
The S1 Cup appears to be a formidable race car. We’re going to start seeing them more frequently as the GT4 starts competing and the street car variant starts making its way to customers. As Rick said, it appears that the team at Saleen did a great job.