Do we even realize how lucky we are in the U.S.? We’ve got at least 75 road courses here, plus those over the northern border. We have distribution companies that can deliver thousands of parts within a day. We have communities for every niche car to buy, sell, and learn from. We have specialty shops making almost anything you need to make your car go fast on the track. Now, imagine that you live in South America… There’s exactly ONE track in your country, and if you need a part, you’re either sourcing it from the US or commissioning a one-off to be made locally. It was this realization that made me truly impressed by the Saba Motorsport operation when I joined them in Peru last year to drive in the biggest race that the country holds: Las 6 Horas Peruanas, hosted annually at the country’s sole racetrack, Autódromo La Chutana.
Based in Lima, Said Saba is the heart of the operation. Over the last decade or so, Said has turned his E30 M3 into possibly the most prominent and successful racecar in Peru. He’s also built a community of supporters that facilitate his unrelenting evolution and improvement of his program. When you look at the car, you recognize that it is not the formulaic approach that you might see in North American cars. There’s no one to copy from. More of it is custom-made through a combination of Said’s ingenuity and the available local resources – both materials and craftsmen. For instance, the hood and front fenders are all a single piece of molded fiberglass, which Said commissioned locally.
[Editor’s Note: Meet Autopian reader Anthony Magagnoli, an accomplished engineer, a great writer, a Detroiter, a father of twins, and honestly, one of the most impressive people I know. He’s a really social and creative guy who also happens to be an engineering wiz and race car driver (and coach!), and he’s a joy to be around. -DT].
In early 2022, my great friend, Scott Barton, connected me with Said to help him fix the handling of their car. With a background as a pro driver and in vehicle performance development, including time as a vehicle dynamics performance engineer for a major OEM, this is part of the work that I do through my business, Drive Faster Now. With some measurements from the vehicle, I calculated ride frequency and lateral load transfer ratios to uncover the problem. I was able to specify new spring rates and then walk them through further swaybar, damper, and aero tweaks when they went to test. This new setup transformed the drivability and performed well enough for them to go on to win the 2022 season championship.
Following this success – and knowing my background in racing and vehicle performance development – Said invited me to come down and be their third driver for Las 6 Horas Peruanas on Nov 20, 2022, which my incredible wife Tina supported, and I couldn’t refuse! BMW of Ann Arbor stepped up to support me for this event, as well. Their staff there are the type of car folks that “get it” and get excited about being a part of events like this!
THE TEAM and Said
Said Saba is a multi-faceted man. He’s an endless well of energy and has curiosity that spills into several seemingly discordant areas of interest. He also happens to be one of the nicest, most generous, warm, genuine, and humble people I’ve ever met.
Any one of the specialties that Said has applied himself to would be admirable, all on their own. He’s a respected race team owner, developer, and driver. He has a day job, too, as the owner of a textiles manufacturing company. There’s a decent chance you may have an article of clothing in your house that his company has produced. As if either of those were not enough, Said is also a professional musician. He’s the drummer for one of the biggest bands in Peru, GAIA. Said can play piano, guitar, and bass (probably others I’m unaware of, as well), and can even sing. He has made amazing compilations where he’s mixed himself singing and playing every instrument to compile full renditions of songs like Bohemian Rhapsody. He is astoundingly good.
Despite his rockstar status, Said is incredibly humble. He doesn’t make a big deal out of any of it. When it comes to the racing, he commits himself to learning intensely. He handles mechanicals, fabrication, electronics, and programming with equal levels of expertise. He builds his own engines and finds it to be therapeutic. My ADD-riddled mind envies his level of focus.
Said is conducting a symphony, metaphorically, with the players all looking to him for direction. He never gets flustered or overwhelmed. It’s his personality that has inspired people all around Lima to be involved in the program. He makes a call and specialists show up. Help shows up. Whatever he needs shows up.
The car is an E30 M3, built in the spirit of a DTM racer, but with a modern interpretation. It has an S54 6-cylinder engine, replacing the S14 that it was originally equipped with, sending its power through a 6-speed manually-shifted sequential gearbox. The control arms are all custom-built and suspended with Motion Control Suspension 2-way remote reservoir dampers. Rolling on Hoosier R7 tires and Apex Arc8 Wheels, there’s no ABS or traction aids of any sort.
The body and aero are interesting, as the entire front bumper, hood, and fenders are one piece of fiberglass. The lower valence and splitter are another single piece, flanked by canards at the corners. Aft of the front tires, the lower body is one fixed piece of wheel arch venting, side exhaust on the passenger side, and inlets for rear brake cooling. The doors are really just half-doors above that, which is frankly adequate for getting in and out since you have to go over the cage to get in, anyway. Out back is a wing and lower diffuser to help plant the rear end.
I landed on Thursday morning with 90 min of terrible airplane sleep. Said picked me up and took me to the single-bay race shop located at his factory while I processed the onslaught of new sights and tried to get a lay of the land. When we loaded up to head to the track, I was surprised to find that this top-flight effort was managed by a Jeep Grand Cherokee towing a custom-fabricated (and I don’t mean that in the fancy way) steel open trailer. Fittingly, it was equipped with four E30 semi-trailing arms for suspension and the racecar fit just perfectly on it.
The road driving around Lima was insane. Every inch was a game of Chicken. People were packed into cars with little regard for safety. With no native manufacturers to compete with, there were tons of non-descript Chinese cars traversing the roads which ranged from decent Michigan tarmac to that which resembled the lunar landscape.
Lima and the surrounding area reminded me of Brazil, which was the only other place I’ve visited in South America. Despite the greater proliferation of poverty, the people are generally content with much less, as long as they have family and futbol (and maybe Formula 1). There was an obvious wealth gap between some of the folks who were at the racetrack and the majority of people living around Lima, but that disparity isn’t unlike here in the US. The difference was the overall level of wealth. At the track, there were no stacker trailers with air-conditioned lounges anywhere in sight.
Situated about 40 miles south of Lima and about a mile inland from the South Pacific Ocean, La Chutana is a 1.5 mile counter-clockwise circuit. It consists of five left-handers and two right-handers with a half-mile front straight. The track surface is relatively bumpy, not unlike the old Nelson Ledges, and often dusty from the surrounding fine dirt and sand being pulled onto the track, like some of our western tracks. Off-track, it was not like anything I’ve seen in the US, though. It was desert-like terrain. Softball-sized rocks were everywhere, so there was little chance of getting away with only a minor “off” anywhere.
We were on track by mid-day and I got myself acclimated to the car and the track. Weighing in at only 2400 lbs, with the 380 horsepower I-6 revving to 8000 rpm and close gear ratios, the car was a visceral screamer. The formula-style steering wheel and tight steering ratio, combined with the classically short E30 wheelbase, was well-suited to the tighter nature of La Chutana. The car was definitely aero-sensitive in the higher speed turns, while a bit more tossable and playful in the lower speed ones. The prior work had paid off, as I was immediately comfortable with the balance of the car.
I turned only 12 laps over two sessions until the engine had an issue that we chased the rest of the day, to no avail. It would idle fine, but then sounded like it was on five cylinders as soon as I pulled away. Fuel and spark were confirmed at every cylinder and we tried everything we could think of. We headed back to the shop and scratched our heads over Chinese food for dinner. Said tore back into it and, around midnight, found that one of the individual throttle body linkages had gone missing. It was a frustratingly simple issue.
We weren’t supposed to test again on Friday, but we went back. Our sustenance at the track consisted of air fried sausages. So many sausages… I got more laps in and we did some tweaking on the chassis setup, but we were now chasing tuning issues with this new engine. More work was done on the car that night after a dinner of broasted chicken.
We went to the track again on Saturday, working on the engine tuning issues and making some aero adjustments. It was going reasonably well until the engine suddenly developed an internal problem. As we headed back to the shop, Said rounded up personnel to help with the overnight engine change. Going in was the “street engine”, which was built with spare parts from other engines. It had run several endurance races before and didn’t make the power of the race engine, but it was the only option.
Dinner was burgers and fries from Bembos, the local equivalent to McDonald’s. Said’s wife Carolina was mortified by the food I had been eating so far. I helped in the shop for as long as I could before Said shoved me in a cab to go get some sleep, as I would be qualifying and starting the endurance race the next morning.
On Sunday, the track was buzzing with preparations when we arrived. Most of the team had arrived with no sleep. I went out for practice and things went well. We bolted on sticker tires for qualifying and I landed the car 1st in Class, setting the fastest lap that the car had ever turned. And on the “street” engine. BUT, two turns later, it felt like the clutch went out. The team inspected and the clutch looked OK, so they bled the fluid and hoped for the best. My nerves were on fire with anticipation.
As I pulled out for grid, the slipping was immediately worse. This felt terminal. If we didn’t start the race within two laps of the green flag, we’d be disqualified. The team pushed the car back into the garage and got it in the air. I heard lots of yelling in Spanish that I didn’t understand. I then heard “driveshaft!”. OK. That’s repairable! I watched the cars leave the grid in front of me as I sat a few feet off the ground, still strapped in.
They dropped the car as the racers were circulating behind the pace car (actually a rally truck). I pulled down to the end of the pit lane, but had to wait for the race to start and then join the back of the field. My qualifying position was lost, but I couldn’t believe that we’d actually made it!
I ran a clean two-hour stint before handing the car off to Said. I had put a lap or two on the others in our class and we were leading the overall race. The classes were offset with handicaps relative to their speed so that every class had the chance to win overall. Said ran a great stint (still on zero sleep) and kept us in the lead before handing over to me for my 2nd stint. I went out on new tires and ran another hour or so before we got a full course yellow right as our pit window opened. I handed off to Jorge for him to close it out.
The track conditions had degraded and the car wasn’t as perfect as when we started, but he was turning the solid laps we needed to just barely hold off the Radicals for the overall victory.
As the sole American gringo racing down there, I was a bit of a novelty. With 30 min left, while the course was under caution, I was interviewed in front of the entire crowd, with Said translating between the announcer and I. The last question the announcer asked me was what it meant to me that we were about to win Las 6 Horas Peruanas. I said how amazing it would be IF we won, after all the setbacks, but I reinforced that ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN and we still had 30 minutes to go.
The Peruvian people have a mostly wonderful lack of political correctness. This was flamboyantly demonstrated as Said was relaying my final statements in Spanish. Our team strategist, Renzo, came and whispered that he wanted me to say something in Spanish, which I didn’t understand. After I gave my final thanks over the booming PA system, I repeated what he’d told me to say… “Said pichi corto.” …And the entire place erupted in laughter, including Said. I looked back at Renzo, asking him what I just said. When he finally caught his breath, he told me that I’d just announced to everyone that Said, the man that was hosting me and providing this whole experience – the business owner and literal rock star – had a small dick.
These people can take a joke! I could only imagine the drama if that had happened in the US.
The track went green a few minutes later and Jorge wasn’t happy with the car. It wasn’t long before the “anything” happened. With 16 minutes to go, we got the call from him… He felt like a rear wheel was loose. Two turns later, Jorge was off the track with a broken semi-trailing arm and that was it. The overall win evaporated and even our class lead was lost.
We were gutted.
As disappointing as the final result was, the team and I were still so proud of how close we came after being so close to ruin so many times. I kept saying that I couldn’t believe that we were even racing after everything that the team had been through. You have to put forth all the effort, make every preparation you can, run a perfect race, but you still need some luck to go your way. It didn’t go our way, but the team and drivers had executed on every other aspect. We are all proud of that.
I was amazed at all the emotion flowing through the paddock at the end of the race. I heard lots of cheers and saw lots of tears. It was amazing to see so many people having poured all their energy and emotion into this race. Regardless of the result, I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.
That night, we went to TGI Fridays, but I finally got to enjoy a bit of Lima and the amazing Peruvian food on Monday. I can’t thank Said and Carolina enough for hosting me and I can’t wait to return!
2023 6 HORAS PERUANAS AND HOW TO FOLLOW
I’m looking forward to joining Saba Motorsport again for this year’s race on Dec 10th. While snow has already fallen in Michigan, South America is about to hit their summertime. The car has a new engine, improved aero, and wider tires to further progress its performance. We’ve revised the setup accordingly and we’ll be testing when I arrive on the 6th, as well as the 8th. I’m excited that I’ll be accompanied this year by Mo Beidoun, who is a superstar salesman at BMW of Ann Arbor, as well as a great friend of mine.
Qualifying for Las 6 Horas Peruanas will be at 9:15 am, with the race running from 11-5. Peru is on the same time as the Eastern Time Zone. We’ll be live-streaming the in-car video on Said Saba’s YouTube page, which will be shared on the Saba Motorsports, Drive Faster Now, and BMW of Ann Arbor facebook pages. There will also be content flowing on the Instagram pages of Said Saba, as well as my own. Please follow along and leave comments!
I can’t wait to return to Peru and to run this race again. It was such an amazing experience last year and we are definitely seeking retribution. The team is prepared. We will execute on every facet, but we just need that little bit of luck to swing our way this time.