x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Corvette drag racer that's also a runabout

This 2,400hp Corvette is a drag-strip demon, but Johnny Smith finds it can also be used on a quick run for groceries.

Rod Saboury's Corvette drag car looks completely out of place on a city street, but it's got every right to be there. Fox Syndication
Rod Saboury's Corvette drag car looks completely out of place on a city street, but it's got every right to be there. Fox Syndication

Rod Saboury laughs as he walks to the garage that houses his monster.

"I have been labelled the auto devil by people," he says. "They think I bought a good condition, split-window classic Corvette and then savagely sliced it up to make a race car. I did do that once, but it was 1980; the car was 17 years old at that time. Nobody envisaged the crazy money they would be worth in 2010."

Saboury raises his eyebrows and smiles with a warm, infectious grin. He certainly doesn't seem like a devil. He appears a friendly, kind-hearted and very focused individual who lives in a quiet agricultural corner of Maryland, USA.

He tugs on the chain to open the shutter doors and reveals possibly the cleanest garage ever seen: lacquered floors, curtains over the windows and a workbench tidier than most secretaries' desks. Thirty-odd years worth of trophies and magazine cuttings line the walls.

But no matter how attractive the room may be, it is overshadowed by what sits in the middle of it: a Corvette so mean looking it almost looks like a caricature from 1960s hot-rod culture. And this classic has the power underneath its hood to back up its appearance.

"People think that because I've built the world's fastest street car, I'm some sort of millionaire. I run a roofing company with one employee - me - one tool box and one pick-up truck. If I go racing, then I'm not working or earning money."

The car in front of us is no ordinary street car by anyone's standards. It sports two huge turbochargers bursting out of the hood, feeding air to a comparatively small 400-cubic-inch (6,554cc) Chevrolet small-block V8, which, needless to say, has been extensively modified. It had to be, to massage 2,400hp from it.

Taped to the quarter-window is a little piece of paper: it's a timing slip to remind passengers of what they're sitting inside. On September 5, 2009, during a sanctioned drag race event, Rod clinched his fastest run ever - the one to warrant that licence plate in the photo. With a reaction time of .54 sec, the Vette hooked up and crossed the quarter-mile line doing 209.96mph (337.9kph), having taken just 6.75 seconds to do so.

These are not numbers normally associated with a car that can sit in heavy commuter traffic for hours without smouldering under the collar. But that's the most amazing thing about this car: not only is it a drag-strip beast, but it's legally registered to drive on the street.

Saboury never ceases to gush about the flawlessly airbrushed car sitting under his elbow just now. "She's got a few stone chips on the front end now, but I like that. It proves to people it gets used on the street."

Saboury adores his hot rods and drag racers. He's built 18 of them so far, mostly early Corvettes - so it's fair to say he has a bit of a fetish for them. "I average one project every two years. I've been building and racing cars since 1968."

But for this car, Saboury wanted his Vette just so, which takes time, patience and calculated decisions. Five years to be precise - the first two of which were spent drawing up schematics and studying the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag race rulebook.

Finding a suitable split window donor was no easy feat. It took two years. "This shell turned up on a wooden pallet with the VIN tags," Rod says, caressing its swooping roofline. "To anyone else it was next to useless because someone had chopped all the fibreglass floors out, not to mention it had a number of repair sections."

It had been cannibalised and left for dead, but in Saboury's eyes it was perfect for the basis of his ultimate drag-street fusion. He handed over US$800 (Dh2,938) and never looked back.

He gestures for me to climb in. Time to discover what a street car that does 0-to-100kph in less than a second with street-approved tyres, four gear levers and electric windows feels like.

Nestling inside the cockpit, it hits you how detailed this creation is. Saboury may wring all 2,400hp out of it on the strip and cruise on the street, but this Sting Ray triples as a show car. There's a centre console to house the four-lever gear shifter, right by the two drink holders. The intricate exterior paint pattern is mirrored inside the door panels. Opening the doors trigger a conventional courtesy light.

Flicking the fuel pump switch overhead kicks off the starting drill. Within seconds, the Vette fires to life and shudders out of the garage and onto tarmac. Heading out onto the neighbourhood roads, it feels properly hoodlum. The turbos make it quieter than normally aspirated or supercharged race cars, but it's still near impossible to have an audible conversation.

I torque down my harnesses and stare out through the lightweight Lexan screen over the bonnet scoop and turbo nostrils. Making the 30km trip through Carroll County into the small town of Manchester didn't warrant parachute-assisted braking, so the pair of drag chutes were left at home. But behind the passenger seat still lives the big CO2 bottle that not only deploys the chutes but also controls the three-stage boost of the turbos.

It is surprising how compliant the Saboury creation feels on twisty roads and over potholes. Apart from the ear-splitting noise, you would think this was just a fairly sporty production car. Why? Because he felt four-link rear suspension set-ups are too roly-poly off the track. Instead, he went for a neat street-rod, three-link system with an anti-roll bar integrated into the tubular chassis.

Between the carbon fibre rear-wheel tubs sits a tank for the intercooler. There is no room in the front for anything besides a radiator, so Saboury came up with a plan. Sitting a 12-gallon water tank over the back axle aids traction - that was easy. Getting water to and from the intercooler? A bit more complicated. Not for Saboury, who designed the chassis tubes to double as water pipes. A submersible marine bilge pump circulates the coolant from within.

The gauges tell Saboury that she's up to working temperature. On a quiet stretch of asphalt, he slaps one of the chromed Lenco shift levers and shows me what a half-inch squirt of the throttle feels like. Instantly you are reminded that here is a machine more rapid than most hypercar drivers can even comprehend. It has more than double the horsepower of a Bugatti Veyron.

The Corvette effortlessly clouts you back into the carbon low-back chair and the side exhausts yowl through the open windows. Saboury taps my shoulder: "Remember, this is not a street car that you can race," he bellows. "It is a race car that you can drive on the street!"

Normal people don't dial their brains into building a safe, handsome, durable street dragster. But then normal people don't climb down a ladder from a barn roof to drive themselves to the hospital after suffering a heart attack, like what Saboury did once. Make no mistake, he is hardcore.

Pedestrians and other motorists are finding the sight of the Corvette difficult to compute. I remember what Saboury said before we left his farm: "I set out going for the effect that, if you see me coming towards you on the street, it looks as if a Pro Mod car made the wrong turn off the drag strip. That's what I wanted to achieve." It's safe to say he has achieved that. Sitting, shuddering at the lights outside the local police station feels awesome.

In four years, Saboury had put more than 5,600 road/race kilometres on the engine without hiccups (bar a faulty alternator on a cruise once) and once won a top 10 award at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas.

Is this his final project? "I think so. I mean, where do I go from here? How much faster do I want to go? My father used to say 'Don't brag about something, boy, until you do it first'. I never said this was going to run six seconds, but I built it to be a six-second car. That goal has been achieved. If you get greedy you could get unlucky, and I can't afford to crash.

"I'll just keep tweaking the car. I had the chassis made with brackets for air con and I've found a compressor that only uses 3hp. I might try doing a six-second pass with the a/c on."