Lookiní Good While
Rod Saboury has done both in his unique style
By Robert Bravender
Photos by Ian Rae, Michael Ray and courtesy of Rod Saboury
Tony Christian once sardonically asked Rod Saboury, "Do you want to look good or do you want to go fast?" No one could combine style and horsepower into one machine like this Maryland native. Rod Saboury has created a magnificent series of cars that are equally at home in the show field or on the street, as well as the highly competitive world of the National Muscle Car Association's Pro Street class.
Even at the beginning of his racing career, Saboury showed a taste for the offbeat, entering a '69 Z-28 in 1977ís SS/K class, a period when NHRA's rules didn't offer the Camaro any horsepower advantages. But he still won his class at the '77 Summer Nationals. For the next decade, racing took a back seat while Saboury developed his roofing business. But in 1990 he bought his signature '57 Vette, an old Super Gas car, and it didn't take long for the latent drag racer in both the car and himself to come out.
Bucking the bias of the streets, Saboury initially resisted the urge to use nitrous, turbos, or even a blower, making his bones with a naturally aspirated Garrett 632. "All I wanted was horsepower," he explained. "To me, nitrous is like a racehorse on steroids. I'm not knocking it, because it's been very entertaining for lots of fans, but I just wanted to go a different route. And it actually paid off for me, because I really couldn't afford to be putting a lot of motors together all the time."
Ever since the birth of Pro Street racing in 1992, Saboury has been a force to be reckoned with in both Pro and Outlaw Street. And yet Saboury is virtually a one-man show. Assisted solely by his wife, Tina, he's his own crew chief, transport driver and detailer. Heís self-financed, relying primarily on his income as a roofer/general handyman to support his race efforts. Arguably operating on one of the smallest budgets in the Pro Street field, even his 4-wheeler was financed through the bank, but it's safe to say that nobody maximized those cubic dollars better than Rod Saboury.
"That car used to leave the starting line carrying the wheels like a bullet," said Saboury. "I can't remember ever aborting a pass and probably made twice as many runs as the next two cars (I had) put together. And I could actually hop into that car and drive it on the street. Thatís one of the reasons I lost (the first NMCA Fastest Street Car Shootout) at Memphis despite being the No. 1 qualifier," he said. "But if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have done anything different. I had fun. That's what made that car my favorite. It was a real street car with a stock body, stock interior, stock dash, etc. People could really relate to that car."
By 1993, the NMCA ruled the '57 illegal due to its disproportionate horsepower-to-weight ratio, but Saboury continued to race it as an exhibition car at NMCA and Super Chevy events, breaking into the 7s with a .99 at the 1993 World Finals, making him the quickest street car on pure motor. Meanwhile, he was building his next car, a 'phantom' 1953 Corvette hardtop. Originally assembled for the ISCA show circuit, Saboury converted it for drag racing, maintaining that it was a legitimate '53, despite its incredible rarity as Corvette's very first year model.
"It was number No. 283 off the assembly line," Saboury said. "I had the original title and everything to it." With a Jon Little Pro Mod chassis installed under the car, the '53 featured a Garrett 796 and the Powerglide out of Saboury's '57, as well as wilder graphics than before, proving to be another crowd pleaser.
"That was a neat car and people used to tell me that it was too nice to go that fast," Saboury said. "But we saw how Pro Street was going, and we knew we couldn't compete, so we built this car for match racing and exhibition runs."
But as luck would have it, in 1997, the NMCA premiered the Outlaw Street class, a perfect fit for Saboury's new ride. Once again he was championing natural aspiration, only this time facing blowers as well as laughing gas. When he debuted the car in Virginia, he repeated the Pro Street feat of qualifying No.1 and went on to finish fourth in points. By the next season, he beefed up the drive train with a Sonny Leonard 813 mill and a Lenco tranny, winning the '98 Outlaw Street Championship before finally selling the car.
By the end of the '98 season, Saboury was thinking about quitting the Street Legal drag racing circuit entirely when he became enamored of the idea of returning to Pro Street with a radically new set-up. Breaking from his beloved natural aspiration, Saboury began building a twin turbocharged small block Chevy, something only Gene Deputy had tried -- rather unsuccessfully -- with a Ford.
"Everybody said I was crazy," Saboury said. "We knew (the turbos) made a lot of power...We didn't know anything about them at all, but we decided to try anyway."
This set-up wouldn't readily drop into an early-model Corvette, so Saboury had to forego his traditional body style in favor of a 1998 Firebird. With a freshened engine from Kenny Duttweiller, the Pontiac debuted at Rockingham in '99. After experimenting with tires which could transfer the immense power he had on tap, Saboury was soon back in the hunt, and by St. Louis was tied in points with '98 Pro Street champ Bob Rieger, perhaps one of the wealthiest racers in the series. But Saboury's own finances were being stretched to the limit.
"I set both ends of the record, knocked Bob out early in the elimination, and beat Tony Christian in the final," he said. "I got so many points that it would have been hard for Bob to catch us with only two races left. And I was running on minimum boost. Then on our way home Bob called and offered to buy everything out. I had really wanted to win back-to-back championships in different classes, but I said yes. At the time, it was the best thing to do. I had one mortgage just to get a used $60,000 chassis, then another $40,000 for a used 1995 Duttweiller engine -- and absolutely no spare parts. We had been really lucky up to that point."
For a whole year after selling the Firebird, Saboury turned his focus completely away from cars, but at the end of that interlude he began his latest project, a '63 split-window Corvette. "Of course it's again a real car," he said, emphasizing that itís not a lightweight race body. Built on a double-frame chassis, the body has been sliced in three places to lengthen the car one foot to a 110-inch wheelbase.
The full interior is from a '67 Corvette and sports Saboury's traditional bright blue and white color combination, while the exterior is 2000 Corvette Nassau Blue. The powerplant is a similar to the Firebird's: a 350 crate motor with twin turbos but further modified by Mike Moran with a bore and stroke equaling 400 cid, and brand new big block heads designed by Dart to bolt onto a small block. To power this 3,000-pound car to a 6-second pass, Moran and Saboury are shooting for 2200 horses.
But in true Saboury fashion, this Vette also is being built to be an actual street car, sporting power windows, as well as a dual fuel system: small cell up front for racing, a 15-gallon cell in back for cruising. "It'll be like the early days of Pro Street," Saboury said, "not a street car to race, but a race car you can drive. I want to be able to cruise the streets, giving people rides.
The Vette is due to be finished this November or December, too late to be raced this season. But Saboury has a standing invitation from NHRA to make exhibition passes at any of its events. "And it's legal for Pro Street," he adds, "but in the high 6s it won't be competitive enough." Thatís not to say he won't have a go every once in a while . . .
"It was hard to walk away from something that we were good at," says Saboury said. "I would go back for a full season, but I would have to have a sponsor. I couldn't do it again on my own. It was just too much pressure. The only thing I actually miss is driving the car. Sometimes I also get a little bit emotional when people talk to me about the fans, but Tina and I are lucky. We had the best fans out there. It didn't matter if we showed up at a match race in Michigan, they would be there. It really humbles you to think that these people would follow you."
As one of the few Pro Street racers not to make his living from motorsports, Rod Saboury was and is unique. In that respect, he best represents us -- the fans who've watched the game from the sidelines -- only he actually got into the game and won.
His other legacies were the amazing cars he created. The Firebird quickly was parted out, while the two Corvettes have pretty much been relegated to show status. "The guy who bought my '53 just races it once in a while," Saboury said.
"It's funny, because here I had an 813 in it, and he will call me up on a Saturday night with the thing running in his garage and all his buddies are there screaming and hollering. It's a championship winning car and he's just having fun with it. To each his own."
And finally, just how did Saboury answer Tony Christian's query?
"I told him I wanted to look good going fast," Saboury said with
a laugh. "I think the fact that I actually did made him mad. He just
shook his head and walked away."
© Competitionplus 2005