Nearly Two Decades Later The Saleen S7R Is Still A Paragon Of A Big Displacement Race Car
Photography by Will Broadhead
What constitutes historic and classic racing is likely to be an ever-evolving discussion, as the years roll on and cars that don’t seem to be that far on the fringes of history begin to turn up to classic race meetings while others slowly fade away.
New historic divisions for cars that are often less than twenty years old—love them or loath them—do turn out some fabulous racing, and grids populated by cars you might have forgotten about in the last two decades. Cars such as the seldom-seen Saleen S7, of which there were two present at the recent Spa Classic in their motorsport “S7R” trim, which some may remember competing in various top-level GT championships at the turn of the millennium.
The hand-built road-going version debuted in 2000 and produced roughly 550hp from its naturally-aspirated 7.0L V8, but gained most of its notoriety from the fact that it was a rare breed in general: a mid-engine production supercar made in America. The brainchild of Steve Saleen, who up until this point had been mostly involved with building hot Mustangs, the car was also developed in the skilled hands of Ray Mallock LTD, the famous Britain-based motorsport and engineering company. Indeed, it was RML that assembled the racing versions of the S7, and the first S7R finished late in 2000 was immediately shipped stateside to compete in that year’s American Le Mans event at Laguna Seca, where it finished in 26th place.
Saleen always quoted the S7R as being not very far removed from the road-going car, seeing as it was indeed built on the same space frame, steel-tubed chassis, with bolt fasten sub-assemblies, used the same suspension design, and even the same brakes—albeit without the ABS that was fitted to the production versions.
Of course, the Ford Windsor-derived engine is in a higher state of tune in the S7R, and the gearbox features straight cut gears that produce that familiar whine. And on the subject of noise, this is a machine that sounds just plain terrifying, as V8 racing cars ought to. Fired up inside its pit box, warmed up with short stabs of the throttle, the barks from the back end are felt in your guts; hands cover ears in quick panic around me as the unrestrained V8 is brought to operating temperature.
On the track and on song, it’s much the same story, as the pistons spin up to the 7000rpm redline and the six-speed ‘box finds another gear to repeat the tremendous ascension of noise all over again. Although this car isn’t really old in the grand scheme of things, I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic, there’s just something about the noise of a screaming racing car with hundreds of horsepower and three pedals. But while the car is going around quite well around Spa, was it actually any good during its contemporary competition years?
Well the answer to that is yes, actually. It may not have quite had the same impact as the Vipers and ‘Vettes, it did enjoy a successful racing career during a hotly contested period of GT competition. A class victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring in its infancy stated its intentions and proved its competency, as well as a European Le Mans class championship win and a class podium at Le Mans itself in the same year, 2001. Further successes followed, with wins around the globe and championships earned in both British and Spanish series.
The #163 car pictured in this article is chassis S7-03-029R, which competed in the 2004 ALMS championship under the ACEMCO banner, driven at that time by Johnny Mowlem and Terry Borcheller, although David Brabham did have one drive early in the season. The team finished 2nd in class that year, behind the better-funded Corvette factory outfits campaigning the C5-R, and this was to be an indicator of how the Saleen racing story would reach its conclusion. Financial troubles started to hit the teams running the S7R’s in various series, and as such, starting in 2005, Saleen began to downsize its racing efforts to focus on a few specific championships. The car pictured wearing the #66 was ACEMCO’s example of doing just that, as it focused solely on the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2006, where the car managed an overall finish of 11th.
By the end of 2007 the teams involved in running the S7Rs had either folded or moved on to other platforms (it was getting quite long in the tooth after seven years), and despite one last hurrah in 2010 when an S7R took the LMPGT1 class win at that the great 24-hour race. It showed what might have been had the racing efforts been better funded, but also showed just what a capable racing machine the S7R continued to be despite its age. Thankfully, this wonderfully mean machine now has a series to compete in once again in the newly-reformed Endurance Racing Legends Championship, and we can once more revel in its presence.