Scenic Route Voices No.7 Title, a car on a desert road with mountains in the background.

Exploring the desert with fast friends
and faster cars

Welcome to the seventh edition of Scenic Route: Voices — a series spotlighting the stories of drivers and enthusiasts from all walks of life.

This month, Syd Cummings walks us through a once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive her vintage Saab 99 Turbo through the desert from LA to Vegas for the Las Vegas Grand Prix, how the ceremony and theater of Formula 1 has turned her into a lifelong fan, and the sheer vastness of Death Valley.

Syd is an automotive photographer and car enthusiast based in Vermont.

Trading Vermont hills for one of the
most dramatic landscapes on earth

Words and photos by @yourfriendsyd

If you had told the engineers of the Saab 99 Turbo that in forty-five years, it would be driving across the Mojave Desert with a convoy of enthusiast cars for display at the 2023 Las Vegas Grand Prix, they would have been...only a little surprised. The 99 Turbo was a prototype brought to market, a car Saab was still developing into the 900 Turbo when the 99 Turbo went on sale. So, when I got the chance to bring my newly unveiled “Project 99” across the country, the idea of driving through the desert largely untested felt like the best test drive imaginable.
The program itself was as vast as that desert, beginning in Los Angeles and culminating at the Formula 1 Las Vegas Grand Prix.
Image of car with text reading “the idea of driving through the desert, largely untested, felt like the best test drive imaginable.”

“The idea of driving
through the desert, largely
untested, felt like the best
test drive imaginable.”

Rolling into Audi Pasadena, I didn’t know what to expect. But instantly, the lot was filled with smiling faces, and a wide array of cars. There was a MotoRex R34 Skyline GT-R; a beautiful, vintage Alfa Romeo Giulia sedan driven by the wonderful Dorian Valenzuela; a 964-generation RS Porsche driven by racing driver Loni Unser; and a 997-generation 911 Turbo S Edition 918. The latter two were provided by Betim Berisha of BBI Autosport; his and Dorian’s services would prove invaluable later.
The departure from LA was an “out of the frying pan” moment. Alongside the contemporary street and track cars—particularly an E92 BMW M3 and the R34 Skyline, both heavily modified— the Saab was a long way from the winding, 50-mph hills of Vermont. We quickly learned that the Saab preferred traffic to high speeds, at least as far as coolant temperature was concerned. But thanks to frequent fuel stops and even more frequent photo ops, I was able to borrow the talents of Betim and Dorian, who were as surprised to find themselves poking around a Saab as I was to have a car in their capable hands.
A man’s hands working under the hood of a car.
Together, we made some quick on-the-road changes—a new coolant overflow cap, a rapid bleed of the cooling system, and getting the Saab’s heat working. Back on the road, their repairs kept temperatures down, and my little Saab performed flawlessly as our eclectic caravan traversed the desert. Our adventurous rally finally concluded at the Virgin Hotel in Las Vegas with an excellent view of the Grand Prix track
With the car’s reliability proven, we felt comfortable enough to take it a bit farther on Friday: specifically, Death Valley National Park for some incredible landscapes. The car loved this amazing place, and so did I. Being able to see my livery displayed in such an otherworldly landscape—first under the piercing sun, and then the vast evening sky—was a transcendent experience.
Slideshow of a car from various angles.
Slideshow of a car from various angles.
Slideshow of a car from various angles.
Back in the real world, tension was building for the Grand Prix. Being my first Formula 1 race, and being a new fan, I didn’t know what to expect. For several weeks, my friends in automotive journalism had been apprehensive about everything from the overnight schedule, to logistics, to security activity around the race. But save for a few well-publicized incidents (particularly the infamous manhole cover), the race activities were as impressive as any Las Vegas show.
The evening began at Caesar’s Palace, where Loni Unser and I got an inside look at the Red Bull paddock before moving to the Red Bull racing suite. It’s like heart surgery in there; the process and preparation that goes into a 90-minute race was wild, down to the oil science with experts monitoring everything that goes on in Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez’ RB19 race cars.
Formula 1 race car with a crew member working on it.
Witnessing the fanfare from the suite was a cavalcade of ceremony. I was grateful to run into my friend Elana Scherr, senior editor at Car and Driver magazine. She gave me the rundown of the drivers, the drama, and the politics of F1. As Max and Checo battled Leclerc in a thrilling sequence of DRS-range passes, she really completed the story for me; by the time the checkered flag waved and the mad dash to the podium began, I was an F1 fan through and through.
Overall, I can’t think of a better way to experience the energy of Formula 1 for the first time, and to be able to bring the Saab 99 Turbo out west and enjoy the landscape was an experience for which I’m incredibly grateful. Between the new friends, amazing experiences, and newfound passion for Formula 1, I’d say the trip was a resounding success—and I can’t wait to do it again!
Woman sitting on the hood of car looking to the left.