Mustangs on Track – A Look At Mustangs & Motorsport!
Mustangs on Track – How the Pony galloped, went lame and then learned to run again!
1. The Beginnings of a Legend!
When the Mustang was launched in 1964 it was a huge success both in terms of popular appeal and sales, but also as the base for a certain Mr (not Mrs!) Carroll Shelby to graft some motorsports know how he had gained from his race career and his fame from the AC Cobra project where he teamed up with UK manufacturer AC and Ford to create a car that became a legend. The AC Cobra project sparked his relationship with the blue Oval and he also worked on the GT40 Le Mans project as Ford sought to put one over on Ferrari..
Below: Ken Miles drives a Shelby Cobra on track. Photo courtesy Jim Culp.
Shelby found his feet quickly when Ford asked him to breath on their new Pony car, and the result was the famed Shelby GT350. The race version, the GT350R was produced in tiny numbers with only 34 built, specifically for competition use under SCCA rules, and the model was the B-Production champion for three straight years. The stang was up and running! However the trend at the time meant the cars got increasingly heavier and more luxurious and less “racy” The 1969 GT350s and GT500s were largely styling modifications to a stock Mustang. Also by 1969 Carroll Shelby was no longer involved in the Shelby GT program, and the design was done in-house by Ford. After this period the Shelby name became connected with high power street Mustangs such as the GT500 but not with Motorsports.
Below: Shelby 1965 GT350 on track: Photo Courtesy Jim Culp
Every good Ford story needs a baddy, and while the Fiesta may have the Corsa, the Mustang has always had the Camaro, which was launched in 67 on the tails of the Mustangs success (as you see the Camaro has been behind from the very beginning!). The rivalry continued onto the track, and Ford unveiled the next legendary Mustang name in the form of the 1969–70 Boss 302 (Hi-Po) an engine created in 1968 for the SCCA's 1969 Trans-Am road racing series, in an attempt to best the newly rampant Camaro. The BOSS 302 was accompanied by another legendary name from the Mustang annals, Parnelli Jones, who drove the Boss 302 Trans Am series car to victory in the 1969 Series, which was to be a Ford Mustangs last title for quite some time! On the bright side it wasn’t the Camaro that took the laurels afterwards but AMC Javelins.
As such 69 proved to be a real end of an era for Ford Mustang success, both on track, and indeed in showrooms. The cars got bigger and more luxurious and more importantly, a lot slower. As the cars slowed, sales slowed too, and throughout the 70s and early 80s various ideas were tried and failed to ignite a positive reaction from the public and on track. Roush and German tuner Zakspeed (of Capri fame) were brought together by Ford to try and create some kind of racing success under the Mustang name in purpose built race cars such as the Mustang GTP and Mustang Maxum GTP in the IMSA series but the programs were deemed a failure by Ford and failed to revive the flagging Mustang brand. Ford Chairmain Lee Iacocca was famously said to have despaired, “The Mustang market never left us, we left it…”
Below: "Mustang" Maxum GTP (photo Lothar Spurzem)
2. Rebirth of a Legend!
However right at the end of the Fox Body platforms life, Ford SVT (Special Vehicle Team) sought to resurrect the Mustang on track with a return to its roots; sports car racing based on homologation specials the public could buy, and by teaming up with a new tuner on the scene - Steeda, and together they brought the Mustang back to the winners circle.
Steeda was founded by Dario Orlando, a race driver and someone who grew up with Ford blue running deep in his veins. His grandad started working for Ford just 7 years after Henry set up, and his father Domenico Orlando was a designer at Ford who was part of the launch of the GT40 and the original Mustang. Dario’s race credentials were soon picked up on by Ford too, and he was recruited to help finalise the suspension setup for the Merkur XR4i Sierra, before going on to set up Steeda to try and bring his race knowledge and engineering background to the Mustang.
Steeda worked on Ford’s plan to bring back racing success with the Cobra R, a race derivative version first of the Fox body platform “Cobra” itself a high performance variant of the base model. The R version (for Race obviously!) was developed by Fords SVT as a Road Racing Homologation special and only 107 versions were produced.
Below: Dario beside a Steeda "Fox Body" Cobra R race car. The Mustang was finally back to winning ways after more than 20 years!
A 1993 Steeda Cobra R was the first Cobra R to win a race in competition and it proved that a Steeda prepared Mustang could be competitive at a world-class event. Steeda and Ford SVT initiated a collaboration together on the development of the 1995 Cobra R program, which would use the new SN95 platform and takes thing up another notch for the 250 Rs that were to be produced. They took the race knowledge that Steeda acquired with the 1993 Cobra R program campaign and added various Steeda modifications and changes to the new platform. In addition, Steeda collaborated on a special 21-gallon fuel cell for the Cobra R that enabled it to be more competitive under race conditions. The collaboration proved a success as a Steeda Cobra R took the first ever Pole Position by a Mustang at the IMSA Daytona event and then, at the Texas Motor Speedway, the Steeda Cobra R won the first IMSA race for the Ford Mustang Team since Jerry Titus won at Daytona in 1968.
Below: Steeda founder Dario Orlando in Race Team Boss Mode with the Steeda SN95 Cobra R
The Steeda Cobra R performed flawlessly during the race and at the end of the gruelling 6-hour endure it succeeded in lapping the field twice – a huge margin of victory. The Steeda Cobra R was dominant in the 1996 season, and to show the impact the Steeda fettling had, it won the championship and won more points than ALL THE OTHER Mustangs combined…. This racing success was what Steeda built their reputation on, and further enhanced the cooperation and alliance with Ford. After all who doesn’t like winning?
This cooperation was formally acknowledged by Ford in 2000 as Steeda become the first partner for Ford in the SEMA Technology Transfer program, which gave Steeda full access to all Ford CAD data and access to pre-release models to begin development on. It also allowed Steeda to become the first company to be able to offer “Ford Approved” ECU Calibrations to customers via Ford dealers.
Roush had also resurrected their motorsport alliance with Ford and Roush Racing developed and ran Mustang based purpose built race cars in the 90s to run in the updated TransAm Series, and secured back to back wins in 94,95,96 and 97, but these were very much purpose built race cars from when Ford and General motors were happy to throw huge money into race cars in order to gain the upper hand, rather than anything resembling an actual Mustang. Roush have carried on the tradition of “top flight” racing, campaigning in NASCAR under the Mustang banner as well. Roush Performance was setup in 1995 to start to create Roush badged Mustangs to capitalise on their racing name.
Motorsport success continued throughout the SN95 era, and Steeda & Roush equipped cars racked up victory after victory, and in 2005 Ford launched the new S197 Mustang which really began the “modern era” of Mustangs.
3. The Start of the "Modern" Mustang Era
Ford showed a Steeda Q500 car on their stand at the launch of the new model at the Detroit Auto Show and racing success continued with the S197. In the 2005 “American Iron Series” the Steeda Autosports equipped Mustang won 12 poles out of the 13 races, captured 1st place 11 times, finished 2nd once, and had a 3rd place finish – a remarkable achievement for a new cars first season.
This long period of reborn success and collaboration resulted in Ford celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Mustang by issuing 5 awards to “Legends of Mustang”; to Carroll Shelby, Steve Saleen, Jack Roush, Parnelli Jones, and Dario Orlando.
Below: The 20005 Steeda Q500R Concept prepped for Ford for the S197 Launch at the Detroit Auto Show.
Below: Need For Speed. The Mustang as Hollywood Hero!
The S197 model also saw a return of the BOSS 302 before it was replaced in 2015 with the all new “Global” S550 model, and that is what we in Europe can now enjoy. Steeda again were given access to pre-release cars and had full packages available on release, and the motorsport success continues, with the Steeda number 20 Q500R track development car winning its regional championship last year, and the “Silver Bullet” drag strip development car setting numerous world records last year as it pushed the envelope of what you can do with a normally aspirated Mustang and bolt on mods! This success on the strip has already been replicated in the UK as an S550 equipped with the Steeda “Stop The Hop” pack and race shifter won the Santa Pod RWYB cup in 2018 with another Steeda equipped Mustang in 4th. New kinds of Motorsport have also entered the scene and the Mustang has gone along with it, with Vaughn Gittin jnr pioneering the Mustang in the Drift scene that was previously dominated by Japanese cars. Roush still push the Mustang in NASCAR when Ford wants as well (as it was the Mondeo for a while!)
Below: Steeda VP Glen Vitale and the Number 20 S550 Road Racer with a haul of trophies.
Below: Steeda "Silver Bullet" World Record breaking drag car piloted by Steeda factory head Scott Boda.
Custom Auto Fabrications Drift Mustang in the UK!
4. The Future of Mustang!
In 2023 Ford have launched the all new S650 platform, with an all new sub-brand the "Dark Horse" a track focussed special edition as well as a raft of turnkey homologation racers from Ford Racing!
This article based on an article I wrote for Fast Ford Magazine in the UK. All and any mistakes are my own, let me know!