December 3, 1986 – Saleen Mustangs – what are they, where did they come from and where are they going? A special limited edition Mustang from the performance era of the 60’s to the ”leading of technology” of the 80’s. Yes – that “leading edge” is as precarious as it sounds for one Southern California road racer, Steve Saleen, who designed and developed a Mustang that would return that chassis to the forefront of the racing community. “We have built a performance car, now we need to show just how well it does perform”, said Saleen, and that he did. The natural venue for the car was the SCCA Escort Showroom Stock Endurance Championship Series in the SSGT Class, which Saleen against IROC Camaros, Pontiac Trans Ams, Nissan 300ZX’s, Audi Quattros and the “pros” of endurance racing, the Porsche 944s. The endurance races were 4, 6 or 24 hours long which called for the Mustangs to be run hard and put away wet.
Just two weeks before the first race, slated for April 26, at Sears point, preparation for car #29 began due to major sponsorship by General Tire (don’t they make ties for Ramblers? – more on that later), as well as Ford Motorcraft, Escort Radar Detectors Koni Shocks, and Kenwood Stereos.
The new sponsor, General Tire, had previously proven to Saleen they were very serious about performance tires and after extensive back to back testing against other major brands, on skid pads, slalom runs and road courses, Saleen was convinced enough to offer the XP 2000V’s as original equipment on the Saleen Mustang and to further test them, where it really counts, on the racetrack.
Steve Saleen and Rick Titus were to be the lead drivers for the series. Steve having extensive experience in road racing from 1975 driving a Shelby Mustang in B Production Class to Super Vee, Formula Atlantic, and Trans Am.
Rick Titus, following in his famous father’s footsteps (Jerry Titus drove for Carroll Shelby in the Mustang GT 350 and won Ford championships in the Mustang GT 350 and won Ford championships in the Trans Am Series of the late 60’s) would be aiming for like honors in the 80’s.
The Sears Point race for car #29 brought out the major problems of the Mustang that would prove to haunt the team throughout the season: fuel economy and brakes. With a smaller gas tank and inadequate brakes, the Saleen had its work cut out for it. But the 200 HP 302 V-8 motor and the Borg Warner T5 trans proved to be unbelievably strong and never missed a beat. Development on the brake pads continued throughout the year. The size difference of the gas tanks between the Saleens and the Porsches meant the Saleen had to dominate with speed on the track to try to compensate for time lost in the pits during refueling. And you thought Miami Vice had drama and action!
A second Saleen Mustang was added mid-season at Nelson Ledges and was prepared by Ken Brown and Rex McCoppin of Omaha, Nebraska. The first of three 24-hour races brought new faces behind the wheel. Lisa Caceres and Alice Ridpath made up the “all girl” team for car #19. The second car also necessitated very precise logistics and planning. Thus began the intensive strategy meetings with Steve Saleen as Team Manager detailing every aspect of practice, qualifying and racing. “Don’t count on your brakes to get you out of trouble” was the main topic of discussion as well as, “No scratches – no scratches on these cars – I don’t want to replace decals for the next race!” Picky, picky, picky, but it all added up to simple logic. “We are here to be at the front after 24 hours, not off course battling a Honda CRX on the first lap.” Pit stops, driver changes and refueling were endlessly practiced. Perfection was their goal; lack of experience was their problem.
Ken and Rex and volunteers from the Mustang Club of Omaha worked seemingly endless hours to make the #29 and #19 the best they could be. Steve Saleen and Rick Titus with the accompanying core of drivers sharpened their skills as endurance drivers and everyone worked together as a “team”. Rick Titus said, “These showroom stock cars don’t behave like open wheel cars. They obviously perform like street cars and you have to change your driving philosophy. As long as you can think accordingly, these cars can do amazing things”
The Saleen Mustang/General Tire team was officially recognized as a team to beat. They consistently ran the fastest times in practice and qualifying and led in virtually every race. There were a great deal of lessons to be learned, and every mistake made became a major point in the next strategy meeting.
When the series led the team to Mosport, Canada for the second 24-hour race, it all came together. The Saleens dominated the race and won by a 6-lap margin. Skeeter McKitterick, Tom Winters and Desire’ Wilson had joined the team. These vastly experienced drivers were a key element in the Saleen’s first win. Everything they had learned up to this point had been painfully accepted in the prior two races, where a 1- 2 finish had been so close at hand. The victory – a first for Saleen, General Tire and Ford Motor Company in Showroom Stock racing – was not without its own painful scars as the first major crash of the year came early Sunday morning after 19 hours of racing. But the team’s determinations and desire only intensified to ensure the victory for car #19. “Every person involved with the team shared a part of this win -we all worked hard and it paid off.” said Crew Chief, Ken Brown.
The team was new, the car was new, the sponsor was new but the professionalism and determination of everyone involved brought every success and every failure into sharp focus and a Ford Motorsports team to victory.
“Our sole purpose for campaigning the Saleen Mustang in the Showroom Stock Series is to showcase the car and its capabilities directly to the consumer. The individual manufacturers involved in our program also benefit by featuring their products in a positive and aggressive manner,” said Steve Saleen. He goes on to add, “It doesn’t hurt to beat those Black Forest boys at their own game either!”
The Saleen Mustang’s accomplishments did not go unnoticed by Ford. The team’s efforts have been rewarded with a full-fledged backing by Ford for the 1987 season as well as continued support by General Tire.
Not one to stand still, Saleen has designed .the 1987 Saleen Mustang with “the leading edge of technology” in mind (4-wheel disc brakes to be specific). With lessons learned and aspirations still high – he plans to balance on that “edge” and capture a championship.