By: DAVID CZURAK on May 10, 1999

Keller Picks Up Speed With Vehicle Line, Pace Car

It was a match made in Gasoline Alley. Well, not really, but close enough. Keller Ford and Saleen Performance Cars inked their deal after bumping into each other in the grease- and oil-stained paddock area of the West Michigan Grand Prix after last summer’s inaugural race. Now Keller Ford is an exclusive seller of two of Saleen’s high-performance Fords, with another beefed-up model on the way.

Saleen Performance Cars, based in Irvine, Calif., has carved out a niche for itself in the specialty manufacturing field by taking showroom vehicles and turning them into road runners, sporty cars with more style, power and range than the production models. Sports Car Club of America driver Steve Saleen started the business in 1984. Today Saleen has five divisions, including design and engineering, and a national network of dealers. In between, the firm has converted over 6,000 vehicles.

Keller Ford, on Alpine Avenue NW, became one of those dealers last fall. The Walker dealership has two thumpers for sale; the Saleen XP8 Explorer and the Saleen S281 Mustang. The Mustang, a sleek and shiny black machine with hot-pink piping that was co-designed by Saleen and Keller Ford, is the official pace car for the second running of this summer’s Grand Prix. A pumped-up Saleen F-Series pickup truck will arrive at Keller later.

Going back to July, Keller Ford provided all the cars and trucks for last summer’s Grand Prix. Saleen was there, too. His firm is a partner with TV star Tim Allen, who raced a Saleen Mustang here last summer. After the racing was done, the two companies met.

“Steve was very impressed with the job that we did. He approached us after the race and wanted to know if we wanted to be one of the exclusive Saleen dealers in West Michigan and we accepted,” said Rob Keller, owner of Keller Ford. “They’re considered a very specialty vehicle manufacturer that converts models into more of a high-performance vehicle.”

The Saleen 281 Mustang comes with a standard 4.6 liter-engine – capable of producing up to 285 horsepower – racing suspension and 18-inch wheels. Add a Saleen “Roots” Supercharger and the horsepower jumps to 350, and 19-inch wheels also are available. The “standard” model starts at $28,590.

If that’s not enough Mustang, there is the Saleen S351 that does 0-to-60 in 4.6 seconds and reaches 122 miles-per-hour in a quarter-mile run. The S351 can crank out 495 horsepower and comes as a coupe, convertible or speedster. Prices start at $50,445.

“With Saleen’s experience racing in the world’s premier motorsports events, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, we have truly created the fastest vehicle on the ground,” Saleen said. The Mustang was bred at the Saleen/Allen “RRR” Speedlab, a partnership between the racer and “Home Improvement” star.

Saleen also offers an Explorer XP8 at Keller’s, a bulkier version of the popular Ford sports utility vehicle. The XP8 has a standard 5.0 liter V-8 with 222 horses that can be souped up to 286 horsepower. It has a special carbon fiber hood and racing brakes with 13-inch discs. The XP8 sells for about $37,000.

Once again, Keller Ford is providing the track trucks and pace car, 14 vehicles in all, for the race, which runs from Aug. 27-29.

“All of the vehicles are for sale,” said Keller. “Some, like the pace car and a few of the other Saleens, have commitments made on them. But there are others available.”

Besides Keller Ford, Grand Prix sponsors include the Gainey Corp., Meijer Inc., Pepsi, CenturyTel, Speedway gas stations, Johnson Controls, Country Fresh, MichCon, Budweiser, Purple East, Michigan National Bank and BF Goodrich.

The early corporate response to Grand Prix II has pleased race officials, especially West Michigan Grand Prix Association President Sam Cummings. “We believe that through our awesome partners and sponsorship sales, we will see a strong interest in early ticket sales,” said Cummings. Race tickets are on sale now.

The Business Journal honored last summer’s three-day event by presenting Cummings and WMGPA Chairman Dan DeVos with its annual Newsmaker-of-the-Year Award in March.