The hunt for 500 mph turned fatal.
Taming the wind with a land-speed-racing Mustang II
Fred Vincent probably never expected that he’d be brought back into the driver seat thanks to a Mustang II, the oft-overlooked second generation of the eponymous pony car wedged between the beloved original and the darling of the aftermarket, the Fox-body. Vincent’s amateur racing career started behind the wheel of a drag car in the 1960s, and he eventually campaigned a 1967 L88 Corvette convertible that ran 11s, sans roll bar. From there, he dabbled in building sprint cars and their engines before taking time off from racing to raise a family. However, the allure of speed never truly left. After all, it’s tough to shake the call of a wide-open V-8 engine.
“In 2015, I was asked to do the invocation at the Bonneville Salt Flats,” Vincent says. He crewed on a team from Montana with a Model A roadster, which was powered by a four-cylinder Ford Model A engine with an Auburn overhead-valve conversion. “We ran 110 mph, but I was bitten by the salt bug. What impressed me were the back-yard-built, but serious race cars. The objective appeared to be, ‘How fast can you go with how small an engine and how little money?’”
With the salt bug worming its way deeper under his skin, Vincent returned to his home of Grapevine, Texas, to begin his search for a land speed car. He found the car, and his race partner, Stan White, somewhat by chance. Vincent was working on his P-code 427 1964 Galaxie 500 four-speed on the side of the road when White cruised up in his pickup and offered to help. Their shared passion for racing was apparent and the two became friends.
Also in White’s stable was a Mustang II, and he was the car’s second owner, having purchased it in 1982 as a senior in high school. The car came with several desirable options, including a three-speed automatic transmission and, most importantly, a 302-cubic-inch V-8. Choked by the emission regulations of the era, it was far from the snorting muscle car engine it had been in the late ‘60s, yet it was still a 302 and therefore had the big-bore/short-stroke combination that is so willing to make high-rpm power when given the opportunity.
It only sounds easy
White opened an auto repair shop in Denton, Texas, in 1992 and the Mustang II was a back-burner project, receiving upgrades bit-by-bit over the years. The small-block was fitted with improved iron heads that bumped the compression and made possible a roller cam with more lift and duration than the tepid original. A set of Hooker headers replaced the restrictive factory manifolds and really let the V-8 breathe. He also ditched the automatic for a T-5 manual five-speed. The factory eight-inch rear axle remained, but it was upgraded with a locking differential and 3.55 gears, the lowest available from the factory during the Mustang II’s production run from 1974–78.
Those gears aren’t particularly low in the realm of street performance or drag racing, but the Mustang II had another advantage: it was light. Its short wheelbase, while potentially a handful at high speed, also allowed it to transfer weight to the rear and hook up, even on the street. It proved to be a potent combination, especially when it already had a running start and the gears could carry it, and since it was already fitted with a roll cage, it was well on its way to being the solution to Vincent’s salt bug problem.
The Mustang II checked off all the boxes for Vincent: it was light, it had a small frontal area, and it had good weight distribution. Vincent made his case for land speed racing and White was in. They added Dayne West, owner of Grapevine Automotive, and Silas Wright, a former aircraft electrical manager at Boeing turned engine tuner and car builder. They named their enterprise “Team 114” after their local highway and began work to make the Mustang salt-ready.
The team headed to the Utah Salt Flat Racing Association’s 130 MPH Club race in 2017. Vincent and the rest of Team 114 learned a lot on that first outing, noting, “USFRA states ‘it only sounds easy’ and they weren’t kidding.” The salt flat is at 4300 feet elevation, which means while there’s a bit less air resistance, there’s also less oxygen to turn into engine power. Traction can also be a big issue, because as Vincent notes, “salt is like running on ice covered in drifting snow.”
Vincent knew most racers experienced a spin at the World of Speed event the previous year, so Team 114 came prepared with a huge aluminum wing that Vincent referred to as “training wheels.” The contraption got some odd looks and comments. “But it damn sure worked,” Vincent says.
Running the wing to keep the car planted and straight, with a stiffer suspension and 110 octane fuel in the tank, the car ran strong. While the aerodynamic aid, which Vincent modeled after a Cessna 172’s wing, added around 500 pounds of downforce, it also took about 20 mph off their top speed. It would need some tweaking.
Failure is just tuition
In 2018, Team 114 returned to the salt, this time with a bored and stroked 351 Windsor topped with GT40P heads. The 408-cu-in engine was a tight fit in the Mustang II engine bay, which was already quite full when the shorter-deck 302 was installed. The team raised the engine an inch, moved it to the passenger side an inch, and tipped it over a bit to get it to work. Vincent noted that their approach didn’t score a lot of style points. “The headers look like the high school tuba section was in a car wreck, the motor mounts look like LEGO, and the hood scoop looks like an upside-down backwards bass boat. But it fits,” he says. It’s OK, figured Team 114—it’s a race car, and sometimes aesthetics takes a back seat.
The new cut-down wing operated mostly as a rudder that time, keeping the car straight by adding drag when the car experienced yaw. Things were looking good and the car pulled strong, until it didn’t. The engine went lean at wide open throttle at nearly 140 mph and burned two pistons and most of the exhaust valves.
Team 114 wasn’t discouraged. “We call failure ‘tuition,’” Vincent says.
The team arrived at the Texas Mile in March of this year with new pistons, new aluminum heads, new headers, sticky tires, a lowered front end, and a new clutch. Among the Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Hellcats, and late-model Mustangs, the little white car with the really big wing was the oldest in attendance, by far. The land speed racing community welcomed Team 114. Even among the exotics, the Mustang II garnered plenty of attention and lots of praise from fellow racers who, Vincent says, never had a negative comment about the car, just “lots of ‘I had one of those’ or ‘I haven’t seen one of these in years.’”
With Stan behind the wheel, the Mustang clocked a 160-mph pass, and with his modified wing in place, Vincent ran 151 mph. “My target was 150, so mission accomplished,” he says. His personal best in the Mustang is 157.8 mph.
Team 114’s Mustang II has retired from the salt and is being put into autocross duty, where its short wheelbase will be an advantage. With the lessons learned from their Mustang II, Team 114 is now building what they’ve dubbed the GT50, a NASCAR-style mid-’90s Thunderbird. At 50 inches high, it has a lot more frontal area than a Ford GT40 or its recent V-6-powered revival, the Ford GT, but it’s also a whole lot more affordable than either of those supercars and cuts through the air better than any Mustang II. It also has a larger engine bay, which is necessary as it will be powered by a four-valve, 4.6-liter Ford V-8.
They’re aiming for 200 mph, but they wouldn’t be where they are now without the Mustang II.