Huw Evans
August 1, 2006
Photos By: Tracy Stocker

On Memorial day weekend in 1979, famed Formula 1 legend Jackie Stewart, led the field around the brickyard ready to start the 63rd running of the Indianapolis 500. At the time, Stewart was behind the wheel of one of three specially prepped 1979 Mustang hatchbacks chosen as official pace cars for that year's race. The Indy Pace car was based on the new for '79 Cobra and Ford built some 11,000 replicas for public sale, powered by either the 131 horsepower 2.3 liter turbo-four cylinder, or a 302 V8 that cranked out 140 ponies. One of those replicas, many years later ended up parked under a tree in Georgia. Whether it was a peach tree, we don't know. All we do know is that it was a turbo four-cylinder car and it was clearly on its way back to mother nature. However, a gent by the name of Steve Chirico, a known Mustang nut in these parts, thought it would be a great project for him and his son Steve Jr, who was 14 at the time. The younger Steve, who was in high school was no doubt aware of many of his older colleagues showing up behind the wheel of underwhelming imports. So dad figured, it was time to steer young Steve in the right direction, of correct wheel drive and cars with charisma. So that sorry Pace Car parked under a tree, changed hands for the princely sum of 500 bucks and was towed back to the Chirico residence. At the time the young Steve wasn't too impressed. "Back then I didn't want it. I thought it was really ugly, you know what it's like when you're that age." But dad, who'd owned a '72 'Stang Sprint edition with a 351 Cleveland and also a '70, knew the Pace Car's historical significance and knew it also had potential.

At first the Chiricos tried to see if they could get the little four banger running. "We really worked at it," says Steve Jr, "but it was tough - there just aren't many parts for these engines and it was too far gone." So another plan was hatched. "Dad and I found a wrecked '88 LX 5.0 automatic, so we stripped that car and put the entire drivetrain - fuelie 302 motor, AOD, 8.8-inch rear into the '79. I also swapped over the suspension and brakes. The Pace Car had 9-inch front discs on it and I knew, that with the added power and weight of the V8 they weren't going to cut it." Although the car was otherwise complete, the body needed a bit of love. It was all there, but the front air dam was damaged in the center section and I knew it had to be replaced. In the meantime the young Chirico and his father listed the help of Shawn Norman in Hampton, GA, to get the body up to snuff. "The body was really the only thing I couldn't tackle, says Steve Jr. "I did most of the other work myself - dad was very good being more of an advisor, but for body and paint I knew I had to source it out."

Norman repainted the car in its original shade of Light Pewter Metallic and black, while a complete set of Pace Car decals came from Phoenix Graphics. "That paint job has been on the car for four years and it's held up pretty well. I got a really good deal on it - it was $1,200 for the paint and I think $450 for the graphics. I drive this car nearly every day and it's stood up well considering." With the Pacer prowling the streets of Stockton, Georgia, under its own power once again, Steve wanted to see how much power the now V8 steed actually made. "I was curious to see just what these engines are capable of in stock form." A short time later he came home with a dyno sheet that read 220 hp and 285 lb/ft of torque. Not bad for a motor with 200,000 miles - proving, if anything that 1987-88 5.0s truly were under-rated from the factory. Although the four-eyed Fox, was and still is the younger Steve's only form of transportation, like any true 'Stanger that hasn't stopped him from playing a little.