Jim Smart
December 1, 2007
Photos By: Patrick Hill

Ford is a name rich in racing history, with a legacy dating back to 1903 when Barney Oldfield lapped Henry's "999" car to victory in Indiana at a record 60 mph. Ford's persona has always been about improvement, even in the worst of times. It was 1932, during the Great Depression, when Ford introduced its first V-8 engine. Henry Ford's best talent said a V-8 was physically impossible. Ford prompted them to keep trying.

Ford's grandson, Henry Ford II, was determined to take Ford to world-racing supremacy and enlisted the best names in the racing business to help him achieve that objective. The result was a 1-2-3 Le Mans victory in 1966-followed by two more, kicking Enzo Ferrari's hindquarters and achieving world fame as a serious racing organization.

Ford's Total Performance years, beginning in 1962, cannot be underestimated. Le Mans was certainly Ford's pinnacle; however, smaller battles have been fought in racing venues around the world. And we don't even know where to begin when it comes to Main Street competition on seven continents.

In NHRA Super Stock drag racing, racing legends such as Dyno Don Nicholson, Hubert Platt, Randy Payne, Gas Ronda, Mickey Thompson, Ed Terry, Dick Woods, and a host of others were out there on the 1,320 defending Ford's honor. Ford had two drag teams. On the East Coast were Hubert Platt and Randy Payne. On the West Coast were Ed Terry and Dick Woods. Platt and Payne were Georgia boys who understood a thing or two about Super Stock drag racing. When they weren't racing, they conducted Ford dealer clinics around the country. They brought their cars and their knowledge and shared both with enthusiasts and potential Ford customers-bringing home "what wins on Sunday sells on Monday." It was an integral part of Ford's Total Performance philosophy.

You could easily say gasoline-in particular, racing fuel-is in Rusty Gillis' blood. His father was an avid racer in upstate New York before moving the family to Florida. Growing up, Rusty became passionate about racing, accompanying his father to Sunshine Raceway in St. Petersburg, Florida. He did pit-crew duty to help his father, learning the ropes, getting to know racing. It wasn't until Rusty attended the 1966 U.S. Nationals that he became addicted to drag racing. He went to Daytona Beach Junior College, majoring in Automotive Technology, ironically on a scholarship from Ford.

In 1968, Rusty tried to buy one of the 50 '6811/42 Cobra Jet Mustang fastbacks Ford built for Super Stock competition, but they were all gone. He opted instead for a '69 428 Cobra Jet Fairlane Cobra, racing in the F/S class to get his feet wet. His first outing was at the NHRA Spring Nationals in Dallas that year. En route to Dallas, Rusty met and befriended NHRA Super Stock racer Randy Payne. Randy showed him kindness, offering to help where he could. Their friendship became especially significant when Rusty broke his Cobra's Detroit Locker at Dallas. He cracked a 12.87 at 102 mph and lost to a Corvette with a 12.66 at 112 mph timeslip. Jokingly, Rusty says, "That Detroit Locker was the only free part I ever got from Ford." Later that year, he would suffer the misfortune of engine failure at Gainesville, Florida.

Rusty's father was truck manager at Grant Ford in St. Petersburg, and he had the good fortune of knowing a lot of people in the car business. He asked Rusty if he would go to Boyertown, Pennsylvania, to pick up a van for Grant Ford and dead-head it back to Florida. Rusty took advantage of that request and drove to Concord, New Hampshire, to see Randy about an engine for his Fairlane Cobra, but Randy couldn't help him.