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.

Later, he went to the U.S. Nationals at Indy with a buddy who was racing a 289 Comet. He met veteran Ford Super Stock racer Hubert Platt. He crewed for Hubert for two months, visiting racing venues in Chicago, Detroit, Davenport, Tulsa, Dallas, Toledo, the Northeast, and Atlanta, then back home to Florida. Hubert had Rusty pick up a new V-8 Maverick from Paul Harvey Ford in Indianapolis and drive it to Atlanta. Rusty also piloted Hubert's F-350 car hauler out of Dallas for a long trek to New Hampshire to witness history firsthand. Tasca Ford was bringing a '69 Boss 494 to Epping to lay down a challenge-any street car that could beat the Boss would win $1,000.

During one of their many road trips together, Hubert told Rusty about a '68 Super Stock Mustang for sale for $3,500. Rusty rushed home and borrowed the money from his uncle. His record was 11.70 in SS/FA competition. During Rusty's time on the road with Hubert, he learned a lot about professional drag racing.

In 1970, Rusty drove to Pomona, California, for his first NHRA Winternationals. He didn't do well; he was the slowest in class with his '68 fastback. The best news was beating a Camaro, which lost only because the guy redlighted. Rusty staged against Stacey Shields, who was driving a '68 fastback built by Holman/Moody/Stroppe in Long Beach and sponsored by Paul Harvey Ford out of Indy. Rusty received good advice from the head of Ford's drag-racing program at the time. He suggested Rusty shut down at the 1,000-foot mark to keep from going under record. Rusty clocked a 12.00 at 104 mph, getting a win over Stacey. News for Rusty only got better as he refined his technique and raced all over the southeast in NHRA Super Stock. He set the SS/FA record at Suffolk, Virginia, that year.

The following year, Rusty returned to Pomona, winning class and passing tech inspection. He went on to Phenix City, Alabama, and set the NHRA mph record at 120.64 mph. At West Palm Beach, Florida, he cracked the AHRA record at 11.46 mph at 119.84 mph.

Toward the end of the '70 season, Hubert told Rusty about a '69 Mustang SportsRoof body he found and wanted to know if Rusty wanted it. It was a 428 Super Cobra Jet fastback that had been one of Ford's Boss 302 test cars. It was a factory test mule that found its way into private ownership. The truth is, only factory teams had cars like this, and Paul Harvey Ford was one of those teams. Rusty bought the car and transferred everything from his '68 fastback over to the '69 SportsRoof. The '69 was a pinch heavier and ran in the SS/GA class. Once Rusty got the car in proper tune, he repainted it Pearl White, with a splash of Candyapple red and blue.

Rusty admits the car was disappointing until he installed 302 front springs and a better C6 transmission. Times improved dramatically-a 121.39 mph at Amarillo for a strong shot of self-esteem. Performance only got better with time and experience, with wins all over the country in NHRA Super Stock. Rusty won the '71 Miami National with an 11.24, beating an 11.45-second record. Another quarter-mile pass, this time for Firestone tire testing, netted Rusty an 11.50-second e.t. at Gainesville. He again won in class at Pomona that year.

During Rusty's racing career with this Boss 302 testbed, he accomplished a lot from coast to coast in racing venues both large and small. He ran consistent 11-second quarter-mile times, set records, and never forgot the people who helped him along the way. In 1974, Rusty decided it was time to hang up his helmet and park the Mustang. Much of that motivation came from what was going on at the time. Performance on the street was fading due to high insurance rates, governmental pressure, and gasoline prices. Rusty wouldn't drive this car again until 1990 when it was raced in C/SA competition. His best time was 11.13 seconds-which means he's not getting older, he's getting better.

In 2004, Rusty opened Classic Mustangs, a restoration and race shop where he practices his craft in the Tampa area. His first order of business was to completely restore this Mustang Super Stocker to the as-raced condition of his glory days. Southern Polyurethanes (www.southernpolyurethanes.com), and his good friend Barry, made all of this glistening Candyapple possible.

When Rusty reflects on 37 years with a winner, he's inspired most by the people who helped him get there. He says it never would have been possible without the friends he has known for the better part of a lifetime.

The Details
'69 Mustang SportsRoof Super Stocker
Owner: Rusty Gillis, Port Richey, Florida

Engine
428ci FE-Series Super Cobra Jet
Built by Franco Motorsports, New Port Richey, FL
4.155-inch bore
3.980-inch stroke
Concrete-filled block for strength
Venolia forged-aluminum pistons
Cobra Jet connecting rods
Cobra Jet nodular-iron crankshaft
Canton race pan
11.0:1 compression ratio
Crower roller hydraulic camshaft, 0.653/0.664-inch lift, 254/260 duration at 0.050-inch
Edelbrock Performer 428 aluminum heads, ported by HPS Cylinder Heads
2.09-inch intake/1.66-inch exhaust valves
Comp Cams double springs
Harland Sharp roller rockers
Ford aluminum Sidewinder intake manifold
Dove aluminum water pump
Holley fuel pump
Factory 735-cfm Holley carburetor
MSD ignition
Hooker Super Comp headers (2 1/8-inch primary, 3 1/2-inch collectors)
Griffin Aluminum radiator

Transmission
C4 JPT with reverse-shift valvebody built by Jim Ludera, Bradenton, FL Turbo Action 8-inch 4,500-stall converter

Rearend
9-inch
Mark Williams 31-spline axles
4.71 gears
Detroit Locker

Suspension
Front: Stock coil over upper arm, Moroso springs, Shelby drop with urethane bushings, 90/10 drag shocks
Rear: Conventional five-leaf, Cal Trac traction bars

Brakes
Front: Aerospace Components disc
Rear: Aerospace Components disc

Wheels
Front: Cragar 15x3.5 Drag Stars
Rear: Cragar 15x10 Drag Stars with a 5 1/2-inch backspace

Tires
Front: Hoosier, 4.5x28
Rear: Hoosier, 10.5x30 Slicks

Interior
In the raw with factory knitted-vinyl high-back bucket seats, Auto Meter tachometer, full rollcage, Turbo Action shifter

Exterior
SPI epoxy primer, SPI urethane primer, RM Diamond Pearl White basecoat, RM Carizzma candycoat, SPI clearcoat