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Super Stock Downing & Ryan Drag Racing
A Look at The '66-'81 Record-Holding Ford Greats
When we think back to NHRA's torrid Division 1 Super Stock drag racing in the late '60s, Tasca Ford in Providence certainly dominates. But what about individual Ford racers? In our book, Florham Park, New Jersey's John Downing ranks at the very top. He was not only a very talented driver, but he also opened Downing Race Car Enterprises, a full-service facility. His drag-racing exploits from 1966 to 1984 could fill this magazine. As a result, this story will focus on his highlights. Interestingly, John and I were friends at Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, from 1964 to 1965. I knew his moxie well. He ran his life "on the rev-limiter." He was very intense about success and winning.
In 1965, John was back in New Jersey, closely watching the development of the NHRA's Division 1 Super Stock Eliminator Series while he was campaigning a Hilborn-injected, 388ci '65 Corvette in another class. According to Downing, "Nobody had any Fords that really ran other than Tasca."
Over the winter of late 1965 to early 1966, he readily took note of Ford's new offerings: the Shelby 427 Cobra and the limited-production 427 Fairlane. From memory, he matter-of-factly dictated to me each car's sticker prices: $6,814.60 and $4,014.20, respectively. He chose to make his future mark in the latter. The 427 Fairlane was one of only 57 ever produced. Why so few? The NHRA mandated that at least 50 cars be produced by a manufacturer to be considered a legal Stock or Super Stock-rated car. Ford only had enough 427 engines at the time to make 57 Fairlanes for its '66 model year.
After purchasing the car locally, John trailered it north to Tasca Ford-unannounced. By his own account, he walked into the service department, found the soon-to-be-legendary John Healy, and told him to perform some magic on his Fairlane. Both then sat down with Bob Tasca, and a short time later the Fairlane was ready to rock in SS/B trim. From that moment on, Healy and John were forever joined at the hip. They were indeed "two peas in a pod." Both wanted nothing more than to win drag races!
John liked Aretha Franklin's hot song, "Respect" and decided to letter both front fenders as such. The car soon gained a massive Blue-Oval following. The competition took note of it, too. Most cars in SS/B were running no quicker than 11.50. John set the NHRA e.t. record at 11.42 seconds at Raceway Park, Englishtown, New Jersey. A short time later, just to show the world who was on top, he ran a well-below-record pass of 11.28 seconds.
Enter Jim Ryan
Late in 1966, fellow Ford racer Jim Ryan stopped by John's shop. After chatting, he proposed a plan for them to team up. Jim was a training instructor and field engineer for Ford Motor Company and also owned one of the original 57 427 white-over-black Fairlanes. He had raced it for eight months in A/Stock to low 12-second e.t.'s on narrow 7-inch wide slicks. Downing liked his proposal, so the Downing & Ryan Racing Team commenced in 1967. With the "Respect" Fairlane sporting '67 body trim and D&R Racing lettering, the team roared on through the year, taking no prisoners. In May, John re-captured the SS/B E.T. Class record. Jim sold his Fairlane to Tony Taylor, another local New Jersey racer who soon crashed and flipped the car at Englishtown Raceway. It was restored many years later.
Ford engineers were on a roll, and for 1968, they offered the superb Cobra Jet 428 Mustang. Downing & Ryan stepped right up and acquired one of these rare cars. They immediately had Holman and Stroppe prepare the motor to NHRA specs, with John and Jim handling all the body and chassis work. John's younger brother, Mike, drove it initially. John took over later in the year.
John, Jim, and their track support crew also stepped up in 1967 and got matching blue slacks and embroidered shirts, just to show everyone how dedicated Ford racers should look. John pretty much always had his driver's "game-face" on, as he essentially built the engines while Jim did most of the team's prep and mechanical work at the track and handled the D&R public relations. The duo signed autographs and such at the track, in restaurants, hotels, and motels. Today, if any Ford fans have Jim's or John's autograph from the '60s and '70s, they could be worth a small fortune.
Early in 1968, the feared and ultra-rare 427 Fairlane was advertised for sale in NHRA's National Dragster weekly newspaper. It was purchased by southern Illinois dragstrip owner Gibby Andrews. He also later bought their '68 SS/F Mustang. Andrews re-named the Fairlane "The Going Thing"-which was Ford's moniker at the time. Sometime later, Gibby sold the Fairlane to Bud Gross, who wrecked it while in competition in Kentucky. The engine and driveline were installed in another Fairlane, but it was said that his car never ran like the Healy-built original.
In May 1969, D&R set the NHRA SS/G class e.t. record at 11.31 seconds with its '68 Cobra Jet. The previous record was said to be 11.65 seconds. With John driving, it went 11.10! He called it, "The neatest car I've ever driven." D&R also won class with this car at the NHRA Summer Nationals in Dallas.
Later in 1969, the '68 Cobra Jet was sold and replaced with a '69 Cobra Jet Mustang, running in SS/GA. This car was campaigned successfully at eastern tracks and at the '70 Nationals at Indianapolis.
Downing & Ryan Racing ran all NHRA eastern and central events and several West Coast National meets in S/S from 1967 to 1970. Wanting to go quicker and faster, Downing & Ryan jumped into the NHRA Pro Stock fray with both feet in 1971. A wrecked Maverick was acquired from Werner Ford in Garfield, New Jersey-their sponsor at that time. Using their extensive S/S experience, Jim and John built one of the first Pro Stock Mavericks with a 427 tunnel port motor. In this early configuration, the car was competitive locally but not performing well enough for National meets. The duo soon decided to look for ways to infuse more power into the car. A Boss 429 engine appeared as the solution.
1971 Super Stock & Drag Illustrated MagazineLocated in nearby Maryland, SS&DI magazine learned of the D&R plans and asked if they could do a series on the Maverick with its now-new Boss 429 engine. Done deal. Most of the stories were written by the legendary Jim McCraw. The Maverick was painted in a spectacular candy orange scheme by legendary FoMoCo paint specialist, Lou Mazzarella of Montclair, New Jersey, and it won Best Appearing Car laurels at several local and national events. At this time, D&R moved its operation to the C-K Speed Shop complex in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. While other cars were in the 10.40s, the D&R Boss 429 Maverick ran consistent 10.11-10.15-thanks in part to John's hogging out the combustion chambers to full hemi-head configuration.
In late 1971, the Downing & Ryan Pro Stock driveline was swapped into a Pinto. Its chassis was built by the famed Bob Dayrheim Race Cars of New Jersey. The Pinto was raced nationally in late 1971 and throughout the 1972 season. Jim left FoMoCo in 1972 and went to work as the Parts and Service director for Mullane Ford in Bergenfeld, New Jersey. He retired from drag racing in 1973. The D&R shop, run by John, also moved to expanded facilities in Waldwick, New Jersey, where it ran very successfully through 1981.
John was especially sharp on Cleveland Ford pro-stock engines in '70s-era Mustangs as well as highly modified (A/FX) Fox-platform Ponies. Interestingly, he and Healy built a pro-stock Mustang for a client (with Healy at the controls). Its first race (U.S. Nationals, Indianapolis Raceway Park) saw it qualify in the top five. They continued to run pro stock-with success. They later built an '80s Mustang pro car for Competition Eliminator and qualified in the top five at all the national meets entered. This was all done on a "crew chief" basis for customers from 1974 to 1981.
Interesting Post-Racing Data
John Downing's destiny later called for him to move to Venice, Florida, circa 1976. He founded John's Auto Body & Restoration and John's Little Kars. He recently stated that he has all of his old machine tools and is going to take on private-party FE 427 Fairlane and Cobra Jet Mustang restorations. John Healy lives nearby. Both are hands-on noted authorities and together have decided to get back into the nostalgia circuit and construct FE-type Fairlanes and Mustangs. Potential clients may reach John at (941) 484-9299 or (941) 416-2402.
In 1973, he resumed his higher education at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he earned his BS in Mechanical Engineering and later an MBA. In 1975, he joined BMW of North America as the National Technical Director and went on to hold many executive positions during his 30 years in the industry, recently retiring as BMW's senior vice president. He was soon re-hired by BMW/Germany to be its Clean Energy Project Director/USA. BMW currently has 20 dual-energy gasoline/hydrogen-powered luxury sedans on tour to demonstrate the feasibility of hydrogen as an alternate fuel. He's also currently restifying one of the other 57 white '66 427 Fairlanes. It was one of two that originally went to Canada. He purchased the body from Don Antilla-a Ford man in Connecticut who owns Jim's original '66 427 Fairlane. That car has been totally restored to showroom condition. When completed, Jim's Canadian gem (when not competing at nearby Irwindale Raceway) will sit next to his pristine '67 390, four-speed red Fairlane and a '29 Model A pickup. Counting his late-model Ford F-150 workhorse pickup and a '53 Ford tractor, the Ryans are currently a five-Ford family. Jim Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.
From Dix, Illinois, Earl Hays has lived and breathed Downing & Ryan Ford race cars for decades. With John and Jim's help, he replicated the famous D&R "Respect" Fairlane to run in NHRA nostalgia events-all on his own. John supplied him with all the specifications, pictures, and information. Lore has it that he dreamed of building John's feared Fairlane for 10 years. The construction of this car and a whole lot more, including more Downing & Ryan drag racing history, can be seen online at www.thegoingthing.com. Check it out!