Doug Marion
January 1, 2009
In 1968, Downing & Ryan campaigned a new Cobra Jet Mustang to much success. John is seen here making a run at Island Dragway.

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."

In 1972, D&R Engineering transformed this black Fairlane post car into a 427 S/S. It was a six-cylinder car when new. Talk about rare. (Photo taken at Island Dragway.) In 1976, John Downing, tired of winter, moved to Florida and opened John's Little Kars, a body, paint, restoration, and service facility in Venice, Florida. It's still going strong today. He and John Healy are also contemplating restoring 427 Fairlanes and Cobra Jet Mustangs. For sure, they're two of the nation's very best sources.

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.

Ford stylists out-did themselves with the '66-'67 Fairlane. Early on, John's tow vehicle was a Ford station wagon.

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.

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