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.
Now the car was working and it was healthy, he could start thinking about mods. "Originally my plan was to build it up as more of a drag car - skinnies up front, massive rubber out back, that kind of thing." But he began to realize that going around corners could be fun, especially in a solid axle Mustang with a torquey 302 up front, so he decided instead, to build more of a handling car. "It's got Monroe Sensatrac struts and shocks on it and I installed some Ford Racing C-springs. I've also got some Pro 3i lower control arms at the rear and every bit helps. I don't have a lot of spare money right now, so I have to carefully consider what upgrades I do, but the suspension changes definitely make the car handle better." And Chirico hasn't confined his improvements purely to the suspension either. "I've done some motor work too," he adds. And he's been resourceful about it.
The 302 still runs Speed Density metering, but Steve took the stock E7TE heads off and had Mike Shuttle of Thumper Performance in Orange Park, FL port them and treat 'em to a five-angle valve job. "I've also got Crane Cams 1.7 roller rockers working with the stock cam; a Trick Flow Track Heat intake on it now; and it's got a Professional Products 65mm throttle body and a K&N filtercharger." Chirico glued on a pair of Felpro gaskets before installing his ported stock heads and although he's still running stock 19 lb injectors, he bumped fuel feed by fitting a 155 lph pump inside the stock 15.5 gallon EFI gas tank. The car also now rides on 17 inch Cobra R rims and Hankook 245/45R17 rubber - a little bit of an improvement over TRXs no doubt. One of the biggest changes he's done however, since getting the Pacer on the road, concerns the transmission. "It originally had the AOD in it when we put the car back on the street, but I decided to swap it for a T-5. It was a good decision as the car is a lot more fun to drive, but changing the pedals over was a chore." So here we are now, some four years later, and does Chirico still think his '79 is an ugly duckling? "You know what, it's really grown on me. There were kids in high school who thought it was junk, but they were driving rice rockets (says it all really - Ed). The longer I had the car the more it grew on me. I really like the four-eyed front end, the air dam and the dash, it's old school, but to me it looks cooler all the time - in fact I'd say that the '79 Pace Car is my second favorite Mustang of all time now, right after the Boss 429." So clearly the relationship has gone from hate to pure, unadulterated love, but like any such thing, there have been a few moments of joy and woe along the way.
"The front air dam was one of the most difficult things to replace. You can only get new-old stock or used ones and I needed to replace the original - luckily the Marchal fog lights in it were undamaged - but the center section was busted up." Another issue concerned the rear bumper, but this ultimately became a case of a silk purse from sow's ear if there ever was one. "I was at a stoplight on my street. I'd just washed the car and I was on my way to the dyno. This '02 Cavalier comes over the crest of the hill and straight into the back of me. I was doing about 30 mph at the time, he was doing about 50. The damage wasn't too bad - my car was a bit bent, his was totalled. Thank god for aluminum bumpers." But the mishap had left Steve in a bit of a dilemma. "I needed a new rear bumper cover. My car wasn't worth much according to mainstream value guides and rear bumpers are almost impossible to find. I thought I was screwed, but ... the adjuster from the insurance company was great. He was a big fan of '79 Pace Cars and his wife owned one. He said, 'I'm not going to let this car get taken off the road, I'll get you what you need.'" So Chirico received a check for $4,300 and that covered the cost of finding a NOS rear bumper and repaint. "It was awesome - he was so good about it. My dad and I found a guy who had three NOS rear bumpers and got one for the car. I also managed to get a NOS front air dam too." Talk about lady luck shining down. And with the car back together, Steve finally managed to get it on the dyno too. And with the mods mentioned, along with 10 degrees of timing BBK 1 5/8" shortie headers and Magnaflow mufflers the result was (drum roll please)...
... 250 horsepower and 295 lb/ft of torque at the wheels. "It really likes the timing. It picked up tremendously and now it's running 15 degrees." So that just about brings us up to date, but Chirico still has a few things he wants to do. "I'd like to convert it to Mass Air as soon as I have the money and play with the air/fuel a bit. I'd also like to have the original Recaro seats re-upholstered. They're up in my attic now - I've got some Hunsaker race buckets in the front and I've installed a Kenwood head unit and Blaupunkt speakers and some autometer gauges (tach, water temp and voltage btw), but I still have a lot of the original stuff, aside from the engine (well, we can understand that Steve). If I wanted to restore it I could probably do it." But right now young Chirico is just having too much fun driving his '79 just the way it is. "I really, really like this car now and it would take me a great deal of thinking before I'd even consider selling it and a lot of money. It's gotten to a point that I'd like to find another car to drive daily as this one deserves better now." And this from a guy who thought it was an ugly piece of $@%! four years ago. Shows you what happens when a Mustang comes into your life now doesn't it?
Steve chirico's 1979 Mustang
Indy Pace car
1988 Ford 5-liter V8
Crane 1.7 ratio Roller Rocker Arms; Ford E7TE Iron cylinder heads, ported with 5-angle valve job by Thumper Performance; ARP head studs; Trick Flow Track Heat intake manifold; Professional Products 65 mm throttle body; Ford Racing valve covers, radiator, cooling fan; K&N air filter; Accel fuel pressure regulator; BBK 155 lph fuel pump, 1-5/8" shorty headers; Magnaflow 2.5" exhaust
Hurst Billet Plus shifter; Ford 3.55 ratio rear axle gears; 1988 T-5 manual transmission
250 RWHP, 295 RWTQ
Steve Chirico's 1979 Mustang Indy Pace Car
Xenon front bumper fascia; Graphics by Phoenix Graphics
Hunsaker Sports race seats; Autometer gauges, including water temperature, oil pressure, voltage, fuel level, tachometer, speedometer; Kenwood stereo head unit; Blaupunkt speakers, 6" x 9" rear, 3.5" front
Ford Racing 'C' springs; Monroe SensaTrac struts and shock absorbers; Pro 3i lower control arms
Wheels And Tires
AFS Cobra R wheels,17" x 9" with Hankook 255/45R17 tires all around