KJ Jones
April 9, 2013
Contributers: KJ Jones, KJ Jones Photos By: KJ Jones
Tech Editor KJ Jones and our Project Cheaper Sleeper LX take off from the starting line at Auto Club Raceway. KJ guided the ’91 hatchback ’Stang to victory in six tough rounds of competition in the Granatelli Motorsports Mustang Madness class, capturing a widely coveted NHRA Wally trophy at the NMCA West’s inaugural race on the legendary quarter-mile in Pomona, California.

We hope by now you've had an opportunity to read our introductory report on our latest Mustang-build project (“Beg, Borrow & Deal,” Jan. '13, p. 74) and fully digest the scope of the modifying/rejuvenation effort for our '91 hatchback LX, which we've dubbed Cheaper Sleeper. For those of you who are a bit behind in your reading, Sleeper is a stone-stock Fox that Tech Editor KJ Jones picked up for a song back in early 2012.

As we explained in that first report, despite the 20-nearly-30 years on '86-'93 Mustangs, stockers are still available—and affordable. They're great candidates for modifications that won't obliterate your bank account. In this series we plan to present an assortment of such mods detailing how ingenuity, research, and smart shopping can produce a cool street Pony. While the future holds a drivetrain update that we can't wait to tell you about (and consider perfect for a daily driven Fox), the 'initial steps involve suspension changes to ensure traction is available once Cheaper Sleeper starts making bigger rear-wheel steam.

Our first report detailed a low-buck lowering job that was done on the stock LX. In addition to a set of springs, Strange adjustable shocks and struts were added at all four corners, and General's G-MAX ultra-high-performance boots were mounted on the stock, 16-inch Pony wheels. For this project, while the mods of course are important, our desire to keep things stock-appearing is actually critical for this project 'Stang.

The Strange struts and shocks we installed on 'Sleeper truly are unnoticeable assets, as they allow us to adjust and dial-in valving ratios that will help the car perform well on the street and the track. However, for this particular effort, we're further enhancing the LX's rear suspension and increasing traction potential by adding Maximum Motorsports' Torque Arm Package (PN MMTASS-3; $1,153.25) and a set of full-length subframe connectors (PN MMFL-5B; $134.97).

The reason for installing this particular setup—which actually converts the 'Stang's rear suspension from the OEM four-link–style to a three-link system with a Panhard bar—is to maximize the stocker's straight-line bite in low-power/street-tire trim. As you'll see, the upgrade is predominately a bolt-on effort (welding is required for the subframe connectors and torque-arm-crossmember tabs), which we entrusted to the skilled hands of Source Interlink Media's Grant Peterson.

The chassis dyno, the street, and the dragstrip are the typical test locations for these mods. This Maximum upgrade on Cheaper Sleeper was completed in time for us to evaluate the chassis' performance on LA's 405 Freeway and the streets of the San Fernando Valley, and more importantly, at the NMCA West's Lucas Oil West Coast Shootout at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

Horse Sense: Los Angeles Police Chief Ralph Parker and Sergeant Bud Coons are credited as the two main influences behind the first NHRA-sanctioned event ever held on the dragstrip in Pomona, California. (In 1952, the two hot-rod enthusiasts convinced government officials that allowing hot rodders to race in a designated section of the LA Fairgrounds was safer than racing in the street.) In 1999, local officials discontinued all modern-day street-legal drag programs that were held at Pomona due to complaints of excessive noise and other concerns of area residents. Nearly 60 years after it first started, ProMedia co-owner and president Charlie Harmon convinced the powers that be to once-again allow Sportsman/Outlaw-style Street Car racing for the NMCA West's biggest event of its inaugural 2012 season.

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Seriously, as it sits (on factory Pony rims and basic UHP tires), you wouldn’t peg this innocent-looking street Pony as anything even close to capable of beating a 33-car field—including many full-on, race-only Mustangs—would you? While loaded with a full complement of Maximum Motorsports rear-suspension gear down below, the ’Stang simply looks, well, stock, and was even accused of being “too slow to compete” by a few racers in the Mustang Madness class. A 15.70 is the slowest e.t. permitted in the class. Cheaper Sleeper covers this number—barely.

On The Dragstrip
As Cheaper Sleeper evolves, our plan is to bring you results of each upgrade’s performance by taking our budget-modded LX “racing” in the NMCA West’s events and at any one of SoCal’s dragstrips, whenever test opportunities are presented to us.

After baseline drag-testing our ’Stang at the first NMCA West race in Bakersfield, the project Pony went into surgery at the Source Interlink Media Tech Center in El Segundo, California, where Grant Peterson gutted the Fox of its stock four-link-style rear suspension, replacing the tired components with Maximum Motorsports’ Torque Arm Package. The three-link setup is highlighted by a solid-steel beam that basically keeps a ’Stang’s axle housing from rotating during hard acceleration and braking. The hard-acceleration aspect is our focus in this test. While the ’Sleeper was still underpowered (178 horses at the feet) when the torque arm was installed, the ’Stang is slated to receive a drivetrain makeover that we believe will pack enough punch to warrant having a stout traction system down below.

Armed with the 60-foot data collected during the ’Stang’s on-track debut, we entered Cheaper Sleeper in the NMCA’s prestigious West Coast Shootout and made time-trial and qualifying hits to see the effectiveness of the upgrade. Per the data, there was no ridiculous record-breaking improvement in 60-foot, eighth-mile, or quarter-mile e.t.’s. However, we did notice the project ’Stang’s overall launch persona definitely changed with the addition of the torque arm, subframe connectors, and tubular rear-lower control arms. With the shocks and struts set for weight transfer and fairly limited squat, the chassis’ new tightness was pronounced; despite not picking up a lot in e.t. (average 2.53 to 2.55 60-foot for 12 passes), the ’Stang consistently reacted quicker at the release of the foot brake (with 1,500 rpm load on the torque converter). Time after time it left the line without any hint of tire spin. And keep in mind, Cheaper Sleeper was tested on standard UHP street tires.

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Our project ’Stang’s consistent on-track performance and your tech editor’s killer reaction times (which included a 0.000 perfect light in the quarter-finals) culminated with a win at the West Coast Shootout! That’s right—our $1,000 ’Stang won the big one, and the revered Wally that comes with it!

This is Auto Club Raceway, located in the parking lot of the LA County Fairplex in Pomona, California. As a grassroots/sportsman racer, the privilege to compete on such a revered dragstrip is mindblowing when you consider the fact that until the NMCA West was given permission to run on this quarter-mile, the racing surface technically remains unused except for two times a year (for the NHRA Winternationals and World Finals).

To give you an example of just how special the Pomona event was, this is the commemorative/collectible participant’s credential for the Lucas Oil West Coast Shootout presented by JE Pistons. Nothing like this was issued for any of the other races on the NMCA West schedule.

One of the things we forgot to check at the Bakersfield event was the total weight (with driver) of Project Cheaper Sleeper. Here it is...heavy!

For racing, our LX’s Strange adjustable dampers were set to full loose (zero clicks) up front and at the middle setting (five clicks) in the rear. The valving choices were based on 60-foot and final e.t. data that was recorded during time trials. A three-clicks (front)/four-clicks(rear) combination seems to be the best setup for comfortable street cruising.

Excessive heat conditions and damage to the track’s surface led race officials to shorten the racing distance (to an eighth-mile) for eliminations. The change prompted a call for competitors in the Mustang Madness class to select a fixed index (a non-changeable e.t.) based on eighth-mile data that was gathered during time trials and qualifying sessions. Unlike the class’ usual race procedure, the 0.1 breakout allowance was not used with the fixed-index format. A review of those timeslips showed us that ’Sleeper covered the eighth consistently at 10.364 and 10.372, so the quicker e.t. was selected as our permanent index for the event. Like bracket racing, index-style racing requires drivers to run at or as close to their index number as possible without going quicker than that number (breaking out), while still reaching the finish line first. The difference between the two is that a dial-in number in a bracket race can be changed.

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After six rounds of racing—including defeats over NMCA West (and PSCA) event winners and former class champions and other formidable opponents in the Granatelli Motorsports Mustang Madness class—your tech editor and his crew (from left-to-right: Crystal Jones, KJ Jones, Suzette Woods, and Greg Montoya on the end) were all smiles when it came time to hoist the Wally and take photos (with NMCA West Race Director Gene Bergstrom, middle) in the Winner’s Circle. 5.0