Most of us can remember that special instant — the moment in time when our automotive interest transformed suddenly into automotive passion. That’s when we locked on to a car we truly love and dreamed of one day holding the keys and title in our hands. For David Benson, who now works in the automotive business as the Global V.P. Labor Relations, Safety, and Health at Dana Corporation, that special vehicle was the 1979 Mustang decked out in Indianapolis Pace Car regalia.
In ’79 when the Pace Car came out it was instantly my dream car. — David Benson
“I am a lifelong Mustang fan. My first Car was a 1978 Mustang II — yes, the four-cylinder beast that it was,” David said. “In those days I dreamed of owning a ’65-’66 fastback such as the Shelby GT350. In ’79 when the Pace Car came out it was instantly my dream car. There was a lady where I worked part time that had one and I used to stand in the parking lot staring at her car and thinking someday me too.”
To make his Pace Car dreams a reality, David Benton turned to Watson Racing. “I’d just like to say what a pleasure it was to work with the team from Watson Racing. The quality of their work was incredible. They assigned a mechanic to the car (Josh Hoy) that I worked with all the way through and he was very talented,” David added. “Frank, who I worked with on the sales side, was great to work with and made time for me anytime I called or dropped by to check on progress. Chuck Watson treated me like I was a really important customer and I know they have bigger fish to fry than me.” (Photo Credit: Courtesy of David Benson)
Though that early Fox is what stoked his flame for Fords, the road to owning one was a long and winding one that saw him spending time behind the wheel of pony cars from many of the most significant eras in the lineage.
“Over the years I have owned many Mustangs, including lots of Fox bodies. From approximately 2000 to 2005 I built and bracket raced a 10-second ’87 GT with a stroked 410 Windsor in it. Along the way I also owned a ’98 GT, a ’99 Cobra, an ’03 Cobra, and a ’04 Mach 1,” David explained. “Having reached a little more financial security than in my youth in 2010 I bought a black and silver GT500 which I still own. After getting it to 690-rear-wheel horsepower, I realized that I should leave it alone and pursue a new project.”
A modern GT500 is certainly an eager recipient of modifications, but we can speak to the benefits of restraining your urge to modify too aggressively if you want to retain a level of streetable enjoyment. Knowing he needed to refocus his project-car urge, David could no longer ignore the siren’s song of his first Fox love.
“I graduated high school in 1979 and that summer I worked at a building materials company. There was a person working there that had a brand-new Pace Car. I would stand out in the parking lot looking at that car thinking it was the coolest car ever and that someday I would have one,” David said. “I have always planned on having one, but when I would bump into one for sale it wasn’t the right time for me and when it was the right time I wouldn’t find one and would buy another Mustang…”
The centerpiece of this unique Fox project is Ford Performance Parts’ 2016 Cobra Jet Supercharged 5.0-liter Coyote Engine. This is the same powerplant that propels the modern Cobra Jet racers to 8-second e.t.’s. It is topped by a Whipple 2.9-liter supercharger and in the case of David’s car, controlled by a FAST XFI fuel injection system.
Finally those years of longing met a local opportunity to pick up a clean Pace Car for his next project. David wasn’t sure that things would work out, but they did, and it set him down the path to building a dream machine with one tire in the past and one in the high-performance present.
“Over the years I have thought about Pace cars but couldn’t find a decent one or stumbled on one when I couldn’t afford it. In 2013 I set out to find a Pace Car that I could make my ultimate project,” David said. “There was one in town for sale but I thought, ‘probably too nice.’ The owner had recently painted it and installed a new Windsor-based stroker motor in it. After several discussions we came to terms.”
Back In Time
Now you might assume that David’s love for the OG Fox might have had him considering a full-on restoration or a mild restification. However, after all those years in Mustangs, he obviously built up a thirst for performance that could only be quenched with a modern drivetrain.
I decided to give it a modern Ford engine and build it as a street/strip car. — David Benson
“I was a little hesitant and even asked the question on a couple forums where there was a Pace Car contingent,” David confessed. “Some said do it and others were not too keen on the idea. In the end they aren’t that rare and I decided to give it a modern Ford engine and build it as a street/strip car.”
The result is a quarter-mile-oriented machine that is a variation on the increasingly popular trend of high-end Fox builds.
Inside, David’s Pace car features a purposeful interior highlighted by a pair of Corbeau LG1 seats and a FAST digital dash. The TCI Outlaw shifter poking up through the modded console actuates Transmission Specialties Pro Line 500 Powerglide. It’s not all purposed-built though. David still has plenty of tunes on board.
“I love to see a Fox treated to a high-end build,” David enthused. “So many people just think of them as cheap and easy to build. I believe their design will gain more popularity in the future and we will see more people building really cool examples.”
When it came to his Pace Car project, David was keen to follow the path of some many other Fox Rod builds with a modern 5.0 swap. It’s an engine swap that’s hard to argue with from a performance and driveability standpoint, but fate stepped in again to guide this project down a path that combines the vibes of the oval track and the drag strip.
“I was planning a Coyote swap from the beginning but not a Cobra Jet Coyote,” David said. “Like many projects this one spun out of control. Seeing the Cobra Jet crate engines (PN M-6007-SCJ16; $27,995) go on sale in early 2016 was the point it got away from me. I had to have one and the idea to blend the Pace Car and Cobra Jet themes was born.”
This Pace Jet theme fit well with fusing his love for the vintage Fox Mustang and his personal history of ripping down the 1,320, where the modern Cobra Jet powerplant struck David’s fancy.
I have loved the CJ drag cars since Ford started building them again. — David Benson
“…I used to drag race in local bracket classes and one of my older boys competed in Junior Drag Racing for 5-6 years in the 2000s,” David explained. “I have loved the CJ drag cars since Ford started building them again. A few years ago at Milan I saw a dragster with a CJ crate engine and thought it was a really cool idea. It stuck with me and in 16 when I was starting to look around for a Coyote the ’16 CJ crate engines happened to come up for sale and I stumbled into a pretty good deal on one. I couldn’t help myself.”
A custom Watson Racing 10-point, chrome-moly cage and through-the-floor subframe connectors help this 39-year-old ’Stang keep its act together. Underneath that fortified chassis is no factory 7.5-inch rear. Bearing the brunt of that Cobra Jet power instead is an 8.8-inch unit bolstered by 9-inch bearing ends, a Ford Performance girdle, Strange 31-spline axles and 3.73 gears.
A good deal on a Whipple-supercharged, factory prepped Coyote race engine would have any blue-blooded Ford fan altering their project path.
“I was trying to decide if I could use a Ford Performance Controls Pack as originally intended or if I needed to go aftermarket. The Ford Performance tech line suggested I speak with the people at Watson to get their advice. I made the call and wound up talking to Frank Naglich,” David said. “The discussion went beyond the ECU solution and into all the areas I needed help with. It made sense to work with Watson because of their experience with the Cobra Jet program. They were really enthusiastic about my build and that made Watson the perfect shop.”
Ultimately Watson Racing and David opted to go with a FAST XFI fuel injection system to gain more finite control of the calibration to dial in this unique configuration. It’s no surprise he took the advice of the Watson crew as they have plenty of experience building Ford race cars, including most of the factory-backed drag and road racers in recent memory.
“I would say they incorporated all their experience but maybe not the same parts. It’s a totally different application,” David said. “They custom-built the coolant tanks for the radiator and the heat exchanger mounting them on the passenger side of the engine compartment. They also custom-built the fuel cell and made it to be filled from the stock location. It’s really cool. The quality of all the work I had done at Watson is unbelievable. It’s well beyond what I am capable of.”
To secure both the modern 5.0-liter and its supporting cast is a Team Z Coyote-swap K-member with matching A-arms. “I have used their suspension stuff in the past and always found it to be good quality and have had good service to go along with it,” David said. “One time I bought a used K-member and A-arms. I needed new ball joints in the A-arms and sent them to Team Z to remove the old and press in the new. One of the arms had an issue and Team Z replaced it. That kind of service deserves a little loyalty.”
1979 Mustang Pace Car Mods
Block: Ford Coyote 5.0-liter aluminum
Crankshaft: Forged steel
Rods: Manley H-Beam forged
Pistons: Mahle forged and anodized pistons with Grafal-coated skirts w/ ARP 2000 bolts
While the visage of the car is still a work in progress, the resulting fusion of hardware is a definitely a Cobra Jet in Pace Car clothing. The result is a fast car that feels quite a bit more raw than David’s street-going Shelby.
“I’m still refining the car, but it’s pretty close. It’s built in a drag racing style so it isn’t made for local autocross events. I have a 2010 Shelby GT500 with a 2.9-liter Whipple, Stainless Works long-tubes, etc. It still has air, power brakes, steering, and a six-speed manual. It’s fun to drive and has all the modern comforts,” David said. “My Pace Car is a more visceral experience. It is loud, raw, and wants to be driven with your foot on the floor. It is a ton of fun on the street but I need to get it on the strip and turn it loose!”
Once he gets his car dialed in, it should be amazing on the drag strip. Maybe by the time the weather warms David will have the car where he wants it and ready to race. It definitely has the foundation for it, as Team Z upgraded the chassis with its through-the-floor subframe connectors and minitubs. The latter make way for a Team Z rearend fit with the company’s brakes and shocks.
“I’m making a list of the little things I need to address. Later this fall I will take it apart and prep it for paint. This winter I will have the car fully repainted and then I am still deciding what to do about the Pace Car graphics. You will know it’s a Pace Car when you see it but it might not be 100-percent correct. I may have to mess with it some.”
Base on the project so far, we can’t argue with David’s plans to do something a little different with his dream car. Ultimately, that’s what customizing cars is all about.