Once you’re in the racing game, it’s always good to keep your helmet and gear packed and in the hall closet. That’s because you never know when an old friend will call with an invite to wheel something fun.
And so it was when Bruce Griggs, of Griggs Racing, arrived in our ear. The renaissance man of Ford performance, Bruce was putting on a track day, handling seminar, and what-the-heck fun time at Thunderhill Raceway in NorCal. Billed as a Griggs Reunion, the mid-week, two-day event did draw a few of the old-timers and a refreshing group of new blood. We were only too happy to drop in to see the latest and catch up with the old crew.
Flying, er, wheeling the Southworst car was a blast. It has just enough torquey power to keep things exciting and a chassis that’s honest and light enough to get excited about corner carving. And all that stuff on the roof? Its antennas, rotating beacons and other airliner gee-gaws.
The hardware on hand ran the gamut from gorgeous S197 track machines complete with big-rig support trucks, to an example or two of the automotive damned pressed into track bondage by enthusiastic but low-means owners. Quickly catching our eye was the veteran Fox hatch illustrated here. Obviously a theme-racer at first glance, the Southworst car was consistently circulating at a good clip and definitely looked to be providing someone with a good time.
Determined to get the story, we lay in wait at the Southworst pit, only to find the car crew-chiefed by none other than John Griggs, Bruce’s son and a superb race technician in his own right. Quickly we were introduced to owners Ahmiel Fried, Matt Smith and Mark Stanley (John has a stake in the car, too, it turned out.), who proved a congenial bunch out for a good time and without pretense of winning Daytona or anything like that.
No best-engineered trophies here, but this visually challenged 5.0 HO steadily beats out raceable power like a marathon runner. You can bet the Explorer intake manifold is not there by accident, and the dollar-per-thrust from this combo is likely impossible to beat.
Flying In Economy Class
It turns out the car is something of assemblage as well; the main hulk emanating from 1989 but fitted with ’84 front sheetmetal and running an ’85 Mustang GT engine. Historians will recall this as last of the carbureted 5.0s, but Team Southworst cast the carb into outer darkness in favor of equally hoary EEC-IV EFI pirated from a Ford Explorer that apparently had no further need of it.
The Southworst team says the EFI was fitted for better bottom end torque, and when we further postulated, it may have gained some fuel economy — always a help in enduro racing — they mainly shrugged saying instead there was a 24-gallon fuel cell for the enduros. This gives an easy 2.5-hour endurance, which works out well in giving the four owners a full day of racing fun.
They also interjected that this was actually the team’s second car, the first similar example unexpectedly off to the glue farm after a three-revolution barrel roll at Sears Point. Rolls being a prohibited maneuver by wives and the Southworst team—which is currently 50 percent airline pilots by profession—the “car-batics” driver, “is no longer with the team.”
Much of the effort building the Southworst flight deck was simply removing all the stock Ford interior, which is requires little skill and even less money. The good stuff is found in the roll cage, excellent Kirkey aluminum seat and the instruments and switches. There’s nothing terribly trick—or expensive—on the Southworst instrument panel. The switches, dials and their mounting panels are all catalog stuff and out in the open for easy servicing during long races. The radio under the bottom panel and digital clock next to the voltmeter speak to the priorities of endurance racing while the tach’s tell-tale at 4,600 rpm shows the team knows the pushrod 5.0 goes fastest when driven for max torque. Stupidly, we forgot to check out the airspeed indicator while on track; we were having too much fun. But the instrument is real and works, although we might add its 150-knot (173 mph) capability is more Piper Cub than Boeing 737. Driver comfort is mandatory during long races, and another way Southworst accommodates the long, the short and the tall is via an adjustable brake pedal height. It’s critical to keeping the brake pedal height above the throttle for good heel-and-toe action.
Getting back to the hardware, the specifications are clearly driven by the LeMons $500 claiming rule on engines; so there’s little romance to report, unless you harbor deep feelings for stock camshafts (we sort of do, actually), and castings that came out of Ford foundries. The clutch is stock, as is the T-5 gearbox, but the brakes were upgraded to Cobra bits. The team runs Falken RT615K rubber measuring 275/40-17 all around. Falken was a sponsor for a while and Southworst has stuck with them saying the tires are great all-around wet or dry track tires. They run them at stock tread depth in the rain and shave ’em for dry racing.
With John Griggs on board we assumed there’d be a passel of Griggs Racing chassis stiffeners and suspension bits lurking under all that concours coachwork, but not so thanks to the dollar limits and claiming rules. Instead of buying the Griggs Racing bits the team reached into the scrap-metal pile and welded up their own subframe connectors and such. Shockingly, these parts bear a working resemblance to the pictures in the Griggs catalog, but without that factory finish, and definitely without the factory price. John did specify the front K-member as stock and noted there was a home-brewed torque arm bolted to the 8.8-inch diff.
All couped up in economy class, the Southworst team has done a lot with a little. The airliner theme gets all the attention, but it’s the homemade hot rodding in the wheel wells and under the hood that get the job done.
“There is nothing special on the shocks, they were take-offs from some customer,” John said. “The springs are cut stock springs, we used a grinder and just cut a ring off.”
The rest is well-scrounged and necessary racing impedimenta, such as the roll cage, Kirkey aluminum racing seat, safety harness, switches, and the like. About all that’s left was complying with LeMons theatrical requirements. With airline pilots in evidence the Southworst theme was selected. Those details are addressed in the accompanying photos and captions, but we should add that in addition to the safety oriented tech inspection at LeMons races there is a “BS” tech for measuring a team’s enthusiasm for the absurd, and for that our heroes dress in pilot regalia and can point to the car’s many aviation cues.
Does It Work?
That’s all fun, but does it work?
Well, John has a two-minute lap time at Sears Points to the car’s credit, but “…If you really want to know, why don’t you take it out and drive it?”
We didn’t waste any time getting our helmet on.
…If you really want to know, why don’t you take it out and drive it?” —John Griggs, Southworst Racing
And this is where all the goofy airliner gags and body panels that look like they’ve been warding off baggage carts fade to the background and the car’s carefully considered details start to show through. It may present itself as a joke, but at its heart the Southworst car makes the most of the rules and shows years of track experience in its construction. The seat, for example, is easily adjustable, yet securely mounted. That’s a must when needing to quickly switch among four different sized owners at enduros and open-tracks, but you’d be amazed by how many teams have trouble with this.
The Southworst cabin uses a 1-inch square tube between the Kirkey’s back and the roll bar, and getting my 6-foot, 2-inch-plus-size bod installed therein was the easiest I’ve witnessed in 25 years of testing cars. A quick couple of turns on the wrench hanging from the adjuster to slide the seat back, and we were set. Also, the stock Ford tilt steering column was present, which helped even more.
The blue cylinder on the passenger floor is an oil accumulator. It holds three quarts of engine oil at the ready. Should oil pressure fail in the engine—either momentarily during braking or cornering, or from mechanical failure—the accumulator will push those three quarts back into the engine. It’s cheap insurance for a wet-sump engine. Endurance cars are electrically intensive thanks to radios and driving lights so a large battery is little penalty. They also make good ballast, so they are invariably as close as possible to the right rear tire for chassis balance, yet kept inside the roll cage for safety. That’s an inverter mounted outside the battery box on the Southworst car.
Once snug in the seat it’s obvious there’s nothing left of the all-so-’80s Fox dash. It’s completely extracted, leaving a generous void between you and the base of the windshield. All electrics have been moved to an aftermarket switch panel to include the usual ignition and fuel pump switches, plus a manual electric puller fan for the radiator that I was briefed to run in the pits and turn off on track, as the ram air cools better with the fan off. But don’t forget to turn the fan on when returning to the pit. Other switches were for the cool-suit circulation pump and defroster blower motor mounted above the steering column.
A multi-panel mirror hanging from the front, upper roll cage tube gave a panoramic rear view of the econo-boxes you just blew off, along with some help from the stock outside mirrors.
The most unusual part of the forward view are the two Pitot tubes sticking out of the hood. They are connected to a functioning airspeed indicator that the team says is surprisingly accurate. I confess I was too busy to consult the instrument and can’t note any of its workings.
Without extensive, mood-altering changes that so many track cars go through, the Southworst car understandably retains a strong Fox Mustang flavor. The steering is feather light in the time-honored, over-boosted Fox Mustang manner, and as the Falken street tires are not overly large or gum eraser sticky, steering effort has no reason for rising anyway. Likewise, the brake and clutch are vintage Fox Mustang in throw and feel. It’s still a Fox Mustang and it feels like it.
Aviation trinkets are found throughout the Southworst Fox, including these ersatz “vortex generators” on the roof’s rear lip. They mimic VGs found on many aviation wings; they generate vortices (think a tornado laying on its side) that keep airflow attached to the wings at high angles of attack. Like the various antennas, rotating beacon and strakes they’re just drag on a race car. The more you look the more homages to the airline experience you’ll see on the Southworst racer.
The Simple Pleasures
The simple, not overly lowered and in the Griggs tradition, softly sprung suspension gives a predictably generous but not outrageous amount of body roll for a track car, something I prefer in a casual track machine. The ride is reasonably compliant and easily absorbs curb-banging, something the relatively new, smooth Thunderhill west track offered at every turn.
John Griggs has the chassis purposely set for a bit of understeer to keep the wide mix of driver talent passing through the cockpit out of trouble during long races. If not the bleeding last word in speed, this tune was perfect for me to explore the car and costs little in lap times as the car easily rotates via tickling the torquey engine or by lightly pitching the car into a corner.
Power was just right for a fun track car—hardly overwhelming—but with 3.55 gears definitely spunky and demanding of thoughtful application, because so much of the stock Mustang’s native low-end torque remains. You still must carefully feed in throttle on corner exit to avoid spinning a tire; there’s just no giant rush going down the straight, and there’s no point in revving it very high. Gearing is wide and not very racy, but hey, it’s a stock T-5 tranny and only costs as much as a stock T-5 tranny.
There’s no sense in building a top-end screamer with the iron Ford cylinder heads and $500 claiming rule limitation, so John was sure to keep camming very tractable. Again, that means plenty of low-rpm torque on tap followed by a solid midrange, and nothing too exciting when revved. If you’ve driven a good 5.0 HO Fox in a Camaro-Mustang Challenge car, that’s just how the powertrain feels at Southworst.
Braking was — thankfully — far more powerful than a stock Fox, thanks to the Cobra calipers, pads, and rotors — along with the torque arm rear suspension. The torque arm works wonders for braking because it transfers brake reaction forces well forward in the chassis, so the nose doesn’t dive like some dude in a brass helmet and lead shoes. The tires are more evenly sharing the load and so more total braking power can be applied.
These weird appendages leaning out of the hood are Pitot tubes. They’re used on aircraft as part of the system indicating airspeed, and while you only need one, airliners use two for redundancy, so Southworst runs two as well. They didn’t bother us visually from the driver’s seat.
Put it all together and flying Southworst had that old familiar looseness, a general lack of precision common to these lightest and creakiest of, uh, “modern” Mustangs. But if the chassis isn’t the latest in precision it also doesn’t have a mean bone in its body, unlike a stock Fox. There’s no white-knuckling while waiting for the rear axle to suddenly break loose or the front end to wash out; instead you quickly learn to let the car wig and wag a little because ultimately, all the little motions equal out and the car goes where it’s pointed. Toss in a bit of V-8 torque and what you have is a fun, light, honest piece that’s plenty quick enough to hold your attention.
Here’s that adjuster on the back of the driver’s seat. It uses a simple locking-bolt at the roll bar end and a bolt at the seat end. The bolt at the seat must be loosened during adjustments to allow the adjuster to pivot. Moving the seat takes maybe 15 seconds by a motivated crew chief during an endurance racing stop. Yep, that’s a tow hook attach point in the front bumper. Big deal, right, but we thought showing the rock chip party that’s been going on here would give a better idea of the thrash these cars survive racing hundreds of laps a year.
The paint and body is the usual junk-racing shambles, so you don’t have to worry about marring the finish, and that only makes it more fun. In fact, my lasting memory of the car is it ran and ran during the Griggs Reunion, while the gorgeous, big-dollar, Aluminator-motivated SN-95 Cobra sex machine next door in the pits sat on its fat tires all weekend, consuming the professional attention of John Griggs and its frustrated owner while they sorted through electrical and other gremlins. “Like a beautiful woman with a bad personality” is how that owner characterized his ride.
That’s just the opposite of the Southworst car; and in the long haul, you’re far better off with the one who can cook.