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SALEEN/FORD MUSTANG IN RETROSPECT

by Larry Roberts

October 30, 1998

Sometimes when I get Steve Saleen's press releases about his Team Saleen endeavors both on the race track and in the showroom, I get the feeling that he was born after his time. He should have been in the business of building specially-built sports cars in the '60s when Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney and the other Southern California hot-rodders-turned-car-constructors were in their hey-days. They built cars for the SCCA Trans Am series for pony cars and became house-hold names to American road racing fans.

It's not that Saleen has done badly. Quite the contrary. Starting in '84 with the "Fox" platform Mustang, he's built a successful business of modifying Ford Mustangs into Saleen Mustangs that are changed enough cosmetically so that buyers of his slick speedsters won't have their mounts mistaken for the Dearborn version and souped-up enough so that the drivers of most other cars on the street will only get a view of Saleen tailpipes. And he's done it with the approval of our federal government, a daunting task in itself.

But the promotional venue that Saleen shines in is his participation in racing. In his early years, Saleen himself drove sports car races in semi-pro SCCA events, branched out into driving Saleen-prepared Ford Rangers in the now defunct SCCA series for mini-pickups and even into an unsuccessful stab at the Indy 500, as I recall.

Saleen's fortunes took a quantum leap a few years ago when he took in Tim Allen, star of the TV series "Home Improvement," as a partner and formed Saleen/Allen "RRR" Speedlab to build and campaign Saleen SR351 Mustangs in various road races. Allen himself did some of the driving in these events but it quickly showed that simply enjoying cars and owning part of a racing team doesn't qualify a person to strap himself into a racer and get into the thick of the action. When I saw Allen drive a Saleen/Mustang at Sears Point Raceway in Northern California a few years ago, he was nine seconds off the pace and the regular Saleen pilots had a task in hand to make up the time. I haven't heard of Allen driving for a while and I suspect that it dawned on him and his TV producers that a guy can get hurt in professional racing if he's not up to the pace. He did drive at Grand Rapids, Michigan this year where he placed 14th.

For 1998 Steve Saleen and his Saleen/Allen "RRR" Speedlab team pretty much concentrated on the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) World Challenge T1 series for more-or-less production-based sports cars (as opposed to the purpose-built SCCA Trans Am "tube frame" cars), and to say that Saleen was a big fish in the fairly small pond is an understatement. His star driver, Terry Boscheller, won five of the nine races outright and placed second enough times to win the Manufacturer's Cup for the Southern California-based company as well as the Driver's Championship for himself.

Although the World Challenge is considered a Saturday warmer-upper race for Trans Am and other more premium events, the Saleen team won against such classy car-and-driver combinations as Bobby Archer, a long-time Chrysler driver, piloting a Dodge Viper GTS and Peter Cunningham in a factory Acura NSX.

For '98, Steve Saleen is branching out into other auto fields like videos, jackets and tee-shirts, club memberships and other booster merchandise. He also produces a line of special Saleen/Mustangs for a Budget rental fleet in the Los Angeles area.

On second thought, I think that Steve Saleen is in his correct time frame. He's too much of a business man to have been able to acclimatize his organization to those wild and loose days of the '60s.