Ford, SVO and the Mustang GTP at Road America
As the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship heads to Road America for this weekend’s Continental Tire Road Race Showcase, the factory Ford Prototype teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Michael Shank Racing will be looking to rekindle some of Ford’s previous success at the historic four-mile circuit in Wisconsin.
While countless Ford or Ford-powered cars have taken to Road America over the years, it was the 1983 IMSA GTP race that helped rejuvenate the Detroit automaker’s involvement in the North American road racing scene.
After a decade of no direct motorsports involvement, Ford executive Walter Hayes convinced Henry Ford II to create a new division, SVO (Special Vehicle Operations), which would conduct U.S.-based racing programs and develop performance production vehicles and parts.
The group, led by Michael Kranefuss, launched in 1980 with the clear goal of linking its racing program to technology used in production cars. And with the U.S. just recovering from the second oil crisis, the national focus was on producing fuel-efficient vehicles.
“Only one opportunity with any market awareness existed that allowed us to promote turbocharged small-displacement engines and make this strong connection between racing and the products we sold, and that was IMSA,” recalled Mickey Matus, marketing manager at Ford Racing.
While the 1981 Miller Mustang, a re-bodied Zakspeed Capri, was SVO’s first official racing entry, it was the all-new Mustang GTP entering the spotlight just a few years later that took the IMSA world by storm.
Based loosely on the Mustang road car, the carbon fiber prototype, designed by Bob Riley, was groundbreaking at the time, and its unconventional design pushed the boundaries of technology.
The front-engined Mustang GTP was powered by a 1.7-liter four-cylinder turbocharged powerplant and benefited from involvement from not only SVO but also Ford’s aerospace, electronics, glass and design divisions.
While initially tabbed to make its debut in the Ford California Grand Prix at Sonoma Raceway in July 1983, the car didn’t compete until three races later at Road America for the annual 500-miler on Aug. 21.
However, it was worth the wait, as the factory Team Zakspeed Roush squad claimed a stunning debut victory.
After qualifying an impressive second, German sports car ace Klaus Ludwig and Tim Coconis won by two laps over the competition, with the sister Mustang GTP of Geoff Brabham and Bobby Rahal finishing third overall and second in the GTP class.
The win helped put Ford back in the spotlight and launch additional factory-backed programs under the leadership of Kranefuss in SCCA Trans-Am, IMSA GTO, NHRA Pro Stock and NASCAR, not to mention involvement in Formula One and the World Rally Championship on the global stage.
Now under the name of Ford Racing, the group’s success continues with support of its EcoBoost program in the TUDOR Championship as well as customer Mustang Boss 302Rs in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, both of which will be returning to Road America this weekend.