On a cool, October midday at Sonoma Raceway I met up with Frank at the Sears Point Grille, “The burgers are actually really good here.” he reassured. “Try some of their barbeque sauce, it’s got a little kick to it.” I had just walked over from the midfield scoring tower, between turns 1 and 6, where I was trying to get some good shots of Frank’s second session on track.
“I’m exhausted, I barely got any sleep last night.” Frank said, “I didn’t get to bed until after midnight and I was up at 4AM.” The results of an anxious night before race day. But, here we were, at Sonoma Raceway. I was enjoying the chance to absorb the racing and snap some photos, and Frank was looking racy and competitive on track.
In August, with Covid in full force, my wife and I moved into a new neighborhood, it feels impossible to make new friends in such a situation. On an afternoon bike ride I noticed a conspicuously liveried race car made from a 1997 Mustang GT. Lonely from moving into a new neighborhood during a pandemic, and feeling the inevitable, gravitational pull that comes when I encounter a race car, I made a quick, decisive course adjustment to check out the vehicle. There’s something special about encountering a purpose-built race car, and the commitment it takes to build one is admirable. This car, I noticed, had no door panels or carpet. Massive Wilwood brakes occupied the cavities of the lightweight Wedsport wheels, wrapped in competition rubbers. A blue roll cage was clearly visible from the outside. This was an all-in, no comforts spared, dedicated racing car. I made my way over and cautiously approached who I guessed was the owner.
I think Frank, the owner’s name it turned out, was a little caught off guard by my approach, but he was nice enough to entertain my questioning. “Do you race it? What type of racing do you do? Can you tell me a bit about your car?”. He even seemed happy to chat about his money-sucking hobby, “I like when she gets attention, but sometimes it’s the wrong kind.” It turned out that Frank has developed a pretty serious amateur racing habit over the last few years, competing in autocross and HPDE across the state. He now has his sights set on competing in time trials.
Frank’s interest in racing, and his love of Mustangs, began when he was just a kid. He shared much of the same early racing education as our generation, spinning laps around Sonoma Raceway, Suzuka Circuit, and tackling the famed Laguna Seca corkscrew in a virtual world through the Forza and Gran Turismo video games. When Frank was eight years old his mom met his then soon-to-be step-dad, a man with a black, supercharged, 1998 Mustang GT. “He used to drag race it at Sonoma, I was like, ‘Here’s someone who likes what I like’”. Frank’s step-dad also had a friend who did some road racing with another SN95 Mustang (the generation of Mustang chassis spanning from model years 1994 to 2004). With these mentors, it was only inevitable that Frank would own his own Mustang someday.
“My first Mustang, we got it when I was in 8th grade. It was a bone stock ‘98 GT with a blown engine in Santa Cruz. We limped it back here.” The mission was to have the car driveable, with some modification, by the time Frank reached driving age. Frank installed the Performance Improved heads from a ‘99 model, unlocking a few more horses. A number of other bolt-ons followed: a Saleen rear spoiler, sequential tail lights, a cold air intake, shifter, and a set of iconic FR500 wheels --a gift from his fellow Mustang-loving step-dad. The car was tough, aggressive, and quick, until Frank launched the car off a windy road. “I actually crashed it in Niles Canyon. There’s an underpass under the bridge for the train, I had just put in a full tank of gas, which I’m still salty about. The tires were bald, I fishtailed one way, counter steered, fishtailed the other way, tried to counter steer again. But, by that time it was too late, and I launched it off a cliff. The car hit two trees, one in the front and one right behind the passenger side, which was keeping the car out of the water.”
Frank was shaken, but he had learned his lesson. “I had focused more on power than being able to corner, which is ironic because I wanted to corner more than I wanted to go fast. So when I got this car, I changed my tactics.” After transferring what parts he could from his demolished car to his new one, Frank shifted his focus toward building a car that handled well and upgrading his “driver mod”, improving his piloting skills.
The first step to Frank’s "driver mod" was figuring out how to get some experience with competition driving. “I was never able to find a way to actually do it. When I’d google stuff, I’d find that it was just really expensive to go rent a race track. I couldn't afford that. Then one day my step-dad’s friend talked about club racing.” After a quick google search, in March 2016, Frank found his local chapter of the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America). He enrolled in the SCCA Starting Line, a competition driving training class at a regional airport. “They had an autocross course set up. They show you how to drive, the fundamentals, and they have an instructor in the car with you giving you pointers.” Frank was excited to learn he could do autocross pretty well, and it was relatively inexpensive. And, the Starting Line program also included entry to a Track Night in America event on Thunderhill’s West road course. It was a learning experience, Frank explained. “It was interesting learning what I thought I knew vs what I actually knew. I wasn’t terribly far off, but when you’re racing, one second makes a big difference.” Frank knew he wanted to compete. He loved learning and pushing his abilities, but he also knew he’d have to make some changes to his car. “I’m out there in a ‘97 Mustang that’s putting 200 horsepower max to the wheels, compared to a brand new Camaro that makes 400 horsepower. That was the one thing with the car, everything was out of date, so I had to bring everything up to date.”
Going Full Race Car
As Frank made his car more capable at the racetrack it became less bearable as a commuter. The stiffer suspension, fumes, and noise began to take their toll on Frank’s Bay Area commute, which could sometimes take two hours or more. “Every month there was more and more building up to the car being an actual race car and less and less a driving car. And you know, I’m building the car to go fast I’m trying to have fun, so when I’m in two hours of traffic sniffing fumes, this isn’t what the car’s made for.” However, Frank was determined to pursue his racing, and the solution was clear, he’d buy a more comfortable commuter and commit, all in, on his race car aspirations.
The Mustang has undergone a dramatic transformation. After multiple face lifts, weight reduction surgeries, and skeletal reinforcement, what once was a docile, sporty Mustang GT, is now a raw, brutish, purpose-built brawler. While he’s done most of the work on the car himself, he’s had some help along the way. “I dove into SN95 forums and met a lot of friends, I still have those friends, a lot of them have similar cars. It’s been helpful to pick their brains and learn from them.” Input from the Mustang and racing community has been instrumental in helping Frank decide which mods to make and and getting them done. When Frank was getting a custom engine built in Louisiana, it was a fellow SN95 forum member that drove across the country with him to get the engine installed. His roll bar is also the product of a racing friend at Specfab racing.
Frank’s Mustang is instantly recognizable by the distinct livery. Like many millennials, Frank spent a ludicrous amount of hours on driving simulators like Forza and Need For Speed designing custom race cars. Unlike many millennials, Frank has actually built his Forza race car in real life. “Forza had the ‘95 Cobra, so I spent a lot of time messing around with it. I was always messing with things to see what I like, what I don’t like, asking close friends what they thought.” In the end, Frank came up with a design that works well with the Mustang’s body lines and curves. He’s used a patchwork of white, grey, and a dark, deep blue to create a distinct and racy livery that’s easily recognizable on track. “This next year, '21 and '22, I have a new design I want to put on the car, there will be some similarities, but differences, more so one color to highlight things.”
During our conversation Frank took me for a rumble of a ride around the neighborhood. It’s hard to imagine that his car was ever a comfortable, highway cruising example of automotive Americana. The exhaust is louder than the neighbors probably appreciate, the squeal of cold racing brakes is unsettling, there is no sound deadening or any interior panels to speak of. But the car is synaptic and purposeful. This Mustang, and Frank, have evolved, almost unrecognizably, over the years. “So, what’s next?”, I ask. “I’d like to do a full roll cage, drop more weight, cut more stuff up, finish some more suspension bits, drop the Coyote V8 in there, do some more aero, Hoosiers. Things that come with having a house and a garage to keep the car out of the elements.” Despite dropping in over $30,000 and countless hours into the car, there’s still plenty of work to be done. “She’ll get there, in time, as will I, but you work with what you got.”
Frank has been documenting his build and racing adventures at his website fjdperformance.com, head over for some inspiration.