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Testing the limits

1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1

1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1
This page last updated on or about 4-19-09

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BACK to The journals of Jerry Staute: Crossroads Illustrated story index

The account below was inspired by actual events. Details like names, dates, and more have been changed for reasons of privacy and readability.

My first time at 120 mph with Shadowfast

One day Steve and I were in Shadowfast, headed west on the old state highway towards Knoxville. The road had some lengthy straights just outside our hometown. Somewhat risky straights perhaps, due to so many private driveways and several other significant roads intersecting it along the way. But you usually got some warning about obstacles appearing in your path, as the course offered swell visibility of the traffic on most of those offshoots, due to almost no trees lining the way.

"Hey man. Why don't you open her up and see what she'll do?" Steve asked from the passenger seat.

Steve was referring to Shadow as female, as is the usual tradition with mankind's machines. However, I personally always thought of Shadow as male. I suppose this was the last bit of my young boy perspective asserting itself before I grew up.

But it also seemed to me illogical and contradictory to refer to any powerful metal machine as feminine.

I glanced Steve's way and responded wordlessly, ramping up our speed tremendously. Eighty. Ninety. One hundred miles per hour. I believe prior to that point I'd never gone beyond the century mark with the car.

One hundred-ten. We were consuming what remained of the straight-away at a horrendous pace. The closest scenery from road-side flashed by in a blur.

One hundred-twenty. By the time we reached that milestone I was getting nervous regarding several elements. Worrying that I might blow up my motor. Concerned about something unexpected causing us to crash. Seeing the straight before us end abruptly not too far ahead.

So at 120 mph I decided I'd done enough testing for one day and let off again. Too abruptly, really, causing Shadow to gag some as our momentum still tugged mightily at his engine revs even as I suddenly starved him for fuel. I think he may have backfired a bit-- but my memory of that event is one of my very oldest with Shadow: so I'm unsure on that point now.

We definitely slowed back down again without incident.

120 mph speedometer of a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1

Shadow's speedo looked much like this one (but the only way his ever showed only 103 miles on the odometer was when it rolled over the 100,000 mile mark).

Steve of course was disappointed that I'd pushed us no further than 120 that day.

However, there seemed little point in taking the speedometer needle beyond 120: for that was the highest number on Shadow's factory-standard dial.

Steve and his 1971 Boss 351 Mustang

I believe Steve challenged someone to a race the very first day he was able to drive his Boss to school.

He invited me to come along and I did.

Black 1969 plymouth road runner

The Road Runner of this story looked a lot like this, from what I can recall

Steve told me he'd asked around school to see who was supposed to have the fastest car, and a majority of folks had pointed him to the owner of a beautiful black 1968 or 1969 Plymouth Road Runner (my memory's fuzzy there, even with the help of internet images to identify the year). I honestly cannot recall the engine size, but surely it was NOT a Hemi or 440 Magnum.

Anyway, Steve was determined to find the guy and race him, ASAP. I suppose Steve was trying to immediately establish a reputation at school.

I hadn't owned Shadow long at all, and really hadn't given much (if any!) consideration to racing just yet. But I thought it sounded exciting.

We went looking for the guy to challenge him, in the Boss. We found him, and he agreed to race us. Both cars proceeded to the same straight-away I describe in Nowhere to go but up as being a local favorite for young racers (this may have been my very first visit to the place for anything like this).

So far as car racing went, before this contest my main experience consisted of getting sick and throwing up around age three or four due to the awful racket I heard at the round dirt race track my parents and I were attending as spectators. So I pretty much had to take my cues from Steve as to what to do now.

Steve directed me to stand beside the road ahead of them by a car length or two to start the race. I was to hold a piece of cloth over my head, then quickly whip it down to start them off.

I got over-excited in the moment, and unintentionally hurt Steve a bit, by jumping the gun.

Green and black 1971 Boss 351 Mustang

My friend Steve's Boss 351 looked this good.

Dashboard of a 1971 Boss 351 Mustang

The dashboard look from Steve's 351 Boss Mustang.

That is, while Steve's opponent was already sitting in position and ready, and Steve had barely finished backing into a position alongside him, I threw down my arm holding the rag.

I winced immediately after I'd done it, realizing I should have waited at least another few seconds. But it was too late then: they were off. With my inadvertently giving Steve's competitor a significant advantage in the contest.

They took off past me with screeching tires, soon growing small in the distance. As I recall, it was actually hard for me to tell who won from my location at the starting line. But if memory serves, it was my friend. Despite his handicap.

As Steve was fated to total his Boss only around six weeks after purchase, we didn't have the chance to build up many adventures in it. By far the most time I would ever spend around it was later, when the pony car was a mere hollowed out hulk, awaiting a transformation into a professional drag racing car. A conversion which would never be completed (by us, anyway). But here's a few more things I remember about its brief street-running existence with us...

Once, sometime prior to 8:30 AM on a school day, I was riding with Steve in the Boss when he decided to shadow the bus carrying a girl he liked to school. We pulled off the main road to wait for the bus in a steep graveled driveway which led down to a small house several car lengths below. It was a somewhat precarious perch, with the Boss being a straight-shift, and Steve not being overly experienced with such a transmission (or even cars in general!) anyway.

Soon the bus was passing by and everyone on it saw us sitting there. Steve started to pull up and out to follow-- I guess so maybe the kids would be talking about the cool looking car behind, and the girl he wanted to impress would hear it all.

But instead of doing what we expected, Steve's Boss began going backwards down the steep driveway. Steve did what he could to get things back under control, but still we thumped pretty hard into a wall of the house below with the rear end of the car. It may well have looked hilarious to the bus riders. DOH! As Homer Simpson might say.

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Had Steve screwed up somehow? No.

It turned out that the steel wire cable connecting Steve's gas pedal to everything else had broken loose from something like a lead weight which kept it secured in some notch on the pedal lever (if I recall the details correctly). So the pedal no longer worked. And naturally we had precious little in the way of tools on-hand. We'd soon be late for school too-- if the owner of the house didn't come out and shoot us first, that is.

It may be no one was home. Or else they were scared to emerge.

Once Steve determined what the problem was we tried to make it up out of the depression and to school with me laying over the floor console trying to pull the frayed wire cable to gas the engine while Steve steered. My body interfered with the gear shifter so we had little choice in what gear we used, thereby most likely somewhat abusing the engine.

Another pic of a 1971 Boss 351 Mustang

We were at least several miles from school when we bumped the house.

It seemed to take enormous finger strength to pull the cable-- remember the design was meant to leveraged with a pedal, and even then pushed with a foot. Plus the frayed end was sharp, tending to cut your fingers. The more blood there was, the more slippery the cable became, and the more strength was required. And on and on. AGH!

I couldn't pull the cable for long. Either my finger strength gave out, or blood made it too slippery. Maybe both. I'm unsure now. So we had to switch places pretty soon in the trek to school, which included some half dozen red light stops through the middle of our small town. I remember Steve's fingers being an awful, bloody mess by the time we made the school. But that would merely be one of my earliest glimpses of Steve's raw determination in action.

1971 Boss 351 Mustang

Steve's Boss 351 bites the dust

Only around six weeks after acquiring the car, Steve totaled it. Fortunately he only chipped his elbow and his two passengers were thrown clear when the car rolled maybe a dozen times down a steep hill. The passengers (teenage boys like ourselves) were black and blue all over the next day, but apparently well enough to show up at school grinning and excitedly telling everyone about the crash. I guess my full-time job of that period saved me from being present, too.

My friend had lost control when he hit loose gravel on a paved highway in a curve. I assume he was moving a bit too fast for the conditions.

Keith Black's end

Sometime during this period me and other students at my school heard the news of Keith Black's crack up.

Keith Black had been a guy even smaller than me at the school (there weren't a whole lot of those). But somehow he'd acquired a 'cool' reputation along the way, so that he never seemed to suffer the same sorts of harassment as me and others at the institution.

Yellow and black 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1

Keith's car often looked like this sitting in the school parking lot (it wasn't paved at the time).

Of course, his best friend always seemed close by too-- and he was BIG!

So maybe his best buddy acting as a bodyguard or protential agent of retaliation is what kept the bullies off Keith.

Keith had a nice-looking 1969 Mustang Mach One with all the original bells and whistles, including the rear wing spoiler. I think the engine was souped up some too, somewhat comparable to what Shadow's own would eventually be. For I'm pretty sure Keith had a 351 Windsor like me-- and he seemed to win his share of races with Camaros, Chevelles, etc., of the time.

But it seems Keith took on one race too many. For suddenly one day he just wasn't around any more, and word spread that he'd been killed in a race-related crash.

Maybe his friend died then too. For I don't recall ever seeing him again after that, either. I'd give you the particulars of the wreck if I knew them. But such things happened so frequently back then, all that seemed to really matter was that Keith was gone. I seem to remember hearing a few details at the time-- but cannot recollect them now.

I do seem to remember though thinking that a roll cage, better handling suspension, and/or improved brakes might have enabled Keith to survive. So I guess by the time of Keith's death I'd already had some exposure to race car technology at the drag strip.

In hindsight, maybe Keith's death was one of the nudges which eventually pushed me into installing all those improvements onto Shadow.

Other notable wrecks of the time

If I remember correctly, somebody driving way too fast one evening struck a lady's VW bug back then-- with catastrophic consequences for the lady.

It sounded pretty gruesome in the local paper. The beetle had been effectively squashed, and the lady spit out of the car through a side window like a seed from a squeezed fruit.

I would get reminders of this particular crash from at least a couple other events in the days and weeks that followed.

The first one came when Steve and I were visiting a junkyard. Not for parts, this time. But to inspect the wreck of Steve's own Boss 351 I believe. Steve would soon face a decision regarding either giving up the mangled hulk of his totaled car, or walking away from the debt by the grace of his insurance company. Steve would choose to keep the wreck to try turning it into a dragster, and so be both carless and in debt for quite some time to come.

Anyway, it turned out that the poor VW lady's bug was brought in to the same junkyard the day Steve and I were there. So we saw the damage up close and first hand.

You could see the blood stains where the doomed lady had been propelled out a small rear side window in the vehicle.

The second reminder of this tragedy would come when I met a new and pretty waitress at work, some time later. She turned out to be a close relative to the VW lady. And we her fellow restaurant workers accidentally brought up the subject at some point without knowing of the connection-- causing her some fresh anguish.

You'd think stuff like this would have made me and others drive more slowly and carefully afterwards. But it didn't.

My first crash

One incident which greatly affected my own driving tendencies afterwards occurred when I'd only had Shadow maybe a month or two, and was still new to driving altogether. I guess I was sixteen or so.

I and my friend Ben were in Shadow when we hit a progression of lengthy straight-aways, maybe two or three in a row, separated by curves which weren't too bad in themselves. But the end of the series involved a fairly serious turn.

This was a paved two lane state highway: the same one in fact which is described in the Daytona 2.0 race account.

The visibility on the straight-aways was pretty good, so I could see nothing was coming for quite a ways as we entered the first section. I guess I decided to show off for my friend. I sped up, changed lanes, and began passing everybody on the road for the next quarter mile or so, curves and all.

Note here that not only was I a woefully inexperienced driver, but I was unfamiliar with the road as well as my own car's capabilities, in just about every way. Plus, I was an immature teenage male with way too much power at my beck and call in the moment.

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As it's been around 30 years since that event, and I was pretty shaken up by it too, my recall is fairly hazy now. But what I think happened is this:

On the last leg of the straightaway I saw that the approaching curve looked much worse than the previous few, and disappeared abruptly behind a hill. So I needed to get back into the proper lane, pronto. Which might have meant speeding up even more to get ahead of the cars there. Then I think there were cars suddenly visible around the bad bend, coming at me in my present lane. YIKES! I think I panicked, gave Shadow too much gas to help get into the right-hand lane again, then hit the brakes way too hard even as I was still in transition.

So I lost control.

The whole car then spun around like a top (360 degrees) as we approached the curve, with the view in the windshield basically a blur. How all the other cars both ahead and behind us kept from hitting us, I'll never know.

The spin burned off lots of our speed and we ended up plowing into the hill to the left side of the road, rather than running off into the lower and flatter ground on the right.

If I remember correctly Shadow wasn't very badly damaged at all. It seems the hill was pretty soft. Shadow took the main impact on his whole left side, including the front and rear corner posts.

It might be neither my friend or I were wearing seat belts at the time. So things could have been much, much worse.

A passerby stopped and gave us a lift to my parents' house, where I called a wrecker for the car, contacted the police, etc., etc., etc.

Basically everything I thought you were supposed to do in such an event.

But looking back on it now, none of that was likely necessary, or even desirable. I mainly did it out of inexperience and being shaken up by the crash. I probably could have simply driven the car home with little problem, had I possessed the presence of mind. But this was my very first auto accident, after all.

That incident helped me resolve to exert better control over my urges in the future, as well as polish my driving skills in general, and get to know my car better. And improve its handling, too.

But truth be told, it was likely entirely my own fault we wrecked, and not Shadow's. Much, much later I'd discover that curve and speed were well within the ultimate Shadowfast's capabilities-- and likely inside the unmodified car's capacity as well. It was just that the driver was flawed, and making one bad decision after another.

My friend Ben and I kept it a secret from our respective parents that he'd been with me in the wreck. I think at Ben's urging. Why? Because he was afraid of several possible consequences to the knowledge getting out. One: he might be banned from running around with me (we were best friends at the time, plus I had a car and he didn't). Two: the incident might hamper his own efforts to get a car, too. For his parents seemed much stricter about such stuff than my own. Plus, Ben was an only child, living with his mom and step-dad.

Much later Ben revealed to me that he'd cracked a rib in the crash, and eventually went to the doctor over it. But even then, he feigned ignorance of where and when it could possibly have happened.

In the immediate aftermath of the wreck however, we'd thought ourselves unhurt. Though it may be that Ben said something about his side being sore.

This instance has to be one of the very earliest examples of me keeping secret certain aspects of my experiences with Shadow. Over the coming years such secret-keeping would come to encompass ever more of what I did with the car.

Now, so many years later, I honestly cannot recall which of us wrecked our Mustangs first: me or my friend Steve. But his was definitely the worst of the two crashes (with him losing his car and all).

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