Sudden Death

I’ve been trying to find the original source for this article. I think that it might have been published in Hot Rod but not sure.

UPDATE: Another article about this car here.



By Gray Baskerville

The vicarious pleasure of hammering along behind the wheel of Joe Ruggirello’s Mustang II quickly brings to mind the fact that you are indulging in 50% of a car nut’s true valhaulla. The balance of this fantasy would be having the lovely Linda riding shotgun. But it’s no daydream. We’ve got racing’s earth mother “covered” elsewhere, and as for driving the world’s fastest/quickest street-legal Mustang II – pardner, you’re looking at it. I know there isn’t a 6-71 peeking through the hood, nor is there a montage of decals spread along the rocker panels, signifying that what’s inside is mean, nasty and sable to boogie buns at the drop of the spoon. But there at throttle’s touch is instang launch, guarantedd to snap tunm-tums around spinal columns while causing a very real brain-draining case of the vertigos. Ruggirello’s racer is so fast that it does two things: manages to stay one step ahead of the grim reaper and remains undefeated on those secluded freeways and byways located in and around the suburbs of Detroit.

Any lover of ultimate high-performance machinery knows that “Sudden Deaths” don’t just happen; they are man-made. This one is a pure personification of oneupmanship, a sort of mechanical fastest-gun-in-the-West, the absolute toy of the serious big boy, or in the words of its chassis builder, Wayne Gapp, “one wild piece.” Obviously, “SD” had to come from somewhere, and that somewhere was Detroit, when Joe Ruggirello was but a beardless youth. For kicks he and his friends would street-race their breathed-on Fords, Chevys and Mopars. During the ensuing 20 years, Joe and his coterie went their respective ways. Some became doctors, some became lawyers, some became captains of industry, some became deeply involved in the automotive industry, and some, like Joe, ended up as wealthy developers. But they continued their kicks and would meet once a week at one of the local coffee houses to lie to one another, bench race, and then, when the kiddies had all gone home, fly off into the night to stage 3 a.m. clandestine quarter-mile adventures. As they grew older and more financially secure, their toys took on a more substantial look. Those friends who worked for Chevrolet soon had 427-inch Vettes with glass so thin that a 100-watt light bulb would cast an X-ray shadow on the front suspension. Those occupying similar positions at Chrysler soon sported hemi-powered play toys that they managed to sneak out of engineering.

And then there was Joe. He stayed away from the fun-and-games, making his fortune so he too could return to the fray with something a little different – a Ford. As you can imagine, with hoots and jeers of “who wants a Ford” ringing in his ears, Joe pieced together a very storing Torino. However, 429-augered Torinos are heavy, and its 75% win/loss record wasn’t up to Ruggirello’s liking. So Joe made a dirctional shift, in the form of a brand-new Mustang II, registered it in his mother’s name (driving your mother’s car is not a put-down here), then proceeded on a straight line to that nirvana called Gapp & Roush – a place of oval shields, where script names and Ford blue flows thicker than water, where 351 is spoken and Chevy is a five-letter word. They, as you would say, got Ruggirello’s new act together.

Once you’ve assumed the driver’s position, it takes only a couple of seconds to recognize what has been done. No question about it: “SD” is a for-real, pro-built, Santa Ana cheater racer. A flick of the key and you light a whole herd of horses. You feather the throttle, let the Winters 4000-rpm converter ease you onto Schoolcraft – the split street on which Gapp & Roush fronts, a ribbon of bumpy concrete that parallels a still-unfinished freeway that runs east and west into Detroit – and begin to understand what they mean by getting your kicks. First is its exhaust note. By rights, a semi-sleeper should be sneaky fast. But “Smokey” Joe likes to watch the reactions of the curious to his Mustang’s perceptible muscle. It’s not a cacophony of tomato can size slugs lumbering in their respective bores. Nor is it the staccato-like ring of the cam and compression as their harmonics bounce around the almost-gutted interior. It’s more like the feasome fury of a Willys-style gasser, the peculiar sensation associated with a far-out engine/chassis combination, a package that features 505 inches inside 2900 pounds. It vibrates, even at idle.

The steering is light, extremely light, thanks to the fact that the “inches-are-everything” stroker has been slipped a good 10 inches back into the firewall. Visibility is unimpaired, braking adequate, courtesy of the “Stang’s lack of weight and slightly modified stopping system – even though the car was built to go, not whoa. Nor does it have the twinkle-toes agility of a Shelby Cobra – but it sure does jet.

The ride and handling provided by the “Competition Suspension” option was acceptable by today’s standards, but nothing like the IMSA-racer-for-the-street we were hoping for. The Cobra was fairly well controlled over bumps but suffered form a tendency to “float” over freeway undulations. The Cobra cornered flat, and was stable and predictable up to its limit where a moderate amount of understeer would take you wide of your intended path. There was enough power to trick it into a tail-out attitude with a twitch of the wheel and stab at the gas – but this is a maneuver not recommended for novices.

Obviously jetting is what it does best – better than anything around Detroit and better perhaps than any street-driven car in the country. It’s a “grizzly” to Roush, “Jaws” to Joe and, in a macabre sort of way, “Sudden Death” to the competition. It’s your good, old-fashioned shagnasty, and there are two ways to drive it. One is the Baskerville chicken boodie method. What you do here is to saunter along at 45 mph and let the Winters 4000-stall converter slip in the 550-lb.-ft of torque, smooth and subtle. When the snow is on the ground and slippery spots appear here and there, your old dad doesn’t want to be the guy who was responsible for stuffing Ruggirello’s $13,000+ toy into a utility pole.

Then there is the Roush-and-ready way. It’s far more thrilling riding and reading. Jack is from the famed school of “stab and steer,” a noble institution from which he received a magna-cum-leave degree. We slowed to a stop on an almost-deserted freeway, gave the surroundings a full 360 eyeball, then let it happen. Down went thw gasser, lock up went the converter, and there we were in our two bun-hugging buckets making like the proverbial striped fast ape. It was instant tunnel vision, in low, second and partially in third, as we eased off to a scalp tingle when passing 7000 in high and nudging into the 140-mph time zone. The whole heart-hammering, straight-arrow, mind-fogging experience took less than 10 seconds to complete. But I wouldn’t trade one second of that experience for anything less than another have-at-it.

You’re right; street racing isn’t drag racing. It’s more than that. It’s underground recognition in a form that causes strangers to stop and ask if this Mustang II is “that” Mustang II. It’s the fun of not knowing what the other guy has under his hood and blowing him off anyway. It’s the trip of not racing for money because, “I have pockets full of the stuff.” It’s taking your sporty-car friends for a ride they’ll never forget. It’s putting the Chevy and MoPar lovers away. It’s watching the gas station attendants lift the hood and faint dead away. It’s experiencing the gut-ball power in an age of gutless performance. It’s knowing you have a 600-inch all-aluminum Ford Can Am short-block in the wings in case someone gets too close. And it’s having your girlfriend complain after winning a grudge race two straight, that the competition must have broken, and being able to answer, “Broke, hell, that’s the way it ought to be.” Because when you deal with Joe Ruggirello’s musclebound Mustang II, that’s the way it is.