I had two years to prepare the Mustang for its round trip from Michigan to Alaska and back. I had just returned from my road trip to the West Coast and back, and my list of improvements for the car wasn’t terribly long, so I figured that I had plenty of time to get the car ready. Naturally, the car got finished with just about two weeks of time before I was slated to drive the car to Seattle, and even had to have some sorting out done on the way to the rally start, all thanks to my 1) initial chronic lack of focus, and 2) my very slow pace as a wrench.
But the car did make it out to Seattle.
Quick intro to road rally
I got my start doing road rallies with the Champaign County Sports Car Club (CCSCC) back when I was a student at the University of Illinois. My very first manual transmission car, my 1998 Audi A4, also served as my first road rally car in addition to being my first autocross car.
Road rally, or its more technical name, Time Speed Distance (TSD) rally, takes what would normally be a relaxing drive in the countryside and turns it into an adventure. This is how rallying started — a car and crew would be given route instructions with average speed directions, and asked to cover a specific distance at a specific average speed. Get it right, and you would achieve a perfect time for your leg. Otherwise, you would be docked points for coming into a control checkpoint too early or too late.
At some point in history, “special stages” were added to road rallies, and then stage rallying evolved out of that. But TSD rallying is the original form of the motorsport.
You can get yourself lost in rally math if you so choose to do so, but when I started rallying, I ran strictly Seat of the Pants, or “SOP.” That meant no calculators, and no mental math. I asked my navigator to simply keep me on course and used the seat of my pants to guesstimate how far off the ideal speed we were going. You’d adjust your speed “bump” based upon how early or late you came into the next checkpoint.
The key to a fun road rally is having fun roads to drive on. Maintaining an average speed of 37 mph on an arrow straight road isn’t fun, but once you throw turns, hills, obstacles, and other fun things in the way, it becomes way more entertaining. The rally route instructions can also be a bit cryptic, which makes staying on course (or rushing to get back on course) a challenge. CCSCC ran mostly trap rallies with such cleverly worded route instructions, but the rallies I’ve run with Detroit Region SCCA have been more straightforward course following rallies.
All my best motorsports stories happen to be rally stories, because there’s so many opportunities for things to go wrong, and when things do go wrong, it’s a chance for unlikely redemption or an entertaining story of an epic failure. No one wants to hear about how close I came to a cone on an autocross course, or how well I nailed an outside pass on a race track. Far more entertaining are the stories when I got lost on a rally and had to call the rallymaster using a strip club I found as my only landmark, going “straight at T,” light offroading in my NA Miata during a nocturnal all-night rally, or… the Alcan 5000.
Why just drive to Alaska by oneself, when one can do it in the company of dozens of others and with the possibility of winning a plastic trophy at the end of it all?
As an aside, do one road rally with a friend and you will have a bonding experience that is hard to come by. There will be joy. There will be stress. You may end up yelling at each other with nonsensical insults and swears. Road rallying is the one thing I can share with my non-car friends, those who aren’t interested in pulling maximum g’s or fast lap times.
The Mustang’s first road rally
But first, let’s go back to the Mustang’s first ever road rally under my ownership.
This was shortly after I had bought the car. A friend of mine, Lauren, was about to move to California, and I decided that before she went, we needed to do a road rally together. And I decided that we would run the road rally in the Mustang.
This particular Detroit Region road rally was called the Twilight Tour, and took place on the smooth paved and rough gravel roads northwest of the Detroit Metro area. Lauren, not at all a car person, had to be educated within the span of 30 minutes as to what her duties were as a navigator. This particular rally used tulip diagrams instead of written route instructions, so my usual method of simply asking my navigator to repeat exactly what was written wasn’t going to work here. I told Lauren to do her best, and if it came down to it, to point in the direction that I needed to go.
Off we went, and the first couple of stages went pretty well. However, there was some sort of knocking noise, almost like something was banging against the body of the car, that I couldn’t quite place. At the first rally break, I took a quick sweep around the car and noticed that one of my dual exhaust pipes had a lot of movement.
Figuring that that must have been the source of the noise, we went to a local convenience store and bought a bunch of zip ties, and I did my best zip tie “repair” to keep the exhaust from banging around so much. Satisfied with my work, we continued on with the second section of the road rally.
That noise was still present, however, and getting louder. At one of the checkpoints, I noticed something strange: a small dent on my hood. I hopped out of the car and popped the hood.
Lo and behold, I had found the source of the noise. The pin that holds the shock to the shock tower was simply missing. I looked across the other side of the engine bay, and the shock mount on the other shock had also come loose, but fortunately was still there.
I bolted the remaining shock mount together, and zip tied a ratchet and extension in place to hold the other shock in place. I decided that that was the end of our rally.
Lauren and I headed back to the restaurant at the rally start point and had a wonderful dinner. The rally may have ended in failure, but we still had a lovely time while we were on the road, and a lovely time after my foolishness resulted in a DNF.
The funny thing was, the car drove no differently before it had front shocks and after it had no front shocks. Which is to say, the front shocks were doing absolutely nothing and were well past their use-by date.
Preparing the Mustang for the Alcan
There were two parts to the prep: one was getting the car ready for rally duty, and the other was for getting the car ready for long distance driving.
On the rally prep front, I started by adding a rally odometer to the car. I really wanted to put a vintage rally odometer in the car (like a Halda Twinmaster), but the real deal is expensive to procure. In lieu of a mechanical rally odometer, I decided to install a faux vintage electronic rally odometer with an analog display. The Brantz Retrotrip rally odometer that I installed had twin analog odometer displays, but was powered by an electronic brain — in fact, I had the rally odometer getting its mileage reading from a GPS unit I mounted on the dashboard.
At first, I was worried that the loud mechanical click of the Retrotrip would become super annoying during long distance drives (electric motors drive the hundredths wheels, so you’re hearing a click 100 times per mile!), but it turned out to be not as annoying as I thought and beneficial during navigation. I could watch the clock and count the “clicks” and know exactly when I had passed a particular mileage without even looking at the odometer.
To finish the navigator’s dash kit, I added a mechanical stopwatch next to the rally odometer. Once again, what I really wanted was a set of vintage rally clocks, but getting a pair of vintage Heuer rally timers or similar would have cost at least a few thousand dollars, so I ended up with a regular split seconds Heuer stopwatch that was mounted to the dash with a pronged bracket.
On the road trip prep front, the first thing I did after my West Coast road trip was replace the front seats. The foam on the old front seats was getting thin, and the seats were becoming more uncomfortable for long drivers. I could have tried refoaming and recovering the seats, but I was lazy. I ended up getting two generic reclining bucket seats with headrests and installing them in the car. They were nicely bolstered and extremely comfortable for long drives, and could be reclined all the way back in case I wanted to sleep in the car. The only problem was that they were so heavily bolstered that it was difficult to get in and out of the car; I ended up reclining the seat back in order to move the bolsters out of the way for easier entry and exit.
I also replaced the radio. The car had a nice but expensive Retrosound radio that fit in the stock radio location, but the knobs stopped working, leaving me with a useless radio. I decided against paying for another one, and instead got a modern double DIN radio and put it in the aftermarket center console that I had. I installed a blanking plate in the dashboard.
For the chassis, I had subframe connectors installed to stiffen up the body. The subframe connectors came from Maier Racing, and had these nifty cross braces that I thought I could use, only to find out later that one needed to lower the car in order to use them, and I was still running at stock ride height. I also had a Panhard bar installed in the back, and regeared the rear end to work better with the transmission swap I was doing. While I was in the rear end, I added a Truetrac limited slip.
I did some basic maintenance work, throwing on another set of new shocks and new tires all the way around. On the motor, I removed the troublesome Autolite 4 barrel (which I or my shop could never rebuild right) and put a cheap Chinese Summit Racing carb on top. I replaced the single bowl brake master cylinder with a dual bowl master cylinder and bent new brake lines for the front wheels to accommodate.
And then there was the transmission.
Transmission woes, and “too many projects at once”
I really, really wanted an overdrive gear for more relaxed highway cruising. The easiest way to get that overdrive gear was to install a T-5 transmission in the Mustang.
This had been done many times before by many a wrench before me. How hard could it be? Especially since I was buying a complete kit with literally every single piece that I would need from Modern Driveline?
The transmission swap nearly sank the entire endeavor.
I was determined to do this swap by myself in my garage. Armed with just a Quick Jack and my chest of tools, I got to work. I pulled out the super heavy 4-speed Toploader transmission without any issue. The transmission swap kit came and it contained a brand new T-5z transmission and all the bits needed for a hydraulic clutch conversion. As I had struggled constantly with the mechanical z-bar clutch linkage in the Mustang — a setup that was, quite frankly, not strong enough to actuate the clutch without twisting itself out of shape — I wanted something bulletproof for the clutch actuation. Many friends warned me that a clutch cable would eventually meet its demise living right next to the headers, so I went with the hydraulic clutch solution for my “trouble free” setup.
First step was to drill the holes in the firewall for the clutch master to sit. I had to make a template out of tape and try to drill three holes in the firewall right next to the fender apron. The process sucked, with the tape template refusing to stay on the firewall, and my drill not quite able to squeeze into a perfectly orthogonal drilling position. But I took my time, and got my holes drilled. I attempted to mount the spacer for the clutch master cylinder… and it didn’t quite fit. I had drilled my holes two millimeters too close to the fender apron, and the spacer didn’t sit flush with the firewall.
Just like that, I was stuck in a gumption trap, my motivation leaving my body like a rapidly deflating balloon. I put my tools away and told myself that I’d get around to fixing the problem later.
Later turned out to be “8 months later.”
I was spending all of my free time playing around with my Morgan. As the start of the Alcan drew nearer, I realized that I had to focus on the Mustang lest I risk not making the start of the rally.
With a newfound zeal, I eliminated all of my distractions. My project Subaru XT Turbos were sold. I sold my troublesome Corvette Z06. I sold my lovely little Morgan Plus 4. I went from seven cars in the fleet down to three.
Revisiting the Mustang and the clutch master installation, I realized that I could simply create the necessary clearance for my clutch master spacer by taking a mini sledge to the fender apron. With about a dozen good whacks to the metal, I created a divot deep enough to clear the clutch master spacer. Why didn’t I think of this earlier?
I hurriedly finished the clutch hydraulics and the new clutch pedal linkage. The transmission went into the car, and the shortened driveshaft followed. I tried to bleed the clutch hydraulics the best I could, but I couldn’t get the clutch to work all that well.
This was about six weeks out from the Alcan start. I set aside my pride and decided to call in the cavalry. I had a tow truck come to my house, pick up the car, and deliver it to my favorite shop in town to complete the clutch bleed and install the subframe connectors, rear panhard bar, and exhaust.
With two weeks before the departure date, I had a fully working Mustang waiting for me outside the shop. I drove the car every day, trying to work out any remaining issues before taking the car on a 10,000 mile road trip. I got most, but not all, of the gremlins resolved before I hit the road, heading towards Seattle.