When Ryan Walton bought his 1989 Mustang back in 1998, it was little more than a stock-ish street car that would take him to work and provide weekend jollies. With no plans other than cost-effective fun on canyon roads, he drove and drove until the car broke, and then he repaired it for relatively little. Even better than the reasonable running costs, the low limits made it a hoot at moderate speeds, and the low weight made it a decent performer at the drag strip.

As is normal, the next round of bolt-ons first made it faster, then the one after that made it unlivable. “The more you modify it, the less you want to drive it to work,” he admitted. Those growing pains led Walton to entry-level track days in 1999, and four years later, he trotted into NASA’s burgeoning American Iron series.

“The series was already big and growing pretty steadily, so I gave wheel-to-wheel a shot,” he began. “Honestly, I wanted to try a series with stricter rules and, presumably, tighter fields, but because of the stroker motor I’d already put in the car, it could no longer fit into Camaro Mustang Challenge.”

Not that American Iron was short on competition. “I was midpack for a long time,” he began. “The Maximum Motorsports guys and Griggs Racing were dominating the class and walking away most races. There was no chance of fighting at the front for the first few years, but I never felt cheated. The racing was as good as anything else I saw at the time.”

And it was affordable back then. Walton, a shop foreman and former technician, managed to minimize his bill by maintaining just about everything on the car himself. “I was happy using whatever parts I could get, and I think that by staying realistic about my budget, I had enough to drive just about every other weekend. I didn’t mind working on it back then, so I beat on it without really thinking about it.”

Walton’s upgrades were mostly off-the-shelf items that fit his budget: a 331cid stroker, Brembo 200 Cobra R front brakes, G-Stream aero, 275-section Toyo RRs, a Tremec TKO five-speed, a Torsen T2R helical differential, and a set of single-adjustable Penskes — about as meat and potatoes as a car capable of 1:53s around Buttonwillow’s 13-clockwise configuration can get.

To set that sort of time took hours and hours of seat time to discover the right way to hustle a Fox body around a track — it won’t do a bit of the work for you. “In stock trim, the Fox body doesn’t brake or turn. You’ve got to manhandle it. It’s only fast when it’s loose in most places. The manual brakes feel like a rock, and the steering lacks feel. Fast, but vague,” he explained.

After a few seasons of hustling his old box to try to match the modern Mustangs, which were nearly in a class of their own, he’d made a name for himself. His flamboyant driving, regular attendance, and an occasional podium garnered the attention of a reputable Mustang shop that wanted to help.

In 2008, Agent 47 decided to give Walton’s aging Fox body a chance to run with the newer cars. His new sponsor retrofitted the Mustang with its double-wishbone front suspension and y-link rear. The front suspension and its camber curves made it possible to reduce static camber, helping the Fox body decelerate like a modern Mustang. However, he had to add a Stewart valve, a diaphragm that helps delay application of the rear brakes, before the nose-heavy car would stop hopping its rear tires under braking. Longer arms at the rear improved traction, Suddenly, Walton was mixing it up at the sharp end of the pack.

Several regional championships that followed put Walton on the map, and in 2014, K&N decided to put him in its S197 car. “It was such a step up for me, a guy who trailered and wrenched on his own car. K&N gave me the pro treatment. I could just show up at the track on Friday, drive, and get paid. Plus, they gave me a bunch of free parts — that made picking out Christmas presents a little easier.”

After getting the fully funded drive and a closet-full of cold air intakes, Walton reached his career zenith when he won the Western States Championships in 2017. Sadly, the dream only lasted several years, and after K&N decided to take a different path, Walton returned to his old Fox body for a few enjoyable, if less successful twilight seasons.

Running again without company backing for the first time in a while, Walton found himself dealing with standards and running costs drastically different from what they were in AI’s nascent years. “When I started, a few of the better-funded teams might have one mechanic helping out. By 2017, almost every team had a big crew most weekends. I was one of the few one-man shows remaining, and I felt like I was racing the other drivers and their mechanics at the same time.”

Those final years saw the big names like Maximum Motorsports and Griggs, the guys driving a lot of the development in the series, pull out and focus their efforts elsewhere. Some of the addictive electricity in the air left with them, and soon the fields dwindled to a fourth of their former size.

It wasn’t just the big shops, either. “Some of the ‘credit card’ racers spent more and more until they ran out of credit.  I think the guys with real money decided the costs were too high to run a basic car, so they moved into a TCR or a Porsche Cup Car.”

“When I was one of three guys on the grid, it started feeling like a track day.”

From 2003 to 2021, Walton never missed a single season. Now facing the likelihood of losing his main source of adrenaline, he felt pressed to find a replacement to the series that had treated him so well. Friend and fellow racer Tom Paule suggested they go in on a spec car in hopes of closer racing, but they weren’t sure which.

A little research led them to settling on Spec E30. The cars were resilient and reliable, parts were readily available, and the parity seemed the best of the different classes they considered. Spec E30’s strict rules on engine modifications meant it was unlikely to degenerate into a spending contest. Unlike rival series, which Walton believed the well-funded front-runners used as a stepping stone to something grander, Spec E30 was made up of a long-lasting group of enthusiasts happy to mix it up on a reasonable budget. The clincher was the camaraderie among them.

“Talking to folks in the paddock made it clear that the guys in Spec E30 were the nicest,” Walton said.

So they picked one up and started racing it. The full fields were thrilling and a welcome change from the processions he’d been part of the previous few years, and the standard of driving was high enough to be humbling. It took a while to learn the subtleties of driving this big brick.

“Actually, I think the car’s so bad that you can be way off in terms of setup and still run up front,” he said. “In this class, the driver makes the biggest difference.”

While neither as darty nor as rapid as the old Mustang, the E30, or, rather, the standard of competition the E30 demanded, forced Walton to remain sharp and develop a few new strengths. The precision, finesse, and consistency required to challenge for the lead took some effort to evolve, and the punishment for a lapse in judgment made every lap feel like a qualifier.

“You’ve got to be inch-perfect, and there’s no horsepower to bail you out. If you botch a corner before a straight, you watch the predictive timer climb and climb — it can be really frustrating. It might not be the fastest thing around, but it does keep me sharp,” he extolled.

True, the E30 was not quite as alive in his hands as his old car was, but it was forgiving. The few off-track excursions he endured did not damage the Spec E30 like they did the splitter-equipped Mustang. Having a good six inches of ground clearance comes in handy.

The learning curve was steep but surmountable, and Walton found his way to the front of the pack by the end of his first season. Without question, the rate at which he developed would not have been easy to maintain had he not found real satisfaction on honing his craft in new and interesting ways.

“Anybody who’s fast in spec classes is really good,” he declared. “I used to get tipped as the winner in American Iron, and now I’m not so certain I’m going to perform. It can come down to a single mistake — you really have to drive as perfectly as possible.”

Though the old Mustang has spent most of the last several years hibernating under a tarp, Walton got a chance to bring it out of retirement after NASA asked him to partake in a tire test.

“They needed a steady driver in an American Iron car to get a sense of how some of the new 275-section race tires would function. Since AI is basically dead in California, I was one of the few still around who could still help.”

“I hadn’t started it since 2020, but it turned right over and ran eight sessions that day. I missed the speed, the power, and the sound. Compared to the Spec E30, it feels a little more like a real racecar, since the front end’s much more responsive. Plus, I like the manual brakes without ABS better. I liked that I could throw the car sideways with power at high speeds whenever I wanted. The E30 just doesn’t have the power to do that.”

After 20-plus years riding the emotional rollercoaster that regularly wears younger drivers out, never to return, Walton shows no sign of stopping. Perhaps that’s because he’s been able to find a pure, undiluted level of competition that keeps him feeling vital. “I’m going on my third year of Spec E30 and I still see it as a worthy challenge. There are more cars in Spec E30 that are capable of winning, so I need everything to go perfectly to win. That tension keeps me coming back.”

And when the chance comes to drive the Fox body, he’ll hop on it. An occasional track day won’t require much maintenance, and an occasional hit of the 331ci is about all he needs to get his horsepower fix these days.

Owner: Ryan Walton
Year: 1989
Make: Ford
Model: Mustang
Weight: 3,050  lbs. with driver
Engine/Horsepower: 331 stroker Windsor V8, 355 RWHP
Transmission: Tremec 3550 with short 5th gear ratio
Suspension Front: Agent 47 SLA
Suspension Rear: Agent 47 Y link
Tires Front: 275/40/17 Toyo Proxes RR
Tires Rear: 275/40/17 Toyo Proxes RR
Brakes Front: 2000 Cobra R Brembo
Data system: AEM AQ1 Data Logger and Garmin Catalyst

Agent 47, K&N, Gstream, AEM

Images courtesy of Ryan Walton, headonphotos.net and caliphotography.com


  1. Ryan was my first instructor in HPDE1; July 2014 at WSIR, in my black E30 street car. Hot as hell that day but one of my best memories. Ryan was awesome; encouraging me to push new found limits but remain in control, safe and understand what “track awareness” is all about. He set the hook(big time) for my newfound hobby!

  2. Ryan was also my first instructor at NASA in his MR-2. Oh course I was his driving instructor when he was 16 in my 1972 Scout II.

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