Joe Clifford - One Cool Cat

By Jim Luikens

31-year old Joe Clifford is a loyal Ford enthusiast. Part of the reason for this dedication can be traced to his employer, The Ford Motor Company. When Joe crashed his team’s Ford Probe Top Sportsman car during 2002 the only thing they knew for sure was that its replacement was going to be a Ford product. This is the story of Joe Clifford and the Clifford Team and how he came to race the only drag-prepared Jaguar XK8 in the world.

Our story actually begins with Ed Clifford, Joe’s dad. Ed got his start in drag racing during 1963, when he debuted a 1956 Ford Gasser that was powered by a 406 CID Ford (naturally) engine. During the ensuing years Ed raced a variety of cars and classes. The only common denominator was that they were always Ford products. In quick succession he raced a ‘67 390 Mustang Stocker, a ‘67 390 Fairlane Super/Stocker, a ‘67 427 Fairlane Super/Stocker and a ‘69 Fairlane Cobra Stocker.

During this period he also raced a ‘67 Mustang that was powered by a Ford (where have we heard that before) tunnel port engine and he served as a crewman for Don Nicholson on his Comet and Cougar funny cars. With a fatherly influence like that it’s no wonder that Joe Clifford comes by his Ford tendencies naturally. After taking time off from racing to raise the requisite family, Ed returned to racing in 1998 with a (surprise-surprise) Ford Mustang bracket car.

It didn’t take long for Ed’s old racing intensity to return and, in 1999, he answered his need for speed by purchasing a Top Sportsman Ford Probe. It was in this car that young Joe Clifford assumed the team’s driving duties during the year 2000. Things progressed quite nicely for the team over the next couple of years. Joe fine-tuned his abilities behind the wheel and the team even picked up some sponsorship from the well-known Bar’s Leaks Company.

In mid-2002 things took a turn for the worse during a match race at Michigan’s Milan Dragway. Joe was doing a burn-out when his rear end’s spool broke, promptly pitching him across the centerline and into the rear of his opponent’s car, which had already completed its burn-out. To make matters worse, Joe’s opponent was the recently completed ‘33 Willys, The Bug Hunter. And to make matters totally ridiculous, The Bug Hunter is owned and driven by Bob Mermuys. Bob’s day job is being the President and CEO of Bar’s Leaks.

After spending some time coming to grips with the realization that they had become car-less and sponsor-less in one fell swoop, the Clifford Team made plans to regroup. As you should have gathered by now, racing anything besides a Ford product was out of the question for them. But what Ford product to use? LJ Race Cars of Burlington, Ontario Canada provided the answer in the form of a stunning Jaguar XK8 Coupe.

LJ had previously built one other Jaguar XK8 race car. It had been for Canadian Pro Stock racer Mike Man, but that car had met its demise before being widely seen by drag racing enthusiasts. Encouraged by the fact that, at least technically, the Jaguar was a Ford, the Cliffords ordered their new car near the end of 2002. Original plans called for the car to be completed in time to participate in the 2003 Milan IHRA National Event.

The team took possession of the car on July 4th of this year, too late for it to be completed and tested in time for the Milan event. Instead the Jaguar made its debut a month later at the Martin US 131 IHRA Event. Testifying to the soundness of the car, it recorded a 7.15 elapsed time on only its third run ever and has proved to be a very easy car to sort out. Its second outing was at the Norwalk event, where it qualified for the quickest 48-car Top Sportsman field ever assembled to that date. A bonus was being chosen as the Drag Review Editor’s Choice for the Norwalk event.

The Jaguar then closed out the 2003 season by qualifying for the IHRA World Finals in Rockingham, North Carolina. That race saw the quickest all time 48-car Top Sportsman bump lowered from the 7.210 second number recorded at Norwalk to an even quicker 7.198 seconds. Thus the Jaguar has qualified for the two quickest 48-car Top Sportsman fields ever in only its first four outings.

The car’s quickness comes from a 632 cubic inch Ford engine that is based on a Ford SVO 460 aluminum block. The Fisher Brothers’ Engine Systems in Tucker, Georgia handle the engine’s balancing and cylinder head preparation while the legendary Gene Fulton is responsible for the car’s two stage nitrous system. Bob Bertsch Racing of Willis, Michigan assists the Cliffords in chassis preparation and the Cliffords travel together with Bob when they go to the races.

To be a long-lasting success in racing you really need to have good sponsors, a supportive family and quality help. The Clifford Team is blessed with all of those components. Joe is very appreciative of the loyal support that his wife Kelli and daughter Courtney provide while Ed is equally appreciative of his wife Annette and his other children, Philip and Kristen.

Crew member John Weisler is also an important part of the Clifford team. He has been in racing for a number of years and has spent the last five serving on the Clifford team. John is responsible for all of the wiring and electronics on the car, which is no small task on a modern race car.

Finally, proving that he is a good sport in addition to being a good guy, Bob Mermuys renewed the Clifford’s sponsorship and the Bar’s Leaks name can again be found on the Clifford Motorsports race car. Additional sponsorship comes from Kimberly Clark’s WypAll brand shop towels. More than satisfied with the Jaguar’s performance to-date, the Clifford team is preparing for an all-out assault on the 2004 IHRA World Championship with their very fast and beautiful “Ford” cat.