The automotive hobby has been used as a way to turn a negative situation into a positive situation many times over. Fred Leight’s life was forever changed after a tragic accident, but he has used his position in law enforcement, and his love for cars as a way to help others. Leight’s “Project 55” 2006 Mustang is his way of turning a terrible accident into a way to educate people on the dangers of distracted driving.
Leight has always been fascinated by cars, he grew up in a generation that was heavily influenced by the Smokey and the Bandit films. Family also played a big part in drawing Leight towards the automotive hobby. Leight’s cousin had a Pro Street Camaro that he found fascinating, and his father took him to indoor car shows, monster truck events, and tractor pulls too.
“As I got older, I got into drag racing, John Force was my guy. When I got my first real job after high school, I bought a 1984 Mustang SVO. It wasn’t a bad car but I needed more, so I traded it in on a 1990 Mustang GT. Of course, I did the usual mods over time which led to a 10-point roll cage, and plans on building a nasty 347 cubic-inch small block Ford,” Leight says.
In 2002, Leight decided it was time for a career change, so he enrolled in the police academy. The downside to this was that Leight had to sell his Mustang to pay for his tuition, but he was determined to start a new chapter in his life. After graduating from the Police Academy, Leight was sworn in as a Deputy Sheriff in Stark County, Ohio where he has served in various roles ever since.
Leight eventually got married and started a family, but it was at this point his old Mustang made an appearance in his life once again. The car was for sale, and Leight jumped on the chance to purchase it.
“It wasn’t the best move, but I decided to buy the car back. It had a 357-cubic inch small block Ford that was based on Dart block, it had a ProCharger F-1R added to it, but the car was only running in the twelves. So, we worked out all the bugs and ran a best of 9.15 at 151 MPH. Then, one day during testing at Summit Motorsports Park, the engine blew a head gasket on a pass. I went sideways through the traps recording 9.44 at 141 MPH before I hit the wall. So, being a new father, I decided to part the car out and hang it up,” Leight explains.
On May 25, 2016, Leight’s life would change in a big way. His stepdaughter Brea and her fiancé Robby were on his motorcycle after Robby had just picked Brea up from work. As they were slowing down to make the turn onto their street, a 16-year-old girl who was distracted by her cell phone struck the pair on the motorcycle. Sadly, Robby died from his injuries at the scene, and Brea was seriously injured. Brea spent the next 71 days in a wheelchair before she could go to physical therapy. Thankfully, she was able to recover from her injuries and now has a family of her own.
“Robby was a fine young man who had hopes and dreams. He is missed every single day along with all of the others in this world who were taken so suddenly by a distracted driver. So, I felt I had to do something. Since I’m in law enforcement and still around drag racing, I began researching what I could do to raise awareness about distracted driving by doing something I enjoy,” Leight states.
Leight joined Beat The Heat, an organization that’s made up of first responders that has the goal of combating street racing, drunk driving, and distracted driving. A new project car was next on Leight’s list after joining Beat The Heat, and he knew it had to be a Mustang. Leight found a 2006 Mustang GT, and hatched a plan to add a new Coyote engine to power the Ford. The Mustang would need some serious rip, so Leight opted to go the forced induction route with a single turbo setup.
This project was going to be a massive undertaking, and Leight knew it was out of his wheelhouse of skills. Leight met with the team from Big 3 Racing in Hinckley, Ohio to see if they’d be interested in helping bring the Mustang to life. Without hesitation, Big 3 Racing jumped on board to help Leight create Project 55, a name that came from Robby’s high school football number. Big 3 Racing even went as far as helping Leight set up fundraisers to acquire parts, and meet with potential sponsors to get other parts they’d need for the build.
Leight went to great lengths to push Project 55’s message and get the parts he needed to get the car ready.
“I went to the NHRA event at Summit Motorsports Park to meet Jeg Coughlin, Jr. in hopes of just getting us a discount on parts. So, after going back and forth between the pro and sportsman sides of the track, getting stuck in the rain, and having to change clothes, I stopped by his pit one more time, and of course, he was on the sportsman side. I spoke with the gentleman who was restocking Jeg’s hero cards in the rack, and long story short he was the guy I needed to meet. Scott Woodruff was in charge of media and motorsports marketing for the team at the time, and come to find out, he literally lived just two minutes from me and was familiar with the accident. Jegs ended up supplying us with all the items we needed to plumb the car, it was very nice,” Leight states.
So, with a pile of parts in the shop and a goal to achieve, the team at Big 3 Racing got to work on Project 55. The first order of business was installing the Coyote engine out of a 2016 F150 that Leight picked up from Fox Auto Salvage. The only change made to the engine was a set of upgraded oil pump gears, a Holley Sniper intake, and a Holley fuel system. The Coyote engine is controlled by a Holley Dominator ECU and is tuned by Rick Trunkett from Big 3 Racing.
Big 3 Racing crafted a custom turbo system that is filled with boosted air from a BorgWarner S480 turbocharger. Behind the engine, you’ll find a TH400 that was built by Janis Transmissions that’s attached to the Mustang thanks to a JPC Racing mount. 501 Perfect Converter Company built Project 55’s torque converter.
Since Project 55 logs a good amount of miles on the street, a proper suspension needed to be added to the Mustang. Team Z Motorsports stepped up and provided the K-member, A-arms, and all of the parts for the rear suspension. A full set of Viking shocks compliment the Team Z suspension perfectly. A stock 8.8 Ford rearend was upgraded with parts from Strange Engineering to put the power to the pavement. Flaming River provided the rack and pinion steering upgrade for the Mustang. Project 55 rolls around on a full set of Race Star wheels and Mickey Thompson tires. The braking duties are handled by a set of Strange Engineering brakes.
Leight wanted Project 55 to look as good as it ran, so he added an MMR GT500 front facia, Racecraft rear wing, and Glasstek cowl induction hood. Project 55’s Whelen safety lights were installed by Hall Public Safety, while the Imagine This wrap was applied by Dane Frauenholz. Currently, a Fat House Fab 8.50-certified roll cage and JPC Racing parachute mount are being added to Project 55.
Project 55’s main goal is to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. Leight and business partner Herb Salle started a nonprofit organization called Ohio Blue Line Motorsports Inc. to amplify this message.
“Our organization promotes education, public safety, and lets local law enforcement interact with the community to promote a better understanding between us and the public. At our track events, we will allow the public to challenge the cops to a race. Our members are comprised of police and firefighters (active or retired), who conduct educational programs using marked emergency vehicles. We have reached thousands of people including being on national TV during the opening ceremonies of the 2022 NHRA Summit Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk Ohio,” Leight says.
Leight plans on taking Project 55 to as many car shows and cruise-ins as he can to help get his message across to people of all ages. The Mustang’s striking looks really grab people’s attention, so it’s the perfect vessel for this mission.
It’s not easy bringing a car like Project 55 to life. Chuck Stefanski, Rick Trunkett, and Bob Hess Jr. at Big 3 Racing were a big part of making this project happen. The team at Holley also went above and beyond in helping Leight with the Mustang.
“This has been a very special project for me, and so many people have assisted us along the way. Bubba Raferty and the late Rick Sigman of 501 Perfect Converter Company, along with Vince Janis of Janis Transmissions. Scott Woodruff and Andy Hendricks at Jegs and Jennifer Cunningham Woodruff at Benmit really helped out. L.B. Davis of Race Star Wheels, Dave and Sheri Zimmerman of Team Z Motorsports, and the team at Flaming River got us what we needed to finish parts of the car. Jeff Rich of Midlake Products, Justin Burcham, and Eric Holiday at JPC Racing provided us with lots of support. I also need to thank Anton Manini at Whelen and Dave Butch at Hall Public Safety for what they did as well,” Leight says.
It’s also important not to forget the people who were impacted by this tragedy and also helped Leight get Project 55 off the ground.
“I really need to thank my crew members Dave Hass and Larry Reese for everything they do. I also need to thank Jim Mason from Duncan Press who handles all my printing needs. We also have our honorary crewmember Robby Shafer III who is always watching over us, we’ll never forget him. A special thank you goes out to my wife Angie along with my daughters Addison and Brea. They’ve been at my side for the entirety of Project 55 and have helped so much,” Leight explains.
Fred Leight and Project 55’s story is inspirational to so many people. It shows that through the power of the automobile you can take a terrible event and turn it into something positive.