An Inside Look at Steve Saleen’s Race Career and Business
He’s had a passion for going fast since he was a tyke. He’s a car enthusiast, transferring that speed from a tricycle to a pretty sweet first ride. He’s set numerous records on the racetrack. There’s a pretty good chance he’s designed one of your favorite cars.
He’s also an entrepreneur who has founded companies and built things the automobile industry has never seen before. He’s a member of the Mustang Hall of Fame, and to be honest, we’re just getting started with his list of accolades.
While you can’t define the man by a single one of these attributes, they combine into a form that has grabbed the car world by the steering wheel, time and time again.
Now the question is, am I talking about Carroll Shelby or Steve Saleen?
Saleen is too modest to make the comparison himself, but Amy Boylan, President and COO of Saleen Automotive, has worked for both men, and doesn’t make the connection lightly.
“Carroll Shelby was 83 when he hired me at Carroll Shelby International. I helped him run the company. Steve and Carroll have similar backgrounds, but are different personality-wise,” she shared. “In a way, Steve’s the next-generation Carroll Shelby.
“Steve has accomplished a lot in his career like Shelby did, but in a different time when automobile standards for racing and building cars were less stringent. To succeed in an era with strict requirements and regulations and the veracity of social media is pretty incredible.”
If you don’t follow the car manufacturing world or don’t have much interest in racing, you may not recognize the Saleen name. It’s time you did.
Saleen: The Man
Just like his parents, Saleen liked speed. He spent his early years in Southern California, moving to Whittier with his family before school started. He developed a keen interest for cars in middle and high school, but it was his dad’s acquisition of a sports car when he was a junior that solidified his future behind the wheel.
“My dad bought a car from a guy at church: a 1956 Porsche,” Saleen commented. “The man had taken a European delivery and brought it back to the States. My dad bought it when the guy wasn’t interested in it anymore. I got to drive it—it cemented my desire to race.”
Upon graduation, Saleen inherited the car. He tinkered, upgrading to push its speed limitations. He joined car clubs in college at USC, and knew exactly what he wanted to do when he graduated with a degree in business.
“I wanted to be a professional race car driver. And the worst possible thing happened: I won my first race,” he chuckled. “I should have just quit then. But I was hooked.”
He worked at his dad’s manufacturing business for a while and raced on the weekends. The 1970s were an exciting time for the car culture in Southern California, and Saleen took advantage of the atmosphere. But he outgrew the Porsche, and in his own words, “wanted something a little faster.”
“I ended up selling the Porsche. I started to save up for the 911 S, but it was going to take forever. I bought a used Shelby GT350 Mustang instead.”
And so began Saleen’s history with Shelby and its parent company, Ford.
Saleen didn’t lose his love for speed after a scary crash in the early 70s, but he did switch to formula racing. He honed his skills on the track and brought his expertise to the Pro Series for Formula Atlantic. He took his newly fixed up Mustang to the SCCA racing Series in 1973 and won.
Saleen: The Brand
When looking back on an accomplishment, the phrase “one thing leads to another,” is commonly used, and Saleen is no exception. But the purchase of that Mustang was a watershed moment in his history, setting into motion the foundation of his company, Saleen Autosport, in 1983.
“We eventually modified the Mustang so much that we needed our own manufacturer’s license to continue to modify the way we wanted,” he said. Setting up his own company was just a natural solution.
From here, one thing truly did lead to another, and in rapid fashion. The first Saleen Mustang—which included new suspension and handling packages and a newly designed interior—was completed the same year. Ford supported his endeavors, particularly after he suggested a V8 in place of a four-cylinder engine.
Its first test was the Mosport 24-hour race. It won. That was 35 years ago, and the companies still collaborate today.
The rest of the 1980s saw Saleen involved in motorsport and the development of its first Sportruck, and the 90s saw the foundation of his aftermarkets parts brand: Saleen Performance Parts.
Saleen built an amazing legacy for racing championships throughout his career, and not just in sports cars and formula cars: his truck racing pedigree is just as impressive.
Saleen’s total domination of the SCCA Race Truck Championships, which in 1991 included the Manufacturer Series win for Ford, was the first ever award for the brand. In 1995, Saleen teamed up with TV celebrity Tim Allen to create the RRR Race team, winning the first of three World Manufacturer’s Championships. In 1997, Saleen became the first Mustang team in 30 years to compete at the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1999, a Saleen SR won an FIA GT race in Spain, the first in the history of the marque.
Since then, the Saleen brand has been known for its incredible collaborations, partnerships with aftermarket brands, and one-of-a-kind projects.
Saleen: The Supercar
Here’s what you’ve been waiting for: the Saleen S7 supercar.
“It’s the most successful American car on a racetrack to date,” Saleen shared. And America’s first mid-engine production supercar, he also pointed out.
It’s got a hell of a racing pedigree. The S7 has won at every major race track in the world—which is incredible, because Europe’s tracks are known to be incredibly challenging—and has even won the 24 hours of Le Mans. Saleen’s supercar has won more races than Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati combined.
It was the company’s first production car not based on an existing design, and boy did it deliver.
The success of the S7 in the early 2000s led to Ford reaching out about its own supercar: the Ford GT, based on the Ford GT40 that won Le Mans in the 1960s.
“The S7 was the reason Ford reached out about the GT. It led to us getting the contract to do the certification and engineering for the 2004-2006 Ford GTs. We did the complete assembly, even down to painting and putting on Ford’s window stickers.”
This, then, led to a partnership with Dodge and the Viper.
“When it comes to American supercars, I’ve had my hand in a lot of the industry,” he said.
The S7 set the stage for Saleen to develop other original autos, but there were a few bumps in the road before he could fully turn his attention from custom Fords to his own line of cars.
Meet Steve Saleen’s President & COO
Almost every company she’s led has been in a largely male-dominated field, from managing coders and engineers at a software gaming company, to Barbie and the boy’s Hot Wheels toy division at Mattel.
From there she entered the automobile industry, where Carroll Shelby brought her to help kick start the Shelby brand nearly 30 years after its last production car. After that, she was onto West Coast Customs to help Ryan Friedlinghaus before taking up the mantle at Saleen.
But there’s another interesting thread that follows her through her career decisions.
“Everyone leading these industries is very creative,” she said. “I never had aspirations to be them; rather, I wanted to help them grow while they focus on the products and brand. I’m a good second in command. I’m the person you go to if you want help taking your brand to the next level.”
Whether she was an executive vice president of a toy manufacturer or the president of an auto company, Boylan never saw herself as someone who just sits behind a desk.
“I interact with people on social media all the time. I’m at the unveilings, the conferences. I always want to know what our customers, suppliers, and dealers are thinking. I want all those people to feel like the company treats them the same, whether they bought a Saleen in the 80s or bought one today. You also can’t forget the guy who wants to own a piece of your brand.”
As Saleen moves forward with the Sportruck, and has more supercars and electric vehicles on his radar, Boylan made one thing very clear:
“We don’t forget where we came from. You cannot build the brand if you forget where you’ve been. We’re still selling Saleens at a price point anyone can buy—from an entry-level Saleen to million-dollar supercars—just to a bigger audience.”
From Crash and Burn to Back on the Road
“It was very successful. You could go in, browse the different options on cars, and ultimately order one. We had the ‘Nitros Bar’ where customers could come in and ask questions of experts, similar to Apple’s Genius Bar.”
He also shared that some of Tesla’s marketing strategies today started with Saleen.
“They have the same brand of furniture in their stores we had. They offer a very similar experience, even to the way they close sales. I think we created a new way to retail cars in general.”
It was all of this that Saleen would, several years later, have to fight for after the company went under.
In the middle of working with Ford on the GT, Saleen had the opportunity to sell his business, and did so in 2004. After a few years, and a few disagreements, he retired from his own company. It folded shortly after.
What followed was a fight to get back his name and likeness and reconstruct the company. Ten years after he “retired,” he finally feels like things are back on track again.
“We’re still small right now,” Boylan said. “When I was brought on as President in 2017, I saw that Steve needed a leader on his team to help rebuild the company, that was willing to work to take the company to the next level, and to help him organize all of his plans.
“We have a small team, we all have to be good at a lot of things. Unlike my other leadership positions though, this wasn’t a turnaround—it’s a rebuild. And we’re rebuilding fast.”
As we’ve learned from Boylan, every customer at Saleen—from 1984 until now—is valued as part of the family. As we’ve learned from Steve, authenticity, precision, and speed are the central tenants to his brand.
“Our strength comes from the hard-fought battles in those 24-hour races, from the handful of drivers that choose Saleen on the racetrack. We give them heritage and authenticity: our brand stands for something. This isn’t lost on our customers.
“Our racing heritage makes the street version better. It gives us an edge over some of our competitors. And it makes us uniquely Saleen.”
There’s no question that Saleen Automotive has a lot in the pipeline. After the launches of the new S7, the S1, and now the Sportruck, the brand has gained the momentum Saleen had been trying to recover. So what’s next?
“Well, I can’t tell you,” he said, to which we both had a little chuckle. “Our next products will be exciting. Some will be surprising. If you look at what’s taking place in the industry, we’ve focused on how we can compete in a new, cool way.”
I asked if an electric car is on the table. His silence may have given away the answer.
The road to success can be a furious one. But with Steve Saleen’s proven track record in and out of the driver’s seat, the company is looking forward to navigation from one of the best in the industry.