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Racing roots run deep—Matt & Charla Keiser’s Ford Mustang

Posted By: Evan J. Smith
Racing roots run deep—Matt & Charla Keiser’s Ford Mustang
Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by Kevin DiOssi
The story of how Matt and Charla Keiser acquired their 1968.5 Ford Mustang Cobra Jet clone not once, but twice, is truly remarkable. Now, the couple is enjoying campaigning the car in NMCA Detroit Truetrac Nostalgia Muscle and NMRA SCT Ford Muscle alongside their family of fellow racers.
Growing up in Cambridge City, Indiana, both Matt and Charla were fortunate enough to have families that were actively involved in the automotive community and car culture. Matt’s family temporarily relocated to Nebraska, but he met Charla while he was back home for the summer before beginning his studies at Purdue University in 1992.
“We were introduced through mutual friends who were interested in fast cars and four-wheel-drive trucks,” noted the man who has always lived in farm country. “Our friendship grew into a romantic relationship and we married in 1998.”
It was during Matt’s summer back home in 1992, though, when Fate set into motion a truly remarkable chain of events.
Matt started working for his uncle Melvin Moistner and his cousin (and fellow NMRA/NMCA racer) Mike Moistner, at their used car lot. The men had a 1967 Ford Mustang project car that they had started several years prior, and Mike wanted to be more competitive with it but didn’t want to turn it into a dedicated race car. Instead, they purchased a 1968 Mustang from a local salvage yard but ultimately shelved the project when a tube chassis 1965 fastback model unexpectedly fell into their laps.
“The ’68 got pushed outside and sat under tarps in the back of the property for years,” recalled Matt, who would often check on the jettisoned Mustang. He worked hard to earn money for tuition and eventually sacrificed $1,175 of his school money to buy the Mustang.  “It was just a bare body shell with a little sheetmetal work done and was in primer with a rear axle under it and some suspension, but it was my dream car.”
After the purchase, Matt securely stowed the classic muscle car at his grandmother’s house — only two blocks away from where he and Charla currently reside — from 1993 through 1999. After graduating from college, Matt and Charla purchased their first home and pulled the parked Mustang out to start working on it as the excitement of starting a family put a “now or never” urgency on getting going with the project car.
[Ironically, the home that the Keiser couple had purchased had previously belonged to Matt’s aunt and uncle, and had a surprising secret as Melvin had restored many Mustangs in the home’s garage. “Before the Mustang was even ours, it had sat in the backyard of the house we live in today — before it moved to the car lot, and before I even knew about it!” proclaimed Matt of how his life’s path had intertwined so perfectly with the fated Ford.]
Matt sold his high school Chevy to purchase parts and pieces to put together the Ford, and worked nonstop throughout Charla’s pregnancy with their first son, Garrett. He worked alongside his father, Duane Keiser, to assemble the original 428 cubic- inch Cobra Jet engine that placed between the Mustang’s frame rails.
Uncle Melvin had taught Matt the basics of bodywork when he worked at the car lot, so he was able to handle the odds and ends needed in that regard. Similarly, Matt also carefully crafted the full interior of the Mustang and did all of the upholstery work himself.
“We took it to the track for the first time right after our son was born. I raced that 2001 season, and in 2002, pulled it apart again,” shared Matt, who was finally enjoying driving his dream car. “Uncle Melvin and I worked evenings to finish the bodywork, and on Good Friday in 2002, we painted the car together.” The experience marked Matt’s first-ever time in a paint booth, and the same spray has graced the Mustang’s sheet metal skin for over two decades now.
From 2002 on, Matt campaigned the car with the 428ci Cobra Jet engine. His youngest son, Adam, came along in 2005 while he and Charla were also remodeling their house and were feeling overwhelmed. Around 2007, he decided he didn’t want to be a bracket racer anymore and began looking at other options.
“I liked the idea of going Nostalgia Super Stock racing, and liked heads-up or index-style racing,” he explained of the decision to switch trajectories on track. Matt attended his first-ever NSS event with the now-defunct National Street Car Association at National Trail Raceway in Ohio and runner-upped. When the NSCA folded that winter, though, Matt found himself without a place to race. “We made the decision to sell the car, but kept the original drivetrain, and bought a ’67 Fairlane instead.”
The Fairlane lingered as the Keisers focused on family and many other cars came and went while they were caught up in raising their boys. “We tried to stay active in racing. We raced one season and won a race at Columbus,” shared Matt.
Around 2015, Matt’s mother and father, Duane and Beverly Keiser (also regular NMRA and NMCA competitors) were attending an event at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, when they stumbled across a startling sight. “They sent me a photo and it was my mom holding a picture of our ’68 Mustang in front of our ’68 Mustang!” proclaimed Matt.
Matt tried hard to convince the then-owner, Steve Trombley, to part with his precious pony car, but Crumley ignored his pleas. Finally, in early December of 2015, Matt tried one last time and sent one final text… “I got a reply the next morning that he was ready to talk about it,” stated the excited man. “We talked for an hour and I told him my story. He said it wasn’t for sale, but if he were to consider selling it… he would sell it to me for what he had in it.”
The offer was “breathtaking” and Matt and Charla decided they would do whatever it took to come up with the cash. They schemed every scenario possible without telling a soul about their secret, and finally made the deal happen the day after Christmas. With Matt’s parents watching their boys, they headed out to bring their beloved Mustang back home.
“We unloaded it in my mom and dad’s shop a few miles from where we live,” detailed Matt of the sneaky strategy. “They went into the shop the next morning before church and saw the car. It was a really emotional moment.” With his Mustang finally in his hands, for the second time, Matt vowed never to let the car leave his possession ever again as it had become a part of the family.
By then, though, the Ford had been outfitted with a small-block powerplant and C4 automatic transmission from Joel’s On Joy, both of which Matt kept in place as he competed in 2016. “We went to Bowling Green [Kentucky] that year and wound up winning,” he happily shared of his first time back in NMCA Nostalgia Muscle and how he finished up the season eighth overall in points. “We raced more in 2017 and were successful. It was great to be out doing it again.”
Although the Mustang is legally a 1968 model, Matt notes it on his tech card when racing as a 1968.5 given that it was built to be an honorary CJ. “Ford didn’t release the Cobra Jet until midway through the production year, and this was one built in late ’68 anyway,” he added.
With the 50th anniversary of the Cobra Jet’s release happening in 2018, Matt’s excitement for his Mustang grew to a fever pitch. “Mine had always been a 428 big-block car. It’s not an original Cobra Jet, but I built it to be a clone and decided to get the carbureted 428 back in for the 50th Anniversary event at Norwalk,” said Matt, who still had the original drivetrain that his father had assembled in 1999. 
In just three weeks, Matt converted his Cobra Jet clone from its small-block configuration to its previous 428ci setup. His initial pass down the track occured during the 50th Anniversary Ford Performance Parts Cobra Jet Reunion at the NMCA All-American Nationals event at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, in late August 23-26 of 2018.
“The coolest thing was that we were pitted in the middle of all the guys with a collection of the original 50 Cobra Jet Musangs, and next to us was Vinny Lyons — one of the remaining few original owners,” added the enthusiast. Matt made a handful of trips down the track and ran quicker than ever, but ultimately busted the engine block and had to sit out eliminations.
Despite the damage, Matt was feeling great overall about the state of his racing endeavors. He spent the next year putting the Mustang back together and the rebuild centered around a larger 482 cubic-inch powerplant. In 2019, he returned to Norwalk with a new, untested combination yet again and put the car right on its bumper. “It was way better and made more power than before. We had no idea what we were in for,” laughed the man whose car got quicker and faster no matter what he did to try and tone it down.
Matt’s Mustang has become known for its wild, wheel-standing action. He loves racing, but loves putting on a good show even more. Although he’s tried to calm the car somewhat to be more competitive and has had several substantial wins and runners-up over the years, for Matt, it’s more about enjoying the time at the track with his friends, his family, and his beloved wife putting him in the beams.
Even though the iconic Blue Oval ride can run easily in the high-9-second zone in the quarter-mile, Matt has typically chosen to run it on a 10.0 index. “I wasn’t licensed or legal to run in the nines, and I wanted to avoid a problem with tech or being disqualified,” he explained of the decision to slow his roll with the all-steel, all-glass Mustang. 
Over the years, Matt had taken care to add plenty of subframe connectors to tie the chassis together structurally and replaced the floor pans, but the original six-point roll bar that he had built with his father just wasn’t up to par anymore. So, Matt added some chrome-moly bars to craft an eight-point roll cage instead to be legal to run 8.50-second elapsed times in the quarter-mile; he also obtained his NHRA competition license over the summer of 2022.
Additionally, Matt specifically set up Ford’s suspension like a typical Stock Eliminator car with Calvert Racing CalTrac traction bars on the rear, mono leaf springs, and a loose front suspension with a set of stout 275/60-15 Mickey Thompson ET drag radial tires out back.
Between 2019 and 2021, and partway into 2022, though, parts breakage and pandemic-related supply chain issues forced Matt to sit out most of the events he would normally be running at — although he did finish ninth in the 2021 NMRA SCT Ford Muscle championship chase. Racing sporadically in NMCA Detroit Truetrac Nostalgia Muscle, NMRA SCT Ford Muscle, and the Watson Racing Cobra Jet Showdown, even Matt’s 2022 NMRA/NMCA season was, admittedly, a bit of a struggle.
“The ’68 had gotten fast enough that I was unsettled and struggled with driving it,” he confessed. “It was hard to predict if it would stand up or not and my reaction times were off.”
At the Arrington Performance NMRA/NMCA Power Festival Presented by TorqStorm in July at US 131 Motorsports Park in Martin, Michigan, Matt put down an impressive 10.010 at 131.77 mph run in NMCA Detroit Truetrac Nostalgia Muscle to qualify third but exited the competition in round one of eliminations.
By the time the Keiser family pulled into historic Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in Indiana, they were exhausted. “We had trouble with the trailer, of all things,” lamented the dedicated competitor who had rebuilt the back half of his trailer midway through the season among many other things. “Indy is our home track, so I knew if I could just get there, we would have fun.”
The weather at the 21st Annual NMCA World Street Finals Presented by Chevrolet Performance didn’t exactly cooperate, either, as strong headwinds cropped up and put Matt’s nerves on edge. He stayed calm when it mattered, though, and produced a nearly-perfect 10.005-second run during Detroit Truetrac Nostalgia Muscle qualifying to end up in third once again going into eliminations.
When the contention commenced, Matt found himself in the winning lane twice in a row with incredibly accurate 10.0X-second runs. In round three, he ran under his 10.00 index but thankfully still advanced when his opponent lit the red light at the start. Matt continued through the semifinals and into the last pairing of the weekend where his 9.988 at 131.81 mph pass scored a victory over Jacob Weigl’s 10.941 at 121.41 mph effort on an 11.00-second dial.
Not wanting the season to be over, Matt and Charla committed to racing at the 24th Annual Whipple Superchargers NMRA World Finals Presented by Competition Clutch Featuring the Holley Intergalactic Ford Festival at Kentucky’s Beech Bend Raceway Park on September 30-October 2. Qualified fourth with a 10.011-second hit on his 10.00 index in NMRA SCT Ford Muscle, Matt won rounds one, two, and three but was 0.024 seconds too quick on the tree in the semifinals and went out with an accidental foul start. 
With a personal best elapsed time of 9.84 seconds outright, Matt has proven that not only is his car competitive and consistent, but also quick. For him, the best thrill is being with his loved ones and racing with his family — his younger brother, Brian Keiser, has even started racing in NMRA TorqStorm Superchargers True Street and NMRA HP Tuners Super Stang with a Mustang of his own.
“We’re fortunate to have had success, but it’s never been about that. We really love the NMRA and the NMCA and the people we race with. Our friend group is like an extended family. Maybe one day, the ’68 will do something different and run a quicker class, but right now, we’re loving where we’re at,” concluded Matt.
Between going racing and focusing on the family he loves so much, Matt hasn’t been able to put together a complete competition season in years and he expects more of the same in 2023. He’s got one year left of putting his “responsible parenting priorities” first, as Garrett will soon be graduating from college and Adam beginning it, so he and Charla will be empty-nesters ready to tour the country with their stunning, sentimental, and seriously cool 1968 Ford Mustang.
The Details
Owner:  Matt & Charla Keiser                   
Driver: Matt Keiser
Hometown: Cambridge City, Indiana
Occupation: Facilities Manager, Autocar Trucks
Class: Nostalgia Muscle/Ford Muscle
Crew: Charla Keiser
Car Year/Make/Model: 1968-½ Ford Mustang
Engine: Ford FE big-block
Engine builder: Matt Keiser
Displacement: 482 cubic inches
Block: BBM
Bore: 4.25 inches
Stroke: 4.25 inches
Crank: Scat
Rods: Scat H-beam
Pistons: MAHLE
Heads: Trick Flow
Valvetrain: Harland Sharp
Cam type: COMP Cams solid flat-tappet
Carburetor or EFI system: Carburetor
Power-adder: NA
Fuel brand and type: VP Racing Fuels VP110
Headers and exhaust: Hooker Super Comp
Transmission: C4 automatic
Transmission Builder: Seans Transmissions
Clutch/shifter/torque converter: JW
Rearend: Ford 9-inch w/Strange Engineering third member
Body and/or chassis builder: Matt Keiser
Suspension (Front): Open Tracker Racing
Suspension (Rear): Calvert
Brakes (Front): Wilwood
Brakes (Rear): Factory
Wheels (front): Weld Racing Alumastar
Wheels (Rear):  Weld Racing Alumastar
Tires (Front): Mickey Thompson
Tires (Rear): Mickey Thompson ET Radial Pro
Aftermarket body modifications: None
Safety equipment: NHRA Certified to 8.50/150mph, RHS belts, and window net.           
Vehicle weight: 3,485 pounds
Quickest ET: 9.840 seconds
Best 60-foot: 1.328 seconds
Fastest mph: 134

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