We Go Wheel-to-Wheel in Ford’s New Mustang Challenge Series

Ford

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early June, a stampede of 27 Mustang Dark Horse R race cars circled an Ohio racetrack, the collective roar of their V-8s reverberating over the grandstands. A casual spectator might have seen simply a handsome parade of sporty Dearborn metal, but in addition to the colorful liveries, another vision emerged: Ford’s renewed commitment to the joy of driving. “We don’t make shampoo,” said Ford CEO Jim Farley, to underscore his commitment to making cars and trucks for the passionate.

Farley, a longtime amateur racer; Mark Rushbrook, Ford’s director of global motorsports; and Will Ford III, general manager of Ford Performance are creating a self-sustaining motorsport division to preserve racing within the Blue Oval. “Racing is part of Ford’s DNA,” Farley announced at a dinner of some 100 drivers and crew the night before the race, “and our goal is to turn motorsports into more than a marketing expense.” The Mustang Challenge series is just one of many initiatives these executives have planned to appeal to enthusiasts both on track and off-road.  

If you feel like you’ve heard this spiel before, I’m with you. Car companies and racing series marry, divorce, and remarry at the whims of whichever executive is writing the checks. Witness Audi’s years at the top of the Le Mans podium or even Ford’s celebrated no-expense-spared foray with the GT40 in the mid-1960s. When the wins no longer generate headlines or, worse, never happen, promotional dollars go elsewhere. This time seems different. Ford hopes to cement a more permanent motorsport business model by selling race cars, parts, experiences, and merchandise. “We’re hardwiring motorsports into the company,” said Rushbrook.

 “We want to preserve the art of driving, both on and off-road,” Farley added. Amen to that. It wasn’t that long ago when we were all told, by Ford and others, that our near future included driverless, autonomous pods. In 2017, Ford announced a $1 billion investment in Argo AI, a company developing autonomous technology. Two years ago, Argo AI shut down; the tech had proven harder and more expensive to develop than originally promised.

The bursting of the AV bubble reminded the industry that fun cars and trucks still matter. “We’re not running a public transit company,” Farley quipped. Ford is not the only manufacturer to come to this conclusion, of course. GM, Toyota, BMW, Mercedes, and other manufacturers are once again using professional road racing to celebrate the art of driving. The paddock at this year’s 24 Hours of Daytona has never been so flush with car company dollars, a situation few would have predicted just five years ago.

Recognizing that, for many enthusiasts, the fun begins when the pavement ends, Ford is now offering a trio of high-performance off-road Raptors—Ranger, F-150, and Bronco—and a turn at Ford’s off-road driving school in Utah is included in the purchase price. Expect the Blue Oval to add more ways for customers to drive and perhaps race off-road and attend down-and-dirty events like the Baja 1000 and King of the Hammers. The company is also doubling down on the Mustang with nearly 10 street versions, including the high-performance Dark Horse, and three racing models.  The Mustang GT3 competes at the highest level of endurance racing at events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans; the GT4 runs semi-professional endurance events; and the Dark Horse R (DHR) was developed for the new, Mustang-only series. “The Mustang is a lifestyle product,” Rushbrook said. “And we’re providing the lifestyle.”

At Mid-Ohio, the track that hosted the first Mustang Challenge race, Ford grouped the Mustang racers in one section of the paddock, brought along a spare parts trailer, engineers, and even had a tented lounge area. The drivers were a mix of young up-and-comers, yours truly, and more senior racers who run in their own class called old folks “legends.”

The DHR, an upgraded version of the street car, has the required safety cage and belts, a digital racing dash, a stiffened and adjustable suspension, and—joyously—a six-speed manual gearbox. The transformation to race duty doubles the cost of the street Dark Horse to about $150,000, which isn’t crazy money for a 500-hp factory-developed and built race car.

Farley and I lined up mid-pack in the thundering herd. When the green flag flew, the song of those 27 V-8s gunning to the 7500-rpm redline gave me goosebumps. A few cars spun off the track in the opening laps as the drivers wrestled with 500 horsepower. The DHR does not have stability control or traction control to help tame the power.

Ford engineers debated how many driver aids to include. Manual or paddle-shifted automatic transmission? Anti-lock brakes? Traction control? Making the car easy to drive might encourage more people to participate but could also dilute the challenge. They landed on manual controls for most functions except the brakes, which use a Bosch adjustable anti-lock system. While that removes a key driver differentiator—braking zones are where the pros earn their money—it potentially saves a privateer a lot of dough, as braking mistakes often lead to flat-spotted tires, a $2500 goof.

The overarching question engineers had in mind was what, essentially, would prospective Mustang Challenge competitors want from a race car? Simple speed and fury? A Mustang that’s so easy to drive, any amateur can do it? Or is it feel? Or both? Their answer, from what I discerned during my time behind the wheel, was a compromise. To take the load off the driver, the DHR has not only fancy anti-lock brakes but also a rev-matching system that automatically blips the throttle during downshifts. This negates the need to blip the throttle while braking and downshifting—known as the “heel-and-toe” maneuver—which is a little sad if you spent years perfecting the technique. Relieving the driver of these tasks, however, did not completely dumb down the driver’s duties.  

With 500 horsepower on tap, the throttle pedal is a chaos maker. Pedal travel is long enough to modulate the juice, but a few millimeters too much throttle, especially when exiting a corner, creates a wheel-spinning drift that’s simultaneously intimidating, exciting, and challenging.

Mustang Challenge Mid Ohio Webster car front three quarter cornering
Ford
Mustang Challenge Mid Ohio Webster car rear three quarter
Ford

Full of fuel and with a driver, the DHR is a heavy, two-ton beast but feels nimble and shrinks around you. The way the 5.0-liter V-8 catapults the car forward helps, sure, but the steering also crisply redirects the nose. My favorite part of driving the DHR was that I could feel the grip of the custom Michelin tires through my backside. A lot of cars insulate that critical feedback, so if you spin, you’re wondering “What did I do?” But in the DHR I could feel the impending slide before it happened and properly correct—sometimes. Many times, I didn’t, a mistake that instructed and infuriated me.

At Mid-Ohio, there’s a catawampus series of bends between turns five and nine where the surface goes up, down, and tilts sideways, making every car feel like a handling mess that’s eager to spit itself into the nearby gravel traps. You’re on the edge of adhesion, managing grip between the front and rear axles. The Stang gently slid and twitched in places, threatening a spin, but I felt like I had control, like I could dance the car on the knife edge of grip. I started to feel like maybe I had the hang of this whole racing thing, but then another driver went by in a blur. Humbling.

In the 45-minute-long first race, my strategy to keep on track and let others overexuberantly spin paid dividends with an eighth-place finish. Top ten! I was elated. Lady Luck wasn’t so kind during the second race—every Mustang Challenge weekend includes two sessions— when a pileup ahead blocked the track, which forced me into the grass. I rejoined at the tail end of the field, made some contact during a chaotic restart, and finished a lap behind the leaders. Bummer, but that’s racing: A continuous wave of uncommonly high highs and crushing lows. I’ve yet to find another activity that provides such emotional richness in one weekend, which is one of many reasons I love going to the track. “Racing,” Farley said, “Is a constant pursuit of the mastery of controlling an automobile.” Truth.

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Read next Up next: Joe Elmore, Host of Horsepower TV and Musclecar, Dies at 80

Comments

    How fun! Glad Ford has taken their corporate heads out of you-know-where and figured out we still wanna drive.

    Now rename that electric thing and take the horse off of the ‘grill’. Quit insulting us Mustang owners.

    Naming it the Mustang Mach E was a stroke of marketing genius. The car got much more interest and benefitted from greater sales. At what cost? Just hollow whining from the internet. But a true Mustang buyer isn’t going to let the existence of a Mach E deter them from buying a Mustang. Do Mustang owners think a Mach E is a Mustang? No. But if Mach E potential buyers do, and it helps at least some sign on the dotted line, it’s a win for Ford. And, it’s a win for Mustang owners if it helps in any way to keep the Mustang alive. The original pony car is once again the only choice as Chevrolet and Dodge put theirs out to pasture.

    I was one of those who felt that putting a Mustang on a Mach-E was a lazy marketing move that bordered on sacrilege. However, I read recently that there was another reason for it, for CAFE reasons. By naming it a “Mustang”, it was lumped in with the ICE Mustang and helped bring down the CAFE averages for the model.

    Don’t know if that is true, but if naming the Mach-E a “Mustang” means that the ICE models, especially the GT, get to live a bit longer, I’m all for it!

    Mr. Webster _ Your enthusiasm shows through. While I am nowhere near your league the a little too much throttle it steps out and ..Yikes ! Don’t do that again then briefly collect , try again, I can relate too. Sounds like ” Jolly good fun “. And with the Proton Mustangs making the podium at Le Mans… ‘Little victories count too’ … .A laurel wreath and a hearty handshake to you too sir for the effort.

    Larry, if I may _ If we were to meet at a track, I would quote Jackie Stewart. _ ” I would but I forgot my helmet. ” – ” We could find you one of those.” – “I also forgot my driving suit .” – “We could find you one of those. too ” – ” But I left my balls in them.”

    If only the street cars could do without the wall of screens we now get in the Mustang. The race version looks like a ton of fun.

    I hear you, but I have to admit that I liked being able to change the dash layout. And the new Fox Body gauge cluster is super cool.

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