5.0 Mustang & Super FordsCar Reviews
Ford Racing's FR500 Prototype
Ford Racing Set Out To Create A Corvette-Killing Catalog Filler, But Ended Up With A New Breed Of Steed
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After embarrassing myself in front of famed Winston Cup racer Rusty Wallace while making my first-ever, slow-poke trip around Road Atlanta, he jumps in the silver FR500 to show me how it's really done. We were running around the track quickly but easily at first. Soon Rusty picked up the pace. He hurtled the FR500 around the track in the way only skilled and confident drivers can do--dancing on the edge of traction and inertia. Rusty doesn't chat with me as some big guns do, he simply works the car around like a professional.
Then we get a glimpse of the black FR500 chugging down Road Atlanta ahead of us. As if there were any more to be had, Rusty begins pushing her a bit harder. Though he and CART driver, "Mad" Max Papis, turned similar lap times in the two cars, Max was putting the scare into his passenger with the black 4.6-powered FR500, which was down about 20 hp.
Nonetheless, Rusty was closing in and the Ford Racing guys in the pits were shaking their heads. This is just what they didn't want. Two racers out there racing. The silver FR500 was their pretty photo car, which had only been put in commission after the white FR500 ate a clutch. Ford Racing director Dan Davis didn't want to see the silver car trade any paint.
Meanwhile, I'm strapped in the passenger seat next to Rusty. We close in on Max. Coming down the long straight on the course, Max brakes a bit earlier than Rusty thought he might, so we get up-close-and-personal before making the sharp left. Coming up around the turn onto the front straight Rusty is right on his tail, but he'd had his fun. He backed off, made a cool-down lap and brought us back into the pits, where I rolled out with an ear-to-ear grin on my face.
He didn't pass, so it wasn't racing, right Dan?
What it was was our ultra-rare chance to sit in on Ford Racing's development drive of the FR500 prototypes. Ford Racing brought in three FR500 prototypes: the familiar silver SEMA car, a white FR with a incumbent mod 5.0, and a black FR with an FR500-spec 4.6. Additionally, the crew had driven in a C5 Corvette and a Viper. The Corvette had long been the yardstick for the FR500 project, and since Ford Racing engineers felt confident they'd out-measured Chevy's C5, they wanted to try the next domestic bully, the Dodge Viper. There was also a standard '99 Cobra on hand. Alas, it felt like a V-6 grocery getter compared to the other hardware assaulting the track.
Suffice it to say the FR500s felt much better than the Corvette, and they were certainly more light on their feet than the brutish Viper, but overcoming the Viper's V-10 torque was not a challenge Ford's 4.6 or 5.0 V-8 was up to. But enough about the competition. The FR500 is a stellar ride in its own right.
From the mid-length headers--which were a compromise of fitment, flow, and catalyst function--the exhaust travels through a 2-1/2-inch H-pipe with high-flow, metal-substrate catalytic converters, 2-1/2-inch mufflers, a 2-1/2-inch X-pipe (more on that later), and 3-1/2-inch tailpipes. The top-secret muffler technology is said to be trick, and the cats deliver half the back pressure for the same emissions. But the real trick is the sound. At idle and off idle, the car sounds robust, like a refined pair of Harleys, but as rpm increases, so does the pitch, and the FR500 roars by like a pair of big superbikes. It's tough to describe, but when you hear it, you'll want your 4.6 sound that way too.
The first thing we noticed about the FR500 is it seemed really soggy on the bottom-end, despite the presence of 4.10 gears out back. It turned out the silver car's variable-geometry manifold wasn't wired up properly. As such, Ford Racing's Andy Schwartz says it likely had the same or less torque than the 4.6-powered FR. Once you get them going, either FR is a willing participant in exhilarating speed. The silver car felt like it had more top-end charge, but we wish we'd gotten to feel its full power as it still pulled strongly from the midrange all the way to 7,000 rpm redline. It felt as though it would keep going, but the question of whether the standard Cobra rods were ready to go there was left unanswered with us behind the wheel.
Controlling the power was easy thanks to the TTC T56 six-speed transmission. According to Ford Racing's Don Walsh, the T56 is the same unit sold in the aftermarket for pushrod 5.0s. It simply features a new intermediate adapter and bellhousing for modular duty. The real trick he says is the 81/2-inch clutch. Sourced from the Ferrari F50, the dual-disc clutch uses a vented floater to shed heat. This clutch provided low pedal effort during our seat time. Don says it's a big part of the FR500's great shifting experience as it needs short travel before it engages and its reduced inertia eases downshifts.
Behind the T56 is a Torsen T2R, which provides a racy 4.5:1 torque bias between the rear wheels thanks to clutch plates and a preload mechanism not found in a standard Torsen. The unit worked seamlessly around the track, but Don says it's a 360 waiting to happen in wet or icy street conditions. The Torsen spins twin 31-spline tubular halfshafts, which feature increased torsional rigidity and weigh 3 pounds less than the standard shafts. All this means the FR500 doesn't wheelhop, and between the beefier shafts and the heavy-duty CV joints they're experimenting with, broken halfshafts are likely a thing of the past at this power level.
Speaking of the power, it was quite easy to control thanks to the weight balance and suspension tuning on the FR500. The car simply feels light on its proverbial feet, and as noted Mustang tuner Kenny Brown, who was also on hand for the drive, said, it didn't really feel like a Mustang. It actually took some getting used to, but it wasn't long before the supple balance and smooth power were expected. Most remarkable about the FR500 was not its neutrality, rather the light spring tuning and shock valving used to get there. This car can really turn mean laps at the track, and make a commuter run through Detroit without beating down your kidneys.
Speaking of commuting through Detroit, we've gathered this car has made quite an impression on some of the decision makers inside Ford. We can only hope it was a positive one, as there is so much viable technology inside the FR500, it deserves to be more than just a parts car for the catalog. From what we can tell, Dan Davis has bigger ideas than parts, too. "...There are still some fairly large hurdles that would have to be cleared before it could happen," he says. "And, the truth is, there is no set blueprint toward achieving that (building FR500s for sale) except to continue to move forward with the development of the car."
Of course, the FR500 may just be the beginning of Ford Racing's parts-car development. "We have a follow-up project already in mind and I think it's something people will learn more about in the near future," Dan says. "But we do have to continually remind ourselves that we're not making FR500s yet, so we have to stay focused on the development of that car as well."
That's the spirit.
Horse Sense: According to Ford Racing's Tim DeRonne, who is charged with calibrating the FR500's EEC-V computer, the computer reads both mass air meters only after an interface combines the two signals and feeds the EEC with the total airflow. The interface box also controls the variable-geometry intake, as the '99 EEC isn't set up to do so. When Ford Racing sells the FR500 intake package, it will likely come with a new EEC-V equipped with a special board to handle the intake and meters.