Tom Wilson
March 2, 2012
Buy a Boss 302 and you get a spectacular street car, plus a fabulous turnkey open-track car. Here we are turning in to Turn 1 at Willow Springs, toward the end of braking from 135 to 86 mph and well-ramped into the 0.99g cornering load. The antenna is still slightly bowed from the speed, the Race Keeper video camera is capturing the forward view from the roof, and the Pirelli race rubber is nicely balanced in this transitional moment.

During an interview for our August 2011 issue Mike Harrison, the man in charge of both the Coyote and RoadRunner 5.0-liter V-8s, said the goal of the Boss 302 program “was to have the street car get a legitimate race car engine…”

You can bet that raised an editorial eyebrow.

It was the same story from the chassis engineers. They were building a track-ready car; an enthusiast’s dream machine that could go from parade lap to hot lap without so much as torquing a lug nut. But just to make sure, Ford Racing prepped the Boss 302S and Boss 302R to secure Ford’s bragging rights in World Challenge and Grand Am racing.

Here we are almost a year after those interviews, with thousands of Boss 302s prowling the streets and Boss 302S and Rs winning races. Those race cars are amazingly similar to the street cars, so much so that when newly crowned 2011 World Challenge GTS champion Paul Brown agreed to show us his Boss 302S at Willow Springs Raceway, we had to bring a Boss 302 street car along for comparison. We were, you can be sure, wanting to live the Ford engineers’ dream.

In case the four Boss 302s Ford sells are a little murky, it starts with the familiar Boss 302 and two-seat only Boss 302 Laguna Seca street cars, backed by the Boss 302S and Boss 302R race cars for World Challenge and Grand Am racing, respectively.

The Laguna Seca, you may recall, dispenses with the back seat, has stickier tires, a front-end splitter, its own suspension tune, and a real secret weapon in the Torsen limited-slip differential. The standard Boss 302 comes with a back seat and its own (arguably better) suspension tuning, but importantly, can be optioned with the Torsen differential like the Laguna Seca.

Going into this test, we had quickly sampled both the regular Boss and the Laguna Seca street cars at Ford press events; just enough to get a feel for their suspension differences but certainly not the same as taking one home and living with it on the street for a few days.

The differences between the S and R race cars are not huge and are driven by the rules in their respective racing classes. Both cars are built for Ford Racing from bodies in white—the 302S by Watson Engineering in Taylor, Michigan, and the 302R primarily by Multimatic in Markham, Ontario, Canada. Both racing Bosses receive rollcages and production Boss engines (with unique Ford Racing oil pans), Ford Racing wiring harnesses, and computer with custom calibration for race fuel.

Of course, the suspension bushings, springs, shocks, and anti-sway bars are higher rate racing parts. As expected, the stock electric steering remains, albeit with a custom calibration. The front brakes are upgraded to Brembo racing bits and cooled with ducts. Bodywork changes as seen on Paul’s car are limited to a heavily louvered hood, larger front splitter and a rear wing, all supplied by G-Stream, a company Paul co-founded with fellow racer Dave Martis.

In short, the Boss 302S and R are race-prepped Boss 302 street cars. While built up from bodies in white, that is simply a cost-saving tactic; you’d end up in the same place if you modified a running Boss 302 with the same pieces.

In fact, that is exactly what Paul Brown’s Boss 302S is. Because the Ford Racing cars would not be available until well after the 2011 World Challenge season was underway, Paul welded up his own Boss 302S at his Tiger Racing shop in Covina, California. Consider Paul’s car something of a prototype, as it was built with the cooperation of Ford Racing so that he could completely contest the 2011 World Challenge TC championship. And since he won that championship, we’re pretty sure Ford Racing is glad they did.

On the Street

The regular production Boss 302 was provided by Ford Public Affairs, and we admit, having it at our disposal for several days was nearly an out-of-body experience. Our previous Boss flings had been just that—passionate stolen moments, but hardly enough to fully appreciate just how advanced the Boss really is.

On extended drives through hill country and twisting river roads, the Boss proved impossibly perfect. The naturally aspirated power is edgy and daringly eager, the EPAS steering instinctive, and the brakes reassuringly direct. It didn't take long before the Alcantara steering wheel's handshake proved a near subliminal adrenal shot, like a suede-covered grip on a submachine gun.

It's probably a disservice to the Boss 302 to dissect its dynamics because it's the whole of its abilities that set it ahead of all other Mustangs. But your mind wanders from pleasure point to pleasure point, settling first on the impressive steering feel—how do the engineers put an electric motor in the loop and still get such a direct and intuitive feel?--to the seamless power rush, or the comfortable yet supportive Recaro seating.

The first highlight has to be the 7,500 rpm power. Of course, the Shelby GT500 has a more muscular hit, but the Boss 302 thrust is so crisp and remarkably linear, pulling authoritatively from idle to its zinging redline. It's eager, willing power that goads you to rev it again and again, and when you do, there's hardly a sensation you bought the second best.

Sister magazine Motor Trend has proved the Boss turns the quarter at 115 mph in 12.3 seconds, enough to embarrass anything but automotive beefcake. If wind sprints are more your style, the Boss gets to 60 mph in four seconds. Heck, you can do that in your driveway.

It didn't hurt that our test car obviously had the restrictor plates removed from the exhaust sidepipes. These don't slow a stopwatch, but the resulting brrrrrrap sure makes things more exciting. It is loud, proud, and impossible to sneak home at night.

The downside in the powertrain is the six-speed manual's shifter, which remains attached half to the transmission and half on the bodywork. In daily driving or even smoothly hustled along back roads this linkage is quick shifting and pleasantly isolated from the underhood hurly burly, but bang the shift at high rpm and at best you hit a brick wall in the neutral gate, or worse, generate a sickening high-speed grinding. You sure as heck won't grab a gear. This is the Boss 302's weakest feature.

While the shifter is frustrating, the optional Torsen limited-slip differential is brilliant. It's much more than a way to avoid peg-legging—it's the powertrain key to Mustang handling nirvana. Carefully tuned to reduce understeer while laying down as much of the Boss' 444 hp as you need, the Boss' chassis points it with precision, carves a steady arc, responds to mid-corner corrections should you miscalculate, and makes rock-steady power-on corner exits. The characteristic Mustang tail wag and numbing understeer are non-existent. It's this cornering excellence that is the Boss 302's defining characteristic. If you want a number on it, Motor Trend says the Boss does the skidpad at a respectable 0.98g lateral acceleration.

Even better, get on the gas and the Boss transitions to oversteer like a duck slipping into a pond. And then the Torsen distributes its magic between the rear tires, making you look much more of the drift king than you really are. Finally, here's a Mustang that corners tail out with stable grace.

Aside from its gratifying performance, the Boss 302 is absolutely a daily driver. Naturally we fiddled with the three-way adjustable steering program, TracKey and traction control, and just as predictably, once we found the settings we liked we hardly ever changed them. TracKey is a given; why put up with slower throttle response? We figured the regular key might as well go in the spare drawer as TracKey's sharper response was absolutely to our liking (all Mustangs should be as crisp).

The same goes for the steering response. We set ours on Sport and never looked back. For street driving, the traction control stayed firmly on as it allows all the yaw angle and wheelspin you'd ever want and the strong safety net all of us need occasionally.

Creature comforts are good. We just noted the boisterous exhaust; it definitely gives some personality but can also go essentially silent during some transitions, idles with a polite burble and cruises without making a nuisance of itself. Rapping the gas will definitely let the neighborhood know you're coming, however.

Ride quality is even better. The Boss is firmly plush and doesn't jiggle. Slammed through drainage approaches it'll reach the stops, but you really must abuse it to get there. The ride height is also perfect, tall enough to drive straight over the speed bumps we must snake sideways over in our lowered '91 Fox for example. And it doesn't seem to put the splitter at great risk from curbs and parking stops, although you'll want remain vigilant.

We can also note the stock sound system is fine companion for a driver's car such as this, and we didn't miss MyColor or any of the other kids' stuff that might have gone missing in the transition from GT to Boss. We're more than ready for a telescoping steering column so we can fully use the platform's ample legroom, but that has to wait until the next-generation Mustang...

Summed up, there's precious little we'd change on a street-bound Boss.

On the Track

Our track plans were extremely simple. We'd meet Paul Brown at Willow Springs Raceway and drive both cars on the big track and compare notes. Because the street car is designed to function as a track car, no special preparation was made other than ensuring the oil was topped off and the gas tank full.

To reduce one major variable Paul suggested we use a set of Pirelli race tires from his car on the street car, which we did. This made our comparison much closer and is typical open-track practice where owners often have a dedicated set of track wheels and tires. You'll want to spot your Boss about four seconds per lap from our numbers when running on its stock tires while open-tracking.

Lap and segment times were gathered via Race Keeper, a video data logger Paul uses on his race car. Race Keeper kindly provided a second system, which was temporarily mounted on the street car, and with nothing more exotic than a couple pieces of tape, the Race Keeper box attached to the passenger carpet, plugged in, and powered up through the cigarette lighter. With that set, we were ready to test.

Willow Springs is an open, medium-to-fast track. It places a premium on high-speed stability, power and momentum, provides a brief technical section and is easy on brakes. Thus, it won't make the typical sloppy street chassis stumble completely over itself, but those high-speed corners punish lap times if the chassis is inconsistent. It's definitely not the place for white-knuckle handling lotteries like a stock Fox body.

Paul and your author each drove both cars, and our evaluations, if not our lap times, were similar. Our notes on the street car are full of superlatives, but inevitably as the speeds went up the street Boss was pushed to the limit of its composure and the need to add small corrections inevitably crept in. Naturally it also had a little understeer at the limit—all street cars do—but a whiff of throttle would pick up the front end and get things neutral again. But above all, the Boss was well composed and devoid of surprises.

Is that ever faint praise for what was an amazing track experience with a street car! We'll be honest, the Boss 302 is not the first modern Mustang we've driven straight to the road-racing circuit and drove it like we were qualifying for Daytona, then drove home. But it's the first one without a king's ransom in aftermarket augmentation, and it easily did the job better. Sure, there's degradation near the limit, but for a civilized, showroom-stock street car with a five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty, emission certification, and a 26-mpg EPA highway rating the Boss takes to the track like a second home. We were amazed by its gifts.

A few things started to show while cornering at 130 mph. Recaros or not, in Willow's long sweepers we found ourselves working to hold ourselves up in the seat, a universal failing of street seats at the track. We quickly determined our left butt cheek and the outer section of the seat bolster would lock together sufficiently to keep us from sliding all the way into the door panel, even if it wasn't the most comfortable position to maintain.

We also noted a near constant nibbling or extremely small notches in the grip when cornering hard. It was a subtle and unique sensation—for awhile we were wondering if we were really feeling something or if our mind was playing tricks on us—until we realized we had not gotten the traction control switched all the way off. We're glad we experienced the sensation because it proved the Boss has a sophisticated, soft-touch traction control that doesn't come barging in on the party.

It's also likely the stickier race tires were mildly upsetting the traction control's carefully calibrated algorithms, but in any case the Boss's traction control is a subtle thing. Then it was our turn in Paul's race car.

It's always fun to slither into a new-to-you race car, and with Paul's our worry about physically fitting turned out baseless. Your scribe is about 10 inches taller than Paul, not to mention rather broader abeam, but Paul has his car intelligently laid out so that while we were a little tight, fit was not a factor. The vice-like race seat meant no more hanging on with your upper body as in the street car, which is not only vastly less tiring and reassuring, it also better telegraphs what the car is doing. The seat is considerably lower than in the street car, so seeing immediately in front or especially over the hood to the right was not the same thing, but again, not a meaningful issue.

Of course, the racing steering wheel is also direct, and the shifter was light years ahead of the street car's. Paul custom machined his shift linkage from billet and ball bearings and it absolutely does not attach to the bodywork, so it offered extreme precision, a ton of feedback, and normal to light effort. Nice.

In fact, precision was the watchword with Paul's ride. As we got on track we found the power slightly better but identical in personality to the street car, and the overall size and general feel of the racer was practically identical to the street car, but, and it's a critical point, the race car was another world when it came to precision. It's no wonder, either, as the rubber and fluid-filled bushings that make life so civilized on the street were replaced by metal-to-metal bushings and bearings nearly everywhere in the racer. Furthermore, the race car is a hair lighter, and that weight is carried lower. Add in the stiffer spring, bar, and shock settings and you have a Boss 302 with new-found agility and precision, plus a touch more oomph.

With a power-to-weight ratio hovering between 8.2 and 9.0 pounds per horsepower—depending on how you measure it—the World Challenge racer provided zesty acceleration and top end similar to a NASA American Iron car. This is perfect, as it's enough to hold anyone's attention and provide good racing, but not as overwhelming and on the ragged edge as an American Iron Extreme car. That makes the World Challenge racer a great choice for even mildly experienced amateurs and pros alike, and if you have any inclination to try your hand at World Challenge racing we say go for it. The car certainly won't intimidate.

Naturally, with all upholstery and sound deadener missing, plus the all-metal suspension, there is that wonderful race car ambiance inside Paul's car. Pebbles and grit can be heard tinging off the bodywork, and the odd bonk and clank is a given. But with mufflers we didn't need or wear earplugs so we didn't have that layer of isolation. Probably the loudest noises were gear whine, wind, and exhaust in that order.

And maybe because it really still is a Boss 302 even after all the modifications, the take-away from Paul's car was balance. It was a joy to drive with the throttle through the sweepers, selecting just how much angle you wanted by breathing on the throttle. It made us wish we were going racing next season.

Quibbles came in the technical sections. Even Paul said he thought the rear shock dampening was a little stiff, and the rear would upset ever so slightly on bumps. The brake pedal was good but not ideal either, with a somewhat high breakaway force, then a hair of travel. This is something you'd like to get rid of, but if not, you could easily live with. It did keep us from screaming "Banzai!" and diving on the binders for the slow corners, however. Paul noted the ABS wasn't working on our test day, so that would have helped covered up the brake-pedal feel.

Amazingly Close

Comparing notes, all were impressed by just how close the street car came to the race car. First, we should note we were a depressing 7-seconds-a-lap slower than Paul in his race car and about 4 seconds per lap in the street car. As all of us are familiar with Willow Springs, the difference is in recent experience—Paul is all tuned up having just come off a hard-fought year of racing to a championship win while we haven't driven in anger in, uh, a really long time, and we turned a total of just five laps in his car—not to mention raw skill, and in our case, just getting old. The difference in driver speed is important, however, as Paul was clearly driving the cars deeper into their capabilities.

Even more important, no matter who was driving, the gap between the street and race cars was a consistent 5 seconds per lap. For those familiar with Willow Springs, the street car turned a low-1:31 lap, and the race car was in the mid-1:26 range, both with Paul at the wheel. His analysis was both cars are capable of running one second per lap faster when fully sorted and the driver gets his act completely together.

In any case, these are plenty fast laps (especially for the street car). By comparison, in Road & Track testing a Mustang GT and Camaro SS hovered in the mid 1:37 range (an '11 V-6 Mustang posted a 1:39!), and the high-powered, but nose-heavy '10 Shelby GT500 Super Snake got hustled to a 1:40 by Hot Rod magazine a year ago. To get to the 1:32s in another street car you need a Corvette ZR1 or Steve Millen in a Lambo Gallardo. That's smokin' company for a Mustang stickered at $42,990!

Now, it's true the Pirelli race tires we ran on the Boss helped considerably. We have to admit that in our busy day of testing and photography we went brain dead on trying a couple of laps on the Boss's stock street tires, so we don't have a direct comparison for them. But pouring through Paul's and other published data, the difference is likely around 4 seconds per laps using a set of fresh "sticker" Pirelli race tires.

The tires we ran on the street car at Willow were a set Paul had previously raced a 50-minute World Challenge race on, plus qualifying, plus two practice sessions, and Paul says they were an easy 2 seconds per lap slower than stickers, or about "like a good DOT track tire." So add 2 seconds to our street car's lap and you get a 1:33 lap at Willow, which is still in exotic-car territory. Nothing in the Boss's price range even comes close.

Turning to the Race Keeper data acquisition it was possible to synchronize the street and race lap times, pick spots on the course to take a snapshot of the data and thus find the differences. The results below make a fascinating study.

The chart lists the turns as T1, T2, and so on, and it helps to know T1 is a medium banked left, T2 is an unbanked, uphill sweeper, T3 through T6 is the tighter, uphill, downhill technical section, T7 is a non-event bend in the back straight, and T8 and T9 are sweepers. The two straights are between T9-T1 and T6-T8.

What the Race Keeper data makes clear is the race car corners faster through long sweepers, but has no advantage in the slower corners. Also, the race car's better braking allows it to drive on a course that effectively has longer straights than what the street car experiences; that's part of why the race car has higher corner entry speeds.

Why is the race car faster in high-speed turns? Aero. The racer sits lower and the G-Stream vented hood and splitter kill much of the front end lift that robs streets cars of their high speed manners, while the rear wing helps plant the rear. From the driver seat this feels like a calmer, more reassuring chassis, which is a major aid to performance when bending in at 139 mph. It also means a faster exit speed out of the sweeper and onto the straight, which gives a big head start in raising the top speed, which is where you really make inroads on the lap time.

We must admit the Boss 302 was a pleasant surprise at the track. On the three-hour drive home we had plenty of time to marvel at just how fast the street car was around Willow, how much of the Boss 302 personality comes through in the race car (especially in the powertrain), how friendly and fun Paul's race car was, and just what a special car the Boss 302 is. We kept having to remind ourselves the quiet, smooth sports car whisking us home had just been chasing a race car around the big track at Willow Springs.

That all this is available in a Ford showroom for under $45,000 is incredible. The Boss 302 really is one for the ages.

Street BossBoss 302S
Front straight speed135146
Braking into T10.99 g1.05 gRace car went deeper under braking
T1 Apex speed8687
T1 Apex G1.301.46
Speed into T2111114
T2 Steady speed97102
T2 G1.091.29
T2 Exit speed99104
T3 Entrance speed111115The race car went deeper and had a top speed of 118 just past this point.
T3 Apex speed6666
T3 Corner G1.461.58From T3- the start of T6, the cars were near identical and only slightly off each other.
T4 Entrance speed7475
T4 Speed over the balcony5556
T5 Entry speed9598
T5 Apex speed6163
T5 Apex G1.271.29
T6 Speed at rise9598
T7 Speed at shift point115119
T8 Entrance speed133139
T8 Exit G going into braking1.281.55
T9 Entrace speed100104
T9 Apex speed9898
T9 Exit speed108110

He is the Champion

Paul Brown is no stranger to road racing. Son of Mustang-chassis expert Kenny Brown—the guy who put the winning Escort Series Fox Mustangs with Steve Saleen in the '80s and purveyor of aftermarket suspension systems today—Paul, like drag racing's Billy Glidden, is a racing son who made his own way in the sport.

Running his own program, Paul has bootstrapped his way through an incredible array of road racing cars, and is likely best remembered by the current generation of Mustang enthusiasts as a major threat in NASA American Iron Extreme. But that effort was really a denouement to his long '93-'00 World Challenge series run, and like that campaign of opportunity, Paul's 2011 World Championship season wasn't one he originally planned on. But Paul was working with Ford Racing to supply the hoods, wings, and splitters for the Boss 302S racers and found himself positioned to get an early start on the season.

Not that the start came easily. Ford was behind in producing customer 302Ss, so Paul had to put his own car together, and as usual, money was near non-existent. Old friends Tracey and Jodi Wellendorf stepped forward, rolling a spanking-new Mustang GT into Paul's shop a month before the 2010 SEMA show. Paul and crewmembers Adam Cox and Chris Fillias dismembered the new Mustang, welded in the cage, and incredibly, debuted the new racer at the big Las Vegas show.

Sponsorship was tough, with Paul putting together many small or one-time programs throughout the season. He credits all of them, but notes Lucas Oil was critical in getting the team to two far-away East Coast season-opening races, and One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning seems to have picked up much of the slack at season's end. By the time the rubber dust had settled, Paul and wife Carol's Tiger Racing team had won five races, set seven fastest laps, and led more GTS laps than all their competitors combined.

Anyone watching the telecast of the title-clinching win at Laguna Seca could see what an emotional triumph the title was for Paul. After decades of crushing effort the field was finally his, and for us at the magazine who have watched the entire run, we can say the title couldn't have been won by a harder working, more optimistic, and upbeat Joe. Way to go Paul!

Expect to see Tiger Racing in the winner's circle again next year as Paul returns to defend his Pirelli World Challenge GTS championship.

Horse Sense: Ford's goal for the Boss 302 was to beat BMW M3s, but that job was already closely approached by the standard Mustang GT when it received the fabulous Coyote 5.0 engine. As a result, Boss 302 performance is more akin to the '11-'12 Shelby GT500, a car we believe might best the upcoming Chevy Camaro ZL1. In every way, the Boss 302 is the balanced, 400-plus-horsepower, naturally aspirated handling Mustang we've been waiting for Ford to build ever since your author bought his '66 fastback in 1979.

5.0 Tech Specs

2012 Boss 302

Engine and Drivetrain
Block Coyote aluminum
Crankshaft Forged steel
Rods Forged steel
Pistons Forged aluminum
Camshafts DOHC w/Ti-VCT operating range of 50 degrees for intake and exhaust
Cylinder heads DOHC, four valves per cylinder, variable intake, variable camshaft timing
Intake manifold Composite shell-welded with runner pack
Fuel System Sequential mechanical returnless
Exhaust Stainless steel tubular headers, quad exhaust tips
Transmission Getrag MT82 six-speed manual
Rearend 8.8-inch axle w/ Torsen T2R limited-slip, and 3.73 gears

Electronics
Engine management Copperhead (Trackey optional)
Ignition High-energy coil-on-plug
Gauges Stock

Suspension and Chassis
Front suspension
A-arms Reverse-L lower
Struts MacPherson, adjustable damping
Brakes 355mm (14-in) x 32mm vented discs, and four-piston Brembo 40/44mm fixed aluminum calipers
Wheels 19x9-in wide-spoke painted aluminum wheels
Tires Pirelli PZero 305/645-18 racing slicks
Rear suspension
Shocks Adjustable
Brakes 300mm (11.8-in) x 19mm vented discs, single-piston 43mm floating iron calipers, and Performance Friction Compound pads
Wheels 19x9.5-in wide-spoke painted aluminum wheels
Tires Pirelli PZero 305/645-18 racing slicks

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5.0 Tech Specs

2012 Boss 302S

Engine and Drivetrain
Block Coyote aluminum
Crankshaft Forged steel
Rods Forged steel
Pistons Forged aluminum
Camshafts DOHC w/Ti-VCT operating range of 50 degrees for intake and exhaust
Cylinder heads DOHC, four valves per cylinder, variable intake, variable camshaft timing
Intake manifold Composite shell-welded with runner pack
Fuel system Sequential mechanical returnless
Exhaust Stock Tri Y manifolds w/ Bassani 3-in X-shape crossover
Transmission Tremec 6060 six-speed manual w/ custom aluminum/carbon clutch and flywheel
Rearend 8.8-inch axle w/ Torsen T2R limited-slip, and 3.73 gears

Electronics
Engine management Sealed Ford Racing ECU
Ignition High-energy coil-on-plug
Gauges AIM MXL Strada High Performance Digital Dash

Suspension and Chassis
Front suspension
A-arms Reverse-L lower
Struts MacPherson, adjustable damping
Brakes 355mm (14-in) x 32mm vented discs, and four-piston Brembo 40/44mm fixed aluminum calipers
Wheels 19x9-in wide-spoke painted aluminum wheels
Tires 255/40R-19 Pirelli PZero max performance
Rear suspension
Shocks Adjustable
Brakes Four-piston Baer Brakes w/ floating Brembo rotors
Wheels 18x10-in BBS
Tires Pirelli PZero 305/645-18 racing slicks
Rear suspension
Shocks JRZ dampers w/ ERP valving
Control ArmsStock
Brakes Four-piston Baer Brakes w/ floating Brembo rotors
Wheels 18x10-in BBS
Tires Pirelli PZero 305/645-18 racing slicks