With the tremendous amount of buzz leading up to the opening round of the Ford Racing Mustang Challenge for the Miller Cup at Road Atlanta, anything short of a spectacular show would've been a disappointment. With the dust settled, all we can say is Round One exceeded all expectations.
Twenty-two identically prepared FR500S Mustangs filled the "pro paddock" of Road Atlanta on Thursday morning, May 1. Some, including Andrew Cadell of TC Motorsports, actually took delivery of their race cars that morning! After final preparations, competitors thundered onto the track for their first practice session. Cadell quickly rose to the top of the time charts with a brisk 1:37.742 lap. After setting the tenth-quickest lap, George Winkler's No. 18 was the first casualty of the weekend. A hard hit to the front sidelined him and kept the Rehagen Racing team busy for the rest of the day.
Bruce Stover stuffed his No. 2 StableOne Racing Mustang into the tire barrier after the tricky Turn Four, shortening the second practice session, but not before Cadell dipped into the 36s with a 1:36.932, while Jamie Slone was on his heels with a 1:37.666 lap. Before the Mustang Challenge action started for the day, Trans-Am racing legend Dorsey Schroeder gave VIPs and members of the media some laps to remember behind the wheel of the No. 00 FR500S.
Afterward, Schroeder was genuinely impressed with the car. He glowed about the braking performance. "I started braking at the end of the back straight between the '2' and the '1'." That's going in deep! The handling balance also impressed Schroeder. The Mustang started out very neutral, and as the tires wore, the car progressed toward oversteer. Thus, he thought the car could "use some more front bar" to create a slight understeer at the beginning and neutralize the balance during a race.
To say the car handles well is an understatement. Given its 3,600-pound weight and modest 325 hp, the FR500S turns lap times considerably faster than cars with a far more favorable power-to-weight ratio. The spec-racer Mustang makes it up in the turns and under braking.
Qualifying was on Friday. While Stover's Mustang was a write-off, the Rehagen Racing crew burned the midnight oil on Winkler's crumpled skeleton. A local shop finished straightening the unibody at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, and the Rehagen crew had the No. 18 reassembled and ready for qualifying at 1 p.m.
Before qualifying, Mustang Challenge officials randomly re-flashed the PCMs of several competitors' cars to ensure nobody had an "electronic horsepower advantage." After the session, time sheets had the top three qualifiers all below 1:37 with Cadell again leading the pack at 1:36.112. Winkler qualified sixteenth. The top qualifiers' cars were subsequently impounded by the officials for inspection, but no funny stuff was found, and all the racers were left to prepare their mounts for the following day's race.
While the weather up to this point had been picture-perfect, race day weather was far from predictable. With looming showers in the vicinity, most competitors waited until minutes before the race to affix their tires. With no rain falling by grid call, all the racers went out on dry tires. After a brief parade lap, Schroeder was poised to throw the first green flag of the Ford Racing Mustang Challenge for the Miller Cup.
Radios crackled "Green! Green! Green!" Second-Place qualifier Slone slipped his No. 6 GoPro camera Mustang past the outside of Cadell to take the lead into the first turn. With 20 other Ponys chomping at Slone's tail, his time at the front lasted only a lap. Cadell took the lead and didn't look back.