Tom Wilson
December 1, 2002

Step By Step

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P175551_large 1996_Ford_Mustang_GT Front_Driver_Side
While it wasn’t the original plan, the OTC proved our ’96 GT open-tracker’s road-course debut. Maximum Motorsports set up the suspension in the shop and then it was off to Pahrump for the first event. The car was nearly perfect out of the box, requiring only stiffening of the rear sway bar adjustment on the first day and loosening the same bar a week later to compensate for worn tires.
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With long runs through the California central valley and the more populated areas of the Mojave desert, we can’t say the Open Track Challenge is an overly scenic event, but sections such as this in and out of Nevada certainly qualified.
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Old Fords never die. Befitting their status as inexpensive project machines, the Mustangs that showed at OTC tended to be heavily modified Fox-chassis’d track cars. All ran in the Unlimited classes, including this clean coupe of Jonathan Blevins and Alan Chavez, which finished 18th overall (combined Unlimited and Touring scoring). Behind it is the ex–World Challenge Howe chassis tube-frame “Mustang” campaigned by Monroe Roden, Wayne Manor, and Mark Bettin. Their week was marred by numerous mechanical issues, but things were better by Las Vegas.
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At Pahrump, it seemed to be the beginning of a long week when a small fuel leak refused to be found atop our engine. But after taking the fuel rail and injectors apart, and then putting them back together, the leak went away. We’ve always said we wanted to be lucky rather than good, so we left it at that.
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Each day began with a drivers’ meeting so everyone would be driving in the same direction, know where the pits were, and all that. We particularly enjoyed the way NASA handled the often-troublesome open-track passing situation. Instead of setting up elaborate passing and no-passing zones, the rule was simply no passing under braking, and it worked beautifully. On-track courtesy was excellent, and balking by slower cars simply wasn’t an issue.
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The only other car besides our own in American GT was this positively thumping ’94 GT prepped by Bruce Griggs for owner/driver Paul Mashouf. The 408 number denotes the displacement of the full-house 13:1 compression 351W underhood. The car also carried a coilover GT-40 suspension, massive brakes, a Griggs front bumper cap/air dam and rear spoiler, a T56 gearbox, and an “itty-bitty clutch,” as Bruce put it. Turns out Paul was packing a super-light, three-plate clutch that allowed the big Windsor to rev like a sprint car but gave the team the jitters about driving in traffic as wheelspin was required to get moving from a dead stop. Some street car! Bruce rode shotgun for the entire event, the pair pulling a tiny trailer with spare tires and a few tools. About 8 seconds a lap faster than our barely warmed-up 4.6 Two-Valve, Paul handily walked off with American GT and really scared the trailered cars. He finished 10th overall against slick-shod Vipers and full-race Porsches. It was the third fastest of all Touring cars.
P175572_large 1996_Ford_Mustang_GT Passenger_Side
We enjoyed the new Spring Mountain track at Pahrump. Used mainly as a school track by Rupert Bragg-Smith’s driving school, it’s a bit tight and relatively flat, but the combination of large and small curves against the relatively featureless background made judging braking and turn-in points a challenge. The track is a couple miles south of town and right by the highway.
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Thanks to 3.73 gears, the speedo is a bit optimistic in our open tracker. Still, there was plenty of this sort of Fifth-gear action during OTC week.
P175574_large 1996_Ford_Mustang_GT Brake_Rotors
Brakes are premium road-course parts, and we were happy to have a full Baer Braking PBR-based, 12-inch system onboard. We started with these already well-worn rotors, and after three days they were through. They were replaced with fresh, non-cross-drilled rotors from Baer. Cross-drilling has fallen into disfavor for track cars these days; the holes mainly accelerate pad wear and give cracks a place to begin.
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Track time in the Southwest means keeping one eye on the coolant temperature gauge. Ours was hovering at the “L” in “NORMAL” at hot Willow Springs and seemed on the verge of overheating even though it never seriously used water or boiled over. Paul Mischel of Maximum figured even a small aluminum air dam to replace our missing stock plastic dam would help. When we agreed, Paul jumped to it, using the fabrication tools out of the back of his Baja chase truck. When he isn’t fabbing parts for Maximum, Ron pits for Robby Gordon at off-road races, so we were well cared for.
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Another hot-weather trick is to add Redline Water Wetter, as Paul and Ehren Van Schmus are doing here. Nothing really seemed to move the 4.6’s water temp down, though, and we finally concluded it was simply hot at around 100 degrees F ambient. The engine didn’t seem to mind either, as its power output and smoothness didn’t change with the heat.
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Another Unlimited Mustang was NASA honcho John Lindsey’s white Fox, which we profiled in our story on the sanc- tioning body (“Iron Horseplay,” Oct. ’02, p. 66). Demonstrating one of the dangers of running a more highly strung Unlimited car for a week, John’s engine ventilated its block with a few connecting rods two days before the end. At least that left him plenty of time to work on the table-bending awards banquet on Saturday night.
P175599_large 1996_Ford_Mustang_GT Driver_Side
We bought a lot of gas, which meant ample opportunities to explain why our car had all those stickers on it.
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When something is shiny on a daily driver engine, it’s usually new. Our alternator was quickly new twice toward the end of the OTC as it came apart under the high-rpm running. This would have been a great time for some underdrive pulleys.
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This rather tired, two-piece spark plug was a real surprise. To make a long story short, we discovered the FRPP heads on our 4.6 use a fully threaded spark plug, unlike the half-threaded stock 4.6 plugs that someone put in our engine. Once we got that little number figured out after the OTC, our 4.6 ran considerably better!
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After several days of track duty, setting up in the morning became a smooth-running drill: remove the baggage, spare tire, and jack from the trunk, loop the racing harness through the holes in the Kirkey seats, latch the belts together on the passenger seat, take out the floor mats, unscrew the radio antenna, check the fluids, set tire pressures, torque the lug nuts, clean the windshield and front fascia, and get the helmet at the ready.
P175613_large 1996_Ford_Mustang_GT Racing_Seats
Going into the OTC, we knew our deep Kirkey aluminum seats would be superb at the racetrack, but could we spend 2,000 miles in them on the long freeway hauls? Turns out we easily could, the seats proving surprisingly comfortable. The extended lower-leg support means you can’t sprawl as in a conventional seat, but the stout support in the seat and lower back proved more comfortable than the compressible cushions in a regular Mustang seat. They’re definitely cumbersome around town when getting in and out at the gas station, then the ATM machine, followed by the market for food and ice, but on the long hauls they’re great.
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Ehren Van Schmus, Tom Wilson, and Jack Hidley were still talking to each other at the awards banquet—always a good sign after a week of rooming and racing together.

It's curious how all auto-crazy concepts seemed like good ideas at the time. With a spanking-new, full-boat Maximum Motorsports suspension under our '96 GT project open-tracker, when word of the Open Track Challenge was whispered in our inlet, the idea of Seven Tracks in Seven Days appeared the perfect fit. And it was, except that we can't take seven days to do anything with a magazine deadline breathing down our necks.

But events such as the Open Track Challenge are not designed for people with mortgages and three bosses to match. Not particularly, anyway. The idea was to hold open-track events at seven different tracks on seven consecutive days, with the requisite travel taking place sometime in between. Think of the One Lap of America enduro, but considerably shorter, with more rest and more emphasis on track time.

Sanctioned by NASA and Open Track Motorsports, the OTC roughly divides the cars into the trailered Unlimited class and the drive-'em-there sorts called Touring. Both Unlimited and Touring groups are further divided by speed potential, so you end up with Unlimited 1, 2, and 3--ditto in Touring. Hoping to attract a horde of Mustangs, the organizers then opened a specialized Touring class, American GT. Aimed at all the usual GM and Ford ponycars (no Corvettes), NASA invited us to bring our newly minted project car in hopes of drumming up interest in American GT.

It didn't take long for us to hear the exotic drumbeat of distant tracks and tons of seat time. The event started in Parhump, Nevada, on a Sunday, jumped nearly due west to the big track at Willow Springs, then rested a night in the same hotels before attacking the Street of Willow Springs on Tuesday. The gung-ho portion then began with a run up to Buttonwillow Raceway Park on Wednesday, followed by another 350-mile haul north to Thunderhill for Thursday's lapping. No sooner off the track at Thunderhill than the gaggle retraced its tracks back to Buttonwillow to run it in the opposite direction on Friday, and as if feeling lucky, finished by traipsing over to Las Vegas to run the road course inside the big oval there on Saturday. We figured on an easy 2,000 new miles on the odometer by the time it was all over.

While the slick-tired Unlimited entries were expected to trailer to each event and bring whatever spares needed, Touring cars needed to run on DOT-approved tires, and you had to drive on the same tires you ran on-track. You could change individual tires all you wanted, but you had to use the same-type tire for the entire event.

Scoring was tabulated by adding the three fastest laps posted at each track, with the timing provided via transponders for easy, no-hassle scoring. Competitors were free to run as many laps as they believed necessary, then move on to the next track. As track time was divided into four 20-minute sessions per run group per day, everyone talked about driving just the first or second run groups, then hitting the road for a more leisurely transit, but it rarely happened. The siren's call of "just one more lap" inevitably kept the field busily orbiting throughout the day and traveling into the evening.

All teams were expected to have two drivers--one typically the car owner who would provide the racetrack heroics, and the other a co-driver to turn on the headlights and tune the radio on the highway. A handful of teams posted three drivers, as we did. Needing to excuse ourselves for a couple of days midweek to keep up with other magazine work, we left the northern loop on Wednesday and Thursday to the Maximum Motorsports crew. Thus, our car was registered with Maximum Motorsports personnel Jack Hidley and Ehren Van Schmus as primary drivers, and yours truly as tagalong. In reality, Jack and I split all the driving--track and road--when I was around, with Ehren sliding behind the wheel on Wednesday and Thursday.

Amazingly, it all came off with minimal mayhem. A cozy 61 cars answered the call at Spring Mountain Raceway in Pahrump, where we learned American GT was a party of two, the other machine being fielded by Paul Mashouf and Bruce Griggs of Griggs Racing. Never one to bring a knife to a gunfight, Griggs had prepped Mr. Mashouf's '94 Mustang GT with everything short of a Gatling gun in anticipation of knocking off Unlimited cars with Paul's 351-powered, six-speed, GR-40-equipped Mustang. Unless Paul's car pulled one of its massive muscles, there would be no mystery in who was going to prevail in American GT.

In the end, Paul and Bruce had a nearly trouble-free run, as did we, so it was as it should be--just for fun. And brother, it was a blast. Consider the Open Track Challenge packs a year's worth of lapping into a concentrated week, and besides the obvious speed orgy, unforeseen benefits crop up. Most importantly, our rusty driving skills were approaching respectability after a week of continuous practice, and the camaraderie of seemingly endless track time and traveling together in between was palatable.

NASA, true to its laid-back reputation, didn't play the school marm. Brief drivers' meetings started each day. The scoring magically appeared within hours and without shouting. And the lectures against turning expensive sporting machinery into highly inefficient but spectacularly visual agricultural implements were administered without riding crop or threat of license revocation. We had to report to the pits to have a nice, long talk about the weather only once, and that was after dirt tracking with all four tires around the outside of two entire turns at Las Vegas, so we might have even deserved it.

The B side of reconstituting an entire can of Open Tracking Concentrate is the mechanical wear and wallet excoriation. After four opening days of textbook lapping, the funny stuff began failing throughout the paddock on Thursday. Our contributions were alternator seizure, several rounds of weird sparkplug failures, and plug-boot blow-offs (really--go figure). Ready money and a couple of Pep Boys alternators ultimately yielded an alternator that would live near redline for several days, while a new set of spark plugs helped immensely for one day. After that, mental sloth allowed us to admit we would rather find the pesky misfire in the comfort of our home garage than under the Las Vegas sun, allowing us to ignore our misfiring engine on the final Saturday. There was, after all, nothing to win, and--hey--it was hot.

Expense-wise, everyone gave up counting as soon as the lapping started. The entry fee was $1,750 or $2,000, depending on how early you signed up, followed by however many hotel rooms and meals you thought your tire and fuel budget could spare. Man, can a Mustang guzzle fuel on a road-racing track. Making but 220 or so rear-wheel horsepower, we went through a tank of fuel on each track, and at least another hopping to the next venue.

And tires? Had we been in a stock-suspended, nose-plowing Mustang, The Tire Rack would have run dry supplying us with fronts. However, with our superbly balanced Maximum Motorsports suspension, we were pleasantly surprised to go four days on one set of Nitto-supplied 555R2 rubber, then oversteer to the finish as we could find but two fresh tires on the front. Seems the nationwide supply of 555R2 Nittos dried up just before the OTC, so our second set of tires didn't arrive until the last day of the event. Jack Hidley bought what must have been the last two Nittos before we took off, so those were what we put on Thursday. On the final day, we traded Bruce Griggs the use of some tools from Maximum's burgeoning chest (Maximum chased the entire event with a service truck, while Griggs relied solely on the credit-card method) for the use of two tires, and that helped immensely.

Heading home from Las Vegas on Sunday morning, we were definitely sorry to have the OTC end. By then we figured we had traded family, dog, and mortgage for a life of lapping with our new gypsy friends, and we had grown rather used to it. Still, we've always come home when we got hungry. NASA promises another OTC next year, and we're hoping to see you there. The mortgage and three bosses can wait.

Horse Sense: Wheeled around a racetrack, our project car feels like a race car. It's a tad heavy and asks much of its front tires, but it still feels like a sedan racer with good balance, great seats, light steering, wonderful brakes, and on and on. But pull off the track, remove your helmet, and hit the road, and suddenly it's a super GT, with a smooth engine, air conditioning, CD player, power everything, license plates, and a macho but livable manner. The transition is so large, we constantly had to remind ourselves while on-track that this was also the car that was going to take us to the hotel in a few minutes. What a great dual-purpose car!