5.0 Mustang & Super Fords
1996 Ford Mustang GT - Open-Track Ecstasy
A Week On The Road And The Track Is What The Open Track Challenge Is All About
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.