Tom Wilson
August 1, 2002
Photos By: Dale Amy

In case you missed earlier installments on our open-track project, the '96 Mustang has been getting the treatment at Maximum Motorsports. Our plan is to transform what was a bolt-on-level street car into a nearly dedicated open-track machine-that is, a car heavily modified for track duty so it's at home on a road-racing track, but one still wearing license plates that can do at least minimal street duty.

Dual-purpose cars are tough to execute. Luckily, road-course work and street driving are fairly close to each other. What makes a car go around corners at the track isn't far removed from going around corners in town. Mainly it's how much spring and shock rate your bum can take on the street.

That said, Mustangs are cursed with a primitive chassis and blessed with excellent tuners who can fix nearly any problem. To make a corner carver out of our 4.6 GT, we've teamed with Maximum Motorsports for its complete chassis package-torque arm, tubular K-member, and everything in between. Having previously detailed installation of both front and rear suspensions, this month we're headed inside the cockpit for the necessary safety items.

The safety essentials include a rollbar and a seat/harness system. Actually, all of these are interlinked and should be thought of as an integrated safety system. But to begin, the rollbar is an obvious help when the world flips upside down, and it is typically mandated for open-track cars with V-8-speed potential. Unlike a full road-race car, a cage is not required for open-tracking because with wheel-to-wheel combat reduced by restricted passing areas, rollovers are rare and less violent.

Maximum's rollbar in our car is a new part. Having done land-office business in NHRA-legal, drag-style rollbars and SCCA-legal cages for years, Maximum is well acquainted with what's needed. For our car, the company took the back half of its road-racing cage, deleted the front hoop, and added low-lying forward braces. The result is stout rear and diagonal bracing, along with some forward bracing, minimally improved side-impact protection, and excellent ingress and egress for the front seats. Considering the open-track environment, the trade-offs between safety and utility make sense to us. Maximum is also adding this rollbar to its catalog-look for it this fall with a price likely just north of $400.

With 1 1/2-inch-diameter, mild-steel tubing, Maximum's open-track rollbar could be SCCA race-legal in cars up to 3,500 pounds. Our heavy, street-oriented Mustang is actually a bit more than that limit right now, but if put on a road-racing program, the resulting weight reduction would bring the car within the 1 3/4-ton limit. Thus, should we eventually want to go road racing, we could gut the interior and doors, fit lighter wheels and so on, then add the front hoop and heavier door bracing of Maximum's racing cage to arrive at an SCCA-legal road racer.

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As usual, we're covering so much ground in this article that we're just hitting the highlights. As you review the photos, remember that Maximum ships its rollbar knocked down and unpainted. You'll need to hang the pieces and paint them. While they're drying, field-strip the car's interior-remove all seats and pull up the carpeting into a pile atop the driveshaft tunnel. Take out the front seat belts, but leave the handbrake. Fit the main hoop assembly (which arrives nicely welded) and drill the mounting holes in the floorpan and crossmember just under the rear seats. Then mock up the rear braces and install that part as detailed in just a minute. There is one bit of welding to do, where the front braces attach to the main hoop. All the rest is bolt-in.

A surprisingly tough decision was what to do with the rear seat. The roll-cage renders it unusable-access is workable only for an elementary school gymnast-and the chances of clobbering oneself on the unforgiving structure in an accident is likely worse than 99 percent. Removing the rear seat saves weight, and initially that made the most sense. Strangely enough, we eventually decided to leave the rear seat intact simply for the more finished look it presents-and we can still use it as a cushioned parcel tray. You may decide otherwise, in which case there is a rear seat delete kit from PHP and Dugan Racing as shown in the sidebar.

Our next decision was how to handle the roll hoop's rear braces. There are two rear braces bolted to holes drilled through the rear wheelhouses. This runs the rear seat braces through the plastic interior panels. On a race car, this is no big deal, as the interior plastic would be deleted. On a street car, the easy installation is to slot the panels so the braces can be installed in the car, then the panels are fitted afterward. This leaves large, cheap-looking slots, however.

Instead, in a fit of experimental pondering, we made the poor guys at Maximum hole-saw the panels, then fit the main hoop, rear braces, and interior panels in one big grunt and push. It took effort, but once we realized that slicing off the majority of the sound-deadening foam inside the plastic panels provided the necessary clearance, the install went easily enough. The finished installation looks great too. It's as if the rollbar simply grew there.

Next were the all-important front seats. Often overlooked, seats in a road-course car not only hold the driver firmly in place and provide superior car control because the driver can feel what's going on, but those seats also play a huge role in safety. Seats are helmets for the body, and when properly attached to the chassis' floorpan and roll hoop, they become positioner, support, and protective exoskeleton to our all-too-frail flesh.

Stock seats-made of light construction that can fail in a high-load, multi-impact crash-are unsuitable for track work because they are too soft under high g-loads and don't supply firm support for proper driver feedback.

In ascending order of strength and cost, aftermarket seats are built from fiberglass, tube-steel frames, or sheet aluminum used either bare or with padding. Use either a tube-frame or sheet-aluminum seat for best support. We went with top-of-the-line sheet-aluminum Kirkey road-racing seats, and after shopping the tube-frame seats, we believe the value is quite high as well. The seat itself is $449, and the padded fabric cover is $169, for a $618 total per seat. (The separate pricing accommodates seat width and upholstery color choices.) This is within sight of high-end tube-frame units, but the support of the deep-well Kirkey is better.

Frankly, Maximum Motorsport had recommended the Kirkeys (Maximum is a Kirkey dealer), and while we immediately liked the idea of a proper racing seat, we questioned the idea of living with such a high-sided, track-oriented throne in a road car. Customer testimonials suggested even our tired, old rumps could be coaxed in and out of these cocoons without undo trouble, however. After trying them in our car, we agree that they are easier to use than we had imagined. We're tickled to have them, and will report authoritatively on their suitability for street use as we gain real-world experience with them.

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Be prepared for some fabrication when mounting any aftermarket seat. In a pure road-racing car, we'd insist on massive seat frames welded to the rollcage and associated floor supports, but for an open-track car, we opted to reuse the stock seat tracks. This will help accommodate the many different drivers and passengers who will pass through our car-your own car won't see this sort of interior traffic, so go ahead and use a nut-and-bolt adjusting system, or simply fit it to yourself and hard-mount the seat.

Stock Mustangs offer limited leg room. When fitted with a rollbar, they limit head room too. So, when mounting the seat, you may find these factors can lead to a hair more rake in the seat placement than you'd like. Sorry, cowboy, but that's a Mustang, and laying the seatback down somewhat is often necessary to keep your head away from the roof and those hard, hard, hard rollbar tubes. (You can't put enough padding on them, especially on the street, where you don't wear a helmet.)

Seatbelts are there for one job, to keep your carcass safely inside the seat. While stock, three-point belts are wonderful for daily use, the increased loads of on-track call for the more supportive and restraining capabilities of a five-point system. Once again, Maximum supplied its stocked brand, Crow Enterprizes' five-point system. We opted for the 3-inch-wide belts with cam locks at $145 per seat.

Most importantly at this stage, the belts must be properly mounted so their attachment points are strong enough and position the belts at the correct angles to the occupant. This is vital, and for valuable data on belt mountings, consult the belt manufacturers, the SCCA's General Competition Rules, or other sanctioning bodies for in-depth belt-mount information.

Next time, we'll dial in the new Maximum suspension in the shop before heading to the track. That article promises a wealth of difficult-to-come-by information, so stay tuned.

Drawing A Blank
Paul's High Performance has a ready answer for those wanting to replace their late-model Mustang's useless rear seats with a good-looking parcel tray. The kit costs $300 and offers a 0.090-inch-thick loading floor and firewall between the passenger compartment and trunk. Said to delete 41 pounds of seat and seatbelts, the kit adds 16 pounds of tray and firewall. The entire thing is covered in the same material Ford uses to line the trunk for a finished look.

For '93-and-earlier cars, Dugan Racing has a $269 kit modeled after the Saleen SSC. Dugan's kit uses four fiberglass panels that can be painted or upholstered to match the rest of the interior. Dugan says 35 pounds are eliminated, and the kit works with any rollbar. The kit also replaces the factory armrest on the center console. Designed for '87-'93 coupes and hatchbacks, the kit also fits '79-'86 Mustangs if you add the later interior quarter-panels.

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