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Ford Delivers Track Side With New Consumer Focused Event
A Day With Ford’s New Shelby GT350
There’s no doubt that Ford is promoting its latest Shelby iteration hard. From reviews in the buff books to social posts and online videos, you can’t swing a broken LS engine without hitting some sort of Shelby GT350 content. Don’t take that as complaining mind you, as I love to read and watch all I can on this new Shelby. From its first-for-Ford flat-plane crank engine to its MagneRide magnetic suspension, massive brakes, and so much more, we’re soaking up everything we can on the new car; just like all of you are I’m sure.
Ford created the North American Track Tour to get the GT350 out into the hands of not only potential buyers, but competitive owners as well (we saw Corvettes, Porsches, and more in the parking lot). The North American Track tour was an invite only private consumer event that featured stops at four famous racetracks—Laguna Seca, Road America, Lime Rock Park, and Sebring International Raceway. Coincidentally, these four tracks were where Shelby American won races at. We were able to slip into the Sebring event on to experience what these invited guests would, courtesy of Ford.
Upon arrival and signing our life away for a little colored wrist band we noticed a few familiar faces, such as Jim Owens, Ford Performance marketing manager, plus a few local Shelby and Boss owners (invites went out to 2013/2014 Shelby GT500, Boss 302, and 2015 50th Anniversary Mustang owners). The attendees were welcomed by Owens with a brief opening speech and then we were broken up into four color coded groups (our lanyards given out at registration denoted the groups—I was in the blue group). The blue group schedule listed us as driving the GT350s last. At first I was bummed, as come on, who doesn’t want to just hop into a new GT350 and go fast, right? As Jim Owens reminded our group however, we get to learn all about the car—its chassis, brakes, electronics, and so forth BEFORE we get into the car. That certainly helped the anticipation some—but not much!
Up first was a discussion on the GT350 specific hardware by Mark Schaller, GT350 marketing manager in the Ford Performance Garage. By now we all know the 5.2L modular is running a flat plane crankshaft, giving the engine plenty of RPM and an exotic exhaust note. However, what many have not gone into detail about are the engine, transmission, and differential coolers, the under car air management, or the fact the 5.2L engine is fitted with a composite oil pan that is 20 percent lighter than the Coyote’s stock steel pan, yet holds two more quarts of oil (that’s 10 quarts total if you’re not a Coyote owner). The GT350 displayed on its side certainly helped everyone understand how the air management worked and allowed us all to see in detail the drivetrain, the IRS with its counter-wound coil springs (only on the GT350), and much more. For anyone that is a “techie” it certainly was refreshing to get such detailed info that your typical car salesman wouldn’t have a clue about.
After our tech session we moved over to where Jim Owens was waiting for our group, still within the Ford Performance Garage. Jim, though a long-time Ford employee, spent several years with Shelby American, so he has not only some great stories about the current GT350, but he certainly knows how to tell some great Carroll stories too, including development of the S197-based GT500. For many, the GT350 is more an investment in history (though Ford would love to see them all driven hard at a road course), and it was great to hear directly from Owens how important that role is for Ford Performance, as well in the development of the GT350 and any potential future Shelby products. As a matter of fact, two very important Shelby American employees were in attendance as well, Vince LaViollette, who was Carroll’s personal test driver, and Gary Schechner, the VP of marketing and sales for Shelby American.
At our third station were a pair of GT350s; an R-model with Electronics Package and a base GT350 with the Track Package option. Here, two Ford employees gave our group a comprehensive “walk around” of both cars in preparation for our time in the driver’s seat, showing the differences in exterior features, the package additions/subtractions, how the Integrated Driver Control (IDC) system worked, and more. It was a little tough to see what was going on during the interior portion of the overview, but potential owners learned what could be ordered on each model and how to tell them apart if you see one on the road (that’s important man card stuff right there!).
After about two hours of going over every facet of the GT350, including its history (Craig Jackson of Barrett-Jackson fame had his 1965 Shelby on loan for the Ford Performance Garage display), it was finally time to strap into the new GT350 for a few laps around Sebring. While there were a few R-models in the line of track cars, I was strapped into a Deep Impact Blue base GT350 with the Track Package; and when I say strapped in I mean it. Though I own my own full-face helmet, driving suit, etc., this was the first time I had to wear a HANS device. It made entry/exit of the vehicle a bit of a challenge, but I can understand the safety aspect.
A push of the engine start button and the 5.2L roared to life. The Ford Performance Racing School driver seated next to me ensured I had the GT350 in the right driving mode for our laps, which was Sport (active exhaust open, stiffening up of the dampers, etc.), one of five different modes the GT350 has available that allows easy street manners for daily use and selectable modes for different performance needs. With a nod of the track personnel I exited pit road, brought the rpms up grabbed a couple of gears and started my laps. I’ll be honest, only living an hour and half away and having been to Sebring dozens of times for events, I’ve actually never driven Sebring. Ford had the track setup for the “club” or short course, which meant I wouldn’t be experiencing Sebring’s famous Le Mans curve and Ulmann Straight leading into turn 17. No matter, track time is track time and I’m a quick learner. We were cautioned by the instructors to NOT shift where we “felt” we should, as the GT350 runs all the way up to 8,250 rpm. When you think it is time to shift into Fourth you really have over 1,000 more usable rpm before shifting. It took a few tries to trick the brain into leaving the shifter in Third just a bit longer on the straights.
The seat time in the GT350 was limited to three laps, then my instructor and I swapped seats and we went back out for one more lap to show “how it’s done.” Would I have liked more seat time/laps, of course, who wouldn’t, but there were several groups Ford was pushing through this consumer experience, including dealers with GT350 allocations and competitive owners were coming the next day, so time was limited. I get that. This driving event was more for those with the means to purchase a GT350 and not a full on media junket (which had already taken place at Laguna Seca earlier in 2015).
Needless to say, I came away with not only a better understanding of what the GT350 is capable of and how much Ford put into this new Shelby, but felt firsthand the power, handling, and braking (oh, that braking, I want those brakes on my Mustang!), and that was Ford’s goal—to spread the word of the new Shelby GT350 via consumers. It certainly works, as I saw tons of social interactions on Facebook and other Mustang sites immediately after each Track Tour event. Kudos to Ford for putting on such an experience and rumor has it there are plans for a 2016 North American Track Tour. So if you didn’t get an invite, keep your fingers crossed and pray to the Blue Oval Gods that the Track Tour returns next year!