February 1, 2013

As pure enthusiasts, we get all perked up at the chance to mash the throttle and drive track-prepared Mustangs.

So when Dario Orlando of Steeda Autosports offered me the chance to tame this trifecta of Steeda-equipped Stangs at the world-famous Sebring International Raceway, I booked my room and packed my gear with little fuss. Deadlines? What deadlines?

Being a car guy, I revel at the chance to drive cool iron, and I've been a lucky guy in that regard. But this would not be the typical road test, as the Mustang trio consisted of a hot pair of SCCA A/Sedan racers and one fully prepped, 650hp open-track killer. Admittedly, the stakes are raised when you slip into someone else's gutted and caged cockpit.

I've driven Steeda Mustangs before, but I've never done a weekend in three totally different race cars at a track like Sebring that can really bite you. Heck, you can enter Turn 17 approaching 165-170 mph and there is virtually no room for error.

The days preceding crept by, but finally I was staring down the Stangs at the Track Guys Performance Driving event. There sat a tractor trailer from Dawson Motorsports with Tom Ellis' championship-winning SCCA A/Sedans (a SN-95 and a S-197) and the Number 20 Steeda Mustang—an all-out racer with every last bit of Steedaness bolted to it.

If you are unaware, A/Sedan is the premier sportsman-level SCCA class for true production cars and the competition is fierce. With a tight rules package, the A/S Mustangs make just over 400 hp, however, in bold contrast, the No. 20 is powered by a Vortech-pumped Three-Valve and makes about 650 hp.

"I wanted you to get an impression of what it's like to drive these race cars compared to the Steeda street cars you've driven," said Dario Orlando of Steeda. "The A/Sedans are vey limited in what you can do, but still are still refined race Mustangs. Our 20 car has a Watt's-link rear suspension, coilover dampers, and is lightweight and powerful. You can't go as far with the class-legal cars so it makes the driving experience quite different."

SCCA champion racer Tom Ellis of Florida turned over the reins of his Ponies for us to evaluate. The Steeda-equipped Mustangs make about 400 hp and really get after it.

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Track Out
The brave soul who handed me the wheel to his A/Sedans is championship driver Tom Ellis, a 58-year-old trucking company owner from Florida who competes and wins regularly on the SCCA circuit. "In my college days I raced motorcross and then stopped to start a family, and I got away from racing," he stated. "In my late 40s I got back into racing bikes, but I realized I was too old, I needed a seat," admitted Ellis.

"I actually started in a Camaro and then met Dario. We were getting certified for flying together at the same school and he got me into racing Mustangs. In 2004 I got the No. 51 car from Robin Burnett. Steeda put the five-link in it and we changed to Tokico D-spec dampers and we ran SCCA A/Sedan in the Southeast National division, which is the top non-professional series in SCCA," stated Ellis.

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Amazingly, Ellis captured the Southeast division championship in '05—in fact he won it every year from 2005 to 2010! "I then switched to an '06 body-in-white chassis in 2011, which I bought, but I spent most of the season sorting out the new combination." The season was filled with struggles, but he made it click the following year and captured the 2012 championship. His best finish at the coveted SCCA Runoffs was third place (in 2009), and over time he's had a hat trick of top 5 finishes.

"It's a fun class because they are difficult cars to drive, they make lots of torque and we run on 16-inch wheels and small 275R16 tires." Ellis stated.

I can attest to the difficulty, as I lapped Sebring in his pair of Mustangs. While I pushed the A/S cars hard, there was no reward for me, so I was certain to bring his race machines home in one piece. I found the SN-95 chassis to be nimble, but I could see that it was important to carry lots of momentum to maintain speed and score fast lap times. The class requires stock lower control arms and basically a stock-type suspension, and because of that, the Stang had a touch of wallow compared to newer Mustangs I've driven.

His SCCA Mustangs run identical class-legal 313 ci 5.0 engines and are carbureted, have Ford aluminum heads, 0.500-inch lift cams, 0.040-inch overbores, feature roughly 10:1 compression, and can be revved to 8,400 rpm. They weigh 3,300 pounds with the driver and are crazy fun to drive.

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Dawson Motosrports out of Sebring prepares the Stangs for competition. The father-and-son team of Chuck and Chas were as laidback as any crew guys I've ever met—but oh-so serious. They got me strapped in tight and made sure each car was fueled and track ready.

I was timid during my first session and I took a bit of time before I really pressed hard. I found that the Mustang liked being driven hard, but it needed precision inputs.

With little rest between sessions, I hopped in the No. 57 Mustang. For some unknown reason, I felt more comfortable in this car, perhaps because I had an idea of what to expect. While they shared similar engines and Tremec TKO transmissions with stock gear ratios, they felt totally different in my hands.

The shorter wheelbase of the SN-95 made for a slightly nervous ride, especially under braking. It had super-quick turn-in and great overall bite, but comparably, the longer S-197 was more stable. The S-197 was a touch looser on corner exit, which I liked, but I'd still say it had a neutral balance overall. I'd like to offer my gratitude to Tom Ellis and Dawson Motorsports for allowing me to turn laps. I can't wait to catch up with them as they take on the 2013 SCCA season at Sebring, Homestead, Robeling Road, Daytona, Carolina Motorsports, Road Atlanta, and VIR in search of their next championship.

Steeda’s test mule is this radical red racer that was surprisingly easy to drive. It had an abundance of power and balance, and handling and braking to match.

Driving Steeda's No. 20
Straight away, the No 20 is a different breed of racecar. Not bound by rules, Steeda's Pony was far more radical in terms of engine and suspension. There's no minimum weight to meet, nor is there stingy engine and suspension rules, or a limit on tires and brakes. And with that Steeda assembled a 650hp supercharged and intercooled Three-Valve, plus the Stang sports racy hardware like the fabbed NASCAR-style dash, superlight steering column, and massive brakes.

I was anxious to get it on, but first Steeda's crew helped me get adjusted to the seat, the belts, and the controls. Once fitted I rolled to the grid and pulled tight on the belts.

"We wanted you to experience a full race-level suspension that is completely streetable," said Orlando. "[This car] creates a world-class package that can compete with supercars, but with a change in suspension bushing type, is fine for the street," he added.

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The full-race components he technically refers to are the end links in the suspension and the spring rates. "The top-level stuff is really for a niche group, those who don't mind a bit of NVH but want the best in handling," explained Orlando.

Having turned laps in the A/S Mustangs I was cautiously nervous because of the additional 250 horsepower, but the car was so balanced that it was easy to drive. With the tires and brakes warmed up I experimented with late-braking and aggressive turn-in, and quicker throttle application on corner exit. Dario assured me it would be easy to drive—he on point.

The Mustang was so balanced and neutral that it was a breeze for me to drive. The raw cockpit transmitted those wonderful noises of exhaust and wind and I made a great connection with that car. As my confidence built up I found speed with every lap. With only a handful of laps under my belt, I was using throttle to oversteer coming off a few corners, and I could keep the throttle planted amazingly deep into the straights and late-brake to get slowed in time to make a smooth corner entry and nail each apex.

"Our Steeda Watt's Link system is fully adjustable and allows you to dial in corner weights for balance. We raised the front roll center on the 20 car (not legal in A/S), there are different techniques for keeping the car balanced. For instance, at Sebring you don't want aggressive shock valving because of the bumps, but you can go stiffer on smoother tracks," Orlando explained.

Steeda's Stang was spot on with power and grip and best of all it was predictable. It was a great car for Sebring because it had seemingly unlimited braking and grip for the technical sections, and great power to get me hauling down the straights, where my estimated speed approached 170 mph.

Needless to say, I had a great weekend. Ultimately, I would have like more seat time in each car, but who am I to complain. I basked in the thrill of yet another Track Guys Performance Driving event at Sebring and I can't wait to return in 2013. Rotating through three totally different racecars is a challenge, but I enjoyed the experience and soaked up the fun like a sponge.

I also drove the No. 20 Steeda Mustang that featured a 650hp Three-Valve, plus the Steeda coilover front suspension and a Watt’s link out back. This baby is pure racecar, and we hit speeds approaching 170 mph in the long straightaway at Sebring.