5.0 Mustang & Super FordsProject Vehicles
Mach 1 Racer Buildup Test Drive - Cost-Effective Competition, The Drive
Where The Rubber Meets The Road Course
The modular engine's propensity for trapping air in the cooling system is a concern for daily drivers as well as potential racers. Be wary of this habit any time you change coolant on your street cammers.
If you're tuning in for the first time, the track-happy red racer cavorting about on these pages started off a surprisingly few man-hours ago as a production-line-reject unibody shell-a body-in-white-that would otherwise have been destined for the recycling bin. Using all-new Ford and aftermarket parts made available through the combined efforts of CDC Racing and Mustang Racing Technologies, it's now a competitive-and safe-road-course stormer powered by a factory-fresh, 305hp Mach 1 drivetrain, which basically explains why it's called a Mach 1 Racer. The best news is, you can stick one together yourself-like some full-scale AMT model but without the glue sniffing-for something less than 23,000 greenbacks. Regular readers will already know all that, but this concept offers so much bang for the buck that it was worth repeating (preceding installment in this series ran in Jan. '04 issue, p. 126).
With construction complete, it was time to assault the tarmac to sample the fruits of our labors. In a move that was either daring or foolish, our Racer's track debut was also its overall debut. The first time it really moved any distance under its own power was when it was being loaded on the trailer to head out to GingerMan Raceway in western Michigan, a clockwise 1.88-mile road course that is both challenging and forgiving, with generous runoff areas and little to hit. When sticking a skill-challenged magazine scribe in an untested race car, you want a safe track, no doubt part of the reason why George Huisman-the car's owner and one of the principal masterminds behind the Mach 1 Racer program as owner of CDC Racing-chose GingerMan.
Don't take this to mean that our little project was simply thrown together and put on a trailer. Craig Colden, who essentially built it all himself, spent some quality time back at the CDC shop tweaking the car for lapping duty, with particular attention paid to setting up its Steeda 5-Link rear suspension's Panhard bar height. Still, strange things can-and did-happen on a first outing.
For comparison purposes-and so we could chase each other-we brought along George's other open-track Mustang. It's a gray and green, naturally aspirated, Cobra-powered variant put together a couple years ago at comparatively huge expense, before George, Scott Hoag, and their co-conspirators created the cost-effective Mach 1 Racer program. Providing second-trailer tow duty for our outing, as well as his own unique perspective, was fellow hot-lapping enthusiast and all-round bon vivant Steve Neumaier, who was happy to leave his Porsche open-tracker (that George refers to as "the Volkswagen") at home for the day. Let's see-three drivers, two Mustang race cars, and a whole day at the track. Life doesn't get much better than that, at least until Steve builds his own Mach 1 Racer (right, Steve?).
Our first gremlin reared its head as the car was being tech'd by track officials. The brake lights were working sporadically-not a good thing when someone's a foot off your back bumper at the end of a straightaway with a Second-gear turn looming. The cause was quickly traced to an improperly secured under-dash brake-light switch, and was soon remedied.
The second gremlin was a bit more serious. After some cautious shakedown laps with George at the wheel and yours truly riding shotgun to learn track layout on my first-ever visit to GingerMan, Steve won the luck of the draw and got to take the freshly minted Racer for some hot laps. Meanwhile, George headed out in the gray car, and I grabbed a telephoto lens to start earning my keep. I stopped seeing the red car go by after a few laps, so I headed back to the pits, only to see it arriving on the wrong end of a towrope. Had the Mach 1 Racer succumbed already? Apparently so, because after spewing coolant on-track and being shut off, it wouldn't even crank over, sounding for all the world like it was seized solid. Sitting forlornly in the pits, its coolant and oil-temp gauges were basically off the scale. The unflappable Mr. Huisman began to look a bit concerned, while Steve professed his innocence to anyone who would listen.
We propped up the hood and prepared for the worst. One thing immediately apparent was that, despite all the evidence of heat, the upper radiator hose was suspiciously cool to the touch. I remembered hearing that modular engines were highly prone to air locks when being filled with coolant, so we adopted a wait-and-see attitude. After the modular's mass of aluminum had cooled for a couple hours, with fingers crossed we keyed the ignition and were greatly relieved to hear the cammer rumble to life, seemingly unhurt. While it idled, George topped off the coolant with water, via the metal crossover tube at the front of the intake manifold, watching as the previously trapped air burped out through the coolant reservoir tank. Once the air stopped belching out, a check of the temp gauges showed we were back in business. Steve began to breathe again.
Lesson Number One: Make sure to bleed any air out of a modular's cooling system, 'cause all the coolant in the world won't do any good if it's trapped in the block.
Now it was my turn. My first few laps were really slow, as I spent more time watching the temp gauges than the racing line, but with everything looking fine it was time to turn up the wick. As speeds increased, the Mach 1 Racer began to feel less and less like a regular Mustang. Put a production GT on a road course and it will torture its front tires with generous amounts of understeer-a designed-in handling trait that makes it safe on the street but which feels ponderously nose-heavy and unresponsive on track. Meanwhile, out back, a stock rear suspension's design-and especially its rubber control arm bushings-provide nowhere near enough lateral axle control under hard cornering. This makes the rearend feel unsettled and unpredictable-nervous might be the best description. The corner that started off with understeer can end in a sudden transition to oversteer as the axle moves around like some wayward gypsy. A stocker's nosedive under braking and rear squat under acceleration are also unacceptably high at the track, allowing undue amounts of weight transfer while entering and exiting corners, none of which makes for either fast lap times or a lot of fun.
The Mach 1 Racer, on the other hand, feels right at home on the road course. What a balanced package! The rigidity of the rollcage and the stability of the track-spec suspension-the Steeda 5-Link rear setup in particular-eliminates the queasiness of the stock underpinnings. You can steer as confidently with your right foot as with the steering wheel. Though competition pads will no doubt stand up better, even with our OEM pads, the Mach 1 Racer's Cobra-spec, 13-inch front, 11.65-inch rear brake package felt wonderful, its easily modulated pedal pressure allowing impressive deceleration as well as smooth transition to trail braking. We kept inching our braking points closer and closer to the turn-in points and never once ran out of whoa-power. This braking prowess is no doubt helped by the 5-Link's revised suspension geometry, which greatly tames body pitch motions, allowing the rear discs to do their share of the work.
Less mass doesn't hurt either. Though we didn't weigh the Racer, it is no doubt a few hundred pounds more svelte than a stock 'Stang, making it feel particularly responsive. Driven back-to-back with George's gray race car with its 320hp naturally aspirated Cobra engine and 4.10 gears, the Mach 1 Racer-even with its milder 3.55 gearset-felt crisper under acceleration. Handling-wise, the two were similar-not surprising, as the gray car also has a Steeda 5-Link rear.
As the afternoon wore on, neither Mustang got much rest. But all this blissful lapping came to a sudden end late in the day when, midway through the fast right-hander leading onto GingerMan's pit straight (and, naturally, just after pit entrance), I heard a loud bang after which the Mach 1 Racer stumbled, slowed, and backfired, before seemingly recovering back to normal on the straight. Something didn't feel right, so I nursed it slowly around the track to the pit entrance, only to have it quit altogether in another right-hander leading onto the back straight. The backfire that accompanied this complete shutdown sounded suspiciously like it was ignition related, and attempting to restart had absolutely no effect. It was well and truly dead. So, for the second time, the Mach 1 Racer was towed back to the pits, this time with me having some splainin' to do.
The track was about to close anyway, so we decided to push the lifeless Racer onto the trailer and do an autopsy back at the CDC shop, but not before George found out (the hard way) that the cables on its trunk-mounted battery were oven-hot, as if subjected to a dead short. This and the car's backfiring later proved to be valuable clues as, up on the hoist, it was discovered that the positive battery cable had been severed by the 5-Link's Panhard bar that had broken a weld and swung loose from the right rear subframe. After rewelding the bracket and fitting a new cable, the Mach 1 Racer was back to full health, ready for another track assault.
Lesson Number Two: When attaching suspension bracketry, remember that these things take immense loads, so weld accordingly.
With its thankfully minor teething problems solved, the Racer's next outing was at Waterford Hills, north of Detroit, where a number of drivers-some veterans, some rookies-put it through a hard day's paces without so much as a hiccup. All, including Panoz GT racer Audrey Zavodsky, came away highly impressed. In case you haven't guessed by now, we're officially declaring the CDC-R/MRT Mach 1 Racer program a great idea as well as a screaming bargain. The companies supply the parts; you supply the labor. Though the prospect of building a competition Mustang from the ground up may at first seem intimidating, just imagine the pride and satisfaction when your own personalized Mach 1 Racer hits the track for the first time. Your efforts will be well rewarded.