Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Sum Of Its Parts

As I've mentioned in earlier blogs, S197 was purchased to be my car. It needed to perform the job of basic transportation while leaving high-performance entertainment to other vehicles in my stable. My background in racing includes autocross, hill climbs, TSD rallying, track days and finally true wheel-to-wheel racing on dedicated tracks. My vehicle of choice for the latter is a 1987 BMW 325i with a stripped interior, full roll cage and sticky tires. While immense fun it is also painfully expensive to compete in an amateur series devoid of sponsorship or prize money. After a few years of wallet draining joy I've begun to contemplate the future of my motorsport endeavors. In the meantime, I've taken up high performance driving instruction and helping those new to the sport safely learn to drive faster. I enjoy it immensely and it comes with the bonus of free track time at each event I instruct.

Mulling over the future of all things motorsports, I was curious about the Mustang. Would it be worth considering as a replacement if I decided to no longer campaign the BMW? I didn't expect much from the 4.0 V6, the street grade chassis or the reportedly unfit brakes. Due to a job change I once again had a company car; S197 was now relegated to backup status and was no longer a necessity for daily transport. With the last event of the year coming up in a typically cold month the idea of having a car with a functioning heater had some appeal. Curiosity got the better of me, so I ordered a set of Hawk brake pads, checked the tire pressures and drove to the track with very low expectations.

I went out in the morning for the first session on a very cold track simply concentrating on hitting my marks and paying particular attention to the much-maligned brakes. The stock exhaust on the Mustang was so quiet I had no idea what revs it was turning without furtive glances at the tachometer. After a few laps I was chuckling in my helmet; S197 was a surprisingly capable chariot. The stock suspension is of course quite floppy but once the weight takes a 'set' the car cornered admirably. The engine was surprisingly willing and propelled me down the front straight at Summit Point at its computer limited speed of 117 mph. The brakes with the decidedly non-stock pads hauled the car down respectably and with surprising confidence. The Pony liked to gallop. A suitable thumbs-up was given and photographed as seen above.

In the next session I took my student along to better help him learn some of the tricks of navigating the track. Going a bit quicker (but still being passed by nearly every other car save a few Miatas) I did find the T-5 transmission to be a recalcitrant beast preferring slower, smoother shifts to race level gear-grabbing. Other than that much fun was had...until things went wrong.

Entering turn 3 (a left-hander) I drove the same way I had driven all the previous laps, but right after entering the corner the rear end suddenly stepped out violently. I caught the slide, straightened but still needed to complete the turn so began again. Again the back end tried to swap places with the front. I caught it once more, reduced our speed significantly and both the student and I wondered aloud what had happened. It acted as if something had broken, yet the car drove perfectly fine. I elected to pit the car and terminate the session and as we coasted to the paddock steam began to erupt from around the edges of the hood.

"Well, that could be a problem," I uttered.

After investigation it was determined that ten years and 90,000 miles was the limit to what the plastic thermostat housing was willing to tolerate. The high RPMs the engine was turning on the track probably pushed a minor problem into a major leak, spraying slippery antifreeze under the hood and also the underside of the car. The slimy coolant then wound up on the rear tires and instant drama ensued. Research online confirms this is a failure prone part on the 4.0 and I'm presently awaiting the parts to perform the repair.

Unfortunate failure of a poorly engineered part aside, S197 nevertheless managed to impress me with its on-track capabilities. With proper preparation I could see this generation of Mustang being a real treat to drive on the track. My opinion was obviously shared by several others, as I saw over a half-dozen being used in that fashion the same weekend. My impression was not sullied by my student having a S550 Ecoboost model. A very impressive car in every way, it was certainly superior to the S197--as it should be. Yet the chasm was not nearly as great between the two as it was comparing my lowly V6 Pony to its predecessor, the Fox chassis Mustang. That chasm is truly vast. Once again I am awed and impressed by what the engineers achieved with America's favorite affordable pony car--sans the team who decided a heat welded two piece plastic thermostat housing was a good idea.