Photography: Rebecca Reiss, Josh Baker, NMRA Archives
For the last two decades or so, the Mustang world has been an interesting place. Ever since the cars and stars of the original True Street movement of the mid-to-late 90s set the table for the “fast street car” scene, Mustang enthusiasts have been after the Holy Grail of a car that will perform both on the street and at the track – and an entire industry popped up around this concept. Nowhere has that been more evident than with the current and previous generation of ponycars, as the 5.0-liter Coyote-engined cars are extremely potent. Delivered from the factory with the capability of solid 11-second timeslips locked up inside, the cars require only the hands of a capable driver to achieve the goal. Add boost, and a true, daily-driven monster is possible with limited modifications.
Pulling into Maple Grove on Saturday morning, there was a nice assortment of Ford iron following me in.
For a bit of background, I’ve been a Mustang guy for my entire adult life; I picked up my first one at the tender age of 17, having traded up from a Honda 250 Rebel motorcycle into a 1982 GT. At the time, my broke college-student, pizza restaurant-job-havin’ self couldn’t afford much more, but with Vanilla Ice on near-constant rotation on the radio, I simply had to have one. Don’t judge too much – that Mustang set the hook for what my wife would probably say is an addiction, and eventually turned into what I like to think is a relatively respectable career “playing with cars.” I’m 42 now, and this car, my 2011 GT, is my fourth one. I tend to keep them for a while.
When I first purchased this car, I took it to Cecil County Raceway, and after some practice, managed to break off an 11-second timeslip on a set of sticky tires, with an 11.96 at 118.83 mph best. At the time, the car had no power-adding modifications short of a cold-air intake, a custom tune and a set of 3.73:1 rear gears. And when you consider that it had been over 15 years since I’d taken a manual-transmission car down the strip, I’m kind of proud of that accomplishment. It may have been way slower than some people who take their cars to the track and flog them to death, but for my daily-driven machine which had to get me the 68 miles home from the track, it was totally acceptable to me.
Fast-forward to a few months later; I was fortunate enough to install a P-1-SC1 ProCharger on the car and bump the horsepower by over 200 to the tire on the dyno, maxing out the roller at 618 rwhp at 7,350 rpm on a Ken Bjonnes custom tune.
I went back to the track in early November 2015, shooting for my first 10-second pass. The best I could muster up on that day was an 11.15 at 123 mph. As it was my first time down the track in the car with the supercharger installed, I wasn’t interested in going home on the flatbed – so I was taking it easy on the clutch and short-shifting by quite a bit, as I tried to get a feel for the car in the process. After that day, I could easily say that driving a boosted, six-speed Mustang with steep rear gears was a big challenge on the track, but I loved every minute of it… and then the cold Northeastern winter set in. I picked up a beater car and a new job, but all winter long I plotted to figure out how to get that 10-second timeslip.
So when word came down that the NMRA was returning to Maple Grove Raceway during the 2016 season, I circled the weekend on my calendar and reserved a hotel room, sure that I’d exit the weekend victorious with my first 10-second blast.
Oh, but the best-laid plans…
As the weekend approached, I made the decision to swap the gears in the car from the 3.73s to a set of 3.55s to try to maximize the powerband in the car. After using an online gear ratio calculator, I determined that the 3.55 gearset would be ideal for my shift points on the 28-inch tall tires I run at the strip. Swarr Auto in Collegeville, PA, performed the work flawlessly, and I was one step closer to my goal – or so I thought. While Eric Swarr was test-driving the car after the gear swap, he commented to me that it seemed a little bit flat, but I just brushed it off, thinking that he drove a lot of cars and they must all be so different maybe he was noticing something that wasn’t there. Turns out he was correct, as you’ll find out shortly.
In addition to the gear swap, I also installed a new shifter since the last time I had been to the track, and I went into the event thinking I was in perfect position to come home with my goal achieved.
Event week arrives. The excitement and nervousness on my end was intense, and I’m sure I couldn’t have been much fun to be around that week. I spent a lot of time during the week considering each of the angles I thought were important. Did I have all of the right equipment to run the number? Would I be able to drive the car properly? I didn’t want to miss any shifts, so I actually spent some time just practicing them on the way to and from work all week long.
And then the weather forecast turned crappy, negating my plan to drive to Maple Grove on the drag wheels and tires. Instead, I changed my focus, loading up my wife Rebecca’s Ford Escape on Friday morning with my jack, jackstands, all four drag wheels, electric impact gun, torque wrench, and all of the other assorted nonsense required to make the swap once I got there. She followed me to the track, we got settled, and then I got to work on Friday providing the regular Front Street coverage of the NMRA event itself. Pulling double-duty was distracting, but I still thought I had the plan well in hand despite the unexpected weather curveball.
Boy, was I wrong.
All day on Friday, the weather continued to be an issue, plaguing the NMRA staff to where the only cars they got down the track during the day’s sessions were True Street time trials and some of the bracket classes. Notice I said “True Street time trials.” I wasn’t able to participate in these at all, since I was shooting photography and working throughout the pit area and trackside. This little tidbit became important on Saturday morning.
Come Saturday morning, the weather forecast was slightly respectable; although it wasn’t warm by any stretch of the imagination, at least the track surface was dry and there was no threat of weather during the day. As I had planned to spend the entire day taking in the True Street experience, the wife and I headed to the track. Thanks to longtime friends/Coyote Stock racers Carlos Sobrino and Chalie Rankin, I was afforded a bit of pit space up with the heads-up racers, where we parked Rebecca’s car and I was able to spend a bit of time swapping over the wheels to prepare the car for the day’s festivities.
Not long after I got the car situated, the call went out for the one-and-only True Street time trial for Saturday morning, so I drove on up to the staging lanes, got into line, and proceeded to wait…and wait…and wait. All told it was probably an hour from the call until I hopped into the car to put my helmet on.
Start the car. Brake on, traction control button off. Angle both side mirrors down so I can see if the burnout is creating smoke on both sides of the car. Pull down into the burnout box. Heart rate up. Radio off. It’s finally time to get rolling, so I pull the shifter into second gear, bring the engine up to 5,000 rpm, dump the clutch, and stomp on the brake with my left foot while I work the throttle with my right to get the tires nice and sticky. Five seconds go by, nice cloud of smoke shows up, so I eased out of the burnout box and pulled to the starting line.
True Street runs on a .400 Pro Tree, which, if you’ve never done it before, can be kind of intimidating. I know it was for me. By the time I got the engine rpm into the correct range, the tree had flashed down and it was time to go. I launched the car, but by the top of first gear I knew something wasn’t right, as it was popping and stumbling. I continued to try to make the run, but the car felt way off its normal pace, and I ended up crossing the stripe with a soft 12.51 around 120 mph – nearly 1.5-seconds slower than my best pass out with the car previously. But this was my one and only time shot, so I just headed back to the True Street pit area, thinking maybe there was an injector plug loose or some other small malady causing the stumble.
Without many tools at my disposal, I enlisted the help of longtime friend Bill Tumas (you may know him as the video personality behind CJ Pony Parts’ installation videos) to try to inspect what we could under the hood in the limited time we had available. We went over each of the underhood connectors, but didn’t find anything amiss, so we put the strut tower brace back on – and then it was time for the True Street meeting, which takes place prior to the cruise.
With 74 True Street cars on the property, this was one of the larger True Street classes in recent memory. The assembled folks gathered ‘round to hear the NMRA’s True Street coordinator, Tim Berns, give his speech about proper etiquette for the cruise portion of the event. I have to tip my hat to Tim; it can’t be simple nor efficient to get so many diverse Mustang owners to follow instructions, let alone follow those instructions over a 30-mile tour.
While on the cruise, the car ran OK at lower rpm levels, but as I tried to take it up to the higher reaches of the tachometer, it was having none of my command, almost as if it was spitting back at me in protest. But we soldiered on, and during the tour through the Pennsylvania countryside, all I could think about was how bad this article would be if I couldn’t achieve my goal.
With the exception of an unexpected short detour near the end of the cruise, from my perspective it went off without much of a hitch, and each of the competitors piled back into the Maple Grove Raceway property for cooldown time, which took place on the return road.
Since the weather posed a serious threat to Sunday’s action, the NMRA had made the decision prior to the True Street cruise that we were only going to get two passes instead of the traditional three, to try to cut down the time required to complete the class and allow them to focus on the traveling heads-up racers. While there was some disappointment among the attendees, everyone understood the precarious position of the NMRA and accepted the change.
While we all cooled down after the cruise, we had a front-row seat to some of the ‘regular’ NMRA racing action, which was pretty intense as the qualifying sessions were hot and heavy at this point in the day, with racers jockeying for final qualifying position heading into the moved-up elimination sessions.
Getting ready for the cruise; just assembling all 74 cars into one group was a challenge!
Then it was go-time. What I had been waiting for since the NMRA scheduled was announced in the winter; my chance to run down the Maple Grove 1320 just like the big-dog racers. I didn’t have high hopes for how my Mustang was going to perform, but at this point I was committed to seeing it through. I had to make it happen, for better or for worse.
Rebecca wished me luck, I hopped into the car, closed the door, and strapped up the helmet.
I shouldn’t have had that last sip of water. Wow, there are a lot of people in the stands. Did you remember to turn off the traction control? Shut off the radio so you can hear what the car is doing. Is the seatbelt on? Don’t miss second gear, dummy. Pull down the helmet visor. I wonder if I should take the car to the dyno to have it re-tuned if it doesn’t run well. Maybe airing the tires down to 11 psi will help the car hook better and I’ll finally get my 10-second pass.
Second gear. Burnout. Pull to the line, back in first gear. Wow, that Pro tree comes down FAST. Dammit, it’s still breaking up. Shift to second. Nope, still popping. Oh well, guess I’ll just cruise it out, and whatever it runs, it runs.
It looks the part, even if it didn’t run the number.
I run the car out to the end of the track, head back up the return road, and make the decision to pull out of the event so I don’t damage the car in case there is something seriously wrong. Of course, I make this decision just after the last possible turnoff, get sandwiched in by the True Street racers behind me, and I’m locked back in line.
At this point I have no idea what’s wrong with the car, and after a pair of oil downs and two hours of sitting and waiting to get to the front so I could pull the car out of line, I finally made my way back to the pits, where at this point it was just about dark. Change the wheels back over, head up to the media suite, get Rebecca settled, and go back to work. For the rest of the night, until the event was finally called off (to be continued in Ohio), all I could think about was what might be wrong with my car.
After discussing it with a number of different people, the coil packs and/or spark plugs are suspected as the potential cause of the problem, especially since I didn’t have any sort of CEL on in the car. Once Sunday dawned rainy and miserable, Rebecca and I checked out of the hotel and headed home. By late afternoon, the rain had stopped, so I grabbed the box of OEM coil packs from my home office and headed out to the car. 20 minutes later, I had the old packs out of the car and the original pieces reinstalled. After a quick test drive, the car was approximately 80-percent better, although not perfect. I decided at that point to just pick up a new set of plugs the next day here at work and put them into the car that evening.
Lo and behold, the problem is fixed. Moral of the story? Don’t obsess over whether the big things are right, because it’s the little things, stupid. Get the little things right, and the big things will fall into place. It sure was fun to learn this lesson, though.
Maybe next year.