By on October 17, 2010

TTAC tested the street version of this car a few years ago: check it out for a classic example of mid-RF-era TTAC reviews, complete with withering attention to interior-quality issues and not-so-gentle comments regarding the unwillingness of the average automaker to purchase a Ford.

At the time, the Focus sold for about fifteen grand. That was for the street car. How much does a racing Focus cost? The answer: One dollar. The answer is also $2500. And $6000. And $25,000. Confused yet?

The success of the Spec Miata racing class, both in the eager-to-embrace-it NASA and hideously-reluctant SCCA, was a pointed lesson to manufacturers struggling to build enthusiast bases for their cheap-and-cheerful cars. A few more spec street-car classes were spontaneously spawned from owner interest: the SE-R Cup, Spec Neon, and Spec E30 (BMW) classes all managed to get off the ground and running with little or no manufacturer help.

The Spec Focus class, on the other hand, was a deliberate creation of a few well-known Ford engineers and marketroids. A couple of so-called “dollar cars” were signed over to Leo Capaldi Racing, which had previously campaigned a Focus in Speed World Challenge competition. “Dollar cars” are cars which cannot be sold to the public for some reason. Normally they are crushed; VW, for instance, crushed the Phaetons by its reps to travel the country and train mechanics on Phaeton service. They might as well have crushed it before sending it out, if the quality of Phaeton service I received is any indication of said training program, but I digress.

Capaldi built the cars to a very high standard, finishing the cage and preparation almost to a Grand-Am Cup level — which, as we will later see, wasn’t the greatest idea. The coin-operated people at NASA were easily persuaded to carve out a separate class for the three Foci to race, and thus Spec Focus was born.

Ford engineers did a lot of homework to ensure that the four major Focus variants — 2.0 Zetec, 2.0 Zetec SVT, 2.0 Duratec, and 2.3 Duratec — would all produce about the same power with the permitted parts. A rather modest National Championship was held in 2006 among the rental cars, with a Ford SVT engineer thrown in to make sure there were enough competitors to round out a podium.

In 2007, two private competitors built their own Spec Foci and all of a sudden it was a five-car class. I joined Spec Focus as a renter, paying between $2500 and $3500 a weekend to drive the red ZX4 sedan. It was a complete arrive-and-drive program for me; I just showed up, paid, and was given a well-prepared car. When necessarily, Capaldi himself suited up to give me some competition. Just watching him race was worth the money; a lifetime racing in murderous Detroit kart classes and Speed WC had taught him every trick in the book and then some.

With Capaldi’s guidance and coaching from a variety of reasonably distinguished fellows, I obliterated the lap records set by the 2006 champion and prepared to cruise to a nearly uncontested 2007 National Championship. The private cars weren’t even close to Capaldi’s rent-a-racers; at one Mid-Ohio race I ran a 1:45.6 while the fastest private car ran 1:51. To put this in perspective, a reasonably-skilled “HPDE 3” driver in a completely stock 911 GT3 or Corvette Z06 might expect to run a 1:43. These weren’t slow cars; although they only made 170hp or so at the wheels, grippy Toyo RA-1 tires and high-quality Multimatic suspension made them quick in the turns.

What’s a Focus race car like to drive? Well, it likes to roll:

My driving style was different from everyone else’s in the class; I have a particular touch for loading up an outside sidewall and I ended up deflating a tire during a race from bead separation under conditions worse than pictured above. (As a result, Ford changed the tire spec for 2008.) This was not a car for the faint of heart or stomach to race; although the handling was very safe, there was a lot of motion in the car. On the plus side, it had ABS, which absolves a multitude of driving sins.

Most importantly, however, a Spec Focus is a race car. That means: no interior trim anywhere, very loud inside, no rubber or slop in the bushings, full cage, deep seat, limited visibility. It actually feels a lot more like a conventional racer than a Spec Miata, which is not as obviously transformed in its journey from street car to race car.

During the 2007 National Championship itself I made a mistake going into the first turn, dropping into third place, and then kicked another driver into the dirt making up the time. Although I set fast lap of the race, I was demoted down to the third step of the podium in the disciplinary session afterwards. Including damages, entry fees, and incidentals, that was a $6000 weekend. Had I totaled the car, I would have had to write Leo a $25,000 check. When people asked me why I raced an economy car, I always replied,

“Because it’s only slightly more expensive than leasing a Murcielago.”

Despite the obvious merits of the cars, private racers have been slow in coming. I suspect it’s because racing against a fully-prepared team like Capaldi Racing is tough enough for other pro teams. For a guy with an open-deck trailer and a $300 Craftsman toolset, it’s even tougher. No private Spec Focus racer has experienced significant success.

My experience as a rent-a-driver convinced me that I could run my own team, and I was more or less correct. The Neon I built for a total of $9500 the next year was slightly faster than Capaldi’s Focus rentals and far ahead of the private Foci. I had the satisfaction of lapping one of my most outspoken critics in the Focus community during a 2008 race. Later on in the season, one of the Spec Focus drivers and I came together in a collision that totaled my Neon and put the other driver on the Life Flight, but that’s a story for another time. Eighteen months later, everybody’s friends. Things happen in racing. It isn’t World of Warcraft; temper can cost lives.

Capaldi Racing can still put you behind the wheel of a Spec Focus; click for details. The class hasn’t had a lot of subscription in 2010, but it’s a solid way to get started in your race career. The conventional wisdom is that it’s better to start in a large class like Spec Miata, but I found that having a relatively small number of in-class cars at every race allowed me to, ah, focus on getting my personal act together as a driver and racer. It might be the right choice for you, as well.

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13 Comments on “Capsule Review: 2007 Ford Focus ZX4 ST “Spec Focus”...”

  • avatar

    Egads… the body roll!

    Why don’t they implement a weight penalty system in the Spec, to give privateers a chance?

    • 0 avatar

      Maybe because racing is about finding out who’s fastest, and not about making everyone feel warm and fuzzy? Maybe because weight penalties encourage bizarre strategies that have included screeching to a halt at the finish line and crawling across when the right number of cars has gone by?

      Maybe because weight penalties are spit in the face of tradition, arranged by venal sycophants who should be scripting reality TV and not crapping all over motorsport?

      Or maybe it’s just because the organizers would -like- to kick sand in the face of tradition, but can’t afford the lead.

    • 0 avatar

      In a racing series, purposely losing in order to avoid penalties shorts you a huge number of points. I don’t see the advantage in that.

      Proper rules balancing keeps the guys with more money from crapping all over the guys with less. (something they seem to have forgotten with ALMS and Le Mans by giving the diesels a virtual free pass) You don’t need to handicap the leading team to the point where the novices can overtake them with ease down the main straight… just take away enough performance to make it a bit more interesting.

    • 0 avatar

      That game has a FALCON and a C6R.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I had a one year old Focus with about 15k at a public auction back in the darkest days of 2008.
    It sold for $6500. One year, 15,000 miles, 50%+ loss in value.
    I have seen a grand total of one Focus with more than 200k on it. A 2000 model that had a bungee cord facilitating the shifts had 393k at a Carmax auction a year ago.
    Other than that specific car, I have yet to see any Focus live up to any ‘best in class’ designation. The plastics are fisher-price cheap. The reliability record is horrendous. The real world safety harkens back to the bad old days of the early-90’s, and these cars truly struggle to ‘tote the note’ in the used car market.
    Wait, are we talking about a Focus? Damn. I thought you were reviewing a Caliber. Sorry. Carry on.
    By the way, I have a Honda Insight body that may need to be built up for SCCA. Let me know if you’re interested.

    • 0 avatar

      We have approximately fifteen 2001-2005 Focus ZX3s in our fleet. Most have in excess of 250,000 hard (courier) miles. They are not pretty and the interiors don’t hold up very well, but they have been reliable with the absolute bare minimum of basic maintenance. The only exception that comes to mind are collapsed ignition lock tumblers in the earlier models.

    • 0 avatar

      You are definitely right about the trade-in value of the Focus.  It is precipitous.
      A Focus with over 200K on the clock is rare.  My guess is once the Mazda-sourced automatic trans-axle expires, the owner figures in the resale value, along with the condition of the rest of the car, – it is time to hang up those tennis shoes.

    • 0 avatar

      I spent a month car shopping here in New England in March of this year, looking on Craigslist, Auto Trader, and eBay.
      My daughter had her heart set on a Focus for some reason.  I wanted a 2004 or newer model with under 75,000 miles and could not come within a couple thousand of our $6,000 budget.  No luck with Toyota or Honda or Hyundai econoboxes either.
      Finally found a very clean 2005 Neon with 50K miles and 3 yrs extended warranty.  (Highly underrated car IMO.)  Maybe it was because dearest daughter wanted an automatic, but I did NOT find Focus resale values to be low.

    • 0 avatar

      I worked for a bank courier service in the late ’80s that would manage to put 2-300K on Escorts back then. You can put a ton of miles on anything if you almost never shut the thing off…

  • avatar

    I’m working on becoming a racer/driver. I can barely afford my everyday car though, so I started with books, Gran Turismo and making the best out of every on/off ramp.

    • 0 avatar

      Learning to drive with gran turismo is like learning to box with Street Fighter. You want iRacing. Trend-bandwagon name; brilliant simulator.

      The only problem is that they make you pay your dues in the Pontiac Solstice. If the real version is anything like iRacing’s, it’a schzophrenic car that is as friendly as Russia, as predictable as North Korea, slower than a snail towing a turtle, and spends as much time on three wheels as two. If I believed in God, I’d consider the marque’s demise to be divine punishment for the abomination that is the Solstice.

    • 0 avatar

      Quite agree. While Turismo will teach you some of the basics, slow-in-fast-out, smooth driving, proper apexing and exit, throttle control, etcetera… the lack of accurate tire-modelling, trail-braking behavior modelling and the rather simplified tuning menus severely limit it as a teaching tool.

      Of course… there’s nothing quite like actually going out there in an old beater and learning racing firsthand.

  • avatar

    It’s funny when in Spec Miata they give awards for least amount of “in class” body contact (lol).

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