Let us go then, you and I,
When the Oak Tree flagger lets the blue flag fly
Like a warning for the engine-bay unable;
Let us go, slideways through the track-out,
The supercharger shouts
And restless Vettes with small-blocks spinning hard
And sundry other so-called fast cars
Moving to the right like a conga line
The four-lobe whine
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
This GT500 is tha shiznit.
Hard over the crest of VIR’s back straight and this almost unspeakably mighty car is cutting the morning fog in two with the violence of a cruise missile sonic-booming under the radar ceiling and my Blue-group student is starting to regret his ride-along with widening eyes and that C6 blocking me at the Oak Tree exit is a blurry memory in the mirror and I am grabbing fifth now and down the backside we thunder and now the wind has a physical force in the cabin on my face and a couple of gas-station receipts tornado-stutter-spin between us and the speedometer has force in the motion, man, one-fifty one-fifty-five one-sixty one-sixty-five spin the dial arrow marker hard on the brakes and there is nothing, the pedal moans and the pads are suspended from the rotors by the infernal combustion burning the material into a millimeter cushion of murderous free-floating gas and I push through it and the ABS chatters and we bounce up the hill past the curb it’s still anyone’s guess and my student is cringing now eek eek SQUEAK SQUEAL SLAM fifth to fourth ROAR fourth to third ROAR SQUEAK BOOM SQUEAK off the brakes and down the Rollercoaster with the five point four (edit: five point eight!) lunging us towards the exit curb on hot tires and the student says
and I say
When we last left our 2013 Shelby GT500 test car, it was fresh from a meeting with its hardcore track sibling and was on the way to Virginia International Raceway via the backroads of rural Kentucky. I loved the big-hearted Ford the same way I’ve loved pretty much every Mustang built since 2005. Hell, as a former CMC-class racer I love all the Mustangs from 1979 forwards. But not all loves are the same; I love the V-6 Mustang the way I love a trusty female friend and I love this Shelby-that-should-be-called-SVT-Cobra the way I love the woman who sits at the center of my blackened heart, pulling the strings that make me gasp for breath when I see her picture or hear her voice.
A slight mix-up with the nice people at Ford — who provided this lovely car to me at no charge and even made sure the tank was full when it arrived, I don’t feel the need to do some bullshit Jalopnik-style hipper-than-thou disclosure which implies I’m so above it all that I feel no emotion upon receiving the keys to a 662-horsepower automobile — meant that the Shelby arrived with a “MyKey” that limited my ability to fuss with the stability control and steering/suspension settings. Day One at VIR I spent just running students around and running the Goodyear F1 Supercar tires down to the shadow of the cords on the outside edges. I didn’t bother to run for time because I knew I’d bump into the limits of the AdvanceTrac.
In actual use, the AdvanceTrac is charmingly unobtrusive. You really have to get the car out of shape in order for it to intervene. If I had a student learning to drive on a racetrack with one of these Cobras, I’d tell him to leave it on. Still, there are a few places on the track where it’s useful to do more than the computer allows. Sunday afternoon a package arrived from FedEx with the regular key. I turned off the systems — taking a mild breath when I did so since this is the kind of car in which uncorrected mistakes can be big — turned on my MyChron beam-timer, and headed out for a timed lap.
Let us go then, as the poet said.
As we pass the start/finish line we are chugging past 130mph and the GT500 doesn’t feel remotely out of steam. I dislike supercharged track cars for two reasons. The first is that they are subject to heat-related performance reduction, and sure enough as the day went on the GT500 found its top speed on that long back straight dropping to an indicated 160 or so. One-sixty! Hardly moving. What’s the point. But I digress. The other problem with supercharged cars is that they are strong at 1500rpm but weak as kittens at the top of the rev range. Not the Shelby. It just keeps going, and going, and churning power all the way to the amazing 7,000-rpm “temporary redline”. The car will let you run past the nominal 6250-rpm redline for up to eight seconds, and on a track you will do that over and over again.
Time to brake for Turn One. Well, here’s the bad news. This car doesn’t have close to enough brake on it. It needs the same kind of brakes you get on a Vette ZR1, because it’s fast like that and it’s heavy like an ’82 Marquis Brougham. Every lap around a racetrack with the GT500 is spent managing the brakes. They can give you a few different responses. Initially they are just kind of weak. Then the pedal travel goes long. Then the scary behavior begins as the overheated pad material vaporizes and actually holds the pads off the rotor for a moment before the pedal sinks right into an ineffectual ABS chatter. I can see why the mainstream auto press was a little scared of the Mustang on-track because the brakes are a crapshoot and the news gets worse and worse as you continue to lap. There isn’t much to hit at VIR so in each case I did my best and trusted to fate. Still, on both straights I’m braking a hundred feet early at least. The Shelby covers a hundred feet in four-tenths of a second. The cowardly lion inside me wants to make that brake point a full second earlier but where’s the glory in that?
Turns 1 and 2 can be taken in second gear if you really want to make time but the Cobra can break traction at any moment as you’re heading for Turn 3 so it requires some finesse. This is where you make money on all the slower cars running Hoosiers and adjustable suspension. The Mustang is not unwilling to turn but here you do get a sense of what that extra weight in the nose does. Compared to a Boss or a GT, it just takes some time for the Goodyears to grab and change direction. It feels a little tippy-toe here, but nothing too worrisome. Just get the thing pointed straight, if you can, and ride the lightning. A touch of left-foot braking to get the nose down and we’re into Three hard enough to get the inside wheels in the air. Grab a quick shift before having another gut-check brake into Four and Five.
We can rotate the car on the throttle at any point but that takes time off the clock and it heats up the rear tires. We need them cool and you’ll see why in about seventy seconds. Hit all the curbs and run 5a to 6 and 6a. Flat out to the bottom of the Climbing Esses and we will need to brake to an entry speed of somewhere between 120 and 125mph. The experienced VIR locals can probably do better but trust me, that speed feels like enough. This year the curbs have been paved and expanded so we can let the car run pretty straight up the hill. Unlike many cars, the Shelby can accelerate up the Esses very quickly so you’ll have to watch the throttle.
The Nine-Ten exit is frankly scary. There isn’t enough grip at these speeds to do anything other than track out and hope the front tires will catch you. Step on the brake hard for Ten and dive in on light throttle. If you apply full power too early, the GT500 will step out on the back of the hill and that, my friend, is how you will hit the wall at ninety-five miles per hour. Unlike my Boxster, the Shelby won’t take all the engine’s torque if the outside wheels are on the curb. Not today in these kind of humid conditions, anyway. It’s a finesse thing all the way down the hill.
There’s no sense trying to do Eleven right. You have too much momentum. Smoke-chatter the poor brakes and rotate for Oak Tree and the exit to the back straight. I took this turn in third for most of Saturday but on Sunday I grabbed second for the extra tenths of a second it might offer. So help me G-d if you do not have the wheel straight in this car when you are in second gear on hot tires it will slap your face so let’s exit the way Ross Bentley told me, clean and smooth.
Now it’s a drag race and the Shelby can’t break 160 due to the heat. With yesterday’s cooler air I’d have another eight mph in pocket. With decent brakes and cool air I’d have another twelve. Maybe fifteen. 175 on a road course! It’s sexy, brother. In practice the GT500 must be braked at the “arrow” before the first brake marker and even then it’s a dicey airborne ABS-bounce up the “prototype line” to 14a.
On the downhill, we can spin the tires at will so throttle modulation is the order of the day. I’d thought initially I could get through Turn 16 without the brakes but that’s stupid, it kills your exit. So let’s use the left foot here. Around this time you get the sense of why some journalists openly prefer the Scion FR-S to this car. Every mistake in the Ford is a big one.
The car bounces through 17 and squats on its suspension to 17a. If you are hasty with the throttle, as I was in my early laps, the GT500 snaps sideways and points your nose at the pitlane entrance. Silly snake! We don’t want to go there! What are you doing! You’re just a car, you don’t get to tell us where to go! Keep in mind that “hasty with the throttle” doesn’t mean “full throttle where half is called for.” In this car, it means “80% down instead of 75% down.” You aren’t really wide-open until your back wheels pass the end of the 17a curb. This is where you need those rear tires to be cool enough to grip. The time you set this lap will be heavily influenced by how careful you were in the minutes previous.
It’s a drag race again and my oh my we love those. The timer says
Racer excuses: the tires were smoked. The engine was hot. The brakes were nonexistent. A fresh GT500 in the morning on Hawk Blues is a 2:05 car. I’m pretty sure of it. But that 2:10 time is absolutely consistent with what solid track rats are seeing in stock C6 Z06es, and did I mention I set the time with a female passenger in the car, in traffic? Respect is due to the engine and the overall balance. This isn’t a one-trick pony.
It isn’t perfect. You know it isn’t. A GT-R is certainly faster, although I didn’t do anything but pass GT-Rs that weekend. But this is a car to know, then love, then eventually master. You won’t figure it out on your first trackday. The limits are so high, the power is so stupendous, the experience is humbling, really. If I could change the car in any way, I would put brakes on it. If I bought one, I would put brakes on it pronto. No question. The rest of it I’d leave alone.
The eye-watering price of $62,000 and change means that only the reasonably wealthy, or hopelessly optimistic, will be able to own one. Still, as the man once said… if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. This GT500 is one of the all-time greats. I love it with all the sincerity, but none of the sadness, of T.S. Eliot’s hero. No scuttling across silent seas here: the GT500 roars across the American racetrack, majestic and mighty.