CHARLOTTE, NC – It was sunny, windless and 91º F (33º C) here earlier this week – perfect conditions for slipping a full-body fire suit over our clothing, putting on a helmet and shedding a few pounds the hard way.
The protective gear was uncomfortable but absolutely essential when riding shotgun in a Sprint Cup stock car piloted by Brad Keselowski, a 30-year-old Rochester Hills, MI, tire shredder on the Penske racing team whose laser focus on the road ahead and ability to safely negotiate a high-bank oval at 180 mph (290 km/h) in his slightly modified Ford Fusion is astounding to the rookie in the passenger seat who is struggling in this environment to simply breathe.
It may have been a typical day at the office for Keselowski, but not for me and some of the journalists attending a motorsports deep-dive hosted at Charlotte Motor Speedway by Ford and its partners in grime, Penske Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Roush Yates Engine.
It was nothing short of an adult field trip, but the ride wasn’t on a jouncy yellow school bus. Instead, the rides consisted of:
- Mustang GT500 and Cobra Jet drag racers pulling 2 g from a standstill.
- Two 850-hp Ford Mustang RTR coupes drifting through massive clouds of smoke spewed by Vaughn Gittin Jr. and his sidekick Ryan Tuerck.
- NASCAR hot laps with Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Keselowski.
- An original ’65 Shelby Cobra 427 (one of only 20 built) driven by its owner, Jim Farley, whose day job is executive vice president-global marketing, sales and service and Lincoln.
- A sleek Daytona Prototype piloted on the oval by Scott Pruett.
- ’15 Ford Mustangs powered through a handling course by the all-new 2.3L EcoBoost 4-cyl. engine.
Mind you, Ford didn’t hand out keys for any of these vehicles, and journalists were limited to passenger status, which was perfectly fine (Mustang media launch is later this year). The chance to ride in an original Cobra was reward enough.
But journalists did get to drive the Ford GT, Focus ST and Fiesta ST on a makeshift track set up in the Charlotte speedway parking lot.
And there were other highlights as well, such as touring the immaculately clean arena-sized Penske Racing garage with Roger Penske himself; meeting the mechanics and engineers who build and prep the cars and components to tolerances of five thousandths of an inch; and watching a Roush Fenway pit team practice a 4-tire swap that took 11 seconds.
The automaker also made news at this event, opening its new Ford Technical Support Center nearby in Concord, NC.
Expected to be fully operational this summer, the 33,000-sq.-ft. (3,066 sq.-m) facility will assist Ford Racing in developing and testing cars. Installed equipment includes a kinematics machine, chassis torsional twist rig, vehicle center of gravity machine and coordinate measurement machine.
The centerpiece of the new tech center is a full-motion platform simulator allowing teams to set up vehicles for individual track configurations and for drivers to practice driving a track ahead of an upcoming race weekend.
All these tools will be extremely handy here at the NASCAR epicenter.
Eventually, Ford plans to integrate technologies developed at the tech center into performance cars available in showrooms.
Why is all this high-performance stuff relevant to an automaker that also markets electric vehicles and hybrids and must get serious about meeting onerous fuel-economy standards in the coming years?
Because motorsports enthusiasts buy cars and become ambassadors for their favorite brands. These are the go-to folks for people less engaged in cars who want to make sure they are making a wise purchase decision.
Ford needs to do all it can to identify and connect with enthusiasts, particularly young ones, because many in the coming generation lack the burning desire to own or even drive a car.
It’s worth reminding the public that Henry Ford’s success on a Grosse Pointe, MI, race track in 1901 created the excitement necessary to court investors and launch the Ford Motor Co. two years later. Yes, Ford’s involvement in motorsports predates creation of the company.
On a personal level, I should probably fess up that motorsports are not top-of-mind in my spare time, and I realize hundreds of other race fans would have considered surrendering a limb to share my experiences this week.
GoPro cameras in the cabin of a NASCAR racer are great, but they fail to convey the brute force, the heat, the sound, the vibration, the watercolor imagery and the feeling of separation from reality.
And we were only one car on the track. A pack of cars moving at the same speed within inches surely compounds the sensations.
The next time I’m channel surfing and come across a NASCAR, Formula 1 or Indy event on TV, I certainly will be more appreciative of the physical and mental demands facing every driver, as well as the hard work of the pit crews, mechanics and engineers.
For me, race day will never be the same.