One of the frustrations of being a performance car fan and working at a new car dealership has always been reading about the new cars that are coming out well before being able to drive and experience them myself. Most of the time those darn auto journalists get to fly to exotic locations and drive the most amazing cars on legendary tracks, while us working stiff only get to read about it. That is, until recently!

(Editor’s Note: This is the first post from Mike Correra, who attended the Shelby GT350 and GT350 R launch event at the iconic Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Mike is the sales manager and Director of eCommerce at Raceway Ford in Riverside, California.)

A few weeks ago I received an email invite to the 2016 GT350 North American Track Tour being held at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Needless to say I responded immediately and then tried desperately to contain my anticipation over the following weeks! Not wanting to even chance being late I hit the road at 4:00 am and made the 5 and a half hour drive north to Monterey, arriving early enough to lurk around while VIPs like Lynn St James got to spend some time at the wheel. The folks from Ford Performance really rolled out the red carpet for this event, and it is stained with the grease of fifty years of Mustang performance and sweat of a famous Texan who made it all happen!

I was able to eavesdrop on some pretty interesting conversations about the consolidation of the many divisions that Ford has developed for performance over the years. The SVO, SVT and RS teams have all been brought into one group called Ford Performance. For a guy like me, it was worth the drive to be a fly on the wall.

Watching the cars head out onto the track I could feel my own pulse start to race and the glorious sound of the 5.2L, flat-plane crank V8 was the most beautiful noise to start the day with ever! Once the afternoon session for Ford dealers got underway, we were treated to a great discussion about the Ford Performance team and all the vehicles that are available now and on the way, like the 2016 Focus RS and 2017 Raptor. Both of those vehicles were on hand for us to paw all over!

Then it was time to get fitted with our HANS device and helmets. Once secured, we walked out to pit lane. Being a lifelong race fan it was impossible to not get caught up in excitement of just being on pit lane at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Climbing into a Shelby GT350 made it better than Christmas!

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Ford’s own performance play ground, Miller Motorsports Park, provided a team of drivers to ride along with us to offer guidance and instruction on getting the most out of the three laps we had with the Shelby. Having a HANS device, and helmet latched to it made for an authentic race feeling, but the car made it an actual race experience! Unlike the last generation Shelby, which more of a stock chassis with a supercharged V8 stuffed into it, the new GT350 is built specifically to be an actual race car that you can driver to the track. You can have a blast flogging it unmercifully all day, then drive it home.

I have driven the last generation Shelby, the GT500, and will admit driving it in a constant state of fear as it always felt like it was on the edge of tearing loose. I cannot say that I really enjoyed the drive. This new Shelby, however, did not kick me in the ass. It assured me that I was with a friend; one that would not let me get into trouble!

From the moment I let the clutch slip out and pulled out onto the track, I felt comfortable. Perhaps a bit intimidated with a full on race driver sitting next to me, but comfortable enough to run the RPM’s up and power into Turn One. The pro was there to point out the gates and apex cones, telling me the best line and when to brake. His best guidance came at the apex when he stated firmly, “now mash that pedal to the floor son!” The first lap was a ‘get used to the car’ lap, but the second was a ‘man this thing is amazing’ lap.

The new GT350, simply put, inspires confidence. The kind of confidence to drive hard into a corner and accelerate hard coming out without fear of losing control. Not once did the car feel even a little loose, and as hard as I pushed I could not even feel the slightest bit of drift.

Lap three was breathtaking as I really felt the power band of the 5.2L. I was able to stay in third for most of the track, and was amazed by how much power I was able to pull out of each corner with. Earlier that morning I heard a Ford guy explain that the new engine has an incredibly broad torque curve, making 70% of its available toque from 3500 all the way up to 7000 RPMs!

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The instructor made sure to point out that numerous gear shifts weren’t needed with this engine’s power band. When I did shift into fourth on the front stretch, it was effortless. The clutch was smooth smooth and the throw of the stick was short.

Under braking the massive Brembo brakes made my eyes feel as if they might dislodge and hit the windshield! Never locking up or losing its grip, the brakes bring the Shelby’s speed down as effortlessly as the wicked engine increases it.

At the end of my three laps of glory, the pro and I swapped seats and then the fun really began. If my last lap was exhilarating, the lap I rode along with the pro driver was breath taking! Having spent hours and hours at the wheel, and being a true racer, he pushed the Shelby well beyond my own comfort level and into my fantasy level! The driver never once let up and pushed it hard. It was sheer joy to be in an incredible race car with a great driver on a legendary track.

At the top of the hill where I had backed off with caution, he mashed the gas and drilled the car down the Corkscrew. He attacked it with a powerful sophistication that made me really appreciate all the race footage I have ever seen of that iconic section of the course! With the little breath I had expressed to him that he was the driver that the GT350 deserves, although the car is forgiving and thrilling enough for someone like me to also enjoy!

The suspension of the car was serious at times and firm but, never harsh. It’s a result of the Shelby engineers use of MagneRide magnetorheological ride control technology. MagneRide is a term many enthusiasts have heard of for some time now, and it’s not exclusive to the Shelby team. However, the science of its calibration is, and it’s something that needs to be felt to fully understand.

In short, the fluid inside the shocks is filled with metal particles that can be charged electronically, changing the dampening and allowing an increase or softening of the suspension with seven milliseconds. On the track this translates to the rear wheel being able to compensate for the change in track surface well before the driver feels the vibration of the rumble strip. On the street this means that the vehicle will sense when a wheel drops into a pot hole, calculate the drop and speed of the car, then compensate for the travel back up when it hits the other side.

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Under the car, engineers have reworked and improved every aspect of the air flow, minimizing any dirty air and managing even the heated air from the engine and brakes with full racing technology. The engine oil and transmission fluid cooler are mounted behind the front bumper, and since they each have different temperature fluids to cool the air, flow from each is routed differently in order to fully manage and control airflow.

On the prior Mustang’s premier racer, the Boss 302, the rear differential cooler was up front. This meant extra weight from additional fluid, and heat radiated under the car from the long lines. The Ford Performance folks put the rear diff cooler in the rear under the diffuser and use the air flow under the car to better cool it and save weight at the same time.

Unsprung rolling weight has been dropped by nearly a hundred pounds on the GT350 R edition with the use of the first carbon fiber wheel used in mass production. Those wheels have been treated with a black paint using space shuttle technology to protect them from brake heat and the sun’s UV rays.

The rear coils springs are even wound in the opposite direction to improve specific compression. As mentioned before the GT500 was essentially a GT Mustang, however the GT350 has a unique and specific front end. From the A-Pillar forward, nearly every part is unique. The front fenders are wider and functionally vented. The hood, front suspension, grill and splitter just to name a few are all Shelby exclusive. All this and much, much more come together to provide one amazing automobile.  An amazing automobile that truly asks to, and deserves to, be driven hard and often!

Carroll Shelby always said he wanted cars that wore his name to be driven and not admired. The new GT350 is the most worthy Ford I’ve ever driven, of both!

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