Driving the 2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 at Sebring International Raceway

There are few names in the automotive world more legendary than the late Carroll Shelby, a World War II pilot and poultry farmer who started an illustrious racing career ranging from winning the Mount Washington Climb to the Clouds in 1956 to winning Le Mans in 1959. His legacy includes a long line of cars bearing his name, from the AC Cobra in the 1960s, a British roadster fitted with a Ford 289 Windsor V8, to the 100% Shelby-developed Oldsmobile-powered Shelby Series 1 roadster in the 1990s. Carroll Shelby passed away in May of 2012.

There are few racetracks in the racing world more legendary than Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Florida. Sharing space with Sebring Regional Airport to this day, Sebring International Raceway was formed from the remnants of Hendricks Army Airfield, whose runways and taxiways struck the imagination of an aeronautical engineer as the perfect layout for a racing circuit. Host to the 6-hour Sam Collier Memorial on New Years’ Eve in 1950, and the inaugural 12 Hours of Sebring in 1952, Sebring International Raceway stands today as a proving ground for many of the world’s most prestigious racing cars and drivers.

There are also very few opportunities for an automotive enthusiast to be able to experience firsthand the history and the passion behind not just one of them, but both of them, at the same time.

But just such an opportunity arose on October 12th, when owners of previous iterations of Shelby Mustangs and a few media personnel were able to ride in and test drive the 2016 Shelby GT350, based on the Ford Mustang which was redesigned from the ground up for 2015, and its track-focused stablemate, the Shelby GT350R, on Sebring International Raceway.

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I was fortunate enough to be one of those media personnel, and even more so to sneak in an interview with Jim Owens, vice president of marketing for Shelby Automotive, who I had previously interviewed at Barrett-Jackson in Palm Beach in 2010.

“This car is the ultimate expression of what a Mustang can do on a racetrack,” said Owens. “We think Carroll would have been proud of this car.”

Featuring a 5.2L Ti-VCT V8 engine with a flat-plane crankshaft (code-named “Voodoo”), the 2016 Shelby GT350 develops 526 hp and 429 ft-lbs of torque. The balanced crankshaft not only allows the V8 engine to rev to an RPM that, once, only small import 4cyl engines could attain, but times the cylinder firing order so that there is almost no overlap between exhaust pulses in the headers. “It is free-breathing and high-revving,” said Owens. “There are times when your mind is telling your body ‘Shift, shift, shift!’ and you don’t need to. The redline is 8250RPM and the torque pulls almost to the end of that redline.”

Tied to the flat-plane-crank V8 is a Tremec 3160 six-speed manual transmission which has been designed along with many other components of the 2016 Shelby GT350 with a singular purpose in mind: saving weight. Not only is the transmission lighter, but it’s easy to shift with minimal effort going into changing gears, with the intention of speeding up the shifts in a racing environment. “All of the things that were important for going faster on the track are there,” said Owens. Further indication of its track-oriented nature is the single transmission option: Ford has made no statement saying the Shelby GT350 will be available with an automatic transmission.

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I also posed a question to Owens about what I thought was possibly a first for a Shelby Mustang: is this the first one to have a fully independent rear suspension? “It depends on how you look at it,” he said. “The Green Hornet was a test car back in the 60s. An independent rear suspension system was developed for it, and they chose not to do it for a couple of different engineering reasons.” That car is now owned by Craig Jackson, CEO of Barrett-Jackson collector car auctions. But the 2016 Shelby GT350 is the first mass produced Ford Mustang bearing the Shelby name available to the public with an independent rear suspension, which includes a Torsen limited slip differential with a 3.73 final drive ratio.

“We also have the Shelby GT350R-C that is competing and racing right now in formally sanctioned racing bodies,” said Owens, referring to its debut in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge at Watkins Glen this past summer.

Though I wasn’t participating in any sanctioned race, I sure felt like a professional race car driver once I stepped out of a Race Red Shelby GT350R after doing 3 laps of Sebring’s short course. As this was a consumer event, both time conservation and safety were imperative, so the short course was used, eliminating more precarious turns like the infamous Sunset Bend, or Turn 17, which is not only blind, but bouncy, and has checked the egos of many an overexuberant driver throughout the years. However, both I and my instructor were capable of reaching 120mph in the GT350R coming out of Gurney Bend before braking for the hairpin at Turn 10 (Turn 7 in the full course).

I’ll let the video speak for itself as to what it’s like to drive the 2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R.

Also deserving of mention are the other cars at this event aside from the 2016 Shelby GT350 and GT350R. Ford showcased several other high-performance cars, including a real 1965 Mustang Shelby GT350 also owned by Craig Jackson and signed on the driver’s quarter panel by Carroll Shelby himself, as well as the highly-anticipated Focus RS hot hatchback expected to go on sale next year.

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It’s pretty easy for me to say at this point that, all things considered, the 2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 is the greatest performing car I’ve yet driven in my career.

It has vulgar amounts of power and torque, as any Mustang should have, especially one that carries the name of Carroll Shelby. But while pony cars, including past Shelby Mustangs, have focused primarily on straight line acceleration, the 2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 answers to a higher calling than that. It’s not only a superlatively competent track-day car that handles and brakes as well as it accelerates, but it benefits from technological advancement and aggressive, yet tasteful styling that’s been long overdue for 21st century pony cars.

“It’s everything Carroll would have wanted this car to do,” Owens said.

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Thanks for reading Boosted News… keep your brakes cool and your passion hot!

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