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Jun 30, 2009 / reports

Thomson Takes On the Mustang Challenge

Lexington, OH—For two weekends in June, I was behind the wheel of a race car that’s quite different from the one I’m used to. Normally I’m either driving or calling strategy for one of Compass360 Racing’s bright orange Honda Civic Si’s. These nimble little front-drivers have proven to be rather good race cars, as we’re currently leading the Driver’s, Team’s and Manufacturer’s Championships in Grand-Am’s KONI Challenge. We made history a month ago by being the first team in series’ history to sweep the podium (at New Jersey), and have had four different drivers take race wins so far this year.

So when I strapped into the Ford Racing Mustang Challenge’s white #00 “Media Car” at Mosport, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here was a car that tips the scales at nearly 1,000 lbs heavier than one of our Hondas. It sits on different tires (BFGoodrich R1’s rather than KONI-spec Hoosiers), and is driven by the rear wheels.

Fortunately, I had a little help from my friend Scott Maxwell, who had been called in by the FRMC to help coach drivers at one of the most difficult tracks they’ll visit all year. Scott took his duties pretty seriously over the weekend, and after every session you’d find him with his notebook in hand making his rounds through the paddock, giving pointers and offering advice to each and every Mustang pilot.

On Friday morning Scott and I worked on setting my #00 steed up for Mosport’s long, flowing, high-speed corners, and I worked on reprogramming my brain back to rear-wheel bias. I started out racing rear-wheel drive cars (my Rothmans Cup Porsche 944, then C360R’s Grand-Am BMW Z3’s, and my third-gen Mazda RX-7), so it didn’t take too long to remember how to float the car in to a corner and power it out. But it did take a little longer to get used to hustling such a big, heavy car through the twisty stuff without over-heating the tires!

At lunch time we took a number of local media luminaries out for a few laps. This is something we do at every Mustang Challenge event, and it’s been a great way to generate some extra interest in the series. We shoot some video of these “media rides” and package them up so that our guests can post them on their websites and link to them on YouTube.

In fact, this is one of the reasons that the folks at FRMC invited me to drive the #00 car. The Mustang Challenge is a client of the marketing communications firm (Compass360) of which I’m a partner. We’ve helped the series build their brand and worked with them on advertising, created the series’ website, and we do the event videos of each race. When the discussion came up as to who would drive the Media Car at Mosport, I suggested that the local media really would be more interested if the person in question was Canadian, and everyone agreed. Cleverly, I was the only Canadian in the room and thus was an easy choice!

With a great full-page story in the Toronto Sun (above) and our media videos posted on a number of websites and blogs, it was time to concentrate on racing. I qualified seventh, and was raring to go on the start. But I pulled out of line a little early and had to get out of the throttle to get back in line (you’re not allowed to initiate a pass before the starting line, or face a stop-and-go penalty). This loss of momentum allowed a couple of guys past and I dropped to tenth.

But as we’ve come to expect from the Mustang Challenge, there was a lot of excitement to be had in the 45-minute race. Tire management is very important, because the heavy Fords can heat them up and change the way they behave. The BFG’s proved to be remarkably sticky during the first part of the race, and I had some great door-to-door action with a number of the series’ regulars as we jockeyed for position. The two championship leaders (Andrew Caddell and Ted Anthony Jr.) had tussled in corner two on the first lap, running off course and both ending up at the back of the pack. They had to make their way carefully through, each tangling with a few guys on their return trip to the front. Caddell managed to do so without too much damage, but unfortunately Ted Anthony was caught out big time in corner eight after being spun and tagged by another car. Caddell finished second, while Anthony Jr. took a rather undeserved DNF.

For my part, I managed to claw my way back up to sixth and despite some very close racing, returned the car without a mark on it. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when Series Director Lynda Randall invited me to drive the #00 again at Mid-Ohio the very next weekend.

At Mid-O, the Mustang Challenge was on the card with Grand-Am’s Rolex and KONI series, and so it would prove to be a busy weekend for me, jumping between driving duties in the Mustang and helping manage our Civics in KONI. Fortunately, Leo Capaldi’s team, who run the #00 for FRMC, brought in some additional engineering help to work with us drivers to set up the cars.

As a spec-series, the goal is to have the cars as similar as possible so that driver talent is showcased. This means that although there are only a limited number of changes the team can make to car set-up, making sure the combination of small variations work well as a complete system is vitally important. Not only that, but the engineer has to anticipate how the car will change over the course of the race. For example, I was able to run quick laps at Mosport with the rear sway-bar attached, but we found that over the race distance the extra rear grip ground the tires down so that I had a very, very loose Mustang for the last ten or fifteen minutes.

So we spent Thursday and Friday’s sessions trying different changes to each of the four cars the Capaldi team ran at Mid-Ohio. One of the sessions we ran was in the rain, and I managed the second-fastest time despite only turning two laps, which resulted in me doing some rather ungainly rain dances in the paddock (bring on the rain!). That said, we made some good improvements and I qualified seventh (and first of the Capaldi cars) in the dry, with the hope that we had a good handle on the set-up we’d need for Saturday’s race (which also ended up being dry).

Over the first few laps of the race I made up for my poor Mosport start and was up to fifth, trailing the two leaders (Caddell and Anthony Jr., as you might guess), with Tony Buffomante (who won at Mosport) and Mike McGovern (a driver coach at the Bondurant school) immediately ahead. The fun of a spec series is that there really isn’t much to choose between the cars and so you can run nose-to-tail for many laps, trying to pressure the guy ahead into a mistake.

Unfortunately for me, the hope for a top-five finish faded with my brakes in rather dramatic fashion just fifteen minutes into the race. Diving into turn one, the centre pedal went to the floor, and after a rather lurid moment gathering the car up, I settled into a rhythm for each and every corner: frantically pump the pedal to get some pressure back, brake early and feel the pads grip, and then feel the pedal give out again and hit the floor. I figured I’d cooked the fluid, but upon inspection the team did find a fault in the braking system which had led to the problem. Regardless, the team ended up being pretty pleased with my 10th place finish, which was again top dog in the Capaldi stable.

Over this year I’ve been really impressed with the high-calibre of driving talent of the guys in the Mustang Challenge. So it was with great anticipation that Compass360 Racing fielded a car at Mid-Ohio driven by two FRMC pilots. Ted Anthony Jr., mentioned above, currently sits second in the Mustang Challenge driver’s championship. And current FRMC Marketing Director Jamie Slone took second spot at the end of the series’ inaugural season last year. They drove our #76 Honda Civic Si in the Sunday race at Mid-Ohio.

Both guys have limited experience in a front-wheel drive car, and it was gratifying to see both of them close to the top of the charts during practice. They both showed great focus and worked with Crew Chief Ray Lee to get the car working, and to improve their own level of performance. They thrilled us with a fourth-place qualifying (Ted started and qualified the car and Jamie finished), just a fraction behind current KONI Championship leader Christian Miller in our #74 car (who qualified third).

As we have come to expect from KONI races this year, Mid-Ohio was a nail-biter. APR’s VW GTIs were clearly in a class of their own, and we were left battling the Phoenix Subaru, Freedom’s MX-5’s and Turner’s BMW for third. Ted Anthony Jr. had a great stint, getting past Christian and taking up third before handing off to Slone, who worked his way back up after a pit stop that was a little long (the driver change, which I did, took a little more time than usual). At the checkered flag, Jamie snagged sixth place, which cements a very impressive result from the two Mustang boys in their first KONI outing.

I’ve said all year that there is an amazing group of drivers battling it out in the Mustang Challenge. For two of their top guys to have such a strong result in an ultra-competitive professional series like Grand-Am’s KONI Challenge is proof positive of this.

Check out the series’ website at for all the details, including an ever-expanding selection of event videos, driver profiles and more. And expect to see more Mustang Challenge drivers on the top of the podium in KONI and other series in the very near future. They really are that good!