Pony Wars: From the Driver’s Seat During Road Course Testing

I jumped in the Mustang first. I fired it up and heard the beautiful crackle of those long tube BBK headers. I revved the car and heard the whine of the ProCharger supercharger and as the revs fell, I listened to the blow off bypass valve release, “Whoosh!” Over 800 horsepower on tap: absolutely epic. I began heading down the exit lane of the hot pits toward the track entrance, and I jumped on the throttle just to get a quick feel for the car. The Mustang came unglued. I was thrown back into my seat by an unseen powerful force. The car started shimmying left and right, and I saw the pit wall quickly approaching. I thought: “Damn, I’m gonna crash this thing before I can get it on the race track.”

We are jumping a bit ahead here. That part of the story comes much later in the Pony Wars saga. The Horsepower Wars show put a Camaro and a Mustang head to head in a dyno, drag race, and road course challenge with $5,000 in modifications to each car – and again after an additional $15,000 in modifications. A points system during the entire competition would determine an overall winner. As the build-up for the show approached, Camaro and Mustang fan boys watched anxiously with their fingers crossed hoping their passion (Chevy or Ford) would be crowned king of the Pony Wars. I just hoped I wasn’t the one who wrecked either of these cars.

Rob Krider behind the wheel of one of the cars from Horsepower Wars: Pony Wars, a 2017 Mustang GT.

I was connected to the show through the road course testing. They called me and asked, “We will pay for it all, but would you be willing to drive a brand new Camaro SS and a brand new Mustang GT around a race track?” I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. My job was simple: drive the cars fast and don’t crash them. As the cars were modified through the contest, it turned out not crashing them was more challenging than I imagined, but we will get back to that part of the adventure later. First, let’s check out the cars before they were messed with.

The 2017 Chevrolet Camaro SS and the 2017 Ford Mustang GT arrived at the road course for their baseline testing in bone stock form, including stock brake pads and stock brake fluid. The only upgrade to the cars were some sticky Toyo Tires Proxes R888R performance tires to even the playing field between the two cars.

The Cars

I arrived at Buttonwillow Raceway Park during a hot, spring day to find two pony cars in stock form ready to play. Here are some of the specs of the cars as they came from the factory:

2017 Chevrolet Camaro SS: 455 horsepower, peddling along 3,685 pounds of curb weight, giving it a horsepower to weight ratio of 8.1 lbs per 1 hp. The 2017 Camaro SS is the sixth generation Camaro and came with a 6.2 liter LT1 V-8 engine with 455 foot-pounds of torque. The gray one used for Horsepower Wars was optioned with an 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters.

2017 Ford Mustang GT: 435 horsepower, peddling along 3,705 pounds of curb weight, giving it a horsepower to weight ratio of 8.5 lbs per 1 hp. The 2017 Mustang GT is the sixth generation Mustang and came with a 5.0 Coyote engine with 400 foot-pounds of torque. The red one used for Horsepower Wars was optioned with a 6-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters.

Two pony cars, Camaro and Mustang, each a piece of American tradition just like apple pie and baseball.

To shake the two pony cars down around a twisty race track and find out which one would be the king of the road course, Horsepower Wars enlisted the skills of two established racers: Drake Kemper and Rob Krider. Drake is a professional road racer in the Mazda Global MX-5 Cup series and Rob is a National Champion in the NASA Honda Challenge series.

The Drivers

Drake Kemper and I were both brought on to be test drivers for Horsepower Wars. Drake and I each took turns driving both the Camaro and the Mustang. We drove these cars H-A-R-D. Extremely hard in fact. We ran the cars to the edge of adhesion, and a bit beyond, drifting the cars to the exit of each corner. The cars in stock form were damn good. Track day abuse is not an easy thing for a street car to handle. Each car from the factory handled the harsh treatment quite well.

Time to hit the track. Going fast at the racetrack will bring a smile to any driver. Both the Camaro and the Mustang were fast right from the factory. Each car delivers incredible performance for the price.

Pony Wars Baseline Road Course Testing

These are two cool cars, no question. My only complaint about the two cars in stock form was the choice to use an automatic versus a manual platform. I know there is data out there that “new” autos are faster, and I know current supercars use automatics and have amazing performance. If it was my job to test the cars at the drag strip I would prefer the automatic there. The issue for me was the ability to control the car and have the car do what I wanted it to do, when I wanted it to do it, while on the road course. In a manual car I choose the gear and I go. In the automatic, the transmission shifted at inopportune times. The car’s computer is doing thousands of calculations to provide the best performance, however the car’s computer isn’t looking out of the windshield at the next tight corner approaching. A human driver does that, and a human driver wants to downshift, NOW!

After each session on track the cars would come in, and lap times would be compared while engines and brakes could cool down. Drake and Rob would exchange notes with each other and then swap cars and hit the track again. “Hey, could you remind me how to turn off the stability and traction control?” Answer: “Press brake, hold down traction control button for five seconds, honk the horn three times, turn the headlamps off and on once, open the trunk, run around the car six times. Do all of that and it should be off.”

Drake didn’t mind the automatic as much. He suggested I use the paddle shifters and take the “automatic” part out of the automatic transmission. I tried this method but found something interesting (and frustrating) about the computer programming in the cars. If you left the car in Drive and let the car make the shifts, it would rev to the 6,000 rpm redline and make the perfect and quick up-shift. If you put the car into “manual mode” and were about to shift the car with the paddle as it approached the 6,000 redline, the car would go into a rev limiter mode around 5,500 rpms. The cars didn’t trust the driver to make the shift at the perfect point.

If I let the cars shift for themselves I could get great performance down the straights (good 6,000 rpm up-shift) and terrible performance exiting the curves (car in completely wrong gear). If I put the cars into manual mode, I had to short shift the cars everywhere for not as good performance in the straights but much better performance exiting the curves. It was a balance of win-lose driving the highly computerized cars. I found I was faster in manual mode, selecting the gears with the paddle shifters even if I wasn’t able to use the entirety of the powerband. Long story short, I was thumbs down on the auto. I nicknamed the transmission “Guess-A-Gear” because it never seemed to be in the happy spot where I wanted it for a fast lap.

Rob Krider initially didn’t like the automatic transmissions both cars came with for road course duty. After a little practice he got used to them and then drove each car with reckless abandon.

Drake and I continued to beat on the cars pretty hard trying to find the fastest way around Buttonwillow. The track configuration for the day was Buttonwillow #1 Counter-Clockwise with the added A-Section, making the track longer near the Off-Ramp corner. Buttonwillow is a great place to test cars because it has lots of runoff, so if a driver makes a mistake there is nothing hard to run into. To collect lap times, Horsepower Wars had each car setup with a Racepak Vantage CL1 data acquisition system. The cars each had plenty of power for the track and the Toyo Proxes R888Rs were holding up well under the abuse of the heavy street cars.

To accurately collect vehicle data and lap times during the road course test sessions, Horsepower Wars used a Racepak Vantage CL1 data acquisition system. The Racepak Vantage CL1 is easy to use as it combines cell phone technology via Bluetooth, GPS, and vehicle data through the OBDII port to give you all the information you need and stores it in the cloud.

Drake and I ran the cars until the brake pedals went to the floor and the stock brakes caught fire entering Sunset Corner (don’t worry, the fire went out after we exited the corner). OEM brake fluid is something that isn’t designed for track day duty. Once the brakes got too hot from slowing down these extremely fast and extremely heavy cars, the brake fluid boiled, causing the pedal to go way too squishy.

The good news was both cars were fast. There were some Porsche Boxster racing cars on the track testing for an upcoming Porsche Club of America race weekend. The stock Camaro and Mustang were actually able to reel in and pass some of the track-prepped Porsches, which is crazy.

Pony Wars Baseline Numbers

When the checkered flag fell on the day, the winner was the Camaro SS with a 2:09.1 lap time. The Mustang GT came across the finish line over a second slower with a 2:10.4 lap time. Looking at the Racepak data, it showed that each of the cars went over 120 miles per hour on Buttonwillow’s front straight. Not too shabby for cars that, other than the Toyo Proxes R888R tires, came right out of a dealership parking lot. We attributed the Camaro win to the torque it brought to the fight. Prior to bringing the cars to the road course the dyno challenge revealed the Camaro had 429 foot-pounds of torque to the rear wheels while the Mustang only had 283 foot-pounds of torque. Road racers will take torque over horsepower every time as it is torque that squirts you out of a corner.

Stock Results

1) Camaro 2:09.1

2) Mustang 2:10.4

Our work was done at Buttonwillow. Horsepower Wars: Pony Wars had enough footage in the can to complete Episode 1. Drake and I wouldn’t see the cars again until they had $5,000 worth of modifications put into them. We couldn’t wait.

Rob Krider adjusts the tire pressure on the Camaro SS. There was plenty of time to be gained with both cars by ensuring the Toyo Proxes R888Rs had just the right amount of pressure inside for optimum tire patch to race surface interface.

Pony Wars 5K Road Course Testing

When we saw the cars again at Buttonwillow they each had $5,000 worth of modifications to them through Summit Racing. Each car would stay on the Toyo Proxes R888Rs and picked up some Epic brake pads and some ProSpeed RS683 brake fluid to help with the track day brake heat.

5K Mods

Camaro 5K Mods
The Camaro team spent their cash on making the already healthy engine breathe and spin better. An MSD Atomic AirForce intake manifold was added in concert with Texas Speed long-tube headers. The team added E3 coils and plugs for better spark, Royal Purple fluids throughout and a Diablosport tune. The net gain for all of their wrench time in the shop and five grand… 10 horsepower. Ouch!

Mustang 5K Mods
The Mustang was a bit more strategic with their cash. Instead of all power gains, they threw some bucks at the suspension too. The Mustang scored some adjustable struts from Steeda to help with body roll. They pulled from the GT350 parts bin at Ford Racing and installed a GT350 intake, throttle body, and cold air intake. They also installed a set of BBK headers and a Diablosport tune picking up a legitimate 46 horsepower gain.

After $5,000 in modifications each from Summit Racing, the Mustang and Camaro were ready to be fitted with cameras and data acquisition from Racepak to see which car was the fastest at the road course.

Drake and I came back to Buttonwillow Raceway for driving duty. For this session, Buttonwillow was running a different course configuration and direction of travel, so comparing lap times from our previous outing wouldn’t be available. However, all that really mattered was which of the two cars was faster in their current layout. We strapped on our helmets and got to work.

Rob Krider suited up and prepared to put the newly modified Mustang GT through the paces at Buttonwillow for Round 2 at the road course. Would $5,000 worth of mods make a difference? Mustang lovers hoped so.

The Mustang certainly had less body roll from the last time Drake and I both drove it. The combination of some power mods along with some suspension mods seemed to be making the Mustang very happy around the track. The brakes were certainly better than before, which gave both of us drivers more confidence to run the Mustang at the limit. The 46 horsepower gain was also noticeable as the Mustang was flying around the road course.

The Mustang responded well to $5,000 from Summit Racing, picking up speed between corners and maintaining speed in the corners.

For the Camaro, right out of the gate it felt faster than it had been the last time I drove it. Even though it only picked up 10 horsepower, the dyno results showed they were able to considerably expand the peak torque for much longer in the power band. This was very noticeable on track. The Camaro had guts everywhere it needed it.

Pony Wars 5K in Mods Numbers

The battle during Round 2 was very tight. The natural lap timer in my butt was saying the Camaro was going to take it again. Then I would drive the Mustang and I wasn’t sure. Then back to the Camaro and it picked up a few tenths. As we each pushed the cars harder, we were able to drop time, but the winner wasn’t that obvious. Then Drake went out in the Mustang and laid down a flyer lap right at the end of the day. How close was it? Just 26 hundredths of a second! Racepak data showed the Mustang came in with a 2:00.59, while the Camaro fell to the second spot with a 2:00.85 lap time.

5K in Mods Results

1) Mustang 2:00.6
2) Camaro 2:00.9

Two track days, the same cars, 5K in mods and two different winners. It would come down to the final test day to determine the ultimate winner. Drake and I said goodbye to the two pony cars, and  we wouldn’t see them again until they each had an additional $15,000 worth of modifications from Summit Racing. Episode 4 was completed and the world found out the Mustang took down the Camaro during Round 2 at Buttonwillow.

After $5,000 in mods to both cars, it was Drake Kemper who brought home the win for the Mustang in Episode 4 when he pulled in an end-of-the-day flyer lap, besting the Camaro’s time by 26 hundredths.

Pony Wars 15K Road Course Testing

For the third session at the road course, the responsibility fell on my shoulders alone to put both cars through their paces. Drake was off racing in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. I had both cars all to myself and they were looking very appealing. Each of them had been upgraded with ProCharger superchargers as well as a host of other modifications. But it was the intercooled ProCharger D-1X that was prevalent under the hood of each car.

With the ProCharger supercharger, strapped onto the Camaro’s already potent LT1 direct injection engine horsepower was doubled! An amazing feat, which is great for dyno competition and drag racing. The question was how would it do around a road course?

Before coming to Buttonwillow Raceway for the final test, both cars had already been on the dyno with insane results – 829 horsepower for the Camaro and 809 for the Mustang. Each car had hit the drag strip and cranked out 10 second quarter-mile times. 10 seconds! These are street cars with air conditioning, floor mats, cup holders and USB chargers. The power and speeds these two cars had amassed was unreal. To provide some perspective on the horsepower numbers, I recently drove an Audi R8 V10 Plus with a mere 610 horsepower engine (the exact same power plant as a Lamborghini Huracán) and went 155 miles per hour down the back straight of the Circuit of the Americas. The Audi and the Lamborghini are mid-engine, all-wheel drive supercars. The Mustang and Camaro had 200 more horsepower than those cars (and were front engine, two-wheel drive layouts). I couldn’t wait to get them on the track.

An Audi R8 V10 Plus was designed to handle 610 horsepower. It has the engine in the middle and powers all four wheels. The (now) 800 horsepower Camaro and Mustang were not originally designed for this amount of power.

I jumped in the Mustang first. I fired it up and heard the beautiful crackle of those long-tube BBK headers. I revved the car and heard the whine of the ProCharger supercharger,and as the revs fell, I listened to the bypass valve release, “Whoosh!” Over 800 horsepower on tap: absolutely epic. I began heading down the exit lane of the hot pits toward the track entrance, and I jumped on the throttle just to get a quick feel for the car. The Mustang came unglued. I was thrown back into my seat by an unseen powerful force. The car started shimmying left and right, and I saw the pit wall quickly approaching. I thought, damn, I’m gonna crash this thing before I can get it on the race track.

The car was trying to kill me… awesome! After two corners on track getting a little heat in the Toyo tires, I jumped back onto the happy pedal, and the car violently began to slide left and right again. With only a 3-point seatbelt in a stock seat, I was doing everything I could do just to hold myself inside the car, let alone control the beast. I made it around a few more corners, being more conservative with the throttle, but as soon as I got back into the gas the car launched like a rocket. Ludicrous speed is the only way to describe it.

Rob Krider was happy to be a test pilot and attempt to reign in the rocket ship power of the modified pony cars.

I was flying, the car had so much power. Then, halfway around the track on the first lap, the car wouldn’t rev. I looked down at the gauges and I was staring at a Christmas tree. Every warning light Ford put in that dashboard was on. The temp gauge was buried in the red. The car was in limp mode. It would only go about 7 miles per hour around the track. I still had over a mile to go to get back to the paddock. Other cars in the session were screaming by me. I was just trying not to get hit. The corner workers were violently waving me to go faster. I was going as fast as the Mustang would let me in limp mode: a mind-numbing 7 mph.

I brought the Mustang in; it wasn’t doing well. The crew popped the hood and started looking over the steaming engine. The car was done for the day. I told them, “Well, my work is done here with the Mustang. I’ll just jump into the Camaro now!”

While they looked over the ill Mustang, I strapped into the 829 horsepower Camaro SS and hit the track. I had learned my lesson –ease into the throttle. These cars are insane. I drove the Camaro with more care. By the time I was a quarter of the way through my first lap, I started to gain some more confidence. This thing was fast, fast, fast. I came into the Bus Stop corner and suddenly the car stepped out on me at over 100 miles an hour. Big counter-steer, both feet in, squeeze your but cheeks together, and pray a little. I saved it. Then smoke filled the interior. Uh oh. This car was done too. It went into limp mode as well, but the Camaro at least let me go about 20 miles an hour to get back to the paddock. I had just blown up two cars in a row in less than one lap each. We had zero times for either car.

Thermodynamics was the theme of the day at Buttonwillow. Both cars were making so much horsepower, but that meant they were also making enormous amounts of heat, which the cars weren’t able to handle for road course sessions on track. Both cars couldn’t even complete one lap around Buttonwillow’s 3.1-mile road course without going into limp mode.

The Camaro shot a lower radiator hose off, putting coolant under my rear tires at over 100 miles per hour. That will wake you up in the morning more than a cup of coffee. Luckily, we somehow kept the car on track and no sheet metal was damaged. The car also ate a water pump and melted the cats. The Camaro would need to be towed home. With two cars not running, I packed up my racing helmet and left. It was the first time I had ever gone to a track day, blown up two cars in less than a lap each, and then just walked away. The life of a test driver I guess. Horsepower Wars: Pony Wars Episode 7  was released but all it could show for the road course competition was the Mustang and the Camaro put-putting around the track in limp mode. Not too exciting.

15K in Mods Initial Results

(A Tie For Failure)
0) Mustang 0:00.0
0) Camaro 0:00.0

After a disastrous testing session at Buttonwillow with the newly supercharged pony cars, the Horsepower Wars crew headed to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway for the finale. With the points tied in the Pony Wars battle, it would all come down to the quickest lap around the fast flowing desert race course.

Back at the shop, it was determined neither car suffered any serious damage as the result of overheating. The teams updated the cooling systems on both cars and then headed to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway for a mulligan on the $15,000 road course challenge. Each car got a fresh set of Toyo Tires Proxes R888Rs. Even though I was the one who blew up the two cars before, Horsepower Wars decided to invite me back to run the cars in the finale. All I could say was, “Yes!” Buttonwillow Raceway wasn’t an option for the final test because of scheduling issues with the track’s calendar.

Chuckwalla Valley Raceway is located in the southern California desert outside of Palm Springs. It is a fun and fast 2.68-mile road course combining good straights, big sweepers and banked corners, with plenty of room for the supercharged pony cars to stretch their legs.

15k Mods

Camaro 15K Mods
Aside from the ProCharger D-1X and intercooler, the Camaro got a complete engine rebuild with ported heads from Texas Speed, Mahle forged pistons, Scat forged rods, and a Comp cam. It received BMR rear suspension upgrades, G-Force axles, an LT4 fuel system and a new Diablosport custom tune. Additionally, it also received an auxiliary radiator from Mishimoto to help with the cooling.

Mustang 15K Mods
Along with its own ProCharger D-1X and intercooler, the Mustang got a full Steeda suspension, which included sway bars to help it through the twisties. It received Baer two-piece brake rotors, QA1 carbon fiber driveshaft, G-Force axles, upgraded fuel injectors and fuel pump, as well as a new Diablosport custom tune. For cooling, it received a new thermostat and Mishimoto radiator.

It was time to put the two cars back on track and try to keep them cool enough to finish a lap and pick up a time, so we could figure out which car would win the competition. After all of the dyno challenges, trips to the drag strip, adventures at the road course, and $5,000 and $15,000 in mods, the competition score was tied. The decision on the winning car was in my hands alone. Whichever one I was able to rip around Chuckwalla the fastest would be crowned the King. I told the different camps, Camaro and Mustang, to put some cash in my pocket which could help me drive one car a bit faster than the other. No takers.

A softer touch to the big horsepower Camaro was the best way to smoothly run it around the track. We were running Chuckwalla in the clockwise direction.

I spent the entire day in both cars running them around Chuckwalla. The track is a really fun, smooth, flowing course with lots of runoff, similar to Buttonwillow. We were running interspersed with another track day. There were Porsche GT3s and Audi R8s on the track. The funny part about both the Mustang and the Camaro was they both looked stock. Nobody in a Porsche GT3 expected a Camaro to keep up with them. But the Camaro could keep up with a GT3. The shop weighed the Camaro at 3,667 pounds and the dyno revealed 829 horsepower, equaling 4.4 lbs per 1 hp (though both cars were detuned for the road course). A GT3 RS is at 6.1 lbs per 1 hp. I was on the tail of one GT3 and the driver was spending so much time staring in his rearview mirror at this “stock” Camaro running him down, he drove directly off the end of the track at an entrance to a curve. All I saw was tire smoke, dust and a GT3 wing disappearing into the desert. It was hilarious. Porsche drivers would rather crash on their own than be passed by a Camaro. Unbeknownst to them, this was no ordinary Camaro. This thing is a Camaro on steroids struck by lightning.

After $15,000 in mods, the Mustang developed a wicked oversteer situation at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Because the Mustang had adjustable shocks from Steeda, the team was able to tame the wild horse by softening the rear shocks and lowering the rear tire pressure.

The Mustang was fast too. So fast in fact, it was faster than the tires at times. The car was fun to drift out of corners, but once the rear tires got a bit too warm and greasy, the car picked up a butt-puckering oversteer condition. I brought it in and we adjusted the Steeda shocks and played with the tire pressure in the Toyo tires to try and calm the bucking horse down. The changes were very helpful and I was able to get back on the track and really run the car hard around Chuckwalla.

As we finished our day at Chuckwalla, the question that remained was, Which car will win? They were both extremely fast around the track. Only the Racepak data could determine the winner. As they say, “The clocks don’t lie.”

Pony Wars 15K in Mods Numbers

Pushing the car through the last kink leading to the front straight, I was punishing the Toyo tires on the Camaro trying to squeeze every tenth of a second out of the car and the track. When the nose of the Camaro hit the start/finish line it earned the fastest time of the day, a 2:07.91 lap.

15K in Mods Final Results

(Bow Tie Reigns Supreme)
1) Camaro 2:07.9
2) Mustang 2:08.8

After it was all said and done it was a mere 9 tenths of a second per lap that decided the Horsepower Wars: Pony Wars competition. The Chevrolet Camaro SS pulled off the win. Take a bow Camaro fans. Both Team Camaro and Team Mustang built incredibly capable cars, cars capable of chasing down Porsches that cost 4.5 times what a pony car costs. In my opinion the results came down to torque. The Camaro had more of it and the 8-speed transmission had gears that kept the car in the torque curve when it mattered most.

After the final track session it was the Camaro that came out on top of Pony Wars. From the road course perspective, that victory could be attributed to the Camaro’s magnetic ride suspension, lighter weight, massive torque curve, and 8-speed transmission. It wanted to go fast, always.

The good news was as close as I came to balling up these supercharged cars… I didn’t actually do it. Thank you Horsepower Wars for letting me be part of such a fun competition. It was a tire smoking, butt-puckering, kick ass adventure I won’t soon forget.

Congratulations Camaro! Wear your mullet haircut proudly.

Backed by some of the biggest names in the automotive aftermarket — including ARPBMR Suspension, COMP, CovercraftDiabloSportDyna-BattE3 Spark PlugsHolley Performance PartsMahleMickey ThompsonProChargerQA1, Royal PurpleSummit RacingTCIWeld Racing, and others — this concludes Season 1 of Pony Wars. Stay tuned for the Season 2 of Pony Wars, where this becomes a 3-horse race!

About the author

Rob Krider

Rob Krider’s mantra is “Race Anything, Win Everything” and is a multi-champion driver who currently competes in the NASA Honda Challenge series.
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