Project Budget 400WHP S197 Mustang Track Car: Part 1 – Intro

More people need to consider the (2005-2014) “S197” Mustang for track use!  Parts are cheap and it really does not take much to turn one into an awesome “Driver’s-car”.  There are a lot of misconceptions that Mustangs don’t handle well, are too heavy, and only belong on the drag strip.  This project car is focused on dispelling these myths and show how to make arguably the best and least expensive 400whp track car.

The world has enough low-powered ‘momentum-cars’.

Racetracks across the country are filled with Miatas, S2000s and older BMWs for a reason.  They are inexpensive, cheap to run, reliable, handle well, and are fun to drive.  I’ve owned many over the years for these very reasons. Growing up in the 90’s, there really weren’t any affordable V8 cars that fit this bill.  But there are now.  The 2005-2014 “S197” Mustang is a perfect example; it will check off all of these boxes while delivering a lot more power and torque – and torque is fun.

S197 Mustangs have dropped to a price that makes them prime contenders as track cars.  The car has a strong chassis that does not need welded-in reinforcements like many BMWs.  It also has a simple suspension and drivetrain layout with significantly less bushings to upgrade or maintain, unlike BMWs that have bushings in the driveshaft, differential, subframe, and a ton of suspension arms that all need to be replaced and are quite labor-intensive to do so.

On the Mustang, replacement and upgraded parts are insanely cheap and easy to install, which is important for low running costs.  Having spent most my early driving years around import cars from Japan and Germany, it was eye-opening how low the prices were for parts when I first started getting into modifying American cars.  This project will demonstrate how cheap and easy it is to make power out of a Mustang and get them to handle well.

Typically, power isn’t important or even a good thing for track days.  The common advice to those new to tracking cars is: “buy a Miata”.  Like this hilarious shirt from BlipShift suggests.  While there is merit to this, I’m going to go against the convention of recommending an under-powered “momentum” car and recommend a Mustang because they are a blast to drive.  Plus, learning how to modulate the throttle while coming out of a low-speed a corner in a car with torque is an important skill to learn and a lot more fun.

The Mustang really is a great platform to learn driving on.  The Skip Barber Racing School currently uses S197s in most of their racing schools.

I’m sure there are people who are rolling their eyes at the idea of taking a solid-axle pony car to anything other than a drag strip.  But believe me, having raced this generation of Mustang professionally for 7 years, it does not take much to transform them into extremely competent track machines.

Because the S197 Mustang’s suspension layout is so simple and extremely effective, fine tuning and optimizing the suspension at the track is far easier than on most cars.  Changing the cross weight and rake becomes a useful and powerful tool for the average track guy, and is easy to adjust since it really doesn’t affect the alignment like it does on most cars with independent rear suspension.

The solid rear axle does not have adjustable camber or toe, so only the front of the car needs to be aligned.  This can be done with simple toe plates, a tape measure, and a cellphone to act as a camber gauge in a pinch.  This gives the Mustang a significant competitive advantage over other platforms that require a full alignment at a shop or an experienced race team with a lot of equipment to make setup changes at the track.

20 comments

    1. The S197 panhard bar’s lateral displacement under suspension movement is less than that caused by the tire carcass deformation under cornering load, especially if you’re using rod ends on the bar. A Watts link really isn’t necessary unless you want to adjust roll center, which can also be done with a weld-in adjustable panhard bar. The panhard bar is also lighter and simpler.

      1. Idk, when I had my S197 the rear would always get thrown sideways a little going over bumps and stuff, even just driving straight. Not enough to upset the chassis or anything, but enough that I would feel it. That’s the one downside of the car. My understanding is that this doesn’t happen with a watts link since the axle moves straight up and down?

        Of all the cars I’ve owed, the S197 with the 5.0 was hands down the most fun, I miss that car…

        1. The S197 panhard bar is long enough that the arc I scribes under normal suspension movement only displaces laterally by about half an inch in either direction, which isn’t really enough to notice.

          Rather, that squirrelly butt wiggle known to S197 drivers that occurs over bumps and pavement swells is mainly caused by the OEM bushing between the UCA and the axle, which is about as solid as a damp marshmallow. Replacing that bushing with some good polyurethane or–preferrably–a good spherical bearing eliminates all most all of that wiggling. That part is often overlooked on builds, though.

          1. Correct that the lateral displacement of the axle is insignificant and not noticeable, especially in a roll condition. The ‘wiggle’ is due to shot bushings and a lack of suspension damping. I agree that the 3rd link UCA should be upgraded, but I don’t agree with your recommendation. Stay tuned for the future articles to find out more.

          2. Well my bushings weren’t shot, I bought the car new and did all the suspension mods (ST coilovers, BMR LCA and relocation brackets, BMR panhard bar) before it had 5k on the clock. ST isn’t the best of the best but they’re decent, I’d hope it wasn’t the coilovers causing that.

            looking forward to what you do with this!

          3. I had all the arms and bushings changed to uniball, also upgraded to wattlink but the lift off wigle still there. Didnt realy care cos wasnt upseting the car to much but I felt it.

  1. Hey Billy, great teaser article. Can’t wait for the rest of this series. Glad to see your name at the top of the page again. The wreck at Road America looked pretty gnarly, hope you’re ok.

  2. With as smooth as most modern race tracks are, I feel like a lot of the live axle downsides aren’t as significant as they are on the street. They sure as hell work for Trans Am!

    How fancy are you anticipating going? I mean there’s fun stuff like the cambered floating axle ends with ball drive…

    1. This is meant to be a “Budget” build, covering the bare minimum it would take to make an S197 Mustang into a competent track car where someone can beat on, have fun, and work on their driving without being limited by fundamental handling problems.

      We will cover what must and should be upgraded, as well as what to do when the budget allows and/or when parts wear out. There are far too much advise out there (by people who sell parts) that they “NEED” this (unnecessary & expensive) part in order to track their car. S197’s don’t need much and that’s the focus of this project.

      We will do a lot more than just the bare minimum, but this isn’t going to be a crazy build with cambered axles.

      1. Reasonable; yeah for an 8/10ths budget build I don’t imagine it would need all that much. Will be interested in seeing where you go with it in detail. I’m just down a weird rathole of design for an SCCA GT-3 car so I have trick live axle stuff on the brain lately. 😉

  3. I’m so excited and looking forward to these articles, such a great topic, and it’s a shame it’s going to be drawn out over time!

  4. Looking forward to this build, too. I believe that nearly any vehicle can be made to be fun to drive on course. That said, although nearly any short coming can be addressed with enough time, skill and/or money, there are things in a build like this that are just “it is what it is.” For example, I doubt in a budget build that you are going to replace the factory pedals with aftermarket upgrades. So, that begs the question: what is your take on the things on the S197 that cannot be corrected (in a budget build), like pedal placement, seat height, steering wheel positioning, etc.? Basically, I would like to know how far Ford went with making these vehicles driver’s cars and what corrections, if any, you would/will make in a budget build. Thanks.

    1. You can always adjust the seat height with an aftermarket racing seat, and steering position with aftermarket wheels and spacers.

  5. This is awesome, just what I’ve been looking for! I’m on my 4th S197, love this car for all the reasons you state plus tall guys fit in it! My 07 has a 2.3 whipple, big brakes, adjustable springs and dampers, adjustable strut mounts, all heim joint rear suspension, lowered LCA mounts, upper and lower front braces, etc. However the rear suspension is way too stiff, even jarring sometimes. So your comments about too- big sway bars hits home, I’m looking forward to reading how to rein the rear suspension in.

    Driving my wife’s 911 (01 C4 cab) is a great contrast to the Mustang. It’s bone stock, not a lot of power but rides like butter and frankly I don’t know where the limit is on that car – not mine, don’t want to ditch it but I do put it through the paces and it holds the road like its on rails. Just such a different car, hard to compare them. But I guarantee my Mustang will slam that Porsche in almost any contest, especially bang for $.

    Will you be talking about spring rates? Ride height? I’m wondering if that’s part of my issue – too low, maybe too much spring?

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