Spinning My Wheels
Ford’s public-relations department reduces a Mustang test drive to a pony ride.
The invitation arrived the week before September 1: The Shelby GT500 will be in Birmingham next week . . . as part of a 16-city tour. We’d love to get you behind the wheel of the vehicle while we’re in town. Right now, we’re in the process of securing some track time for members of the media to drive the vehicle at Barber Motorsports Park. If you can’t make it out there, we’d be happy to bring the car to you.
I couldn’t wait. The chance to drive a 2007 GT500, promoted as “the boldest, most powerful factory-built Ford Mustang ever,” was a dream come true. As I would soon learn, my first mistake was trusting Ford’s public relations spiel.
Arriving 20 minutes before my scheduled 10 a.m. drive, my Ford contact called to say that his crew would be late returning to the track from an appearance at a local television station. It would be 10:45 before I would get to hop in the car. To kill time, I wandered among some 1,000 vintage and modern Mustangs that were on hand for the 30th Anniversary Mustang Stampede, an event sponsored by a Mustang enthusiast club. Proud owners wiped fingerprint smudges off their cars while boasting of the engines under their respective hoods. Some spoke of automotive design legend Carroll Shelby, who began designing cars for Ford with the Cobra in 1962 and Mustangs in 1965. Shelby, a Texas chicken farmer who won the 1959 Le Mans (in overalls and cowboy boots, no less), recently reunited with Ford to update the GT500 and other Shelby Mustangs of the 1960s.
As my time neared, my Ford contact approached me apologetically with bad news: my drive in the GT500 would now be delayed until 11:40. Apparently the track time Ford had promised was being shared with Mustang club members taking their cars out for a spin. Skepticism prompted me to ask, “I will get to drive, right?” My contact muttered back, “I think so.” So at 11:35, when a Ford test driver handed me a helmet as he directed me to the passenger seat, I knew I’d been had. My test drive was now a test ride. But since I would be in a GT500 on an honest-to-God racetrack, at race speeds (the Shelby GT500 has a top speed of 150 mph), I anticipated a thrill.
I was wrong. The “test driver” was actually a Ford spokesman who had been feverishly promoting the Mustang GT all morning as though he were a sweaty, desperate car salesman. He continued the sales pitch as we buckled up. After being forced to return to the driver-certification tent twice because the now-irritated Ford rep had not secured the proper wristbands (color-coded for driver or rider), we finally zoomed onto the track. The rep apologized profusely through his helmet for the endless delays, though I could barely hear him. Telling me I would feel the G-force pushing on my sternum, he whipped us through a couple of turns before spotting a caution flag for a spunout 1966 Mustang. Slowing down, the test driver apologized for not being able to get up to speed as I wondered where the G-forces were hiding. We ran one more lap, but the track remained under caution; I felt silly wearing a racing helmet while traveling 60 mph, and was so bored I had my arm resting outside the car window. The Ford rep reached over and angrily snatched it back inside.
“Roaring” back into the pit area, the GT500 came to an abrupt halt and the Ford rep revved the engine as if to prove a point. He apologized again for the lame ride. I said that was OK and walked toward the parking lot, feeling like a sucker. My grandfather would have laughed. He always hated Fords. He used to laugh that children getting pony rides at the state fair got a bigger thrill than those poor souls who drove Fords. My family has owned nothing but GM and Chrysler vehicles for as long as I can remember. I never would have guessed that my biggest thrill that morning would be hitting 110 mph in my seven-year-old Dodge Stratus while driving back to Birmingham—without wearing a helmet. &