So I’m going to start this article with a horse pun, but I promise the standards will improve after that.
The GT500 has always been the undisputed king of the Mustang lineup. It only comes out on special occasions and when it does it’s the baddest, most powerful, and most desirable Mustang in the showroom. Ford always massively improved upon the GT500’s performance with each iteration, but it was always a one-trick pony.
There. It’s done. We’re good now.
For the longest time, GT500 was synonymous with going very fast in a straight line… and that’s it. But with how the industry has evolved over the years, Ford knew their old school approach to the GT500 had to change for it to be able to make waves in 2020. And change it has. In a very, very big way. Today’s GT500 is unrecognizable from snakes of the past. Jeff first got to experience it on the beautiful roads of sunny California and proved it was something special.
But recently I was invited to experience it in its natural habitat. No, not in a Ford dealership showroom with a $50,000 markup, its other natural habitat – the race track. It was here that I learned it’s not just special – it’s absolutely mindblowing in every single way.
Disclaimer: Ford invited me to come and experience the GT500 Track Tour before they opened it to customers. The experience was free but my transportation, hotel, and Jack in the Box was on my own dime.
It’s not just a supercharged Mustang anymore
All recent GT500s have had horsepower as their biggest selling point. It’s what was advertised the most and was why people would spend the extra money on them. But as mentioned earlier, there was a need for a Mustang that could also take corners like a proper sports car. And since the last record-breaking GT500 was introduced in 2013, Ford has been making strides in improving the Mustang’s handling abilities. Right from the get-go, the current S550 platform has been miles better in that regard than any Mustang before it. And it has only gotten better with the Shelby GT350, the Performance Package Level 1, the underrated PP2 that I’m so familiar with, and all the various enhancements those cars introduced to the Ford parts bin.
The 2020 Shelby GT500 is the culmination of years of learned lessons by Ford Performance and over five years of handling refinements to the S550 platform. It’s not a parts bin car like my PP2 is – it was built from the ground up to be a comprehensive, world-beating package. Though the engine is based on the groundbreaking GT350’s Voodoo engine, but there are some substantial updates there. It no longer has a flat-plane crank and there’s a 2.65-liter roots-type supercharger bolted in upside down with its intercooler tucked inside the V. It also utilizes Ford’s excellent MagneRide suspension and an optional adjustable wing from the GT4 race car. But that’s legitimately where the parts sharing (among major components) ends.
It has an exclusive Tremec seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, gigantic 16.5″ two-piece rotors with six-piston Brembo calipers, and a significant amount of wind tunnel testing which shaped the body. This kind of stuff sounds easy to dismiss when looking at it on a spec sheet, but Ford really went above and beyond with this car. They could have easily just supercharged the Voodoo and sold it based on its insane 760 horsepower figure alone.
But they didn’t do that. Ford gave it brakes which are larger than the wheels on the original GT500, called in the aerodynamicists, and gave the GT500 everything it needed to be fast everywhere. For the first time ever, there’s a Mustang that truly takes everything to the extreme. It’s a car that takes every little lesson learned and every technological advancement Ford had access to and combines it into one out-of-this-world package.
It’s intimidating but approachable
That leads to how I ended up sitting in a GT500 on a cold morning inside the Charlotte Motor Speedway. I never thought I would get the chance to drive this car, let alone on the track, so I happily drove my PP2 four hours to Concord, NC on my own dime just for the privilege. Because I don’t get the press cars on this site, I was already familiar with that other reviewers were saying about the GT500. While I didn’t let that shape my opinions, it did raise my expectations a little. Even then, I wasn’t mentally prepared for what I was about to experience.
After pulling out of the paddock and assuming my position in our lead/follow group, it took just a hundred feet and one corner to know that this not going to be like any other Mustang. The car I was driving was equipped with the Carbon Fiber Track Package, which meant Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires wrapped around carbon fiber wheels were equipped and the aforementioned GT4 wing. The first warm-up lap was one of the most intimidating laps I’ve ever had. It’s like when you meet a big dog that you’re told is friendly, but you aren’t really sure so you let it sniff your hand a lot as you try and decide when it’s the right time to reach out and pet in a way that it doesn’t take your hand off.
You can see the build up here courtesy of a GoPro Ford let us borrow. A few early stabs at the throttle would light the tires up enough to reach the limits of Track Mode’s driver assistance. The car shimmies and the revs bounce until it gains traction, so I let the GT500 sniff my hand some more. It was about two laps in when I gained the GT500’s trust and was able to pet it, but not without some unfiltered reactions of mine.
Putting the power down
Roll into the throttle appropriately and I’m rewarded with eye-watering acceleration out of corners. This magnificent engine sounds like it’s signaling the end times as the speedo is a blur and my head is pressed in firmly to the headrest. And this wave of violent power is hardly interrupted by the DCT’s impossibly quick gear changes. The shifts are snappy and crisp and the software lets me take it all the way to redline, which I gladly take advantage of.
As I enter the banked section of Charlotte Roval and rapidly approach an instructor-capped 130 mph, it feels like the car could accelerate forever. At no point in my drive did it feel like it was running out of steam. I felt it could go from 100 to 140 just as quickly as it could go from 60 to 100. Peak horsepower is all the way at 7,300 RPM as well, so there’s a reward for winding out this engine as high as it’ll go. But not before it kicks your ass with enough torque to shorten the year by a few milliseconds.
But despite all the electronics and the wide and sticky tires, this car still requires discipline and a lot of it. Stab the throttle too quickly or too early, even with warm tires, and it feels like the leash is the only thing keeping the GT500 from ripping my head off. 760 horsepower and 625 lb.-ft. of torque are big numbers and I could feel every single one of them. There’s just so much of it that it’s truly up to the driver to deliver the best results. Get it right and it can go blindingly quick. Get it wrong and you’ll end up on a YouTube compilation. The car will intervene if it needs to, but it’s something that demands respect. If there’s anything old school about it, it’s the car’s ability to massively light up tires at a moment’s notice.
On the drag strip
That became especially apparent on the drag strip. Despite having a treated surface at the zMAX Dragway, launch control, and Cup 2s set to the optimum pressures, the car struggles for grip on a full-power launch, at least on a fairly cold day like I experienced. The traction control has to cut in regularly and quite harshly, but the car sorts it out eventually. The back end shimmies and twitches a lot, yet it tracks straight as my faith in its traction control is put through a trial by fire.
On my first run, it lit up the tires on 1>2, 2>3, and 3>4 shift. Once some heat was built up though, it would hook firmly in second gear and accelerate like nothing I have ever experienced. I got it up to about 126 mph in a quarter-mile. Under the right conditions, it can go over 130 mph and run deep into the 11-second range. I was not driving it under the right conditions, sadly. And though I would have loved to stage it before each run with the built-in line lock feature myself, we at least got a demonstration.
If you plan to buy one of these for the drag strip, the standard 315s aren’t going to cut it. Go wider and get a proper drag radial compound and I have no doubt you’ll be gunning for a 9-second quarter-mile.
The brakes are as powerful as the engine
When Ford first announced the GT500 last year, one surprising stat was shared which helps to make Ford’s intentions clear. The GT500 ships with the largest brakes of any domestic sports coupe in history. Bigger than any Viper or any Corvette. And honestly, it needs it.
This GT500 is a bit of a chonker at over 4,100 pounds. Something that heavy going as fast as 760 horsepower allows it to is going to take a lot of force to stop it. The 16.5″ two-piece rotors up front and the powerful six-piston Brembo calipers are more than up to the task. The bite is quick and extremely strong, but the pedal is still delicate enough to trail brake and make fine adjustments.
The track layout Ford Performance was using has us go onto the banked turn 1 and 2 at CMS and onto the back straightaway. We then stand on the brake pedal for a sharp hairpin that takes us back into the infield. From 130 mph to about 30 mph, there’s zero drama, no shimmying, no noticeable fade over our 20-minute session, and a reason to be thankful for the HANS device we were using. I didn’t think it was possible for any braking system to match the brute force of an engine that yields the kind of violent acceleration the GT500 is capable of, but this one pulls it off.
And fun fact: the front brake rotors are larger in diameter than the wheels were on the original GT500.
Its handling defies belief
I knew the GT500 was going to be fast and I trusted Brembo’s expertise to help deliver a solid set of brakes. But what I was most curious about was the way the chassis sews that all together. With all the experience I have with my Performance Package Level 2-equipped Mustang GT in all sorts of… shall we say spirited conditions, I knew Ford could throw parts at a Mustang and have it transform the car’s handling. But until now, I didn’t know what a full-fledged effort from Ford Performance was going to be like.
Well, for starters, it’s absolutely incredible. The steering is perfectly weighted in Track Mode (that’s all I used) – it’s heavy enough that it’s easy to be precise and get good feedback, but not heavy enough that it feels artificial *cough* BMW. While guiding it through the fast sweepers and decreasing-radius corners on the infield course, it felt extremely confidence inspiring and as sure-footed as a car with 760 horsepower can possibly be. When the car is loaded up through a corner, it feels as if those Cup 2s are clawing into the pavement. A double-apex corner with a decreasing radius doesn’t come close to upsetting it and it’s eager to change directions without so much as a hesitation.
It is worth noting though that this car is a bit of a chonker at 4,171 pounds (without Carbon Track Pack). For those keeping score, that’s identical to a 2021 F-150 regular cab in RWD with a 5.5″ bed and the EcoBoost V6. To its credit, it felt like it was hundreds of pounds lighter, but I’d rather it be hundreds of pounds lighter. Any tenths of a second this car lags behind a competitor can be attributed to its weight without question. I’m confident a GT500R with some weight savings would trade punches with the very best of what Europe and Japan have to offer. And I think it speaks volumes that it already can.
And this is coming from a Mustang. This is what the GT500 has become now.
It’s always faster than you
If your goal is to go around a track at an eye-watering pace, the GT500 can deliver if you hold up your end of the bargain. In my 20-minute session behind an instructor, I felt a car that didn’t have understeer in its vocabulary – plain and simple. Oversteer, however… refer to my earlier comments.
It can be as wild as you want it or as composed as your experience allows. I only ever got it to misbehave when I tried applying power on cold tires, just to see what would happen (no regrets). I felt I was exploring a good bit of the car’s capabilities in my session, but I knew I was experiencing maybe half of what it could do. When I rode in the passenger seat with an instructor at the helm (who I told to “go fuckin crazy”), I knew I was right.
In the hands of a professional, it made my laps, which I thought were pretty quick, look like parade laps by comparison. This car has so much potential in it that it’s hard to quantify; though I can say we hit 145 mph coming out of the banking. He braked harder and later, accelerated more aggressively, and carried way more speed than I would have had the guts to do myself. And at no point did the car step out of line or force him to back off. His two laps were perfect demonstrations of what the GT500 can really do.
But don’t let that deter any owner from taking theirs out on the track. It’s a car that’s easy to drive at a comfortable and ultimately satisfying pace – it just takes genuine skill to master. And it’s engaging and thrilling enough that you’ll want to take the time to master it.
Trying to collect my thoughts on this car
This drive happened more than three weeks ago now and I’m sure Ford is wondering why this took me so long, but I put the blame on them for scrambling my brain with this thing. I had the whole four-hour drive home to come to terms with what I had experienced and it’s taken all this time to convey my thoughts in anything less than 10,000 words.
It’s a car that’s hard to accurately describe because there are no adjectives that come close to representing it properly. The GT500 has reinvented itself in a way that I didn’t think was possible. It’s no longer just an old school tire roaster that you’d take to a drag strip. It’s a sharp, balanced, composed, and extremely capable track weapon.
No corner is too fast, no section too technical, and no braking zone is too hot for this car. It takes everything – not just its straight line speed – to the absolute extreme. That’s resulted in a sports car where the outrageous power figure doesn’t feel like it’s completely overwhelming the rest of the car. However, all you need to do is just flick the right buttons and you can still have that old school power and fury unleashed with no filter. But in any other circumstance, it’s an extraordinarily capable machine that shows the world that sports cars at this level can still be raw, engaging, and just plain fun with a little hint of trepidation.
And they did this with a Mustang.
Images provided by Ford/Lincoln Hill