Arguably the most anticipated debut of the season in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge occurs this weekend at Watkins Glen International, with the premiere of the new Ford Shelby GT350R-Cs.
The new generation Mustang was launched in January, concurrently with the Ford GT, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
While the GT has arguably stolen the headlines since, the new Shelby GT350R-C is not one to be overlooked.
The newest Ford now is set to go head-to-head with the newer Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R at the front of the Continental Tire Challenge field.
For Billy Johnson, who has been an integral part of both Ford Performance and Multimatic Motorsports for several years, the honor of being part of the lineup for the Shelby’s debut is not lost on him.
“Ford has done an amazing job the last few years, with everything across their production line,” Johnson told Sportscar365. “From the Focus to Fusion, to F150, and so forth, I just have to applaud them.
“I’d been with Roush for four or five years. So being with them for a while, it’s been great to be a part of it. Bringing the iconic GT350 brand back is awesome timing.”
The GT350R-C is a radical departure from the previous generation Ford Mustang Boss 302R, which Multimatic started the season with.
The timing works out well, because the Continental Tire Challenge season heads into a busy stretch of five races in nine weekends after only racing three times in five months until now.
As Johnson relates, the new car that he’ll share with Scott Maxwell has been improved in countless areas.
“It’s a completely new platform, so it’s not a slight revision like going from the FR500C to the Boss, which had inherently the same chassis,” Johnson said. “This car is completely different.
“It’s brand new, with an independent rear suspension, a different front suspension, different chassis, and the big topic of the 5.2-liter flat-plane crank. It’s a pretty awesome powertrain.”
Johnson scored his most recent, and final, win in the Boss 302R co-driving with Ian James at last year’s Continental Tire Challenge season finale at Road Atlanta.
While he admits the new car will still need to find its footing in the GS class, which also features top-level entries from Chevrolet, Nissan, Porsche, BMW and Aston Martin, he’s excited about where they are already.
“The Boss was a fantastic car, and we had a lot of race wins,” he said. “But this 350 has taken it to a completely different level, with the build, with how much better the street car is and how much better and cooler the race car is.
“Yes we’re in a development phase, because it’s a brand new platform. With the Boss, you could only align the front end.
“Here you can double those adjustments. It’s pretty complex. We just need to find out what it’s like.”
The new Shelby GT350R-C has completed an extensive, several-month long testing process with the most recent and final pre-Watkins Glen test occurring at the same circuit earlier this month.
Johnson said this weekend “is really the true telltale of where we are,” although rain may through a variable into the planned schedule.
Johnson admitted the Camaro Z/28.R, which premiered at the 2014 season opener at Daytona, has forced other manufacturers within GS to raise their game.
“The Camaro raised the bar from a build standpoint and rules package standpoint,” he said. “It has stuff the class hasn’t had before. This car definitely meets that new standard. It’s quite a bit more of a race car.”
The new Shelby GT350R-C was within three tenths of the Camaro in its first official practice session, third overall in the field. It improved by a further tenth in Friday morning’s second practice.
Johnson and Maxwell are in the No. 15 car, looking to build on a runner-up finish last time out at Mazda Raceway in Monterey after Johnson’s storming final stint.
Meanwhile the sister No. 158 car of Austin Cindric and Jade Buford seek their first top-five finish of the season.
Cindric’s schedule in particular gets busier from here, as he’ll be alternating his Ford commitments in the Continental Tire Challenge with his GRC Lites schedule, where he has won the opening two races of the season.