Brian Wolfe, the new director of Ford Racing Technology, has worked for Ford for 26 years. He was chosen to replace the retiring Dan Davis because he is, first and foremost, a Ford racer, and second, an extremely talented and experienced engineer. Wolfe's previous job was as director of Ford's global powertrain calibrations, which involves the power, torque, emissions, fuel economy, and durability of every engine Ford produces worldwide.
Wolfe started racing Fords the same day he got his driver's license, using a '69 428 Cobra Jet Fairlane that he's had for decades, and later a Pro 5.0 '86 Mustang that ran as low as 8.35 at well over 160 mph at the drags. That's right, he's a drag racer, and a good one. He's the first real racer to run Ford's factory racing operation since it was created in 1982, including his predecessors, Michael Kranefuss, Dan Rivard, Neil Ressler, and Dan Davis, all of whom were great racing executives, but not racers.
We sent our man in Detroit, Jim McCraw, to sit down with Brian Wolfe at the Ford Racing Technology headquarters in Dearborn. His report: "Brian Wolfe is a slight man with graying hair and brown eyes, neat as a pin, organized, and perceptive. He's aware that, with decreasing budgets, he's probably not going to be able to change the racing world at Ford as we know it, but he's determined to be a good steward of each one of FRT's programs, and a determined fighter for good new ones that come along over time."
Brian Wolfe heats the slicks on his '86 GT at Atco Raceway in 2007.
MM&FF: First things first, Brian. Our readers want to know if the rumors are true about Ford Racing putting together a fleet of lightweight Cobra Jet Mustangs for NHRA Stock and Super Stock class racing next year.
Wolfe: We have assembled a prototype, and we are confirming our ability to manufacture those cars. We should be making an official announcement in a couple of weeks.
MM&FF: Assuming that the program goes forward, will you build them at the AAI plant in Flat Rock, where all of the other Mustang FR500 race cars are built?
Wolfe: We hope to follow the same process, and we are confirming with the factory that we can build them there online. It's not so much the car itself, but the logistics involved in mixing these cars in with the regular Mustang production run. We want to be able to commit to building the first 50 for NHRA certification, and then building more and more each year for sale to our customers. We don't view this as a one-time in the Sportsman arena. Sportsman racing is fantastic, and it's the inner fabric of the true racing fans, the die-hards, the people who really love our products as much as we do. I love the old stuff. I own a '69 Fairlane Cobra Jet 428, but it would be a lot nicer to see some '05-and-later Mustangs going down the track in Stock and Super Stock.
MM&FF: What kind of specs are you talking about for the drag race package?
Wolfe: We don't have the final specifications for shipping weight and horsepower, but it will be a supercharged 5.4L Four-Valve engine detuned significantly from Shelby [GT500] specifications. We will build both coupes and convertibles, manuals, and automatics, so the customer can have some choices. We don't know what the mix will be yet. We'd like to target the car for A-stock, but it could also run in AA, A, or B, depending on where the final horsepower comes out.
MM&FF: You have won dozens of drag races in brackets and Pro 5.0, racing here in Michigan, as well as in Ohio, Florida, Las Vegas, and Canada, so it sounds like you'd like to see this drag racing program go. Tell us something about your drag racing background.
Wolfe: The Pro 5.0 days, the Fun Ford Weekends, were fun, racing heads-up. Handicap starting is fantastic, because it made racing affordable to everybody, but I like heads-up. I always thought I was born 10 years too late; that I should have grown up in the '60s when all the muscle cars were around. But I was really lucky, because in the late '80s and early '90s, when the 5.0L fuel-injected Mustangs really took off, I was already in my late twenties, and I had enough money to where I could be competitive.
MM&FF: You still have the '86 5.0L Mustang at home in your shop. What's the best run you ever made?
Wolfe: I ran 8.35 at over 165 with nitrous on the car back in 1994. Now I've taken all that off the car. I did a Super Stock back-half on the car, and now the rules call for either stock rear suspension or a full-tube chassis, and my car is in the middle, just another back-half Mustang, so it's not competitive.
MM&FF: You're the first real racer ever to run this department at Ford Racing. Does that give you an advantage or a disadvantage in running this organization?
Wolfe: It gives me a different perspective. The real reason we're here, the reason for Ford's motorsports involvement, is to sell more cars, to improve the company's image. That's what we're all about, and that's what we'll be about in the future. My perspective may help us to reach out to the Sportsman racers more than we did previously. The Sportsmen are very loyal people, and they help us sell more cars to their friends and neighbors. Our quality, safety, and fuel efficiency are all very competitive now with anybody else out there, and our customers help tell our story.
MM&FF: Let's talk a little bit about Funny Car racing and safety. Ford was already leading the chassis improvement program for Funny Cars and dragsters, so what do you do now? Is there going to have to be a complete redesign of the Funny Car for safety?
Wolfe: The short answer is that we are proceeding with John Force Racing with safety enhancements that we think will be the next logical step, and the three-rail Funny Car with a wider cockpit or cocoon for the driver. We think these are huge steps in the right direction. John Force is very receptive, of course, because of what happened in his own team over the last 18 months.
Wolfe attended the MM&FF 20th Anniversary Reader Appreciation Party at Atco Raceway during
MM&FF: But can you leverage your horsepower and John Force's horsepower with NHRA to say to them, we have done all the research, the CAD drawings, the crash tests, and we think that, after a certain future date, all Funny Cars should be redesigned?
Wolfe: NHRA has already made enhancements that were put in place at the Denver race this year. There's also a level that goes beyond that, which all the Force cars have. All of those designs are not proprietary, and anyone can use them. I haven't met with NHRA myself, but I will be talking to (NHRA president) Tom Compton. We will push it as hard as we dare, as hard as we can push. The only question they may have is if this is enough improvement to mandate it. I don't think there will be a lot of resistance.
MM&FF: Before we leave the subject of drag racing, what about Pro Stock? Ford has been completely absent from Pro Stock drag racing for the best part of a generation.
Wolfe: Obviously, we're not even close to making that bold a statement about Pro Stock. The company is in the process of right-sizing, and at this point in time, we are trying to define where we want to go in the future. But, I can't see us getting into a factory-backed Pro Stock drag racing program, because we just don't have the resources. It will take a lot to catch up to where the other teams are. We would need to develop a 500-inch block and cylinder heads that we think someone will latch onto and do an independent development, and see if customers step up and buy them. However, we don't see a factory-backed program in the near future.
Wolfe chats it up with Mustang racer Michael Matarazzo.
MM&FF: Like all other areas of the company, you're doing more with fewer people. How does that reduction in personnel affect the parts catalog program?
Wolfe: Let me offer a couple of perspectives on that. We are Ford Racing, and we are a part of Ford. Where we add the greatest value for Ford enthusiasts is where we've been able to work with production applications, and build modifications of production parts, evolving or modifying them. That was at the zenith of Ford Racing. As Ford itself has gotten out of the vertical integration of every part and piece of every car, relying more on outside suppliers, the access to production parts to modify what we have has shrunk. So that has changed our focus. What can we can do to best serve our enthusiast customers? That has been to focus on crate engines, performance crate engines, and engine parts. For the last few years, we have focused on performance packs, parts, and pieces available through the dealers that the enthusiast can add to his car after he buys it. This helps us be more in line with our dealers and it helps Ford promote high-end performance vehicles. Last year, Ford Racing was responsible for producing and selling more than 10,000 modified Mustangs, all the Shelby GTs, all the Shelby GTAs, and this year the King of the Road. All these modified, derivative Mustangs were built from Ford Racing performance parts. The calibrations for the performance packs that enabled the performance modifications were done by my calibration department. My team created the affordable flashing tool that comes with every performance pack, that enables the user to download a Ford Racing calibration. So, while Ford's business and market share has gone down in recent years, our business has grown 50 percent over the last four years, primarily fueled by performance packs on street cars and a focus on crate engines.
MM&FF: Over the last couple of years, Ford has broken new ground on several levels by offering complete, turnkey Mustang race cars for sale to the general public, something that no other major car company has done. Can you tell us about the status of that program?
Wolfe: We have the FR500S spec racer, the basic 300hp package, for the Miller Mustang Challenge Cup series. We have the earlier FR500C, a 400hp Cammer-based package, which has been running in the Grand-Am Koni Challenge since 2005. The FR500 GT3 runs in FIA GT3 and GT4 competition in Europe. According to the new published rules, it will also be eligible for GT2 in FIA and ALMS, which makes them eligible to race at Le Mans. We won GT4 in Europe last year and we're running in First Place this year, the same package as the GT3 Cup over here. The Ford GT with the FIA engine package has won the official national series and has won every race in Brazil and Germany this year. And every one is raced privately, with purchased cars, engines, and parts. We don't sponsor any of that.
MM&FF: So, you're quietly back in international sports car and endurance racing, racing against BMW, Porsche, Maserati, Nissan, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Lotus?
Wolfe: Before, when we went road racing, we were heavily sponsoring those efforts in the'70s and '80s, but here we've built the basic products so competitive that grass-roots racers will buy the cars, go out and do the work, and compete on their own. There was a conscious attempt to try to build this progression, this ladder of performance Mustangs. It was always focused on making sure to position the Mustang as America's ultimate muscle car. We sell 100,000-150,000 Mustangs a year, and we wanted to give those buyers the feeling that they can always do more. That's why we now have the Ford Racing driving school (at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah) where there are 40 Mustangs, and you can take a one-day, two-day, or three-day school, learn how to race, and from there, have the option to actually participate in racing. Remember, we are part of a marketing organization. We're here to sell cars and trucks.
MM&FF: The big chunk that we haven't discussed yet is NASCAR. NASCAR has changed radically over the years since Ford got back into racing in 1982. How do you assess Ford's current position in NASCAR? Do you have enough teams to generate the research and development data you need to progress against Chevrolet, Dodge, and especially Toyota?
Wolfe: NASCAR is part of the fabric of Ford Racing. We have an enormous number of fans of Ford and our drivers, and it's a key part of any racing strategy. How many teams we can afford to assist, and how many major sponsors we can help them find, those are the keys, more so than our direct involvement. One of the things I think that gives Ford a unique advantage when teams go looking for a new direction is that we have Roush-Yates Racing Engines doing our engine development, building the best racing engines available on the planet. So, whoever runs a Ford will have the advantage of competitive horsepower with the most reliable race engines you can buy. With the Roush-Yates affiliation, everybody gets exactly the same product, and they get the same support at the track.
MM&FF: Now that you're here, is there something, some niche, some gap, that you would like to address in the Ford Racing program?
Wolfe: I don't think we've ever really reached out to Sportsman racers. We really want to embrace these guys, and that's what the Cobra Jet drag race program will do, if we can get it approved and get the cars built. Another thing we want to do is address the European cars, the smaller B and C cars that will be coming over here. Now that gasoline is $4.00 a gallon, we want to give the customer a small, fuel-efficient car that can also be fun to drive. We want to tie some very good, very edgy performance parts into those cars right from the first day they go on sale, offering a range of performance packs that are dealer-installed. They'll be engineered right, designed right, and ready to go, so you'll be able to get 35-40 mpg and have fun doing it.
MM&FF: Thanks, Brian, and good luck, especially with that Cobra Jet drag race program. We'd like a manual coupe in white, no stripes.
The reason for Ford's motorsports involvement is to sell more cars, to improve the company's image.