Payne: Q&Auto with the Shelby GT350’s guru
Interviewing Kerry Baldori, Ford’s chief functional engineer for Ford Performance, on Laguna Seca Raceway’s main straight during media testing of his team’s brand new, 2016 Shelby GT350 Mustang isn’t easy. Because with a track-full of 8250 RPM, 526 horsepower Mustangs going by every 30 seconds it gets. Really. Loud. So the conversation goes kind of like this.
Me: Kerry, when did Ford start work on ROOOOAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRR!
Baldori: Can you repeat the question?
Baldori is used to it. Because not only does he oversee the ferocious GT350, he is responsible for the entire stable of Ford performance thoroughbreds including the Focus ST, Fiesta ST, all-wheel-drive Focus RS, F-150 Raptor, and the alpha male of the herd: The Ford GT supercar which will debut in the 24 Hours of LeMans in France next year to rekindle Ford’s 50-year-old race rivalry with Ferrari.
It would also be a nice 50th birthday present for Baldori. The life-long motorhead grew up in Frankenmuth, Michigan where he flogged go-karts and mauled drag strips in his first racer, a ’69 Camaro. With degrees from Western Michigan and Wayne State, Baldori joined Ford 26 years ago where he built a resume on the cutting edge of vehicle performance.
Baldori’s team shocked the world with the stunning Ford GT at January’s Detroit Auto Show. But the 600-plus-horsepower supercar also signaled a new, more focused performance direction for Ford.
From its dominance of LeMans in the 1960s to NASCAR to its RS division in Europe to its stateside SVT hot rods, Ford has a long history of making quick cars. But the effort was never organized under one roof until now.
“Prior to Ford Performance organization it was kind of hit and miss,” says Baldori. “Then six-to-seven months ago we brought everything together under the Ford Performance umbrella. That has really been a huge change. It not only bring our products together globally, but also the motorsports organization (including) our technical organization that supports NASCAR and all the specific race organizations we’re involved in.”
Baldori credits Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technical officer for Ford Global Product Development, for the change. “He’s a huge supporter of our team and performance in general,” he says.
The Shelby GT350 was in the works well before the consolidation. Indeed – after being estranged for years – Ford and Shelby rekindled their ’60s flame after the new, retro-styled, fifth-generation Mustang was unveiled in 2005. A GT500 stoplight king followed in 2007, the first of a series of 500s that culminated with a 2013 model with a 5.8-liter V-8 putting out an insane 662 horsepower. It was a brute.
But with the more nimble, sixth-generation Mustang chassis, Baldori’s team was eager to go beyond face-flattening, straight-line performance.
“The GT500 was mainly about power but we always tried to make it as track capable as possible,” he reflects. “We always wanted to make a naturally-aspirated, well-balanced, lightweight car that would go back to that original GT350 that could live up to the Shelby name. There has been a GT350 done through Shelby America – but we had never done a GT350 before.”
The Performance team set a high bar. How high? They benchmarked the GT350 to Porsche’s best: The 911 GT3.
“We want to benchmark and try to improve ourselves,” says Baldori. “(The GT3) became an inspirational benchmark for us. We learned a lot from the car, it’s all part of the process.”
That benchmark meant taking the GT350 to the track this year against Porsches and BMW M3s where it has had a stellar rookie season winning at both Mosport and Watkins Glen. Multimatic, a racing team out of Toronto, prepares the Mustangs – as it will the Ford GT for LeMans. Baldori knows a thing or two about pro racing himself having been embedded by Ford in Newman Haas Indy car racing team in the 1990s as a vehicle dynamacist.
But developing a performance car today also means engineering for comfort. You wouldn’t know it by the nearby GT350s making our ears bleed in full-predator TRACK mode (one of five modes including Eco and Drag) – ROOAAAARRR! - but the muscle car was made for everyday driving comfort.
“It’s very easy to drive. It’s incredibly quiet,” says Baldori. “A lot of extreme performance cars have their little quirks. These cars are really good.”
In that great garage in the sky, Carroll Shelby must be smiling.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @HenryEPayne. Or see all his work at HenryPayne.com.