We spent a smoky day sampling every generation of Mustang on 1 track

Ask a Ford Mustang enthusiast what his or her perfect day might entail, and it would probably look a lot like what we just experienced. Start with a Mustang from every generation — 1965 to present day — mix in some drive time at a race track, and sprinkle on a drifting experience with Formula Drift champ Vaughn Gittin Jr. — that’s Mustang Mania.

To demo its range of street legal performance tires, Nitto Tire invited Digital Trends to the Thermal Club near Palm Springs, CA. There, we met Mustang owners who had driven their beloved pony cars from all over the country. Though some vehicles appeared stock, upon careful inspection, we noted that every ride had some form of modification. The most covertly raucous Mustangs in attendance were the products of Classic Recreations. We’ve featured a few of CR’s outrageous builds, but never have we spent time behind the wheel.

Until that day.

Not wasting any time, Nitto escorted us to the South Palm Circuit. It’s one of Thermal Club’s three tracks, comprising 5.1 miles of perfect pavement. Awaiting us was a selection of automatic-equipped 2017 and 2018 Ford Mustang GTs shod in Nitto’s NT555 (ultra-high-performance summer) and NT05 (maximum-performance summer) tires. We started with some low-speed shadow laps behind one of the track’s racing instructors. Careful to follow his line, turn in, and braking points, we soon had the hang of things.

Our day began in the 2017 Mustang GT, which handled well on the sticky Nitto rubber but struggled to find the right gear in Sport mode and shifted lazily in manual mode. The transition to the refreshed 2018 Mustang GT and its 10-speed automatic was eye opening. In full auto mode, the car always found the right gear to maximize performance. In manual mode, each pull of the steering wheel-mounted paddles resulted in an upshift or downshift in fractions of a second. On the NT05 tires, we pushed the 2018 Mustang GT deep into the braking zones and carried tremendous speed in the corners.

Ford Mustang GT
Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s 700-hp Mustang RTR Miles Branman/Digital Trends

Satisfied that the modern Mustangs could rock a track session, we hopped in Classic Recreations’ Shelby GT350CR. Fully licensed by Ford to produce 1960s and 1970s continuation cars, Classic Recreations blends traditional Mustang styling with contemporary performance enhancements. Our test car was supplied by Jeff Miller, a CR customer three times over. Getting our bearings in the muscle car cabin wasn’t easy: our brain knew the engine (a 427 cubic-inch V8), brakes (Wilwood discs), transmission (a Tremec five-speed manual), and suspension (a coilover setup with oversized sway bars) were current high-performance equipment, but the aesthetic was period correct.

Tires disintegrated, passengers cackled with laughter, and Mustangs spun their rear wheels until every drop of fuel was gone.

Out on the track, our initial confusion became pure joy. 545 horsepower pummeled the pavement through Nitto’s NT555R tires and sent the roughly 2,800-pound Mustang tearing down the straightaways. The noise was otherworldly. Sawing at a giant wood-rimmed steering wheel was a distinct contrast to the 2018 Mustang GT’s thick, leather-rimmed unit, as were the long throws of the GT350’s cue-ball shifter. Braking from triple digit speeds was marginally terrifying, but the steel stoppers did their job, albeit with a fair bit of dive from the front end. This was not a precision instrument, but the old-made-new ‘Stang put a wider grin on our face than any other car that day.

Though we’d hit our peak Mustang enjoyment from behind the wheel, the mania wasn’t over. Professional drifters Vaughn Gittin Jr. and Chelsea DeNofa waited for us at the Thermal Club skid pad. The Formula Drift duo took us through a coned course in Gittin Jr.’s 700-hp Mustang RTR (a car he helped design) and a Mustang GT convertible. With talents like these, we didn’t mind riding shotgun.

From the word go, each driver had his V8-powered machine coasting sideways through the slalom. Amidst a plume of smoke, we watched Gittin Jr. and DeNofa casually slide their respective car with coordinated inputs of the wheel and throttle. Something like a violent version of figure skating came to mind. Tires disintegrated, passengers cackled with laughter, and Mustangs spun their rear wheels until every drop of fuel was gone.

Before the festivities ended, each generation Mustang took to the track for a parade lap. As the cars rumbled past, the Mustang’s evolution played out before our eyes. Today, America’s icon may look and perform very different than its ancestors, but its legacy has never been stronger.

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