I'm not expecting much, drifting up onto the broad, banked oval at California Speedway for my first flying lap. After all, the car I'm driving is a four-door family sedan originally designed to cause mid-life crises, not race-track palpitations. Sure, Ford has transformed it into a bargain-basement race car with the avowed goal of igniting interest in motorsport at the grassroots level, but the mods are mild rather than wild, and I'm acutely aware of driving a Focus rather than a Ferrari.
Still, pulling the short-throw B&M shifter back into fourth and leaning into the throttle for the first time, I think: "Whoa. This thing's got some poke." The only engine upgrades are a cold-air intake, a header and a cat-back exhaust, but it sure feels like the 2.3-liter Duratec is making more than 155hp at the wheels. Just past the start-finish line, I grab fifth, and the motor is still pulling. With the speedo showing a buck-twenty and change, I bomb past a Spec Miata-the obvious inspiration and stated target of the Spec Focus-as I ease the car into Turn One.
Halfway down the back straight, I slow the car down for the right-angle left-hander that takes you off the oval and into the infield. The SVT brakes are more sensitive than I expect, and as the front-heavy car transfers weight to the nose, the unweighted rear wheels lock up. For the second time in 30 seconds, I think: "Whoa." With a concrete wall looming a few feet to my right, I also think: "I'm an idiot." But the quick steering and pliant chassis save me before I do anything terminally stupid. And as I come to grips with the car's other nuances, I decide that, for an all-in price of about $10,000 (a steal, by race car standards), the Spec Focus is the best Ford I've driven lately.
Spec classes are all the rage these days, and no wonder. The basic idea is to minimize costs while maximizing competition by spec-ing just about every important variable, besides driving talent and preparation skill. This concept has been applied by sanctioning bodies all over the globe, to classes ranging from open-wheel thoroughbreds (Formula BMW, Star Mazda) to high-end exotics (Ferrari Challenge, Porsche GT3 Cup), and from amateur road racing (Spec Racer Ford) to professional oval-track race cars (NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow). But the poster child for this movement is Spec Miata.
Back in 1998, two race shop owners who specialized in Mazdas created the blueprint for the low-cost and largely stock Spec Miata series. Mazda immediately signed off on the giggle-inducing racer, which not only burnished the company's zoom-zoom image but also provided steady revenue for its aftermarket parts arm. To date, more than 1500 Spec Miatas have been built, and it's not uncommon to see SCCA races featuring 50 identical cars. These days, some of them are more 'equal' than others, and you can find no-expense-spared Spec Miatas with professionally built motors selling for more than $25K. But you can still buy cars for $10,000 and have just as much fun as the really fast guys.
Spec Focus was the brainchild of NASA, the 'we're not the SCCA' road-racing/track day organization that's emerged as brand central for spec racers. Besides Spec Miata, the National Auto Sport Association also supports spec classes for Dodge Neons, E30 BMWs and Porsche 944s. As chief divisional director, John Lindsey, explains: "We're always looking for cars that are sporty, widely available, costing $3000 or $4000 dollars, but are still in good shape, that won't do anything evil when you push them and don't require too much work to turn them into race cars." Ford Focus, come on down.
Nearly two million Focuses have been sold since it debuted in 2000. With its European heritage, the Focus has always been renowned for its handling qualities. But beyond a cult following here in the States, it's never had much of an impact on the sport compact market. "We've tried all sorts of approaches to selling Focus parts," says Andy Slankard, the engineering supervisor at Ford Racing, the company's performance parts arm. "Hot Import Nights, car shows, import drags. But none of them have ever taken off. We finally realized the greatest strengths of the Focus are its dynamics, and they're best shown on the track."
It's no coincidence Slankard is a lifelong racer who spent several years at Ford's SVT skunkworks and was program manager behind the super-agile SVT Focus. "The development team dreamed about seeing 20 of them on the track at the same time," he says. "We knew we could make a really nice race package out of the Focus. Right now, the Miata is the benchmark for spec racing, and we'd like to emulate that program."
Easier said than done. The Miata was the right car at the right time, and it took off without much help from Mazda. A top-down approach promises to be a much harder sell, especially since Ford isn't putting its marketing weight behind the program the way Dodge did with the Neon or Porsche with the GT3. Slankard recognizes the obstacles Ford faces, but, as he puts it: "I sell the parts, anyway. If people buy them, fine. If they don't... there's not a lot of risk."
From a technical standpoint, the toughest challenge was fashioning a spec class out of a car that came in so many forms. The basic idea was to create a maximum power-to-weight ratio of 16.5 pounds per hp plus torque divided by two. Even with this overarching philosophy, the rules required to equalize all variants are almost comically complex. They're also in the process of being tweaked, so you'll definitely want to check out the official website at http://specfocus.drivenasa.com before committing to a project.