SCCA

Have car, will Track Night in America: This weekday race alternative makes track time a go

SCCA's Track Night in America events take place across the country at lesser-known tracks.

Photo by Dan Sabol

For a parent, weekends are precious. Weekends are for road trips, backyard parties, and youth sporting events. A mere 52 opportunities to connect with your family.

For the gearhead, however, a weekend can mean a long couple of days away, driving or towing to the nearest track for some full-throttle action. While the family can and often does tag along at weekend track events, devoting attention to the car, the kids, and the spouse can be a challenge.

Track Night in America 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost The Ford Mustang is sold as either a coupe (shown here) or a convertible.Photo by Chris Tonn

Since 2015, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) has been offering an alternative to a weekend at the races. Their Track Night in America program is a mid-week track experience open to just about anyone with a car and a helmet. It starts mid-afternoon and leads into the twilight hours. For this dad, sneaking away from the office at noon and missing a single dinner with the family is a much better alternative to an entire weekend away.

Over the past five years, the SCCA has offered over 650 Track Night events at 47 different tracks – and finally, an event popped up in my home state of Ohio. I had a 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost coming to my door to test. I'd finally run out of excuses – it was time to get on track.

With a bunch of sweeping corners spread over a brief two miles, the Nelson Ledges racecourse between Cleveland and Pittsburgh has been thrilling racers for decades. It's a throwback to the early tracks that appeared in the 1960z – it's rustic. Many newer tracks offer a country club atmosphere – Nelson Ledges has a shack with some bathrooms, a timing building that is undergoing some repairs, and a few picnic tables. It's all about the on-track experience, and this track delivers.

Track Night in America 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost The Mustang's available High Performance package added 19-inch machined-face aluminum wheels to the tester.Photo by Chris Tonn

The EcoBoost High Performance package on my tester seemed ready-made for track duties. It adds 20 horsepower to the standard turbocharged four-cylinder (up to 330 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque), alongside many of the suspension, braking, and aerodynamic goodies from Ford's V8-powered GT Performance Package. For me, the highlight was the 13.9-inch brake rotors being clamped by large four-piston calipers. These brakes give plenty of stopping power on track, and never felt like they were fading under the heat of stops from triple digits.

Track Night in America is meant for street cars, not race cars, as the SCCA's goal is to let people simply have fun with the cars they already have. Many other track day programs tend to encourage drivers to work their way up a "ladder" of sorts from novice track events to time trials all the way to wheel-to-wheel racing. While that's certainly an option, the SCCA just wants people to enjoy performance driving in a safe environment without the pressure to compete.

Track Night in America 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost Ford gave the test car a larger rear sway bar and unique stability control tuning, elevating its on-track performance.Photo by Chris Tonn

I wish something like this had been around twenty-plus years ago as I began to make a little bit of money. While I'd long spent time at the track as an avid spectator, getting on track back then generally required a dedicated race car. I explored those options – even going so far to buy a retired SCCA Honda Civic to get back on track for myself, only to be laid off shortly after getting it home – and I found myself pushing my motorsport ambitions aside.

Track Night lets drivers self-select into one of just three groups – Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced, all based on prior track experience. There's no breaking out cars based on speed – just driver ability. Considering our current pandemic, Track Night is well positioned – there are no instructors strapped in the passenger seat. Rather, they space out and observe from trackside, and will pull aside drivers to give pointers and encouragement between each of the three twenty-minute track sessions.

The novice group gets accordingly more attention, as well as a masked-up group debriefing after each session. The instructors joked that social distancing is important on track as well as in the paddock – a safe six feet helps to keep away both viruses and sheet metal damage.

Track Night in America 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost The car's Showstopper red leather upholstery adds a bit of a dramatic touch to the interior.Photo by Chris Tonn

As I have little actual on-track experience, I selected the novice group. I was expecting some slower cars in the group – and while there were a couple, I was also watching my mirrors fill with C7 Corvettes, Porsche Caymans, and a Chevy Camaro SS 1LE. The four-banger Mustang was quick – keeping pace except coming off corners with a recent five-liter Mustang – but let down a bit by the ten-speed automatic transmission, which was reluctant to shift as quickly as I'd like. The car was magic in the corners, however, as the balance afforded by the lightweight engine let both ends of the car rotate at will.

Instructors told me that their main goal is for everyone to drive home with the same intact car they arrived in, so keeping within the limits of both the car and the driver is paramount. Only one incident marred our evening – a snarling Chevy El Camino modified in the Pro Touring style came back to the paddock on the end of a rope with some tire barrier damage to the left side of the car, though it seemed to drive home without problems.

Track Night in America 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost Photo by Dan Sabol

SCCA has a winning program on their hands. Over five years, over forty thousand drivers have registered for Track Night events. It's a great way to keep socially distant at speed. I missed a conference call and one family dinner, and was home in time to tuck the kids into bed. I get to spend another weekend with my family. Admittedly, I'll spend some of that weekend pondering if I can trade the family minivan for a new Mustang EcoBoost.

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New off-roader

Ford Bronco Production Officially Begins

The Ford Bronco is finally ready for primetime.

Ford

The time is finally here. After years of speculation and several months of pandemic-related delays, the Ford Bronco is starting to roll off the assembly line. The SUV marks the first new Bronco model in Ford's lineup in 15 years, not counting the Bronco Sport, and is one of the most hyped and sought-after vehicles to hit the market in quite some time. Ford's announcement that production has begun will be accompanied by a special YouTube presentation that Ford says will include interviews with the Bronco team and with reservation holders at the automaker's new Modification Center.


2021 Ford Bronco Ford added 2,700 jobs to support Bronco production.Ford


Bronco production has driven Ford to invest $750 million into its Michigan Assembly Plant, and the automaker says it has added 2,700 jobs to support the rollout. Ford's push to begin production can't come soon enough. Over 125,000 Bronco orders have been placed, and multiple delays have pushed the vehicle's arrival back, meaning there is considerable demand for the off-road legend.

Ford is ready to capitalize on the craze and will offer several ways to customize the new vehicle. At its 1.7 million square-foot Modification Center, The Blue Oval will factory-install several optional modifications that include equipment such as a front bumper safari bar, graphics packages, roof racks, and more. That's on top of more than 200 factory-backed accessories that can be installed at the dealer, either at or after the time of purchase.


2021 Ford Bronco Delays and production difficulties have pushed the Bronco back.Ford


If you are hoping to get behind the wheel of a new Bronco, it could be a while. Even buyers that have been in line for a while now might not see their new vehicle until late 2021 or 2022, and the vehicle's official rollout will almost certainly re-spike demand. Even so, many feel it's worth the wait, and Ford's vehicle configuration tool is live, so go check it out for yourself.

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The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder arrives on dealer lots this summer.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder doesn't have to be capable of rock crawling or deep water fording. What it has to do is service the needs of families in their daily life and give them the opportunity to competently go off-roading on rocky trails should they desire. The new, fifth-generation models does just that and adds in enough nifty features to make it among the most compelling choices for three-row SUV buyers.

The 2022 Pathfinder is thoroughly modern though not the boxy off-roader it once was. The SUV's styling harkens back to that time with a tilted, darkened C-pillar and a return to a more muscular body style. That styling makes straightforward visibility good but for shorter drivers seeing what is immediately in front of the grille is a challenge that necessitates using surround view camera technology (available only in upper trim levels) when navigating challenging terrain.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can easily handle the roads less traveled.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Under the hood is a 3.5-liter V6 that offers up 291 horsepower and torque - plenty to do the job without complaint. The SUV's nine-speed automatic transmission replaces the continuously variable transmission (CVT) from the previous generation and delivers smooth shifts. Though low-end torque isn't as robust as I like it to be, once up over 35 mph, the Pathfinder's powertrain delivers smooth, powerful sailing.

The redesigned architecture and components underpinning the Pathfinder make it stable on the road and don't allow it to wallow on winding roads. Even off-road, the suspension provides the right blend of stability while the drive dynamics allowing the driver to feel engaged with their surroundings whether on freshly paved roads, city streets, or muddy trails.

Nissan has given the Pathfinder a 6,000-pound towing capacity and even when maxed out the engine's functionality is strong as ever. The transmission can get held up in a gear mid-range when performing this function, however, with 5,000-6,000 rpms registering on the tachometer but a quick release of the gas pedal recalibrates the offering bringing it down to a more traditional 2,000 rpm range.

The eight-seater Pathfinder clearly has the Toyota Highlander in its sights, with good reason. It's the top-selling three-row SUV in the country. Nissan boasts that three adults can fit across the rear bench seat of the Pathfinder and, as long as they're average size or smaller, the marketing talking point holds up. There is gobs more room back there than there is in the Highlander.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Nissan has given the Pathfinder ample cargo space.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Getting in and out of the third row is easy thanks to one-touch buttons on the outboard side of the second-row chairs that move the SUV's captain's seats forward creating enough room to get through to the back. Smartly, Nissan's engineers have put duplicates of these buttons on the back side of the same seats allowing third-row passengers to simply press the button to move the seat up.

The third row can also be accessed via a split between the captain's chairs as well, a space traditionally occupied by a center stowage bin/cup holders/arm rest. Owners can quickly remove the center console by opening a panel on the front and pulling the release mechanism. The one-handed operation takes seconds and the console can be easily stored in the under-floor trunk space behind the third row seat for ease.

Speaking of cargo space... The Pathfinder is one of the most spacious midsize SUVs on the market today for both passengers and cargo. There is a substantial amount of room behind the third-row seat and the under-floor storage area is nearly twice the size of the one in the Highlander. Plus, it has a feature that allows the area cover to be automatically propped up when pushed up by a user. This is especially help when carrying groceries or plants home and keeps them from being crushed.

The first- and second-row seats are suitably comfortable, even for extended periods of time and standard trig-zone climate control makes finding the right in-cabin mix easy. Bottle holders in the pockets of the front doors are exceptionally large, fitting even bulky water bottles.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder's front row seats are comfortable.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

In front of the driver is a standard tachometer, speedometer, and 7.0-inch driver information display. Buyers can upgrade to a fully digital 12.3-inch instrument cluster and head-up display but they're not reason enough to upgrade to the top-tier Pathfinder Platinum on their own.

Nissan packs the new Pathfinder with a host of desirable features that make living with the Pathfinder easier including one-touch auto up/down windows, a wireless phone charger, grocery hooks in the rear cargo area, USB ports in all three rows, second-row sunshades, rear door keyless entry, wireless Apple CarPlay, and a motion-activated lift gate.

The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is priced to start at $33,410 for the two-wheel drive S base model and $35,310 for the four-wheel drive S base model. The model tops out around $50,000 with destination and delivery included, which seems fair when comparing the Pathfinder to other vehicles in the market.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The Pathfinder can tow up to 6,000 pounds.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

If you're thinking of purchasing a Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Honda Pilot, or Highlander, do yourself a favor and schedule a test drive of the new Pathfinder when it arrives at a dealer lot near you. You may just be surprised how seamlessly it fits into your daily life compared to the competition.

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