2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse R: A Turnkey Club Race Car Starting at $145K

It’s closely related to the standard Dark Horse, only rowdier since it doesn’t need to meet road-going regulations.

byPeter Nelson|
The Ford Mustang Dark Horse R
Peter Nelson
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The 2024 Ford Mustang Dark Horse R is built to race on Sunday, sell on Monday. This largely production-based ‘Stang is not only designed for club racing, but also for what the Dearborn brand is calling the Mustang Challenge, a spec series that will run in partnership with IMSA in 2024. It occupies the space that’s below the GT4 category but well above DIY track-adapted road cars, and it’s just the latest in what’s become a huge range of motorsport Mustangs.

When I say that the Dark Horse R is largely production-based, it really, truly is. The formula is similar to what helped put the badge on the enthusiast car map nearly 60 years ago. But don't confuse it for having any street-legal potential—it's purely a race pony.

I recently got some time to geek out over the R's build details during a sneak preview at Ford Performance's facility outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Here’s what I found.

Peter Nelson

The Heart

First and foremost, under the hood is Ford's fourth-generation 5.0-liter Coyote V8 similarly tuned to road-going specifications. Besides emissions systems completely getting the kibosh—meaning better-flowing exhaust manifolds, a Borla exhaust system, and no restrictive carbon filters—the engine is pretty much stock. And because race cars spend a lot of time experiencing extreme lateral G force, changes were made to the mighty Five-Oh's oiling system. It has a Ford Performance oil pan with added capacity and proper baffling to keep oil from sloshing around too much under hard cornering. 

The product of the Coyote's might is sent through the same Tremec six-speed manual gearbox and Torsen limited-slip differential sporting a 3:73.1 final drive as the street car. This bit is especially interesting as the current Global MX-5 and Toyota GR Cup cars—very production-based in their own right—run very un-street-able sequential gearboxes for improved race-after-race durability.

Inside-Out

The street car carryover doesn't stop there. The R possesses a lot of the same aerodynamics package as the road-going Dark Horse on the outside, as well as the same dashboard and screens on the inside. Well, a Motec dash sits in front of the factory gauge cluster, but otherwise there's a decent amount of assembly line plastic.

In place of the road-going version's plush Recaro adjustable seat is instead a fixed-back Recaro racing seat, which is enshrined in a comprehensive roll cage and adorned with a six-point Sparco racing harness (three-inch lap belts and two- to three-inch shoulder belts, for all the fellow gear nerds reading this). That's not the only Sparco equipment, either, as the fire suppression system and Ford Performance steering wheel are made by the Italian brand as well. Side netting is by Safecraft, which seems to be the industry standard across the globe.

But I wanted to learn even more about what's going on underneath, so I talked with Ford Performance's Dave Born to investigate the intricacies that make up this circuit-ready brute. When I noticed that the R's V8 had a very not-EPA-friendly oil catch can mounted up, Born pointed out that it was a piece built by Watson Racing, a shop that Ford has a very close relationship with.

Down to Brass Tacks

"They're the assembler of this vehicle," Born said of Watson Racing, a fellow Michigan company. "We'll take the body-in-white (the basic unibody without a VIN) from Flat Rock assembly and head over to Watson Racing only a few miles up the road. They do the interior modifications, put the whole cage system in, and seam-weld it. It then goes back to the plant for paint, and then back to Watson for finishing assembly."

Elsewhere in long-term partnerships, Multimatic and Ford have been pals in motorsports for some time now, and that's extended into the Dark Horse R's suspension package. Mounted up behind its wheels are Multimatic's DSSV passive dampers which feature both adjustable rebound and compression for motorsports-level tuneability. No word on spring rates and dimensions, but the shocks feature a unique method for easily adjusting camber. Instead of a bolt that you loosen, move left-to-right, and re-measure, Multimatic uses a simple shim system that's easy to quickly set and has a far, far lower chance of dropping out of alignment.

Peter Nelson

This helps perfect where the rubber hits the road: Its tires. These meats are 295/30/R19 Michelin racing slicks at all four corners on lightweight 19- by 10.5-inch front and 19- by 11-inch rear Ford Performance R1 flow-formed wheels—which will be available through the Ford Racing catalog soon, by the way.

"It worked out great for both of us," Born said of Ford's partnership with Michelin. "We need a tire for our car, and they wanted a tire for the marketplace, so it's a great partnership for us to work with them on."

To make the most of the R's race-grade grip, its Brembo brakes are similar to the street car in that they're six-piston front and four-piston calipers, but are tougher up front for motorsports duty and feature race-ready pad compounds. The rears are the exact same fare found on the street car, just with more aggressive pads thrown in.

“Even the powertrain control system is factory," Born said. "But we do special software to integrate it with the Motec data system so that they talk to each other. We take out as many unnecessary things as we can, but we also want to use as much production [electronics] as we can."

Peter Nelson

Priced Competitively For What It Is

There are other details that set the Dark Horse R apart from its DOT-approved counterpart. This includes wheel studs and lug nuts as opposed to wheel bolts, and upgraded cooling for its transmission, engine, differential, and brakes. Otherwise, it's quite unique in our era of high-end, technologically rich race cars that come at a substantial cash investment.

The Dark Horse R isn't exactly cheap, but to fire it up, select its first gear with your right arm, and squab with fellow racers on the tarmac next year, Ford says pricing will start at $145,000. That’s not insignificant up against a Global MX-5 Cup entry. Though, when you consider that a Toyota GR Cup car starts at $20,000 less, is far less powerful, and shifts gears via a SADEV sequential gearbox rather than a good ol' fashion stick, it seems like a general bargain—especially considering that GT4 cars are over $200,000.

It's cool that Ford has gone hard in the paint in motorsports participation this year. The Dark Horse R is a solid addition to its fellow Coyote-powered GT3 and GT4 siblings, but for a substantially lower price. The beast also pays homage to the badge's humble roots in 1960s motorsports. It'll be interesting to see how car counts shake out next year in IMSA paddocks and beyond.

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