Racing An Ex-Cop Car

Illustration for article titled Racing An Ex-Cop Car

A Ford Crown Victoria is not a race car. It's a large body-on-frame sedan that weighs as much as two Miatas. It's powered by a huge lump of a 4.6 liter V8, putting a measly 239hp through a slushbox transmission to the rear wheels. This was the last of the classic big American cars, made for comfort and cruising – two things that are the opposite of what a good race car needs. That makes actually racing one rather hilarious.

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Helping my case is that my Crown Victoria wasn't grandpa's boulevard cruiser, but a Police Interceptor. As I previously described, this car had been built tough for police duty. It had a better suspension, a limited slip differential, and dual exhaust – all from the factory. It's the ultimate evolution of the full size American sedan - the Crown Victoria SVT, if you will.

Illustration for article titled Racing An Ex-Cop Car
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With that in mind, I slapped my magnetic number 54 on the doors and went to a New England SVT club autocross. Autocross is arguably the worst possible place to see how my giant land barge performed, since tight twists and turns are not its strong point. But it could also be the best place, precisely because of this weakness. I've autocrossed various cars over the years, mostly Miatas in various states of tune. The cars have four wheels and are powered by the rear ones, but other than that they have nearly nothing in common. The 205/60/16 tires were tall and skinny. Compare that to 215/45/17 on my BRZ, which is 1500lbs lighter and also considered under-tired. The only reason Goodyear Eagle RS-As are standard equipment on these cars must be government contract discounts. It's certainly not for their performance, which wasn't.

But I have to say, within these grip limitations, the car actually performed decently for what it was. Despite being a big beast with a V8, I drove it like a momentum car, which I have plenty of experience with from Miatas. Handling is all about effective use of weight transfer, because there's a lot of weight to throw around. Sure, it leaned a bit in the corners, though not nearly as much as one would expect. It felt worse from inside the car, as the bucket seats offer no side bolstering whatsoever. They were made so that a police officer wearing body armor and a gun belt could easily get in and out of the car, not for holding you in tightly while you drive like a maniac on an autocross course.

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Illustration for article titled Racing An Ex-Cop Car

At first the automatic transmission held me back. It suffered from the typical slushbox limitation of always wanting to be in the highest possible gear, with a long delay between putting my foot down at corner exit to actually getting into the proper gear and accelerating the way I wanted to. But after playing around a bit, I found that this transmission is smarter than I gave it credit for at first. I knocked the column shifter all the way down to 1. This held first gear all the way to redline, at 45mph, then shifted to second despite my command to stay in first. It would then hold second gear, but downshift back to first when I slowed under 25mph. On a fairly open autocross course like we had, this was actually perfect, and with careful throttle application I could make the car shift pretty much anytime I wanted it to. Once I learned how to use it, the automatic transmission didn't actually hold me back. In fact, without a clutch pedal to worry about, I could left foot brake the whole time, allowing faster gas/brake transitions as well as better control of weight transfer for handling.

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Don't get me wrong – my times were among the slowest. I beat some of the novices, but not all, despite having been doing this for years. It didn't matter. For one thing, it was a whole lot of fun. For another, it was one of the most popular cars among my competitors. Random people kept coming up to me all day to tell me how much they enjoyed watching me hustle that beast around and how well I was doing it, regardless of what the clock said. One guy even asked to hop in for a ride on one of my runs, just to see what it was like. Of course, I let him.

After I'd upgraded the tires to Falken Ziex 912s on Grand Marquis alloys, I took myself to a Sports Car Club of Vermont time trial event at St. Lawrence Motorsports Park. This track is normally reserved for go-karts, but once or twice a year they let SCCV rent it out for cars. These are fun, laid back weekend events, with competition runs in the morning and fun runs all afternoon. I also figured that, short of a real road course actually intended for cars, a slightly more open track than the average autocross course would let the car stretch its legs a bit more.

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As before, I was thrilled to not be the slowest car there. And again, my car was extremely popular. During fun runs, the owner of a supercharged Miata asked if I'd be willing to do a few laps for a lead/follow video with him. I said sure – after all, doesn't everyone want to get video of themselves outrunning a police car without the jail time usually associated with it? But that's not what he meant – he wanted me in front, with him following. It turned out he was a driving school instructor, and he wanted the video to show his class that police cars aren't slow, and that you shouldn't try to outrun them. Of course I agreed, asking only for a copy of whatever he shot. I admit, since I wasn't competing at the time, I did embellish my driving with a little excessive power oversteer just for the camera.

Just for kicks, I also took my P71 to a New England Region SCCA rallycross. The car had a tough suspension for hopping curbs and rode an inch higher than the civilian version, so I figured that with my Firestone Winterforce snow tires and a limited slip differential, it would be a bit of good sideways fun in the dirt. And it was! Like a certain Baja Bug driver, I also scored a first place beer mug by being the only one in my class – Stock/RWD, that is, not "Crazy Mofo In A Cop Car Class."

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People at the rallycross weren't nearly as surprised at my car, nor that it actually performed rather well. I was far from the first person to bring an old cop car to a rallycross, so they already knew what it was capable of. After a couple of runs, so was I – this was a rallycross wolf in a police officer's uniform. With the right tires, I was able to power slide through the course like Roscoe P. Coltraine in hot pursuit of them Duke boys again – or at least pretend I was. Rather than being a bit of a pig like on the autocross course, here when I wanted to turn all I had to do was steer, gas, then countersteer, holding the back end out for as long as I wanted. I think that out of the various motorsports I tried in my P71, rallycross was what it did best, and what I enjoyed most. I always intended to take it out to more rallycrosses, but schedule conflicts and eventually my inspection problems kept me from ever thrashing it on the dirt again.

Illustration for article titled Racing An Ex-Cop Car
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It makes me wonder if a P71 rally car would be feasible. Sure, it weighs a lot more than most, but it's already built Ford tough, it handles the dirt well, rear wheel drive is fun, and that V8 roar would definitely set it apart from the small turbo engines most rally cars have. I imagine the heavier weight would eat up parts more quickly, but the tough body on frame construction might hold up to the abuse a bit better. Maybe someday.

(Awesome autocross action photos by Nicholas H. Crovo. The others by me.)

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