At the most fundamental level, there are essentially three methods to apply inputs to a modern automobile – throttle, brake, and steering. While that keeps things fairly simple, it means that a vehicle’s general behavior is largely dependent on the responsiveness and precision of these inputs. And while it may seem pretty straightforward at first glance, among these three the steering system is arguably the input where those attributes matter most.
For high performance driving – particularly in a competition setting – having a steering rack that’s appropriate to the application can mean the difference between a podium and a DNF. Beyond simply pointing the vehicle in different directions, the type of steering rack used determines not only steering precision, but also the weight of the steering wheel in hand as well as the feedback that it provides back to the driver when the tires are reaching the limits of grip.
While improving control of your car’s cornering behavior on the street is undoubtedly desirable, for road racers and autocross competitors like Brett Madsen, the search for the ideal setup is a near-endless pursuit; and every step closer to that goal should equate to faster lap times.
While a standard rack might be tuned to be numb and slow for the sake of ease of operation in a street car, performance-tuned units can not only allow for faster and more precise inputs, but can relay more information to the driver–through the steering wheel to allow them to adjust their driving for faster laps. And that’s to say nothing of the potential weight savings that a high quality steering rack can provide, which removes pounds from the front of the car, one of the places where it matters the most.
Simply put, this one provides instantaneous inputs. – Mike Close, Flaming River
It’s that line of logic that inspired SCCA road racer and autocross competitor Brett Madsen to turn to Flaming River for a steering rack to swap into his 1999 Roush Stage 2 Mustang. Although the car sees regular use in competition the car is still street driven on occasion, so finding a balance between performance and usability was crucial for Madsen’s particular needs.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at the Flaming River steering rack to get an idea of how it differs from the stock unit, take you through some of the highlights of the installation, and get some feedback from Madsen on the results of the swap.
Stepping Up Your Steering Game
Along with being both stronger and lighter than the Cobra R rack previously installed in Madsen’s Mustang, the Flaming River rack (PN. FR40039) offers a number of design benefits as well. “Our rack offers a full 6-inches of travel versus the roughly 5-inches on the factory unit,” explained Mike Close of Flaming River. “It’s also lighter with more travel, which means it’s more responsive. With a 12:1 ratio and 2.5 turns lock to lock, it means less spinning of the steering wheel is required to have the rack complete its full length of travel, which translates to tighter and faster turns.”
Improving a car's power to weight ratio is a fundamental element of performance. Aside from unsprung weight, taking pounds off the front of the car is perhaps the most important spot to reduce mass. With the steering rack installed so far forward in the Mustang, shaving a few pounds here is certainly a nice bonus that the Flaming River rack provides.
Flaming River Power Steering Rack For '94-'04 Ford Mustang
Each of Flaming River’s power racks is pressure tested and certified before it leaves their facility. The streamlined valve housing cuts some weight and allows the rack to be compatible in stock and multiple aftermarket chassis platforms, and their racks are also stronger than their OEM counterparts due to the utilization of a 1-inch diameter rack shaft.
That last part is of particular interest to autocross racers like Madsen, where quick response and precision matter the most. “The Cobra R rack that was on the car struggled to deliver immediate inputs and had a small dead zone towards the center of the wheel,” he told us. “Simply put, this one provides instantaneous inputs.”
Beyond the inherent design differences, it’s easy to forget that steering rack components wear out over time. As they do, the tightness of the rack – and in turn its overall performance – start to wane over time, which provides an incentive for the upgrade in and of itself. “Worn out gears – or even rebuilt racks – can yield sloppy steering response,” Close said. “And the deterioration of internal components like the valves, piston, seals, bearings and bushings will start to erode that responsiveness.”
While the braided lines provide from clearance flexibility for the installation, it’s worth noting that if your suspension uses some aftermarket components, this may not be a simple drop-in swap, since altering the suspension’s geometry can have a fairly dramatic affect on fitment.
The fact that Flaming River includes flexible stainless braided lines versus hard fixed lines commonly used with OEM steering racks offers greater flexibility to avoid clearance issues – a feature that’s especially useful when working on a heavily modified vehicle like Madsen’s Mustang.
Speaking of modification, there’s no shortage of it in this Mustang. Modifying those components not only puts fitment and clearance in question, it potentially changes the suspension’s geometry from the stock setup, so fitting a new rack that isn’t necessarily tailor-made for a specific combination of aftermarket components can present a few challenges.
“We discovered that the tie rod threads on this particular kit are 9/16-18, which are different 14mm threads standard you’d normally find on a 94-04 Mustang,” Madsen told us.
While Madsen's installation was a bit more involved than a typical steering rack swap due to the extensive modifications the car already had going in, with a little ingenuity he was able to get the combination of components he wanted to use to work together.
“Because of that, we couldn’t use just any bump steer kit or SN95 tie rods in this specific project – a Fox-specific bump steer sleeve or tie rods needed to be used. CorteX Racing was able to provide us with sleeves that would work here, with extended length for better thread engagement.”
For Madsen’s project, there were also some steering shaft considerations to take into account as well. “I wanted to continue using the Maximum Motorsports steering shaft I had,” Madsen said.
“It was a little tricky, because Flaming River uses a different sized shaft engagement than standard 79-04 Mustangs do. So, in an effort to continue using the MM steering shaft, I hammered the u-joint assemblies off both shafts and swapped them, so I ended up using the MM shaft with just the FR input assembly that connects to the rack itself. Eventually I figured everything out, and was able to put everything together in my garage. The first time I started the car I had no leaks and great steering feel.”
Road And Track
Out on the autocross course, Madsen said the changes were immediately noticeable. But since this upgrade changes multiple attributes of steering response, it also required some adjustment of his technique to get the most out of it.
“Going to the Flaming River rack felt like the steering was as light as a feather. This is both good and bad from an autocrosser’s perspective. A light steering wheel allows for fast inputs without minimal resistance, but having that light wheel means you also have to rely on other senses to help provide feedback.”
While the Flaming River rack's steering effort is lighter than the Cobra R rack that Madsen was using previously, the quicker ratios and lack of dead zone slop in the new rack meant that he could start his corner transitions later since he no longer had to wait for the steering system to react to his inputs.
But he’s also quick to point out that the results of the new setup are obvious when put into practice. “With that being said, I definitely prefer the Flaming River rack over the Cobra R rack. I simply had to adjust to the fact that I no longer had to lead the car with an early steering input (like the Titanic turning miles ahead trying to avoid an iceberg) like I did before. Now because of the quick response, I could initiate inputs later; and it really helped me flow through the course at El Toro to a first place finish in CAM-C by 3.8 seconds. From a racing perspective the rack absolutely gets my thumbs up.”
Madsen also said the new rack proved to be easy to live with out on public roads as well. “The street driving portion was also quite nice, with effortless drivability as to be expected from a lighter feeling steering rack. It was pleasantly well-behaved during the three hour round trip drive to the event on the freeway and on city streets, making this an incredibly well rounded and great addition to any car, whether it’s for street or track – or both.”
Looking to replace your tired steering system with a better-than-OEM solution? Flaming River’s USA-made steering racks may be just the thing for your late model or classic domestic. Give ‘em a shout and find out what your car is really capable of.