Project Zeus Gets New Shoes and Stopping Ability

When it comes to my 2002 SVT Lightning, dubbed Project Zeus, I’m more than ready to get it back on the street and ease into some autocross and even road racing. The problem? I keep uncovering more signs of neglect and misuse than with any other project I’ve encountered. To be fair, I knew this when buying it, but around each corner lurks a new issue that has me scratching my head to the point of hair loss — well, more hair loss than what’s already naturally occurring. This time, I wanted to address a much-needed F-150 brake upgrade and fresh tires before we even tune the setup.

Fueling Recap

To give you some backstory, Project Zeus is the derelict truck of my dreams. It’s a single-cab SVT product that I hope to transform into a high-performance truck that excels not only in straight-line speed, but also in handling corners. Given that this truck had been sitting for an undetermined amount of time, my first priority was to address the fuel system. There was no telling how much of the fuel system was coated in varnish from old fuel, and judging by the smell alone, it was nothing I wanted running through my engine.

At this point, I was ready to ditch Project Zeus’ entire factory fuel system. After all, fuel systems are not complicated; they consist of a fuel pump, hanger, filter, some lines, fuel rails, injectors, and, for a return-style system, a return hose and a fuel pressure regulator. Easy enough, but the real challenge is finding a company that can handle everything in one go without the need for mix and match. This is where DeatschWerks stepped in and provided a comprehensive fuel system.

Instead of relying on the factory fuel system, DeatschWerks offers a complete overhaul starting with the X3 hanger and extending to the 78 lb/hr injectors. We included a plumbing kit with PTFE hose for E85 and a dual pump wiring harness, ensuring the fuel system is both reliable and high-performing.

DeatschWerks had just released their latest X3 pump hanger, and I knew they offered a very comprehensive fuel system product lineup. The billet top hat has the ability to stage my twin DW400 fuel pumps, the post-pump filter DW110 filter has an internal magnetic catch-all attached to the filtration screen, and the 78 lb/hr (800 cc/min) injectors were the perfect combination for the full bolt-on truck. With the fuel system good to go, I thought it was time to tune the truck for the new fuel system, but after considering the lackluster stopping abilities, I decided to address the brake rotors, pads, and, while I already had the wheels off, the tires.

The Braking Point

While I want to say I uncovered my braking problems during a pre-flight checklist, the truth is, it was a driving experience that prompted me to inspect my braking components. The spongy pedal feel and the excessive pedal travel needed to achieve full braking led me to suspect a hydraulic problem, especially when I found a snail trail of fluid running down the front driver’s side caliper of Project Zeus. However, when I removed the driver’s side front wheel, the problem was much worse than originally thought.

To think this truck was once on the road — yikes! These stuck brake calipers would not retract and kept the pads fully engaged on the rotor, creating a disaster for me to uncover.

Now, I’ve seen wear before; after all, I do change my wife’s brake pads from time to time, and in her book, the radio can drastically overpower the wear indicator noise for an extended amount of time. This was different than just common wear, though. While the brake pads were obviously worn down completely, making metal-to-metal contact, the rotor was in much worse shape, but only on one side. The inner rotor portion had worn paper-thin and was chipped in multiple places.

Phenolic Problems

For those who deal with Ford trucks that have sat for an extended period of time or have high mileage, you’re probably shouting at the screen, “It’s the darn phenolic pistons in the calipers!”, and you are 100 percent correct. Phenolic pistons are made from a resin material, and when they sit for a long time or just have high mileage, they begin to swell. As you can imagine, a piston that swells is probably going to lose its ability to smoothly operate inside the cylinder. Going unnoticed, or in my case, not having a care to give, you end up with someone who drives it like this for an extended amount of time.

When the phenolic pistons expand, bad things happen. Thankfully, only the front calipers bore the brunt, but the rears also required some force to remove from the rotor.

While the phenolic pistons can resist heat, rust, and oxidation, their only real advantage to the end user is, when they fail, or rather, swell, is their price point. For around $30, I could rebuild one caliper with new pistons and seals. However, for only $75, I found the local parts house had refurbished Ford calipers ready to go as the perfect start to our F-150 brake upgrade. I’m all for saving a few bucks, especially on a simple job, but with new brake pads and rotors going on, I wanted to ensure I didn’t have to revisit this area for a while.

More Than Just Track Pads

At one of the trade shows, I noticed that EBC Brakes was entering the truck market and even using a modern F-150 to showcase their products. For me, though, it wasn’t just the participation that was inspirational, but rather the brake pad and caliper offerings that were scalable for your racing needs. My goal with Project Zeus is to slowly dip my toe into the autocross segment and maybe try a few laps at the local road course before upgrading further. Since the Lightning is still a very street-friendly vehicle, I wanted an F-150 brake upgrade that offered superior braking ability over stock but retained streetable manners. For this, I went with the EBC Yellowstuff truck sport brake pads (PN: DP41267R / DP41633R) and their slotted and dimpled vented brake rotors (PN: GD7133 / GD7154). As time progresses, we can look into more race-oriented options.

I didn't even need to grab my verneer calipers for this comparison. Each rotor had significant wear. Imagine the noises this truck made coming to a full stop!

At this point, the Fred Flintstone method of stopping would have been better than what was clinging to life behind the wheels. Since we’re upgrading, not just replacing, we chose the EBC brake pads designed for both track and street use. Unlike race brake pads that need to be heated up before working to their potential, I won’t have to worry about blowing through the stop sign at the end of my neighborhood in the early mornings or hearing the braking noise associated with race-spec brake pads. However, the EBC Yellowstuff brake pads are no slouch on the racing side and are designed to resist thermal cracking with even wear. Something we look forward to challenging in this 4,500-pound truck.

EBC Brakes came to the rescue on our F-150 brake upgrade with the Yellowstuff pads, which can handle track duty while allowing me to drive safely on the street. We decided not to go too crazy just yet and purchased a set of remanufactured and refurbished OE brake calipers.

Installing new brake pads and rotors is nothing revolutionary to write about, but since my old pads essentially fell off when the caliper was removed, and the rotors’ current state of decay, I did have to restructure my mindset on reinstallation. I started by installing new wheel bearings into the front rotors, then fully spreading the brake pads before putting the brake caliper onto the caliper mounting bracket. Once that was complete, I was able to slide the entire assembly onto the new rotor and bleed the brake system. If there was ever a pro tip worth mentioning, it’s to replace the Torx-headed brake caliper mounting bolts with hex-head bolts. 

With the brake system completely revamped, it was time to address the dry-rotted drag radials and flat-spotted front tires.

Speed And Load Rating Conundrum

Time is never kind, but in the case of rubber, whether it be brake caliper seals or tires, time is one of the most detrimental factors in their lifespan. Although looking at the rear tires stretched over the rear wheels, so are burnouts. Unfortunately, these tires have hardened, cracked, and are no longer suited for the road, let alone the track. However, a problem I never thought about when building a vehicle for more than drag racing entered the equation: load rating.

Through no fault of the manufacturer, these tires lived a rough life. With an old date code and lots of abuse, then parked and left to harden, they were past their prime. We're switching to a set of Toyo ST III tires. Seeing how trucks that tackled Pikes Peak utilized these exact tires, we're excited to see how they perform for us.

While modern engines continue to make vehicles faster, powerful mills are no longer constrained to the likes of a sports car. We’ve seen trucks routinely hitting four-digit horsepower figures, and performance sport-utilities achieving impressive times at the track. However, the key components of tire selection outside of size revolve around load rating and speed rating. It’s rare to find a tire that offers the load rating these hefty haulers inherently need but still meet the speed rating they’re capable of.

After asking around, I found that the Pikes Peak Shelby Super Snake F-150 piloted by Robert Prilika was actually using a set of Toyo Tires Proxes ST III tires. Not only was this truck thrown from corner to corner up a mountain, but it did it on much larger diameter wheels and in a slightly heavier truck than my Lightning. I’m sure I’ll eventually need to upgrade to a much stickier tire, but at this point, I’m looking for a tire that can handle corners and weather conditions more than strictly track duty. Needless to say, it was off to the tire shop with wheels in hand.

One important note to remember: the tires actually do a lot of the work in stopping, so a simple rubber swap can be the perfect compliment to your F-150 brake upgrade. In fact, we’ve driven vehicles with vastly superior braking to their OEM counterparts that had no more than upgraded pads and sticky tires.

Ah, fresh rubber! Time to load up the wheels and tires and head to the tire shop to have them mounted.

Almost Track Time!

Now that Project Zeus’ braking and traction problems are resolved, I’m just waiting to add a new set of coil packs and some spark plugs, and find a competent tuner for the supercharged brute. However, with a lead on a certain tuner out of the Kentucky area and finding an SCT Performance X4 from the previous owner in the glovebox, I think this might be coming to fruition sooner rather than later, and I might be seeing some track time soon!

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About the author

James Elkins

Born into a household of motorsport lovers, James learned that wrenching takes priority over broken skin and damaged nerves. Passions include fixing previous owners’ mistakes, writing, and driving.
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