The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same






Publication: National Dragster
Author: McKenna, Kevin
Date published: October 29, 2010

Dear ND,

Why doesn't NHRA factor the horsepower of the Cobra Jet engine high enough to advance all of the Cobra Jet Mustangs up one class? The situation of the Cobra Jet Mustangs seems quite similar to that of the '69 AMXs, which were originally classified as SS/D cars but were reclassified as SS/C when they were clearly faster than the cars competing in SS/C. On the basis of their performance, it seems clearly necessary to advance Cobra Jet Mustangs for the same reason.

The above letter was written in March 1973 by an obviously disgruntled West Coast NHRA class racer, but it could just as easily have been written last week.

It's funny how history has a way of repeating itself. More than 40 years after the debut of the original Cobra Jet Mustang, Ford produced another factory race car that has changed the landscape of NHRA Sportsman racing. Fittingly, Chrysler has also once again come along for the ride, offering up the Drag Pak version of its sporty new Challenger as a purpose-built race car. What should not be the least bit surprising to anyone who has followed the history of NHRA class racing is that the new machines have come along with their own ready-made controversy.

At the center of the debate is the horsepower rating assigned to the Cobra Jet and Drag Pak entries that have allowed them to put up numbers previously unheard of in Stock and Super Stock. It was less than a decade ago that Stockers first began flirting with the nine-second zone, and today, Don Fezell's "Daddy Warbucks" Cobra Jet has made several runs in the 9.3s, and with speeds approaching 150 mph, the day can't be too far off when we actually see a parachute mounted to the back of a Stocker. The Super Stock version of the Cobra Jet is equally potent, running numbers that rival the performance of the SS/AH Hemi cars.

The greater point of contention among some vocal opponents revolves around the fact that the performance of the new generation of supercars is miles ahead of their older and more traditional counterparts. The popular combinations that have traditionally dominated the upper classes simply aren't capable of going head to head with the new iron during class eliminations and heads-up runs. Several weeks ago at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the Cobra Jets and Drag Paks claimed 10 of the top 16 spots in qualifying and won titles in six classes from AA/SA through G/SA, and in most cases, did so without breaking a sweat.

An easy solution, you might say, is to simply just adjust the horsepower ratings to reflect a more realistic number. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy, and as is often the case in chess, poker, and life in general, the first instinct isn't always the most correct one.

There is a reason why these cars have suddenly become so popular. Yes, they are exceptionally cool and feature all of the latest automotive technology that Detroit can muster, but the real reason that they have been gobbled up by racers and are quickly finding their way to dragstrips is because they are extremely competitive. Even though Ford and Chrysler have eliminated most of the heavy lifting by incorporating many racer-friendly features into these vehicles, they still require a large investment of time and money before they are ready for the racetrack, and if they were somehow handicapped before having the ability to show anything close to their true performance potential, I just don't believe we'd be seeing the debut of so many new cars.

The simple fact is - and I'm not just toeing the company line here - is that the Cobra Jet Mustangs and Drag Pak Challengers are the best things to happen to Sportsman racing since the invention of the Christmas Tree. The factories haven't shown this much interest in NHRA Sportsman racing since the 1960s, and I'd like for some of the naysayers to explain to me how anything that potentially brings 100 or more new racers into the sport can possibly be a bad thing. Four-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. built a Drag Pak Challenger, and fellow Pro Stock racer Allen Johnson presented one to his father, Roy, as a Christmas present last year. Funny Car racer Bob Tasca III also reportedly owns a Cobra Jet Mustang, and who could have imagined that the arrival of a Stock car would generate enough excitement to lure Top Fuel legend "Big Daddy" Don Garlits out of retirement?

That being said, the issue of a level playing field still remains. The Automatic Horsepower Factoring System (AFHS), a sliding scale that NHRA uses to adjust horsepower ratings and weights, has been working overtime this year. Most of the Cobra Jet and Drag Pak combinations have already been hit with additional horsepower this year, some of them multiple times.

For the most part, the AFHS is very effective. For example, when the fuel-injected LT1 and LS1 GM entries hit the track in the late 1990s, they enjoyed a similar performance advantage against their carbureted rivals. However, the system ultimately worked well enough to bring each combination into line, and now, it's not uncommon to see a pair of Chevy Camaros, one fuel-injected late model and the other a carbureted first-generation entry, compete headsup in class eliminations with neither combination having a distinct advantage.

In light of the current situation, the NHRA Tech Department is pondering a number of options in their ongoing quest to provide a level playing field. One possible solution, which is reportedly very likely to be implemented this winter, is to adjust the AFHS to make horsepower adjustments more frequently, and in some cases more drastically, than before. Under the current system, any run that is more than 1.25 seconds under the index triggers an immediate horsepower increase of 3.25 percent for that particular combination. Any other run that is more than a second under the index is subject to a review, which takes place twice a year and could result in adjustments ranging from 1.25 to 2.25 percent. Perhaps, a 5 to 7 percent increase would be more effective.

Another intriguing option would be the creation of separate classes, most likely labeled Factory Experimental, which would give the Cobra Jets and Drag Paks (and perhaps a forthcoming General Motors entry) a playground of their own. In that case, the factories would be free to do battle against each other using their latest and greatest while the overall integrity of Stock would not be compromised.

Now, where have I seen that before? Say, didn't NHRA create a Factory Experimental class in the 1960s the last time the muscle cars rolling out of Detroit continued to push the outer limits of performance? Yeah, I thought so.

Author affiliation:

kmckenna@nhra.com

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