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Ford Racing's Cobra Jet Program - Launch Vehicle
The evolving story of the modern Cobra Jet
On September 28, 2013, Ford Motor Company sent a unique and decidedly extroverted satin orange Mustang Cobra Jet across the block of Barrett-Jackson’s Las Vegas auction, where it quickly drew a winning bid of $200,000—all of which went straight into the charitable coffers of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Like every other late-model Cobra Jet, BJMS CJXX1 is equally likely to win big in NHRA Stock Eliminator quarter-mile competition because current-generation CJs have been a dominant force ever since their introduction in 2008—exactly four decades after the original ’68 Cobra Jet thundered onto the scene.
Purpose-built drag cars, these present-day Cobra Jets (so far built as ’08, ’10, ’12, ’13, and ’14 models, and officially known as FR500CJ in Ford Racing-speak) are serialized but carry no VIN numbers, so they are absolutely not street legal. Yet NHRA rules require them to be production-based and have essentially stock exteriors and interiors, so that the CJ—like its cross-town drag-strip rivals, the COPO Camaro and Challenger Drag Pak—lives up to the factory-based spirit of the sanctioning body’s “stock” classes.
Every modern Cobra Jet has started off from the same basic unibody structure as a regular production Mustang, spot-welded together in the Flat Rock plant. Looking back, the run of ’08 CJs was assembled in a Roush facility, while the ’10, ’12, and ’13 Cobra Jets were assembled right at the Mustang’s Flat Rock, Michigan, assembly plant. For the ’14 build, each body-in-white leaves Flat Rock and travels a few miles to a newly established Cobra Jet build facility at Watson Engineering, where every seam is completely stitch welded for the rigors of track use and an NHRA-spec roll cage is installed.
With the exception of the Barrett-Jackson car, ’14 CJs are offered in just three colors. Two of those—Oxford White and Gotta-Have-It Green—are regular-production colors, and Cobra Jets ordered in either of those two hues are returned to the Flat Rock factory for paint after cage installation. The third ’14 color, Flat Black, is not a factory offering and has to be applied in a separate, specialized Detroit-area paint facility. Despite costing a $5,995 premium over the factory colors, this menacing flat black has proven popular, with no less than 30 of the 50 ’14 CJs so ordered (15 were done in white and just five in green.) Once painted, the caged unibodies then return to the Watson build facility for hand assembly.
In the meantime, the CJ engines—now based on the production 5.0L Boss 302 block—are meticulously hand assembled in yet another Motor City facility (’08 through ’12 CJs used versions of the 5.4L 4V engine). Though the block itself is stock, it gets filled with a race-spec oil pump, Manley H-beam connecting rods, and custom Mahle pistons, but uses a stock Boss 302 crankshaft and topped with the Boss production CNC-ported cylinder heads. The ’14 CJ was offered (we say “was” because all 50 sold out immediately when first announced in March 2013) in either naturally-aspirated or supercharged form. However, all 50 (plus the Barrett-Jackson prototype) were ordered with the Ford Racing/Whipple 2.9L twin-screw supercharger. For NHRA competition, this blown combination is rated at 525 hp.
As far as assembly, the CJs go together using a combination of production Mustang trim, wiring, and body parts, along with aftermarket race-spec components. Transmission offerings have evolved since ’08 and have included production Tremec six-speed or Liberty-built manual gearboxes, as well as a variety of two- and three-speed automatics. For ’14, the “base” transmission is a three-speed automatic using a new Reid Racing SFI-approved case and built by race tranny specialists at Joel’s on Joy near Detroit.
Cobra Jet front suspensions are of stock layout but use adjustable Ford Racing struts and forego an anti-roll bar. Early CJs had aftermarket manual steering racks but, from the ’13 Cobra Jet onward, the production Mustang’s electric power-assist steering (EPAS) system has been included, greatly improving pit-area and other slow speed maneuvering.
At the rear, the CJ uses a Strange Engineering 9-inch axle with aluminum center section packed with a spool and 4.88 gears. Axle location is via three-link setup with an adjustable Panhard bar and sway bar. Further back yet, an Aeromotive fuel cell and dual batteries reside in the trunk.
Strange Engineering lightweight drag brakes are standard equipment, and the wheels (15x3.5, front; 15x10, rear) are specifically made for the CJ by Weld Racing, imprinted with the Cobra Jet name and snake logo. Even the Goodyear slicks carry the snake logo. A wheelie bar is a new option for ’14, and a parachute mount is now integrated into the rear bumper, though the CJ does not include the parachute kit itself.
We mentioned that these new CJs have had much race success, starting immediately with a win that amazingly paralleled the debut of the’68 Cobra Jet. Historians in the readership will remember that the ’68 CJ won the very first national event it entered, the NHRA’s 1969 Winternationals. That winning car was driven by Al Joniec. Fast forward four decades, when four ’08 Cobra Jets were entered in the 2009 Winternationals, each lettered up like one of those original ’68 CJs. One was decaled up just like Joniec’s ’68 car—and promptly went out and won its debut event, a storybook start to the new Cobra Jet’s racing career. CJs have since gone on to win at least one NHRA National event every year since—far outpacing their GM and Mopar rivals.
Why has the Cobra Jet seen such success? With each new model, it has evolved to remain a winner. “To keep a program relevant, it has to continually evolve, to continually be competitive, and be able to win,” says Jesse Kershaw, Ford Racing’s Drag Racing and Competition Manager. “And that’s what I think we’ve delivered better than everyone else.”
With a new Mustang just around the corner, it’s reasonable to assume that a new Cobra Jet will follow, as the CJs, along with COPO Camaros and Challenger Drag Paks, have taken the NHRA Stock classes by storm. Get your order in early because, as always, there will only be 50 made. Oh, and maybe a prototype that may well cross another Barrett-Jackson auction block in the name of charity.
CJ for Charity
Carrying the unique serial number “#2014 BJMS CJXX1,” the philanthropic pony that crossed the block at Barrett-Jackson had served as the prototype for the 50 NHRA-legal Cobra Jets that Ford was building for the ’14 model year. It was the only one finished in the wild flat-orange paint scheme. As if to confirm its true purpose, this singular CJ crossed the auction’s televised stage with the shredded rubber remnants of a test burnout still proudly coating its rear quarter-panels. A big win for charity and National Multiple Sclerosis Society research, to be sure.