Tom Wilson
June 1, 2006
Photos By: E. John Thawley III

Horse Sense: "The Griggs SLA front suspension has just put the strut-based Mustang suspension on the endangered species list," says Ernesto Roco. "I know this because I drove a strut setup successfully for three years."

Ernesto Roco is a computer programmer by profession, but if that suggests a fish-belly pastiness from the cubicle-under-fluorescents life, then we should explain. Ernesto is racing Mustangs as a retirement sport after an intense career racing mountain bikes that took him to the state level. Before that, it was surfing the Hawaiian north shore, some airplane piloting, and he's still involved in the U.S. Gas Championships for RC cars. He's scored a third in the nation so far.

So Ernesto gets around, thanks partially to a stint with the Air Force-that's how he got to Hawaii, Korea, and Japan-but we have mountain biking to thank for his Mustang racing. "I had gotten my masters in information systems, moved back here to California, found a job, and found myself stuck in a cubicle," he says. "I started racing mountain bikes. One of my bike races was at Laguna Seca, the Sea Otter Classic. I was doing my practice runs, and you could see the racetrack with all the cars running by, the Mustangs and Camaros flashing by. I thought, Man, I have one of those cars, I can do that. A couple of weeks later I signed up for HPDE [High Performance Driving Experience, NASA's open-track class that runs on race weekends]."

When Ernesto sustained his third mountain-biking-induced concussion in six months, the medicos told him one more would definitely be one too many, so he eventually dropped the bike racing. The resulting transition from HPDE to American Iron and finally to American Iron Extreme was all too predictable for this competitive personality. After all, he's still stuck in that cubicle 40 hours a week.

And Ernesto's goal? "Now, I'm building up the car for the Nationals at Mid-Ohio." He's out to win NASA's new national championship.

The outrageous Mustang he's using to contest that championship is about as traveled as he is. Ernesto bought the '98 Mustang Cobra new as a daily driver before he discovered NASA's road-racing program. As he moved from the street to HPDE, then to the fender-to-fender action of AI and AIX, the Cobra has gone from dead stock to carbon-fiber speed sled. And the pair has gotten increasingly competent. "At the last three races this year, I dropped the lap record by 3 to 4 seconds," Ernesto reports, and more speed is on the way.

When we pointed the camera at it, Ernesto's car was almost completely developed, but when it rolls out for the few qualifying races he's planning to run this summer, look for less-less weight, less steel, more carbon fiber, a real championship attitude.

Knowing that more races are won in the wheelwells than under hood, Ernesto has learned to go for the simplest, least amount of power that'll do the job. Three grenaded Four-Valve 4.6 engines helped him reach that conclusion; now the power comes from a dependable 331 small-block putting out, oh, 380 rear-wheel horsepower it says in the tech sheet. Built by Ford Performance Solutions, the little stroker has all forged internals, a solid-roller cam, and it wears ported Twisted Wedge heads. The intake is a Parker Funnelweb from Australia wearing a Holley 650. It's the least expensive, most reliable power source the car could have, and it's certainly well short of the AIX standard of around 500 hp at the tires.Of course, that's mainly out the window net this summer, when Ernesto will fit a 360-cube version of an aluminum-blocked 302. Also from Ford Performance Solutions, the main goal of the new engine is reduced weight, although a reasonable power boost is hoped for as well. Ernesto says he'll keep the rpm limit to 7,000 to meet his goal of using only one engine this year. That's a big part of cost containment, as he has to pay for all this from his cubicle earnings.

In case you're wondering if Ernesto might try a modular engine renaissance, his thoughts on the Four-Valve modulars are, "Those things are useless for what we're doing. They're heavy, compared to a pushrod . . . [With the 331 there is] slightly higher torque and horsepower for 160 pounds less. And that's front nose weight. The modular doesn't make sense-there is no reliability and there is a weight penalty. If you're at the track and something breaks, you're screwed. If anything breaks, a header gasket or water pump, you're in for quite a weekend. I have one wire going to the engine now, it's great." A mod-motor fan Ernesto is not.