Vinnie Kung
March 13, 2006
Photos By: Peter S. Linney

Step By Step

View Photo Gallery
0604mmfp_01z 1998_ford_mustang_cobra Left_front_view
Massive 315/35x17 Hoosier road-race tires wrap 11-inch-wide Forgeline wheels at all four corners. The carbon-fiber rear wing from Moss Racing measures a full 67 inches wide and provides the necessary downforce to keep the rear planted at high speeds. Brakes are 13x1.25 all around and are supplied by Brake Man of Camarillo, California.
0604mmfp_02z 1998_ford_mustang_cobra Engine_view
After having gone through a handful of failed 4.6s, Ernesto finally installed a 331-inch Windsor that has produced 440 reliable rear-wheel horsepower without a hiccup. Although fuel injection is legal in NASA AI and AIX, Ernesto reverted to an old-fashioned Holley 700 for simplicity. Twisted Wedge aluminum heads and a pair of sheetmetal valve covers take a significant amount of weight off of the nose. If you look closely, you'll see the absence of the front struts. This is because an entire SLA conversion by Griggs Racing was installed, replacing the original modified MacPherson strut setup. The braking system is all now inboard (mounted in the interior.)
0604mmfp_03z 1998_ford_mustang_cobra Interior_view
All business, all the time. The Cobra Evolution seat sits about 10 inches back from where it's supposed to for more desirable weight distribution. A custom shift linkage connects to a Pro-5.0 shifter that rows the cogs within the road-race version of the Tremec 3550. Tilton brakes are adjustable for bias and incredibly easy to get to.

It always starts with a few bolt-ons and a couple of days at the track. The story is all too familiar--boy meets car, boy modifies car, boy then becomes obsessed and nothing can stop him from building the fastest car he can afford. In the Mustang universe, this usually applies to those with a drag racing bent, but unlike most, Ernesto Roco went down a different route with an addiction that was just as fierce. Rather than go in a straight line for 1,320 feet, his compulsion was road racing.

After taking delivery of this '98 Cobra off of the showroom floor, his SVT Mustang would soon follow his maniacal desires for the next six years. "Not long after I bought it," Ernesto says, "I started modifying it for better handling, braking, and acceleration. I began entering open track events, and soon after, time trial competition, and it was only downhill from there. Looking for more of an adrenaline rush, I opted to join the newly created NASA American Iron (AI) series in 2001."

His toy project soon became a serious effort, as the Cobra was quickly converted to a dedi-cated race car. Taking into consideration the competition that usually fills the paddock in AI, Ernesto did not want to be left behind on the starting grid when those pesky LS1 F-cars rolled around, so to make up for the number-one deficit, he concentrated on horsepower.

He started off with the 4.6-liter powerplant, but after a few mechanical hiccups and several overhauls with the overhead cam engines, it was time to move forward by going backward. Instead of rebuilding the quad cammer, an old-school-but-still-cool 302 replete with pushrods was swapped in. "I switched to the pushrod motor with a carburetor" Ernesto says, "and it has been great and reliable ever since--not to mention cost-effective. I wanted to keep everything simple and didn't want to over-engineer the car, thus, the carbureted engine without dry sump oiling or even a fan. It seems to work for me."

Starting with a late-model 302 block as a foundation, Ford Performance Solutions of Anaheim, California, bored and stroked the engine for 331 inches. The zero-balanced steel crank, Manley rods, and 10.5:1 pistons were then assembled into the freshly machined E7 casting. A Crane solid roller cam was slid into place. With Twisted-Wedge heads and a Parker Funnelweb intake, the now 5.4-liter puts out a healthy 440 hp at the wheels. Certainly impressive in power numbers alone, even more so is that it keeps cranking out the fun lap after lap, and currently powers the Cobra to several BTDs (Best Time of Day) in the current AIX configuration. Even though it is down on power compared to the rest of the American Iron Extreme (AIX) field, it's still running fine with the less-powerful American Iron (AI) engine.

Aside from the powerplant, the Cobra gets a lot of attention for its incredible handling and braking. Here, Ernesto relied on Griggs Racing and its entire bag of tricks to make his snake out-slither the AI and AIX fields. Up front, Griggs' radical SLA (Short Long Arm) front suspension system does away with the factory Ford modified MacPherson setup. It includes a specially designed crossmember, with a fully adjustable SLA with Koni coilovers integrated as one unit. With the new SLA, camber gain is achieved under compression as well as during normal steering without excessive base settings. Unsprung and sprung weight is reduced, and dialing in base caster, initial camber, and Ackerman is greatly simplified. Ultimately, it allows the front tires to be fully planted in just about any circumstance in a racing environment.

Red, loud, and proud! Ernesto Roco's '98 Cobra recently earned him the '05 AIX West (American Iron Extreme) championship. The heavily modified SVT hammers the West Coast road courses with Griggs Racing suspension bits and Tiger Racing roof and front fender skins. Royalty Auto Body in Santa Monica, California, gets the credit for making the Rio Red snake look as good as it runs on the road course.

In addition to the SLA, a Griggs adjustable front antisway bar dials out the understeer that plagues all Mustangs. In back, the remainder of Griggs' special tricks is put into place as a cam-bered 8.8 rear with 9-inch Ford housing ends holds 3.73 gears and a Torsen LSD. There is no rear sway bar.

Incredibly, even with his less-radical AI engine, Ernesto has been extremely competitive in the AIX fields. His most current conquests to date include a stellar 1:28.0 lap time on the big track at Willow Springs and a 1:53.7 at Buttonwillow. The Reseda, California-based racer has even won the '05 NASA AIX West championship. So not only does he know how to build a car (which he has practically done all on his own in his garage), but he also knows his way around a set of turns.

As an aside, you should be aware that Ernesto has managed to carefully whittle the car's weight to an anorexic 2,500 pounds, wet. AIX requires a 2,700-pound minimum, so with driver, the car is barely legal for weight. Future plans call for another 100-pound weight reduction and the subsequent addition of ballast, so he can move the weight where he wants it.

Soon, Ernesto will step up to a complete AIX engine and look for the horsepower necessary to stay at the top in 2006. Thanks to his wife, Pam, he's been blessed with a supportive family that understands his late-night obsessions with cotter pins, lug nuts, and grease. It paid off in 2005, and hopefully, it will work out for him this year. After all, it's not getting to the top that's hard--it's staying there.