1968 Ford Mustang Cobra Jet posing on the line at Lebanon Valley Dragway. All photos by the author.
Forgive me if I am telling you something you already know, but drag racing is not nearly as easy as it looks. Not even close.
You wouldn’t think it possible to embarrass yourself on the drag strip running a modified, one-owner, 1968 Ford Mustang Cobra Jet factory race car, but indeed I did with a horrendous performance that could be measured with a calendar or perhaps even carbon dating.
With owner Vinny Lyons at the wheel, the Cobra Jet heads toward a quarter-mile in the mid-11s at well over 100 MPH.
During the highly-attended Musclepalooza XXIII, I had the opportunity to pilot that Cobra Jet down the strip at Lebanon Valley Dragway. And not just any old Cobra Jet, either, but one of the first 50 Ford built exclusively as racers in order to homologate the Mustang for various stock classes. With a little more than 700 miles on the car and only one owner of record since new, this unrestored Cobra Jet is a genuine piece of history.
We’ll get to the challenges I faced—and failed miserably at overcoming—in a bit, but first, some back story on the car. Vinny Lyons, of Westchester County, New York, was working for Rye Ford as a mechanic and part-time racer, when the dealership received one of the cars in 1968. Vinny raced it and then his boss sold him the car at the end of the season. To date, the car still has less than 750 miles on it. From new! Though titled once, it has never been driven on the street.
Vinny Lyons with his 730-something original mile 1968 Ford Cobra Jet. No, we are not missing any digits in that number.
We met Vinny at a previous Musclepalooza, where the 70-something racer had the car dialed in at 11.50, a fairly reasonable time for the modified Mustang, which now sports a 491-cu.in. bored-and-stroked version of Ford’s even more potent 427 that is squishing fuel at a 13.5:1 ratio that requires 112-octane racing fuel. Vinny graciously spent the afternoon with us, giving us a chance to photograph the car and tell his story with it. It’s truly a great tale that speaks to the racers out there who are still hitting hard those cars that were made 40 or 50 years ago with the sole purpose of punishing the pavement 1,320 feet at a time.
For some reason—and I don’t ask questions here—Vinny offered me the chance to take it down the line. Given my relative inexperience, I balked at first, but, ever the gentleman, Vinny insisted. Meeting Vinny and the fire-breathing Mustang just before the line, my helmet in tow, I was given some very basic instructions on piloting the beast—perhaps too basic.
Owner and driver Vinny Lyons showing the proper way to launch a slick-shod, 491-cu.in. big-block Mustang.
I will preface the post-mortem of my run with a very important note. On most days, working for Hemmings is a pretty good gig. On the days when I am offered the chance to drive cars of my childhood—and adult—dreams, it is unquestionably one of the best jobs on Earth. However, with the utmost of respect for the private owners of these cars that share them with us, we often take great care to treat them with kid gloves. Perhaps that is the way to go with a 1928 Marmon or 1956 Jaguar, but it turns out to be the wrong approach at the dragstrip with a slick-shod racer running a hot cam.
Skipping the burnout—my first mistake, but, again, see above about the kid gloves treatment, I easily stage, passing the first test of how to not embarrass yourself at the strip. With that big tach in front of me and the light tree off to my right, I watch as the last amber light illuminates and proceed to nurse it off the line, figuring I’ll get a feel for the power later. Big mistake! The nearly one-second reaction time is probably the least bad piece of hard, statistical information about my run in the Cobra Jet. From then on, it just got worse.
These things should probably have a warning label: “Will not come close to working properly unless heated up by a spectacularly smoky burnout.”
Despite my extremely uneducated guesstimate that the slicks would be plenty sticky with the hot day and sweltering pavement, I simply could get no traction once leaving the box. In first and second gears, the tires spun, ravenously searching for any grip whatsoever, only to be denied by the simple laws of physics. There is probably some Newtonian explanation to my awful quarter-mile, but an absolute lack of friction, traction, grip—whatever you want to call it doomed me to an absolutely abysmal clocking when I eventually reached the timing lights. It only seemed like an eternity because it was.
How awful was it? Well, as you’ll infer from the heavily redacted timeslip below, a Volkswagen Type 2 bus running low-grade, contaminated fuel with a couple of burnt valves towing a full-size motorhome over the Rockies could have passed me.
If you had mailed a self-addressed, stamped envelope it would have gone and come back before I had tripped the lights. Remember that last time you went to the DMV to renew your license? That went by in a flash compared to my run. If I had put a sail up above the car, I would have sped things up.
Redacted to save what little face the author has left.
With so much trouble getting traction, one of my main fears of missing a shift or banging through the gears too hard—as if!—ended up being the very least of my problems. With no traction at all to speak of, it was almost a shocker that I ever got to the end of the quarter at all. I figured they would have to send out a posse at some point to find me.
If I actually had any shame at all, you would have seen big puddles of it all over the quarter-mile at Lebanon Valley Dragway. I figured a careful approach would have netted me something in the high 12s or low 13s, with a trap speed just into the triple digits. But there is no scenario where “nursing” a mean, lean, fuel-spitting, 491-cu.in. big-block Ford with slicks gets you anywhere with any alacrity.
Now, I am just a writer and photographer, which would normally be a good excuse, but I’ve driven cars in the 12s and 13s, though, admittedly, shod with street tires and modern drivelines. Frankly, zipping off runs in those brackets is practically child’s play in a modern performance car. Those cars can still get traction when not dumping the clutch at 3,500 RPM.
And that’s probably what I should have done. Getting that Cobra Jet out of the box, as Vinny is an absolute expert at, requires hitting it hard where the traction is best.
The return road offered its own walk of shame feeling as the quips and jeers from the crowd at the fence made it well known that there were plenty of witnesses to my futility. Vinny, again, ever the gentleman, actually felt bad that he didn’t give me better advice. I won’t say that you can’t teach stupid, but I should have known better than to take it easy on a car that doesn’t do easy.
Fortunately, I learned a lesson—the hard way, as usual. Perhaps the next time, I will break into the 20-second barrier. There will be a next time, right? Right?