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7-Seconds To Glory—A look at how Factory Super Cars have evolved into the monsters they are today

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The car that started the supercharged factory drag racing program craze, the 2008 Cobra Jet.
By Brian Lohnes

Photography by Fastest Street Car

It’s incredible when you think about it. Factory produced cars with factory produced parts are knocking on the seven second barrier. Not just knocking, but kicking, clawing, and racing to be the first to do it. The situation is so hot that Holley stepped up to create the Holley EFI Factory Super Car 7-second club that will reward the first handful of drivers to bust into the 7s with everything from big bucks to product certificates and jackets. The jackets mean the most. Drag racing performance clubs have always been defined that way and this one is no different.

Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge are the major players here, as they have been for more than half a century at drag strips across the country. Along the way there have been others. Departed brands like Pontiac were at the forefront of factory performance in the early part of the 1960s but their reign was pretty short. The big brands knew in the 1960s what they know now and that is the fact that cars that look like factory cars competing against each other bring a level of intensity, brand loyalty, and fervor that nothing else in the sport of drag racing can bring.

Before we understand how we have gotten to the point that Factory Super Car competitors are seeking a seven second time slip, we need to understand where the roots of this style of drag racing came from and to do that we need to go back in years…a lot of years.

The Roots of a Performance War

It was 1960 when Wally Parks decided to have the NHRA Nationals in Detroit to lure the factories into the sport. His idea worked flawlessly. The packed race wowed automotive executives at the time and quickly skunkworks projects popped up from the likes of the Detroit brands to capture this newly recognized horsepower crazed generation. By 1962 Chrysler had introduced its Max Wedge powered cars and Pontiac was building lightweight versions of their Catalina with a 421ci V8. Chevrolet responded with the 1962 Z-11 409 Impala which had a 430hp version of the famed 409ci W-engine. It only got more serious from there.

The roots of today’s performance wars really shaped up in 1964 with the introduction of the race Hemi from Chrysler and the 427ci high riser powered Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt. Chevrolet was stuffing 427ci versions of their 409 engine into cars to compete with these machines and it was in 1964 that we first saw a situation that exists today. Limited production numbers. The Thunderbolt and race Hemi powered Mopars were “sold” sparingly. 50 examples of each, depending on who you listen to, made it into the hands of talented and popular racers at the time. Unlike the pricey cost of entry today, these were “dollar cars” sold to racers for exactly that amount and then used to promote the various performance advantages of the particular brand.

1968 brought the second salvo with the Hurst Hemi Dart and Barracuda crop along with the introduction of the Cobra Jet Mustang from Ford. 1968 also hailed the dam break for COPO Camaro orders. About 104 of the 427 equipped had been built in 1967 on special orders but with a new process and multiple dealers on the program, the 427 COPO Camaro was every bit the monster that the Fords and Mopars were and they were made in volume.

The Improbable Launch of a Three Way Horsepower Battle Royale

Now we jump 50 years into the future. Why? In many ways, 1968 was the pinnacle of factory drag race car production. Classes like pro stock, super stock, and stock eliminator were less factory driven from that point on and more racer driven. The machines racing in pro stock by the early 1970s were far from a factory offering and the way that the government was coming down on manufacturers meant that previous performance engineering dollars were now going to emissions and safety projects. Performance became a dirty word in Detroit and the cars reflected it.

The 2017 Cobra Jet is a legit mid-8 second ride, as it is delivered by Ford. Tweaking on the package has enabled many teams to be knocking on the 7s like its Mopar and Chevy counterparts.

A steady climb out of the performance doldrums in the 1980s accelerated in the 1990s and then hit critical mass in 2008 when Ford debuted the revival version of the Cobra Jet at that year’s SEMA show. It caused a sensation before it had ever turned a public wheel at the drag strip. The car not only got people excited, it was a perfectly executed home run. John Calvert took one to the NHRA Winternationals in 2009 and won the race, replicating the win by legendary Ford racer Al Joniec in 1968 and launching the Cobra Jet program into the stratosphere in terms of public interest and popularity. Those 2008 model year Cobra Jets ran 10.0s with a blown 5.4L version of the engine used in Shelby Mustangs at the time. Modern performance was back, but would the other factories get involved?

As it turns out, they would.

Bring On The Mopars

The quickest and fastest factory drag race vehicle is the Dodge Challenger. Geoff Turk has run 8.02 at 170 mph with the Whipple-supercharged Gen III Hemi.

Chrysler actually had a jump on everyone but crummy economics and a calamitous company environment hampered their program. The company unveiled a concept Drag Pak Challenger at the 2006 SEMA show. Then the economy collapsed and nearly took Chrysler with it. The company hung tough and came through the other side of some very dark days.

In July 2008 Don Garlits and Judy Lilly matched raced Drag Paks at the NHRA Mile High Nationals but the cars were not for sale yet and they were driving the only two examples on Earth. Finally, in February 2009 Chrysler started taking orders for the Drag Pak program and by the very end of that year, through bankruptcy fears, buyouts, and craziness, the first production Drag Pak Challengers were being built and delivered.

Unlike Cobra Jets these cars were not sold complete. They had lightweight components, NHRA approved engines, a dummy transmission, and a trailer axle under the back of the car. The buyer’s job was to finish it. Drag Pak Challengers also lacked a blower and NHRA would not allow one because no production Challenger could be bought with one. That’s why a V10 version was unveiled in 2011 to try and compete better with the supercharged Cobra Jets. It helped to narrow the gap but did not close it.

Speaking of gaps, what about Chevrolet?

General Motors Enters The Fray

While weathering the same stormy financial waters as Chrysler and Ford, Chevrolet engineers had begun putting pen to paper on a version of their then-new 5th generation Camaro to compete with the Drag Pak and Cobra Jet crowds. Unveiled at the 2011 SEMA show, the COPO Camaro would become reality in 2012 with 69 examples produced for public consumption. Chevrolet was not screwing around. They may have been the third man in but they did not come in softly. The 8.80-second time slips the car produced, powered by a blown version of the 5.3L LS engine buried the best Mopar performers and put them squarely in battle with the Fords. 54 years after 1968, old foes had once again risen from the mat to challenge each other.

General Motors measured approach for entering this market paid off. The cars were immediately competitive and while it took some time for the first outright national event win, the COPO was a force to be contended with from the day the first one rolled into the water box in late 2012.

A third supercharger changes the face of the rivalry

While the Mustang Cobra Jet owned the factory drag car scene for outright performance until the 2012 introduction of the supercharged COPO Camaro, there was still an element missing from the mix. The fact that Dodge did not have a competitive supercharged entry left many Mopar fans in a lurch and without any drivers to root for in the ever-growing heads up scene for these cars. This all got fixed in 2015 with the introduction of the 2016 model year supercharged Drag Pak Challenger. Equipped with a 354ci version of the Gen III Hemi topped with a Whipple supercharger, the machine was built with Ford and Chevrolet square in its sights. Because of the availability of a factory supercharged Challenger in the form of the Hellcat, NHRA signed off on the car. The engine package in the Drag Pak is different from the Hellcat but it shares architecture. Good enough for them, good enough for us.

With notoriously awesome factory heads, a 52ci displacement advantage over the Ford 302ci Coyote engine, and the world becoming more blown Hemi obsessed by the day with the runaway success of the Hellcat, this seemed like the perfect moment for Mopar to burst onto the scene and steal everyone’s lunch money. Except they didn’t. A dispute regarding piston legality kept the majority of the supercharged cars out of heads-up competition in 2016 but with the proper factory-supplied slugs installed, things started to look up in a hurry.

NMCA Changes The Game – The Race To The 7s Is On

While other organizations had run classes that featured the modern factory drag machines, they competed on a series of indexes or other handicaps that the average drag racing fan likely did not understand. Rather than follow that lead, the NMCA blazed a new drag racing trail with their announcement of the heads-up Holley Factory Super Car class which started in 2016. This heads-up category allowed for weight breaks to include older models and naturally aspirated machines.

Scott Libersher secured the 2017 NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Cars championship, he began the season with a 2015 COPO Camaro and switched to a 2018 COPO Camaro by July.

The key words there are heads-up. Drag racing fans and competitors all over the country had longed for the opportunity to see which of the three styles of car would reign supreme when the gloves were off and the only object was to reach the quarter mile finish line first. No indexes, no handicapped starts, no excuses. This wasn’t the first time a heads-up version of the class was formed, it had a brief stint as an eighth-mile category in the ADRL under the moniker SuperCar Showdown. It was, however, the first time they ran heads-up in quarter-mile competition.

The class debut at the 2016 NMCA Muscle Car Mayhem event at Bradenton, Florida had Kevin Skinner qualifying first with an 8.41 in a Mustang Cobra Jet and Bruno Massel winning the event in a COPO Camaro running 8.50s. By the final race of the season, Skinner was again making headlines with elapsed times in the 8.30s, running a low for the event and near quickest in the world for the time 8.34 to win the final round. COPO performances were bolstered by the addition of guys like David Barton to the Chevrolet ranks. Barton’s Camaro was an 8.30s player at that point as well and threatening to go ever faster as the season wore on.

Roughly a week later, regular NMCA competitors Chris Holbrook and the aforementioned David Barton dropped bombs on the Factory Super Car world at the NHRA US Nationals when Barton first ran 8.25. Holbrook answered with an 8.23 at more than 165mph in Indianapolis. Suddenly talk of a 7-second factory produced vehicle didn’t seem so absurd anymore and the fact that someone was going to run into the 8-teens was inevitable.

As chassis refinements and tuning came around along with cooler air, things got serious in a hurry during the fall of 2016. Runs in the ‘teens came from Chevrolets and Fords and then David Barton dropped a bomb during the Dutch Classic. He, along with the likes of Kevin Skinner and others had showed up with the intention of trying to run 7s. Barton ripped an 8.07 at more than 168mph that put the world on notice that the car was ready to do the deed. It never happened. The year ended and 8.07 was the high watermark of performance.

2017 was a season of immense excitement and growth for the Factory Super Car class. Long gone were the days of showing up with an 8.40s car and thinking you would be competitive. Fields grew through the year as did star power. Erica Enders-Stevens, competing with the Patterson/Elite group was seen at NMCA events, Mopar competitor Geoff Turk began to establish the Gen III Hemi as a viable entry in the class, and by the time we got to the 2017 NMCA All-American Nationals guys like Chuck Watson and David Barton were qualifying within thousandths at the top of the order with elapsed times of 8.11 and change. That was September.

Then October came.

After two years of frustration and development, Geoff Turk took his 2017 Dodge Challenger Drag Pak known as the SR354 Blackbird to the quickest run in the history of factory based drag cars with an 8.029/170.43 rip down the Lucas Oil Raceway quarter mile on 10/17/17. This was done at the legal NMCA Factory Super Car weight of 3,550lbs.

Two Hundredths and How Many Races Away?

In the sport of drag racing, it is never a question of “if” but rather the dual question of when and who. Big time performances in these cars are still largely a product of perfect conditions, combined with the right tune up. Horsepower-wise we have heard 1,400-1,500hp mentioned by builders of all three combos that are vying for the record, so in that respect there is not a totally clear cut favorite. The Challenger is at an aerodynamic disadvantage because of its larger size with both the Mustang and the Camaro being significantly smaller. That being said, Geoff Turk is Mr. 8.02 at the moment in a Challenger.

David Barton is one of the favorites at knocking down the 7-second barrier.

If the record falls in Bradenton at NMCA Muscle Car Mayhem, it would not be shocking but it would sure be satisfying and it would open the door to a season of unprecedented factory based door slammer drag racing.

At this writing, the greatest assemblage of fast COPO, Drag Pak, and Cobra Jet talent in the history of drag racing is pre-entered for the first race of the season. Factory backed entries like Leah Pritchett, killer privateers like Geoff Turk, Carl Tasca, Bruno Massel, Kevin Skinner, and Chris Holbrook along with more than 20 others are ready to take the fight to each other in what can only be called the greatest Factory Super Car event of all time.

Assuming that the Bradenton weather does what it normally does and one of the best racing surfaces in the country does what it normally does with regard to traction, there’s no logical reason to believe that the record will stand at 8.02 after the weekend.

What Comes Next?

There’s a fear from some that the factories will cancel these programs but we’re not of that mindset. They have created more buzz, more interest, and generated real income on both the sales of full cars and loads of factory parts to provide enough of a business case for their existence.

The cars will continue to get lighter, continue to get more capable, and continue to get faster. That’s the nature of the business and so long as there’s a Chevy guy with a car racing a Ford guy with a car and the Mopar guy looking to take both of them down, the future of Factory Super Car drag racing is very, very safe.

For more than a half-century, the American auto companies have understood drag racing is a place that they need to be. Now, some of those years were not exactly blockbusters for performance or looks but the fire never went out. Even if it was a pilot light, there were guys spending late nights in back rooms, doing things that probably annoyed their bosses to keep the spirit of straight line action alive in Detroit. The result is the greatest era of factory based performance cars th world has ever known.

Plenty of old guys will tell you that those early days were the best that the sport had to offer. Those guys didn’t know what fast was back then.

These are the good old days. Love every second while you can.

 


Mike Galimi
Mike Galimi is the Director of Content & Marketing at ProMedia Publishing and Events with nearly 20 years of experience in motorsport writing and photography.
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