Ford steps up its drag racing efforts

The muscle car era of 40 years ago will never return, but Ford is trying to resurrect one aspect of it.

My age was appropriate for owning a 1968 Cobra Jet Mustang or Torino 428 Cobra Jet, but my budget wasn't. I did own a 1972 Ford Maverick Grabber with a 302 V8 and racing graphics. It was never raced on the street or dragstrip, only in my dreams.

Back then, Ford boasted of having "a better idea." It seems ideas are flowing again.

It's no secret how bad business is for American automakers.

Dodge has left the NASCAR truck series. General Motors is cutting back on NASCAR event and track sponsorships. Ford announced a couple of weeks ago that it would cut its financial support of NASCAR teams in the Nationwide and Truck series but continue full speed in the Sprint Cup series.

That made drag racing fans -- especially supporters of the Ford oval -- nervous.

But Brian Wolfe, the new director of Ford Racing Technology, said Saturday his company plans to continue and expand its involvement in NHRA drag racing from weekend warriors to pros.

He spent last weekend at the NHRA national event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and never missed a chance to smell nitro fumes.

My kind of guy, even if he spells his last name wrong.

Wolfe, a longtime drag racer, introduced the new race-ready 2008 Cobra Jet Mustang this week at the Specialty Equipment Market Association's annual gathering at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The 400-horsepower Mustang will run a quarter mile in 10 seconds at a top speed of about 140 mph. It's the first time in 40 years that Ford has offered a factory-built car for drag racing.

It's not meant just to add interest in selling street-legal Mustangs. Wolfe expects it to be a revenue producer; it will sell for $69,900.

Another development related to Ford performance happened over the weekend when Funny Car points leader Tim Wilkerson announced he would trade his Chevrolet for a Ford-bodied Funny Car next year and merge with the rookie Tasca Racing team to form a two-car operation.

The Tasca family owns a legendary Ford dealership in Rhode Island, and in 1968, Bob Tasca built what became a prototype for Ford's original Cobra Jet Mustang race car. His grandson, Bob Tasca III, will drive as Wilkerson's teammate.

While Wolfe said having a factory-backed Pro Stock team in the NHRA isn't on his company's radar, it will begin producing and selling updated body panels to facilitate teams that want to compete in NHRA Pro Stock.

Each of the ventures will be a revenue producer, which is critical to Ford after its U.S. auto sales plummeted 30 percent in October and sales throughout the industry could reach their worst in 25 years.

Another development that will help Ford's marketplace presence came Thursday when officials from Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Shelby Automobiles announced the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the speedway will be called the Shelby 427.

The March 1 Cup race will be lengthened by 27 miles from its original distance and honor legendary Carroll Shelby, whose company is located in the industrial park adjacent to the speedway.

That number -- 427 -- is among the most famous digits in American racing lore. It stands for the cubic inches of iconic Ford muscle car engines, like those in Shelby's Cobras and Mustangs.

Ford isn't directly involved with the Shelby operation, but Shelby buys hundreds of Mustangs and puts its stamp of speed and style on them.

Ford is stepping up its drag racing game with an investment to help sell cars.

And thanks to Shelby, Las Vegas has the coolest name for a race.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or Visit Wolf's motor sports blog at throughout the week.