Who's The Boss? Cobra Automotive's Boss 302 Mustang


This article is from a past issue of the magazine. Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it’s published, and get access to our full digital archive, by subscribing to Classic Motorsports. Subscribe now.


Story by Tim Suddard • Photography as Credited

From the driver’s seat, vintage racing is a blur of color, speed and sound–a film stuck on fast-forward. There’s no mute button for the piercing whine of straight-cut gears, no way to pause the action before a hairpin to perfect your turn-in strategy. Part of the fun is allowing the sensory input to overtake you, to humble you with its intensity.

But Curt Vogt isn’t in it for the fun. The Cobra Automotive owner is racing to win, and his mission is to tune out the noise and to control as many variables as possible. It’s fitting, then, that such a commanding guy drives a car called a Boss.

If you’re involved in vintage racing, you know something special must be going on in Curt’s shop to consistently turn out the fastest Ford-powered machines in the sport–cars that are winning, and winning big. As we discovered, the main ingredients of that success are also in his mind: attention to detail, a willingness to spend what it takes to do things right, and flat-out discipline.

From Oil Pans to Podiums

None

If you want to beat Curt, you need to know what you’re up against. You run a real risk of showing up to this gunfight and realizing you’re armed with a cocktail toothpick.

For him, vintage racing isn’t an opportunity to hang out with friends, get in some laps, and spin a few yarns. Curt sees things a bit differently.

First, he’s not here for the party. No alcohol has ever touched his lips, he says, and no recreational drugs have ever entered his system. He’s a frustrated pro driver living in a 56-year-old vintage racer’s body. Three or four times a week, he hits the gym so he can remain physically fit. As he reminds us, being in shape matters tremendously in racing.

Even his car adheres to a strict rule: Never run a new race unless something’s been improved since the last outing. Each new engine, for example, must make more power and turn at a higher rpm than the previous one.

Yes, this guy takes vintage racing way more seriously than you do.

Those who know Curt, including us, will tell you he is one intense guy. That isn’t to say he’s quiet or humorless–quite the opposite, in fact. He’s outspoken, yet he also has a heart as big as a whale. To get a better idea of the man, it helps to delve into his past.

Curt bought his first Shelby Mustang in 1975. He was 16 at the time and working as a dishwasher. He must have been a good kid, since his boss loaned him most of the money to buy it. A year later he joined the Shelby American Automobile Club.

At 19, he made a life-changing discovery: a rare LAT Sunbeam Tiger aluminum oil pan. When he took it to a swap meet, so many people expressed interest that he decided to find a casting company that could make duplicates. He and a buddy, another Shelby owner, put up nearly $4000 to make those molds. And on that day in 1979, Cobra Automotive was born.

From there, Cobra oil pans and then Cobra valve covers followed. While the business was still a part-time venture, Curt expanded his dealings to include buying, selling and restoring Shelbys and other Mustangs. Involvement in factory-built Mustang drag cars led to involvement in vintage racing. He then spent a year or two trying to make it as a NASCAR driver, but that didn’t pan out.

In 1992, Curt decided to make Cobra Automotive a full-time business–just in time for a resurgence in the scene. The growth of vintage racing and the booming interest in Mustangs and Shelbys led to the company’s current setup: some 25 employees working out of a 12,000-square-foot facility. It offers not only parts, but fully prepped track machines.

Today, you could easily argue that Cobra Automotive is the international leader when it comes to Shelby and Cobra vintage race cars. The company’s machines are a staple at most vintage races on the East Coast, with five to 10 cars usually present.

Is Curt driven? Look at the facts: You don’t accidentally start a business with no money and no experience at 19 years of age and parlay that into leadership positions both on the track and in your market segment. Curt Vogt is one driven individual.

Taking It Seriously

None

Curt’s regular mount is a 1970 Mustang Boss 302. It’s a real Boss 302, not a clone. However, it did start life as a street car. Curt knew from the outset that he’d be racing this car hard, and he didn’t want to risk damaging a Mustang with real Trans Am cred. After all, such cars are historical artifacts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a single on-track incident could easily deface or destroy one.

Curt’s street car was stripped to a bare tub and then purpose-built into the most competitive Trans Am Boss 302 in the country. He and his Mustang compete mostly in HSR’s Group 5 and SVRA’s Group 6, and Curt has landed on the podium–usually the tallest step–at almost every race he’s entered. Enduros and sprint races are his formats of choice, and he’s run his car at most tracks east of the Mississippi.

“Despite what some people may say, the SVRA has looked Curt’s cars over very carefully and they are completely legal,” says the association’s owner, Tony Parella

So Curt has exceptional discipline, equipment and experience on his side, but there’s still another weapon in his arsenal–his image. He wields it as part of a psychological strategy he calls the NASCAR approach: Get to the track and unleash the beast, laying down a very strong time right out of the box. Put everyone else on notice that the alpha dog has arrived.

The fact that he arrives fully ready for battle only adds to the intimidation factor. He never shows up unprepared. His cars are completely dyno-tuned and ready to go. There is no winging it or leaving things to chance. His testing schedule alone is probably busier than most people’s entire competition calendars.

How do his customers like being beat by the same person who prepares their cars? This could potentially be a sticky situation, but Curt sees it as a sign of his business’s strength: “If you joined a karate school and could kick the instructor’s butt, would you stay in that school?”

Good point.

He adds that the customers who desire to run at the front of the pack usually come from a business background, so they respect the nature of competition.

Every prep shop has its own vibe, and Curt admits that his fosters a competitive environment. The guys who race with Cobra Automotive push each other, and frankly, Curt admits, those who don’t want to work hard to run at the front of the pack tend to leave the fold and race elsewhere–or quit the hobby altogether.

You could make the case that people like Curt, the ones who take things so seriously, are ruining vintage racing. You could also argue that Curt doesn’t get the spirit of the sport and should move to a pro series.

Here’s Tony Parella’s take: “Curt Vogt is certainly one of the most serious drivers that runs with SVRA. His attention to detail is unparalleled. We at SVRA have nothing but respect for Curt and his shop and feel he is a great representative for what we are trying to accomplish at SVRA.”

HSR co-owner David Hinton echoed those feelings: “It’s okay to take it seriously.”

Other shop owners don’t seem to harbor any ill will, either. “Sure, you can run better parts, but when you start changing suspension mounting points and reengineering the whole car, you are transgressing what the car was,” explains J.R. Mitchell, owner of vintage race prep house GMT Racing. “If you stay within the rulebook, God bless.”

ANATOMY OF A BOSS

None

1. ENGINE

None

The Trans Am 302-cubic-inch Ford makes 600 horsepower. Redline is 8200 rpm, but Curt Vogt admits that downshifts can visit 9000 rpm. Parts suppliers include Dart, Scat, Jessel, JE Pistons, Oliver, RHS, Bullet, MSD, Edelbrock, Moroso, ARP, Holley and more.

2. FRONT SUSPENSION

None

The front suspension retains the factory-stamped steel control arms as well as the original spring layout. “No threaded coil-over shocks or tubular wishbone front-suspension components allowed here,” Curt says.

3. BODY

None

The color is Ford’s popular Grabber Blue, and all of the body panels are factory steel pieces. The optional period front spoiler and rear wing offer additional downforce and aerodynamic assistance for ground-hugging performance.

4. EXHAUST

None

This high-tech exhaust system uses a combination of thin-gauge 304 and 308 stainless steel. “Tri-Y design with merge collectors with Y-pipe crossover technology give the Boss 302 its unique 180-degree header sound,” Curt explains.

5. COOLING SYSTEM

None

Horsepower breeds heat, so an aluminum Griffin double-pass, cross-flow radiator is sealed tightly against the grille opening. A heat exchanger-type oil cooler and under-drive pulleys also help keep down the temperatures.

6. WHEELS & TIRES

None

Each lug opening of the aluminum American Racing five-spoke, 15x8.5-inch wheels is fitted with steel reinforcement bushings for more uniform torque distribution. Goodyear vintage race tires are sized 600-15 up front and 800-15 out back.

7. REAR SUSPENSION

None

A Watts link and anti-roll bars keep the rear end under control. Curt adjusts the suspension settings to tailor the car’s handling characteristics to different race tracks.

8. BRAKES

None

No modern big brakes here, just the factory iron Kelsey-Hayes calipers and ventilated rotors front and rear. These brakes slow the car from speeds north of 165 mph, so plenty of ducting delivers the air needed to cool them off.

BEHIND THE WHEEL

None

This one is a monster.

When we drive someone else’s race car, usually we run it during a practice session or two. In, out, quick and easy, nobody gets hurt.

This time would be different, as my first experience in Curt Vogt’s front-running Boss 302 Trans Am car would be an enduro co-drive at the Classic Motorsports Mitty, one of the largest and most competitive vintage racing events in the country.

The plan was for me to drive the last half of this 1-hour enduro. A full-course yellow 10 minutes into the race quickly changed that plan. My half-hour sprint turned into 50 minutes of hell and damnation–pretty freakin’ awesome hell and damnation, I might add.

My job as a writer is to take you out of the stands and put you in that driver’s seat with me. I’m not sure I’m a good enough writer to do that. In fact, I don’t think my favorite author, the legendary John Steinbeck, could really do this experience justice.

But let’s give it a shot.

A 1970 Boss 302 is a big car, and although you have a lot of room around you, you’re still somehow cramped. The seat is narrow, at least for my plus-sized butt. You’re buckled in tight–real tight. The modern halo seat adds to the claustrophobia, as you have padding at both sides of your head. Driving this particular Mustang is a long, long way from just cruising down the boulevard in 1970.

The interior is stripped of virtually everything nonessential. There are roll cage tubes everywhere. When that window net goes up, you feel like you’re sealed in a coffin. But this is not a vintage coffin; it’s a modern one. It feels more akin to a current NASCAR Sprint Cup car than an old Mustang.

Or maybe it’s more of a space shuttle. A myriad of buttons and toggle switches populate the dash, and when you’re all strapped in and the Cool Suit starts running chilled water over your chest and back, you feel like an astronaut right before liftoff.

As you head out of the Pro Pits at Road Atlanta, things start to happen quickly. You want to take it easy up the hill after Turn 1, but with traffic squeezing by you at nearly 100 mph, that is not an option. Once you’re sure your tires are warm enough, you punch it and fling yourself into hyperdrive.

Back to the astronaut comparison: When you start running hard through the gears, a shuttle launch is what comes to mind. It’s hard to describe the howl, the sensation, the grinding mayhem that goes on in this car. With its custom equal-length headers and tuned exhaust, you can safely rev it to 8000 rpm. You have to wear earplugs. The noise is still deafening, but in a good way.

With this much power, the car is constantly on the brink of flying out of control. Like a box full of snakes that want out, you just can’t keep the lid on this thing.

None

Now you’re leaving Turn 7, shifting into third at 7000 rpm and feathering the throttle to get the car pointed down the back straight. That’s when you start to hammer down, and all hell breaks lose. Even this far up the gears, it takes every fiber of your being, every square inch of talent and racing instinct you have to keep that mass of squirming metal heading in the right direction.

You may be thinking this car is possessed with some evil spirit, but in fact it’s an absolute creampuff to drive. The power steering is razor sharp and easy to use. The setup is absolutely perfect. Nothing is wrong or needs improvement. This thing is just that much of a monster.

I have never heard a Ford V8 sound like this. Curt says it’s because of the exhaust system. These engines were just not meant to scream at 8000 rpm. Or perhaps, with this much development, they were.

The four-speed Jerico transmission can be shifted as quick as lightning. Shifting up is pretty easy, but downshifting takes a leap of faith, especially when you’re coming into the dip and then the sharp esses at the end of a 160 mph back straight.

Operating the gearbox is like smashing ice with a hammer–until you get used to it. Then it’s amazing.

The locked diff adds to the symphony of sheer mechanical terror. It clacks and clunks like something is very wrong, but in fact everything is very right. The entire experience reminds you of the Incredible Hulk: This powerhouse setup is practically busting out of its poor, mundane Mustang shell.

None

Of course, while you’re experiencing all this craziness inside the car, the action out your window isn’t much saner. Spectators can’t imagine the cacophony, the mayhem, the tire-screeching blur that is running Road Atlanta this fast.

Spinning cars and flashing colors swarm around you as you play leapfrog with roaring Porsches, BMWs and the like. Oh, and the entire time, you’re running inches or less away from another car’s bumper.

The cockpit, tires and brakes are noticeably hotter now. Even the track surface is different. Conditions are changing constantly, making your environment forever unfamiliar. What you could get away with on your last lap may not work out this time around. Your competitors and their cars are changing, too, as fatigue and friction take their toll. But somehow you hold on. When the race is over, you nearly collapse out of the car.

None

This car taught me things. I learned that I’m capable of going that fast, but I’m not sure I want to. I learned that running at those speeds is hard, and that I am not physically conditioned for it. The big red welts on my shoulders told it all–the result of the belts digging into me every time I hit the brakes. What’s worse, these marks were a sign that I was doing things right, not wrong.

This is perhaps the most badass race car I have ever driven, but that doesn’t mean I’d necessarily recommend the experience–especially to a novice. Combine riding the world’s biggest roller coaster with jumping out of an airplane and parachuting into a volcano, and that’s the intensity you can expect from 1 minute and 39 seconds in the Cobra Automotive Boss 302. Not fast enough? Curt says that the car can run in the low-1:30s at Road Atlanta when the stars align.

This article is from a past issue of the magazine. Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it's published, and get access to our full digital archive, by subscribing to Classic Motorsports. Subscribe now.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Ford articles.
Comments
View comments on the CMS forums
Our Preferred Partners
9tzjnJ1ABwwo6XqYkfdkyAvAW6RqOY47ZsIhykEh7cXfWgXTurQoLzg69bWbIxz5