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NHRA smackdown: V-8 Mustang Cobra Jet dragster vs. electric Cobra

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Kentucky Derby wasn’t the only place high-performance horses were racing last weekend.

Ford’s 1,400-horsepower electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 drag racer squared off against its sister 1,000-horsepower V-8 Mustang Cobra Jet on Sunday at the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis.

It was the gas-powered car by a nose

The electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 pops a wheelie in its NHRA drag-racing premiere.

The Indy appearance was the battery-powered Mustang Cobra Jet’s first at a drag strip. Ford sees an electric future. And just as with fossil fuel-powered sports cars, Ford is using the race track to test the limits of electric power. Ford has also developed a racing version of its Mustang Mach E — also packing 1,400 horsepower like the dragster — to push the envelope on road race tracks.

"It was pretty cool to see the response from all the fans," said Ford Performance Chief Mark Rushbrook, who was on hand in Indy. "People were around (the electric car) all weekend — coming up to the car looking at it, taking selfies, excited to see the technology there and especially the performance capability."

Capitalizing on the Mustang’s storied reputation for performance, Ford is launching a Mustang sub-brand headlined by the Mach E, the first electric Mustang SUV. It will go on sale later this year.

Check it out! Ford Mustang Cobra Jet match race: Gas vs. Electric at the U.S. Nationals

Indianapolis featured the first exhibition match-race for the two Cobra Jet dragsters in front of a national TV audience (and socially distanced grandstands) at the Super Bowl of drag racing, the NHRA Mello Yello Series Denso U.S. Nationals. The electric dragster’s battery powers four electric motors that make 1,100 pound feet of torque. The conventional Cobra Jet is motivated by a 5.2-liter supercharged V-8.

Dressed in matching white livery with gold cobras painted on the doors, the two cars lit up the Lucas Oil Raceway strip. NHRA Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III was behind the controls of the all-electric Cobra Jet 1400, while former NHRA Funny Car driver Tony Pedregon piloted the V-8 Cobra Jet.

Ready, set... The electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 (right) squares off against its gas-powered sister Mustang Cobra Jet at the NHRA Nationals.

Tasca popped a wheelie in the EV pony off the line, and Pedregon crossed the quarter-mile line first in 8.797 seconds at 158.26 mph. Tasca was just behind him at 8.826 seconds and 156.81 mph.

The e-dragster’s time was just off tests that clocked the car at 8.27 seconds at 168 mph. The gas-powered Cobra Jet has competed in NHRA for years against competition from Chevy and Dodge and holds the NHRA Factory stock quarter-mile record of 7.7 seconds at 176 mph.

Rushbrook said Ford and NHRA are in talks about bringing electric drag-racing to the sport. "NHRA is open to discussing the right classes," he said. "We will include other manufacturers in those discussions... so that we can compete against Chevy or Dodge or Toyota. We'd love to have Tesla come and race with us, too."

Rushbrook said there is lots more to learn about the electric monster’s capabilities.

The electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 (left) made its first appearance at the NHRA Nationals, Sept. 6.

"It's been a great but challenging project for all of us at Ford Performance,” said Rushbrook.  “We are very interested in continuing to work with NHRA to determine how electrification can be part of the sport and to show off the Cobra Jet 1400 at max power in due course as regulations develop.”

Instant electric torque off the line has already made Tesla a legend among amateur drag racers. YouTube is full of videos of Model S sedans disappearing from V-8 production muscle cars like the Mustang and Dodge Hellcat.

But the Cobra Jet face-off was the first chance to see the professionals go at it in cars made exclusively for the dragstrip. The silent launch of the Cobra Jet 1400 was in striking contrast to the earth-shaking supercharged V-8 Cobra Jet.

At the top end of the sport, nitro-guzzling Top Fuel dragsters make spectator eyes water as they rocket down the strip at 320 mph.

The electric Mustang Cobra Jet 1400 does a burnout ahead of its run at the NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis.

"Drag racing has always been where Detroit proves its most advanced powertrains,” said NHRA chief development officer Brad Gerber. “The U.S. Nationals is the sport’s quintessential stage for reaching enthusiasts wanting a glimpse at the future technology of performance vehicles."

Look for the Mustang Cobra Jets to square off again at NHRA's Gainesville, Florida event the weekend of Sept. 25-27.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.