The Shelby Cobras that Dominated the Drag Strip

Picture this. I’m at Goodwood Revival, posing next to a gaudy, fuchsia pink, metal-flake adorned Shelby Cobra. I’ve asked Jake to take a photo of me beside it because the ridiculous paintjob matches my vintage dress. Little did I know that I was stood next to the winningest Cobra in NHRA drag racing history, with 7 NHRA National event titles under its belt. Throughout the ’60s it dominated the Sports classes in both AHRA and NHRA events, and has since set record-breaking sales figures at auctions due to its infamy on the strip.

Me with CSX2093 at Goodwood Revival 2021

I didn’t know all of this, until we were sat with some friends at the National Finals at Santa Pod Raceway last weekend. Naturally, everyone wanted to know how Goodwood Revival was, and as we were telling them how incredible an event it was our friend, Chris, happened to mention the Dragonsnake Cobra that I was stood next to in my photos. To me it was just a pink Cobra that had been circuit racing in the Stirling Moss Memorial Trophy, but Chris began to explain the history of these cars. Right now, I’m so annoyed with myself that I didn’t realise the history of this car until the weekend after Goodwood Revival, but I’m blown away by the information I’ve found on these incredibly rare Cobras.

The Dragonsnake Cobras

The Dragonsnake Cobras were a small batch of production cars built by the famed racing driver and car builder, Carroll Shelby. From 1962, Shelby American had found success with their pairing of the lightweight, English roadster body of the AC Ace, with the American powerhouse of Ford’s V8 motors. The combination of the lightweight body, small dimensions and insane power output proved to be revolutionary in the sports car world, and the car did extremely well in competition globally. When most people think of the Shelby Cobras in competition, their mind goes to circuit racing, however the Dragonsnake also dominated the drag strip.

The ‘Dragonsnake’ nomenclature referred to a drag package available both fitted from the Shelby American factory and as an ‘over the counter’ package. It consisted of a competition-spec engine, modified Koni shock absorbers, Goodyear Slicks, 4.45:1 gear ratio, heavy-duty half shafts, relocated battery behind the passenger seat, an NHRA-approved roll bar and other modifications; 23 drag racing-appropriate changes in total.

There were also 3 levels of carburation available on the Dragonsnakes. Stage 1 was a single 4barrel carb and Stage 2 had dual 4barrel carbs (a $688 extra). The incredibly rare Stage 3 was a Weber carb setup, only installed on one car (CSX2427).

The only Stage III Dragonsnake, CSX2427 is up for auction next year, and described as “the finest and most correct factory-built Dragonsnake in existence.”

There are differing production numbers published; some sources say 7 were produced and some claim there were 8 made. What we do know for definite is that 4 of the 289ci Dragonsnake Cobras were built by the Shelby American team in the factory, and 3 were built independently with parts and specifications supplied by Shelby’s factory, most likely by private race teams.

The first Dragonsnake Cobra, CSX2019, was produced in 1963 as Shelby’s ‘public relations’ car. It was painted a pale, blue metal-flake and emblazoned with ‘COBRA’ down each side in block capitals. It was piloted by Jere Kirkpatrick, and the engine was maintained by Ralph Falconer Jr. In the hands of this dynamic duo, the Dragonsnake set personal best times of 11.73 at 119mph (an AA/SP class record in AHRA competition). This first Dragonsnake was sold to a privateer who campaigned it for another three years, and the Shelby team replaced it with another competition Dragonsnake Cobra: CSX2357. This car was heavily modified for drag racing and set both AHRA and NHRA records in A/Sports, as well as beating another privately owned Dragonsnake (CSX2248) at the 1965 Phoenix Winternationals; what a sight that must’ve been!

CSX2248, privately owned and raced by Hans Schmidt

All of these drag package Cobras came equipped with Ford’s 289ci engine, except the unique CSX3198 which had the legendary 427ci motor. Ordered in February 1966, Harr Ford paid over $10,000 for this special Cobra (the 289ci Dragonsnakes cost around $8000) which they painted in a deep, Candy Apple red, and campaigned at NHRA events throughout the season, with a best time in A/Sports Modified of 10.02 at 146mph. When they advertised the car for sale the following year, they provided this information: ‘The car held both ends of National Record, E.T. 10.86 seconds, 127 mph (A/SP, NHRA) ’66 Winternationals, Pomona, ’66 Summer Nationals (Indy), runner-up for top points street eliminator, Div.1, Has won A/SP class every time out, won street eliminator 50% of total attempts.’

Dragonsnake Cobra CSX2093

The Dragonsnake Cobra in question that attended Goodwood Revival is CSX2093. This Cobra is one of the cars known to have been modified post-sale from Shelby American with the Dragonsnake package. CSX2093 was built in early 1963 as a red Cobra and sold at White-Griffith Motors in Hicksville, New York. By 1964, it was put up for sale advertised as a used car with 5,000 miles on the odometer in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where Jim Costilow purchased the Cobra for $5,600 intended for use in hill climbs and road racing. After competing at York’s US 30 Drag-O-Way changed Costlow’s decision and within a year it had a Dragonsnake package fitted, costing $6,000. While owned by Costilow it was piloted by Bruce Larson (latterly the 1989 NHRA Funny Car World Championship winner in an Oldsmobile flopper), throughout the 1964 season the car performed well in NHRA’s Sports and SP classes (presumably Sports Production?). The 1965 season proved even more successful for CSX2093, winning at the NHRA Springnationals, Winternationals and US Indy Nationals. In fact it did so well that it overshadowed Shelby’s factory-backed drag racing Cobra, much to Shelby’s chagrin, and thus factory support dried up for CSX2093.

CSX2093 in original livery

In 1966, with new owner/driver Ed Hedrick behind the wheel, the Cobra continued to wipe the floor with the competition at the ’66 Springnationals and US Nationals. In 1967, it produced class wins at the 1967 Springnationals, Winternationals, U.S. Indy Nationals, and went home with the World Points Championship. It continued to set records in 1968. All in all, the CSX2093 Cobra held national titles in four separate classes.

CSX2093 when owned and raced by Hedrick

The 325bhp, 2000lbs Cobra is now said to be the winningest competition Cobra in drag racing history. Since its infamy in the ’60s, the car has passed over the auction block several times. In 2014, it sold at the Houston Mecum auction for $1,100,000, however prices have fluctuated since then, possibly since it’s not an original factory built Dragonsnake (the first, original Dragonsnake Cobra sold in 2006 for over $1,600,000).

At Goodwood Revival this year, the Cobra was driven by Mike and Andrew Jordan, former British Touring Car champ, in the Stirling Moss Memorial Trophy (the pre-1963 GT class). It is now owned by Mike Whitaker who has rebuilt and prepped it to circuit racing specifications. It wasn’t the only AC Cobra or Ace to compete in the class, however its shocking pink paint job (31 layers of metal-flake) certainly made it stand out against the sea of Jaguar E-Types, Ferraris and Aston Martins.

I have mixed feelings about this particular Dragonsnake. While it’s certainly a shame that CSX2093 has been rebuilt as a ’roundy roundy’ car due to its insane drag racing history, I can’t help but feel happy for it. In England especially, the funds just aren’t present in drag racing to be able to take a potentially $1,000,000 Cobra and be a profitable venture for the owner. It’s also justice that the car is still out there on the track instead of sitting in a museum or personal collection; it’s still doing what Costilow and Larson set out for it to be doing back in 1964, just with more corners. For a car with such a rich racing history and an important piece of Americana to be living and racing here in little ol’ England as well is a very exciting prospect, and I hope to see this Cobra again at an event. Next time I’ll actually have a proper look around it too, instead of just posing beside it (typical me).

Image by Motorsport Images via Goodwood website

Written by Niamh Smith

Images, other than first, belong to rightful owners

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