Ford Returns to Pro Stock – The Cunningham Story

After years of competing with the only Ford product in NHRA’s Pro Stock class, Jim Cunningham’s dedication to the Blue Oval appears to be paying off.  Hopefully in 2010, the days of packing-up the trailer on Saturday after not making the tough 16 car NHRA Pro Stock field are over. Since entering Pro Stock, Cunningham has been down on power compared to the GM DRCE and Mopar Hemi powerplants . Even though 2009 was not a very competitive year in terms of qualifying for Cunningham Motorsports, the team was able to work with Ford Racing as the development team in its return to the factory hot rod class.  Cunningham Motorsports is now hoping to get back into the winner’s circle!

A new 2010 Mustang Pro Stock carbon fiber body was designed by a team made up of chassis builder Don Ness, Ford Racing aerodynamics engineers, and Cunningham Motorsports. For the fist time since production began in 2005, the S197 Mustang body went through extensive wind tunnel testing prior to NHRA’s approval.  Ford is returning to Pro Stock in 2010 with four to six competitive drivers and is going to be an official vehicle sponsor for NHRA.  Because of this, Ford wanted to ensure that its entry was as good as the sleek Pontiac GXP, Dodge Avenger, and Chevrolet Cobalts that compete in the same class.

Although 2009 was a tough year for Cunningham, it wasn’t a complete wash.   The team was not an NHRA “Wally” for a Pro Stock win, but Cunningham Motorsports was awarded the 2009 US Nationals Best Engineered award for the 2010 Mustangs entered at the Big Go. The team parked the bright red Mustangs after Indy to concentrate on the new Ford Pro Stock engine. At the NHRA Finals in Pomona they tested the new engines with Ford Racing engineers on hand. We had the opportunity to talk to Cunningham Motorsports crew chief Marcus Bowen, driver Erica Enders, and Ford Racing engineer Mose Nowland about the Ford Pro Stock Program.

Cunningham Motorsport’s Crew Chief Marcus Bowen Ready for 2010

After years of massaging, tinkering, and trying to coax more speed out of the old Mustang Pro Stocker and Ford Racing A500 block / E460 head, Marcus Bowen jumped at the opportunity to help develop the new Ford Racing Mustang Pro Stock bullet. “Ford Racing has gone above and beyond with this being the first year for this program,” said Bowen. “Brian Wolfe came in and wanted to do the Pro Stock program with us, so we got right on it and he put his best people on it. Everything has been done in under a year’s time now.  I was in a meeting last November and Jim was like ‘whatever it takes to do it Brian’. They came out to our shop in Maryland to see what we had.  A lot of teams out here are more on the assembly shop side of things. They order their parts in, assemble the engines, and dyno them.  We are doing all our own CNC work and our own dyno work. A lot of our stuff stays in the shop and does not go out.  After the meeting Brian and the Ford Racing engineers were pretty gung-ho to get this program going.”

According to Bowen, Jerry Hass originally designed the first 2005 Mustang that Cunningham ran for five years. The carbon fiber body was never an aero “tweaked” body with no real wind tunnel testing. The Mustang body was something that was created by “Hairy” Glass for the IHRA racers that were running Fords. “The 2010 Mustang Pro Stock body is sleeker with a lot of help from Ford Racings aerodynamic engineers,” said Bowen. “We had both bodies in the wind tunnel back in February of this year along with a couple of GM and Dodge cars.  Ford was able to compare all four cars and they were really happy with the results.  It’s now right on par with the Pontiac GXP which is the best aero car in the Pro Stock class.“

Along with the new Mustang body, Ford Racing has been working with Cunningham Motorsports on a new 500 cubic inch Pro Stock block and heads. The new engine is based on a Compacted Graphite Iron (CGI) block that is much lighter than the old grey iron A500 block. The new block is more rigid and incorporates a “flexible” core package that allows Ford Racing to offer two cylinder head derivatives, one featuring a mirror-image port layout, and another featuring a sequential port layout. Ford Racing is also offering many of the components needed to complete the Pro Stock engine as well, including valve covers, camshaft spools, crankshaft seal retainers, stud kits, head gaskets, and cam drives.

Jim Cunningham getting ready for a round of qualifying.

After casting and rough finishing in one of the Ford Racing’s Midwest foundries, the heads and blocks are shipped to Cunningham Motorsports in an unfinished form so the teams can perform the finish work at their own shops. Cunningham’s Crofton, Maryland based shop is equipped with the latest in MasterCam controlled 5-axis Millport CNC mill machines for the final prep work. As of press time, the only heads Cunningham had tested were the mirror image head. The symmetrical heads were still at the supplier and were scheduled to ship in a week. The team plans on working with both sets of heads in the offseason to see which set fits their program the best in 2010.

“We got our first set of parts on October 2nd, and we had two engines done by the end of October,” recalled Bowen. “We’ve had a little bit of dyno time on these engines. These engines are our first two initial builds of our first design and we drove 2,800 miles out here (Pomona) to see where we stand and give us an idea of where we need to be.”

Erica Enders Excited about Ford’s Return to Pro Stock

Erica Enders made waves back in 2005 when she made her NHRA Pro Stock debut with a family-run team and then later joined Cagnazzi Racing in 2006.  Enders scored runner-up finishes in Pro Stock at Chicagoland in 2005 and Gainesville in 2006.  Enders joined Cunningham Motorsports in 2009, and her experience will help the team sort out the new 2010 Mustang in testing.

Once the new car starts to provide data, she will provide valuable feedback in 2010 as the team fine-tunes the new combination. “I was really excited, especially with Ford expressing so much interest in getting back into Pro Stock,” said Enders.  “There are a lot of drivers that don’t have a seat right now, and I’m really blessed with this opportunity. I’m really optimistic about our improved performance. Good things take time though, and I knew that when I came on board. These guys have worked their butts off, and I think we’ll do well next year.”

When asked about the learning curve in driving the 2010 Mustangs, Erica feels every new car is different and she is still adapting to all the changes. “The most important aspect to a new car is getting comfortable so you don’t have to think about anything else but driving,” said Enders. She’s been driving Pro Stock cars for over 5 years and understands all the mechanics of everything, but she knows you can never have enough seat time in a car.  With every pass in a car, she is able to hear or feel something that she can then give feedback on to the team.

The 2010 Mustang was debuted at Indianapolis at the US Nationals with the old A500 engine. With the new motor in the car at Pomona, Erica was still getting comfortable with the car but could definitely notice a change in the power band. “With this motor in the car, it’s a completely different sound and feel.  It’s got a lot more horsepower than our old motor.  The throttle is a bit more responsive when driving the car and finessing the throttle in the burnout. All of the things we have to do to get it right are all part of the learning,” said Enders. “The whole run process is new with the new combination.  For these guys working 37 days straight at 18 hours a day to get these two new motors in is an accomplishment.  It’s a brand new car, and we haven’t been to this track in a year. Plus, we have new transmissions, new rearends, and new carburetors so it’s amazing we got down the track as well as we did. I could not be prouder of them. When we fired it up and pulled into the water box, I could tell a big difference. I know it sounds cliché, but with the new motor, I’m excited.”

Mose Nowland – 55 Years of Ford Racing Engines

Ford's Pro Stock Hemi "Mirror Image" Head

2010 marks the 55th year of Mose Nowland’s engineering efforts with Ford Motor Company, having been with “Blue Oval” since 1955. Most of his engineering career has been working with the Ford race engine group. One special project he worked on was the original 1960’s FE family of racing engines, starting with the 406 and later the 427 cid engine. Nowland also provided factory support with the Holman Moody team and the GT-40 team that won at LeMans in 1966 and ’67. Most recently, Nowland headed up the team that developed the FR9 engine program for NASCAR.

When Brian Wolfe assembled the team to build a new Ford NHRA Pro Stock engine, Nowland was the natural choice. Nowland was at Pomona seeing his baby make its first runs down the quarter mile. When asked about his thoughts on being at an NHRA dragstrip after a long absence, he said he loved the NHRA atmosphere. “I’m delighted that we are back in NHRA Pro Stock. It’s important that we race cars that the customers buy and drive to work and the customer races on the weekend.  It’s great for our dealers and for our performance parts business,” said Nowland.

Mose Nowland was assigned to design an engine and a head for NHRA Pro Stock within the timeframe of only one year when typical engine programs take two to three years. The team went to work to design a block and the mirror port head.  For the sequential wedge head, Ford Racing contracted Pro Stock cylinder guru Darian Morgan. “Our connection with Darian was that he was contracted to do the sequential wedge head,” recalled Nowland. “Our role with him was to make sure the bolt spacing, block dimensions, and lifter arrangements would match his heads. We sent 3D models and sketches back and forth during development to make sure it fit the block.”

Ford's Wedge Head Option

The new engine started from a clean sheet of paper, and, with Nowland’s years of experience building race engines, they applied the latest in block and head technology.  “We used some of the information and data from the NASCAR program along with elements from the Glidden days to come up with an engine that is robust enough to meet today’s Pro Stock engine standards.”  Ford Racing also consulted with several Ford drag racers, including Bob Glidden, on the needs and wants for the new engine.

“The other thing we looked at was trying to save an engine builder as much money as we could using bearings and parts that are in the market today” said Nowland. “We did not want to make people have to invent new parts and pieces and wonder if it was going to be durable.  We are 11 months and 3 weeks into this program, so the development time was pretty quick.”

Mose’s goal for 2010 is to see a number of wins and ultimately a Pro Stock championship for Ford. His visit to Pomona’s NHRA Finals was a trip to let Ford Racing know what to work on in the offseason. After years of battling GM and Dodge in NASCAR, Nowland welcomes all the new racers to the Ford Racing family and looks foreward to racing against GM and Dodge in 2010.

First attempt at Racing the New Engines

At the 2009 NHRA Finals, both Erica Enders and Jim Cunningham made one qualifying pass on Thursday and two passes on Friday.  Unfortunately, both cars failed to make the Pro Stock show. Erica’s best qualifying pass was made in the fourth session at 6.72 /204 mph which gave her the 20th spot.  Jim Cunningham had the new car blues on all four qualifying passes, and he ended up last in the 23rd position.

Cunningham Motorsports was running both a Don Ness Mustang and a Jerry Haas Mustang at Pomona. The logic behind using two different chassis builders was that Ness had previous experience with body design for Ford, and therefore the team allowed him to build a chassis buck that they could use. Also, Cunningham figured they could get the new car in a reasonable amount of time since it was the prototype 2010 car for Ford. After the runs at Indy and Pomona, crew-chief Bowen and the team were still gathering data from the two drivers. “There are a lot of design differences for sure between the two cars,” said Bowen. “Chassis set-up is different, but with only five runs on the cars it’s tough to really say.”

Plans for the Off Season

When asked about the team’s plans for the offseason, Bowen said it was all about testing. “We really just plan to do a lot of dyno time and track time in the offseason. We just have to get on the dyno and just start wearing stuff out. The mirror image stuff is so new to us compared to our old program. Compared to the A500 block, the new engine showed about 25% more power on the first few pulls. It was considerably better above 9500 rpms.”

In addition to Jim Cunningham and Erica Enders, Larry Morgan and John Nobile will debut a Mustang at the 2010 Winternationals. Robert Patrick, Richard Freeman, and Frank Gugliotta will have Mustangs in NHRA competition by mid-2010. When asked about the team no longer being the lone Ford in NHRA Pro Stock, Bowen was looking forward to more Mustangs. “We were pretty excited about other racers coming over to run Fords. A lot of information does not get shared out here, but Ford will get up to speed with more teams on board. Brian Wolfe’s plan was to get more racers involved, and with Jim sticking with Ford it has now paid off,” said Bowen.

Jim Cunningham with the powerTV Booth Model at the 2010 PRI Show

About the author

Mark Gearhart

In 1995 Mark started photographing drag races at his once local track, Bradenton Motorsports Park. He became hooked and shot virtually every series at the track until 2007 until he moved to California and began working as a writer for Power Automedia. He was the founding editor for its first online magazines, and transitioned into the role of editorial director role in 2014. Retiring from the company in 2016, Mark continues to expand his career as a car builder, automotive enthusiast, and freelance journalist to provide featured content and technical expertise.
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