Trans-Am vs. Trans Am


Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it’s published by reading the print edition of Grassroots Motorsports. Subscribe now.

These two cars look similar. They wear the same badges. They have the same name. They’re built to run in the same series. All that separates them is time. A lot can happen in 46 years. These Mustangs, though spiritually connected, come from totally different worlds. Their competition venue? Trans Am, which bills itself as “America’s Road Racing Series.”

Full Circle

Started by the SCCA in 1966, Trans - Am began as a venue for race-prepared street cars. The series separated those machines into two categories: small-bore and big-bore. At its first race, held at Sebring, an Alfa Romeo GTA and a Dodge Dart won in their respective classes.

From these humble beginnings it morphed into a series for some of the fastest production-based racers seen on our shores at the time. While the small-bore ranks had legions of fans, the V8-powered cars got the most attention.

How big was Trans - Am? Every manufacturer involved in the day’s pony car scene backed a professional team for the 1970 season–even AMC. The series attracted big talent, too, with pros like Mark Donohue, Vic Elford, and Parnelli Jones gracing the podium.

Although Trans - Am stumbled through the rest of the ’70s as cars in general got larger and slower, a 1980 change to the classing structure turned the tables. Entries were now classed according to displacement and weight, prompting the rapid rise of V8-powered, tube-frame pony cars.

Throughout the next two decades, different approaches fell in and out of style. During the 1988 season, for example, Hurley Heywood drove a turbo-charged, five-cylinder Audi to the championship. His unfair advantage? All-wheel drive.

After another rulebook reboot, the grids of the 1990s and 2000s featured traditional pony car nameplates alongside some unconventional ones, notably Qvale and Jaguar. The series started to lose its appeal as the ’00s wore on, and the SCCA finally ran its last Trans - Am Series race at the end of the 2005 season.

Then, it came back. When the reanimated Trans Am began its first season in 2009, it had lost all but one class. Its hyphen was gone, too. Still missing was the clout it enjoyed in its heyday. It was basically just a destination for GT1-class club racers wanting to progress to a professional series.

Fortunately, this lackluster revival eventually gave way to an actual comeback. Today, Trans Am is a separately owned and operated company with four distinct classes– and some of the largest fields ever seen. It clawed its way back to relevance with big names, simple rules, cool cars, and even a TV package.

Setting the Scene

Trans Am may be back. And, sure, it’s a lot like it once was: relatable cars, competitive drivers, huge fields, and lots of happy spectators. But is a modern Trans Am machine really anything like the cars that raced during the series’ heyday?

To find out, we went back to the track that started it all: Sebring International Raceway. We borrowed a few cars from Cobra Automotive, which builds some of the fastest Fords in the country.

There was only one piece of the puzzle missing: We needed a driver from Trans - Am’s golden era. Sure, we could wheel a car around a track, but we weren’t in the cockpit during the prime years of America’s racing series.

So we called Lyn St. James. She’s one of racing’s greatest stewards, with a motivational speaking series and an impressive driving resumé: two 24 Hours of Daytona wins, one 12 Hours of Sebring win, seven Indianapolis 500 starts, one 24 Hours of Nürburgring class win, six IMSA GT wins, 17 top-five finishes and 37 top-10 finishes. In 1992 she became the first woman named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, and in 2014 she received the Rolex Award of Excellence.

She also raced in 53 Trans - Am races during the height of the series’ popularity, qualifying her to judge these cars like no other. In her words, “Trans - Am was always this secret, great racing series that nobody seemed to know about. It’s a shame it never found its groove.”

Maybe, just maybe, we’ve found the groove that Trans Am has been looking for all along.

Yesterday and Today

What cars did we borrow? For starters, nothing that would be at home in a museum. We wanted cars that could really be driven, so seven-figure price tags and dry-rotted tires were out.

Instead, Cobra Automotive owner Curt Vogt let us play with his personal steed: a 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302. It doesn’t have Trans - Am history from back in the day, but it is a fitting tribute to what was raced in the series’ best season. Today, it competes with HSR and SVRA in vintage Trans Am classes, and it wins most races it enters thanks to methodical prep and a willingness to push the envelope–just what Trans - Am was famous for.

On the modern side, we decided not to focus on the fastest class. Instead, we picked a car that runs in TA2– that’s Trans Am’s second-fastest tier. According to the series, this is the fastest-growing class in North America, and for good reason: Costs are relatively low, competition is close, and the cars are fast.

Competitors are allowed to run a Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger or Chevrolet Camaro body, and they must choose from a short list of approved chassis and powertrains. It’s not as limited as a spec series, but the playing field is remarkably level.

Want to buy a new, turnkey, TA2-eligible car? Figure you’ll write a check for somewhere around $100,000. Willing to assemble it yourself? Chassis from Howe Racing Enterprises start at just over $40,000.

Of all today’s racing opportunities, why did Curt select this TA2? He makes a compelling argument: “TA2 has the largest fields and some of the closest competition available. Plus, the cars are relatively affordable and inexpensive to run. Even better: TV coverage and the pro racing designation let me be a pro driver, something I’ve always wanted to be.” Bonus: Many Trans Am events run in conjunction with vintage events, meaning Curt can race both cars in one weekend.

On Paper: 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302

Under the hood, the vintage Mustang is about as simple as they come. A carbureted, small-block Ford V8 makes 600 horsepower. Redline is supposed to be 8200 rpm, but Curt admits that on some downshifts, the tach needle can go as high as 9000. A slew of modern parts from companies like ARP and JE Pistons make this old-school powerplant reliable on track, while a big aluminum radiator from Griffin keeps it cool.

Trans - Am didn’t switch to tube-frame cars until 1980, so this Mustang retains the full factory tub. Although the springs, shocks and anti-roll bars are stiffer, the car still uses its factory control arms and mounting points. Teams simply weren’t allowed to change more than the basics, though the rear end now features a Watt’s link to locate the axle. The Mustang’s only aerodynamic modifications are the factory-optional front spoiler and rear wing, and the body is all steel.

What stops this 3150-pound behemoth? Surprisingly, the brakes are all period pieces, though modern race pads are used. Lots of ducting prevents brake fade at the end of 165 mph straights.

In summary, a 1970 Trans - Am Mustang looks a lot like most other 1970 Mustangs on paper–and that’s exactly the source of the original series’ appeal. It wasn’t stupid-fast cars, cutting-edge technology or wild modifications that drew those crowds; it was just simple, close racing.

On Paper: 2016 Ford Mustang Boss 302 TA2

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: No, this isn’t really a Ford Mustang. Instead, it’s a Howe Racing Enterprises TA2 chassis wearing a Five Star Race Car Bodies Ford Mustang body. Everywhere you look there are tubes, tubes and more tubes.

Sure, the initial buy-in is higher, but tube-frame race cars–especially on the used market–offer tremendous value for money. Besides being faster, they’re also more durable and more easily repaired thanks to bulletproof, commonly available universal parts. In short, chassis like this are one of the least expensive ways to circle a track as quickly as possible. The wheels, for example, cost a little more than $100 each, and shocks are cost-capped at $850 each.

Under the hood, TA2 cars run one of four engine packages built by one of a few different builders. This car sports a small-block built by Katech Inc. Power output: in the interests of keeping everything reliable and competitive, just 500 horsepower. Every TA2 car runs AEM’s Infinity as the spec ECU.

The suspension is standard fare for any stock car racer: double-wishbone up front, live axle with a three-link and a Panhard bar in the rear. Is it cutting edge? No, but it’s exceedingly tunable, cheap to replace, and shockingly fast. The rear end is a Tiger quick-change piece, which lets the gear ratio be tailored for each track.

Brutal Beating vs. Lemon Squeezing

Lyn wasn’t all that impressed with the TA2 Mustang at first glance. Honestly, we’re not really surprised: Compared to the machines of the Indy 500, TA2’s stock car-like chassis looks a little underwhelming.

She seemed disappointed that despite the advances in racing technology, modern Trans Am cars are still very much old-school. The first thing our famous driver said about the 2016 Mustang: “That’s going to be a brutal car!”

But running it for a session changed Lyn’s mind. She said the steering, brakes and handling were more refined than she expected. She also complimented the gearbox and the car’s balance of power and weight.

She did note that the suspension was too stiff, but it’s hard to find a racer who wouldn’t say that after driving on Sebring’s bumpy concrete surface. In fact, her only real complaints were ergonomic. Lyn isn’t a big person, and the TA2 Mustang’s low seat, high dash and cocoon-like cockpit hampered visibility a bit.

Then she got into the old-school Trans - Am car. Maybe it was mean-spirited to make her drive the TA2 first, but she described the vintage racer as “a generation older!” Sure, it’s good for its era, but Curt Vogt’s vintage race car has what Lyn described as lots of body roll and delay. Each input, she said, needed a few moments to transfer to the tires, and it took her time to learn the car’s rhythm. That delay, she said, was absent in the TA2 car.

Obviously Curt has spent a lot more time driving his cars, but his own driving impressions mirrored Lyn’s. “The vintage Boss is very well sorted at this point,” he explained, “and it’s easy to drive as long as you’re willing to steer with the throttle and muscle it around the track.”

Curt said that the TA2 car is a different beast: “It’s a real race car with real slicks, a proper suspension, and a real race chassis.” Translation: It requires a firm but delicate hand.

“It’s so sensitive to inputs,” Curt remarked, “that it takes a much more precise mindset to drive it. In the vintage car, I feel like I’m always beating it within an inch of its life. In the TA2, I have to be much smoother. You don’t beat on this car, you squeeze it like a lemon wedge.”

11 Seconds

How do the cars compare on the stopwatch? On Sebring’s full course, the 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302 takes 2 minutes and 19 seconds to complete a lap. That’s blazingly fast for something less sophisticated than your lawn mower.

As for the 2016 version, this particular TA2 car had never been to Sebring before, but it managed a 2-minute, 14-second lap in its first session. Curt thinks with a little tuning, he could knock at least a few seconds off that time. The fastest TA2 cars at Sebring run a lap in about 2 minutes and 8 seconds, meaning 46 years have knocked 11 seconds off the clock. Still, both cars reach the same top speed on Sebring’s famous back straight.

Over the years, Trans Am has seen tremendous highs and lows, as well as cars of all shapes and sizes. It really has been the all-American race series, and we’re glad it’s back.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Ford articles.
Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Appleseed
Appleseed MegaDork
2/21/18 12:43 p.m.

Neither of those cars are Pontiacs.

HapDL
HapDL New Reader
2/21/18 6:11 p.m.

St. James didn't exactly have much of a record in TA.  Might have been better to get a current driver, maybe Ernie Francis might have filled in nicely?

kb58
kb58 SuperDork
2/22/18 8:34 a.m.

Curious where those seconds came from. What was total vehicle weight of both? Also, tire sizes and compounds?

tuna55
tuna55 MegaDork
2/22/18 8:43 a.m.

great article. I'd prefer to drive the old one, but wow the buy-in of the new piece is pretty nice considering how many great parts are there.

Ed Higginbotham
Ed Higginbotham Associate Editor
2/22/18 8:46 a.m.

In reply to kb58 :

Classic Trans-Am car: 

Tires: Goodyear Blue Streak: 600-15 front, 800-15 rear

Numbers: 600-plus horsepower, 430 ft.-lbs. of torque, 3150 lbs. w/driver

 

Modern Trans Am car:

Tires: Hoosier TA2 slicks

Numbers: 500 hp, 465 ft.-lbs. , 2800 lbs. w/driver

bmw88rider
bmw88rider SuperDork
2/22/18 9:46 a.m.

I'd be interested to see how much of that gap was just tires alone. 

 

Great piece though. The buy in for the modern TA2 is really pretty reasonable. I see a few show up to the SCCA events locally. I've always loved that class. Closest thing we have ever gotten to Aussie Supercar here. 

TreDeuce
TreDeuce New Reader
2/22/18 11:14 a.m.

Quite a bit of the time difference has to be the tires. 

Saw the first Trans-Am to be held at SIR/Pacific raceways with the likes of Dave McDonald who later died at the Indy 500 with Eddie Sachs. Quit watching the Indy-500 and F1 for some 30 years after the loss of Dave and Eddy and so many more drivers. 

 

MotorsportsGordon
MotorsportsGordon Reader
2/22/18 11:18 a.m.
TreDeuce said:

Quite a bit of the time difference has to be the tires. 

Saw the first Trans-Am to be held at SIR/Pacific raceways with the likes of Dave McDonald who later died at the Indy 500 with Eddie Sachs. Quit watching the Indy-500 and F1 for some 30 years after the loss of Dave and Eddy and so many more drivers. 

 

Your probably thinking of a different race or series the first trans am was was 2 years after his crash.

jonk67
jonk67
2/24/18 7:15 p.m.

1970 TA

Front: American Racing 8.5" X 15" / 8" X 15" tire?

Rear: American Racing 8.5" X 15"?/ 10" X 15" tire?

TA2

Front: Bassett ? X 15" / Hoosier ? tire size

Rear: Bassett ? X 15" / Hoosier ? tire size

 

More info would be great, the TA look is what I'm going for with my '67 restoration. 

 

TA2 is running a 351W block bored/stroked to 377ci? Is this just a new casting of the old block? Really surprised they don't go with the coyote? But I do like seeing old iron used in a new chassis and fake body at least. There's been enough old body's subjected to new engines. I've wanted to take a 2010+ Mustang with a blown engine and swap in a good old big block 428, etc. or a built 302/351W with webers vs. fuel injection and computers. 

PT_SHO
PT_SHO New Reader
5/23/18 1:01 a.m.

Yeah I would guess (not knowing if the tires on the '70 are a "modern" compound) that tires are a lot of the difference.  But I'm hearing:

a tube frame with better front suspension geometry,

ten percent less weight, likely distributed more evenly,

probably better aero, and a lot fatter torque curve (+20% displacement, more torque despite not being wound nearly as tight).

It's surprising that there isn't a bigger gap.

MazdaFace
MazdaFace HalfDork
5/23/18 4:19 a.m.

In reply to PT_SHO :

That's what I was thinking

octavious
octavious Dork
5/23/18 6:51 a.m.

Great article.  Thank you.  

Ian F
Ian F MegaDork
5/23/18 7:57 a.m.

It would be interesting to see lap differences on equal tires, but I would also imagine the difference in braking also contributes to the lap times.  The newer car can likely brake a lot deeper into a corner than the vintage one.

Our Preferred Partners
kHLmGespKYCbjAVXkUXykgGsmKAd6zPz7C6nbPcR6dB0yxgk9VyAmsspo3OwNqq3