Strapped tightly to his 2018 Cobra Jet Mustang, Chuck Watson II channels every ounce of focus. The Michigan-based racer qualified 2nd in a field of 27 cars and he’s battled through three difficult rounds and has earned a shot at the 2021 Factory Stock Showdown title at the NHRA Summit Racing Equipment nationals. Across the track is Constant Aviation FSS superstar Bill Skillman in his familiar red Cobra Jet. Skillman has won multiple NHRA events and is a 3-time champion in the NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Car series. This match will be Watson’s toughest and most important race ever.
Watson II’s knowledge of the Cobra Jet Mustang is intimate. His family business, Watson Racing, was the builder of the 2013-2018 Ford Performance Cobra Jet Mustangs and more recently his team builds the 2021 Dodge Dragpak Challengers for Dodge. Furthermore, Watson Racing builds its own engines and supports a fleet of CJ and Dragpak drivers in NHRA and NMCA. And While Watson II drag raced many years ago, it’s just his Sophomore season in the new 7-second CJ. Watson II, however, isn’t fazed.
He carefully raised the rpm on the supercharged 5.2L engine and inched his Ford into the beams. Skillman followed suit and in a flash the pair of Cobra Jets was gone. Skillman drew first blood, launching first by .012—but the race was far from over. The pair scorched down the Norwalk quarter-mile, seemingly locked together at the door handles. And with the Whipple superchargers ingesting air with a wicked, howling sound, they poured every ounce of horsepower to the tires. The drama was over in a mere 7.76 seconds. Watson II’s nose pierced the air to a speed of 177.63 mph and his ET was enough to barely top Skillman’s 7.803 at 177.09 mph. It was a win for Watson II—and with the ’chutes out every ounce of energy drained from the 49 year-old’s body.
The outpouring of emotion was justified—as six months earlier, Watson II’s father, Chuck Watson Sr., lost his brief battle with cancer. Father and son were best friends and they raced together as a family. They shared interests on and off the track, along with creating a successful business together. And now, this strip of asphalt in Norwalk, Ohio would carry a greater meaning. As if it was fate, this win came almost four years to the day after Chuck Sr. won his very first NHRA Wally at the very same event, in the very same class and at the same track.
“That was a pretty special moment,” exclaimed Watson II as he fought back the tears. “It was weird. I knew going [to Norwalk] that I really wanted to win that race. I knew what a win would mean to my family and our crew. I’d never been more focused—ever. So to cross the line and having made it happen was surreal. You dream about things like this, but don’t expect them to happen. I got down to the end and they were handing me this big check and putting the medallion over my head. It was overwhelming.
“Over 20 of our guys were there to experience this with me and my wife Robyn. It was emotional for our whole team. And I didn’t know at the time, but I broke a track record for my class, which still stands today.”
The Starting Line
For Chuck II, the passion for cars and mechanical things started at the young age. First it was working with his father in the garage and then at Watson Engineering, Chuck Sr.’s core business. “I’ve only had two jobs in my life,” said Watson II, “a paper route and I’ve been here ever since I was 9 years old, sweeping floors and I’ve learned how to run every piece of equipment we’ve ever had.”
After high school, Chuck Watson II attended Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, where in four year’s time, he earned two degrees (Business and Marketing Management) and a minor in Automotive Aftermarket Management. He then became a full-time employee at Watson Engineering learning every aspect of the business.
“I became interested in drag racing and the business aspect in the mid-1990’s when we built a pair of custom Mustangs. I started doing fabrication and other projects with Ford Racing and eventually I went to the Performance Racing
Industry show (PRI),” he said. “Without sounding arrogant, I’m looking at stuff thinking I can make these parts. I’m a gearhead at heart so it piqued my interest. Until then, I’d order parts like anyone, and at times they’d fit, other times they wouldn’t.
Every hot rodder has experienced that, but you make it work. Still, as a manufacturer, I never understood making parts that don’t work. I’m not trying to be negative, but we come from a world where you build fixtures and gauges to build components, and, if you build good tooling, you generally don’t have quality issues. And after seeing the world of PRI, I wanted to apply that to the automotive aftermarket. I went to the show 3 or 4 years in a row and each time I’d come back my dad would say we didn’t have time for it.
“I finally got him to the PRI show in Orlando, we walked in the door and he smacks me on the shoulder and says, ‘we can make this and we can make that.’ He had the same impression as when I saw it for the first time, it was a cool moment,” Watson II remembered.
“My dad said, ‘do you think you can do this?’ I said absolutely, and that’s how Watson Racing got started. I had the green light and could go in any direction, but the one thing that was missing was turn-key cars. We started with basic parts manufacturing, making parts for the very first Cobra Jets and ultimately built the entire car for Ford Performance.
“We had meetings with Ford and in addition to the serialized builds, we made things like roll cage kits, wheelie bars, parachute mounts, mirror block off plates, brackets, a little bit of everything. Today, Watson Racing handles component engineering, design and manufacturer and we’re a supplier. We offer engine building, chassis dyno testing, plus a full line of in-house racing parts. Additionally, Watson Racing builds the race-ready 2021 Dragpak Challengers for Dodge.
“I went to school and came out with a dual major and a minor in four years, so there wasn’t much time for racing. Years ago I raced at Detroit Dragway, Norwalk, Milan Dragway and up in London, Ontario at Ford specialty events. I never lost the desire to race, but life got in the way.
“As we built the 2013 Cobra Jets, towards the end of the build, Ford Performance did a number of Body-In-White cars. I ended up buying a BIW and secretly built one to give to my dad. They even made a Cobra Jet serial tag that said “Watson Racing 001.” Essentially, I cloned a CJ for my dad without him knowing. I walked him over and he thought it was one of the 50 Ford cars. I had him start it up and I told him it was for him. He was stunned. My dad had a nice collection of muscle cars and I thought this Mustang would go there and never be raced. But instead it got the blood flowing and that’s what made him go racing even in his late 60’s.
“He raced that car until 2016 and that’s when the S550 Mustang took over for Ford. He wanted to run sub-8.50s, so he bought CJ 001 of the 2016 model year and that’s the one he drove until he passed.”
Chuck Sr. was 74 years old, but that didn’t stop him from accumulating four NMCA event wins, with 6-runner up finishes, and twice he finished 2nd in NMCA points. He also hoisted a NHRA Wally after winning the 2017 Summit Racing Nationals in Factory Stock. Sr. was kind, well loved by everyone and always willing to share a story about cars or offer his wisdom to anyone.
“We were pretty happy supporting dad,” said Chuck II. “But ultimately, I wanted to get my Factory Stock license so we brought the black 2013 car back out even though it wasn’t very competitive. We ran well, I got certified, and at Bowling Green at the NMCA race in 2018 I went to the finals and got a Runner-up, which was the best finish in that car,” he told us.
“At the same time, we just finished a 2018 CJ for a customer, Jim Betz of Hard Drive Racing. He only had it a short time and he wanted to build another car, which seemed odd to me. We got it rolling, and as the project neared completion, I asked what the car was for? Jim is local so he came to the shop, put his arm around me and said ‘we built this because I want you to drive it.’
“I was in shock and awe, no one has ever done anything like that for me. And to be honest, I was reluctant because of the responsibility but I was thrilled at the same time. We finished the Cobra Jet in late 2019 and I started racing it in 2020. So far, I’ve run as quick as 7.67 at 184 mph, which was the same ET as my father’s car ran.”
Watson II’s machine is powered by a 327-cubic inch DOHC (dual overhead cam) engine, similar to the popular 5.0 Coyote. It wears GT350 heads, is boosted by an intercooled Whipple 3.0L supercharger and exhaust gasses thunder through American Racing Headers pipes. And fuel is fed by an Aeromotive system with Big Stuff EFI controlling delivery to the chambers.
The mighty mill is prepared at Watson Racing by Kim Mapes, who also makes the engine and chassis tuning calls at the track. Backing the 1,500 horsepower mill is a Joel on Joy TH400 with a Ford 9-inch out back.
“When you watch the car it looks more aggressive than it feels to me. It really drives so smooth. Going 7s is fast and fun, but it’s all about being in a routine. I love the feeling and emotion, especially the buildup before a run from the burnout to the tree, and the feeling after the run. But I’m just focused on my job during the pass. I’ve got a couple of things to do, and you try to be consistent each time.”
As for fun, the 3,575-lb. Mustang typical covers the first 60 feet in 1.18 seconds, runs the eight-mile in 4.90 seconds at 130 mph and does the 1,320 in high 7s at 180-plus mph! Of course it needs traction so the Mustang is fitted with Lamb struts, shock and brakes and a set of RC Components wheels with Mickey Thompson tires grab the track.
“For 2022 we’re going to run the complete NMCA series, as we’re a major sponsor, and at the same token we’ll run NHRA, too. Jim [Betz] and I would like to run a number of NHRA of events starting with the Gatornationals so we’ll be busy at the track and at the shop. Drag racing is great for our business and for the relationships we have with friends, customers and fans. And most of all, I owe a great thanks to Jim Betz, my father Chuck Sr. and my mom, my wife Robyn, Kim Mapes, our family at Watson Racing and our partners at Dayco and E3 Spark Plugs.