Interview by Mary Lendzion
Photography by Kevin DiOssi and the FSC Staff
Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Chuck Watson Sr. was well aware of the Big Three automakers, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, and all of the hardware they had rolling off the assembly lines in the Motor City.
He was intrigued, interested and inspired to join the industry in one way or another, so he went to work as a skilled trades welder for Chrysler after he graduated from high school, and several years later, he went to work as a skilled trades welder for Ford, where he remained for nine years.
From there, he founded Watson Engineering in the 1980s in Taylor, Michigan, and his company, combined with the 2016 Mustang Cobra Jet he campaigns in NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Cars and NHRA SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown, have put his skills, services, state-of-the-art facilities, showmanship and sportsmanship in the spotlight.
While Watson Sr. is cordial, he’s also as competitive as they come, off-track and on-track, and proof of his prowess is his second-place finish in NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Cars points in 2017 and 2016. He’s currently in first place in this year’s points chase in his 2016 Mustang Cobra Jet, which is powered by a supercharged 5.0 liter engine and has been as quick as 8.02.
When he’s not behind the wheel, he’s spending time with his family, including his wife, Fran, daughter, Debbie, son, Chuck Jr., who works for the company and races the 2014 Mustang Cobra Jet Watson Sr. used to race, son, David, who also works for the company, and ten cherished grandchildren.
“I can remember as a child seeing blue light coming from the garage at night, and I asked my mom what it was, and she smiled and said dad was out back making monsters, when really it was my dad welding on a race car late at night,” said Watson Jr., with a laugh. “He worked long hours on his cars and on customers’ cars, and he sacrificed a lot to be able to do it, but it was his life, and now that I’m involved in his company, it’s my life, too. I’ve learned so much from him, including the importance of having strong values, and we’re fortunate to have built what we’ve built and to have what we have.”
How old were you when you you developed an interest in cars?
“I was just ten years old when I really started liking cars. I was quite fascinated by them, really, and it was a big deal when I took my first trip to Detroit Dragway when I was twelve years old. A local guy let me tag along with him, and his 1959 Chevy Impala with a 348 cubic-inch engine and a four-speed transmission was my introduction to drag racing. Everything about it was memorable to me, from the burnouts to how the guy won in his class.”
It’s difficult to imagine you racing anything other than a Mustang Cobra Jet, but what was your first car?
“It was a 1956 Chevy with a Power Pack, and I got it when I was sixteen years old and still in high school. Of course, I took it straight to Detroit Dragway and proceeded to go through a lot of transmissions and rearends. I got really involved with it, and it was great. I went as often as I could.”
What services did Watson Engineering offer in its infancy, and what was the company’s first major project?
“In the beginning, I worked on race cars, hot rods and street rods, and I did things like fabricate headers and chassis parts, and I machined different things. It started out as a one-person business, with just me, but then I got another person to help me and it grew from there. Our first major project was making headers for the Ford Escort HO in 1981. I had heard they were having trouble getting parts made, and I approached them. I had to go in and talk with them, and then they came to my location and gave me the job. I started working more hours, and there was more going on so I brought in more help.”
Your sons, Chuck Jr. and David, are very involved in the company. What are their responsibilities, and how has the company evolved through the years?
“My son, Chuck, runs the race shop and prototype facility, Watson Racing, which is on Dix-Toledo Road, in Brownstown, Michigan, and my other son, David, runs the manufacturing facility, Watson Engineering, which is on Racho Road in Taylor, Michigan. My son-in-law, Ken Reininger, runs the machine shop operation for Watson Engineering. We also have three manufacturing facilities in South Carolina, and we’re a big supplier to Caterpillar, John Deere, and the agriculture and railroad industries. We do many different types of fabricated sheetmetal, like hoods and doors, for tractors. We employ about 430 people, and we have close to 75 different clients in Michigan and South Carolina.”
Watson Engineering/Watson Racing was the talk of the town when it campaigned two Modular Mustangs in mid 1990s.
“I got a development car, an SN95 Mustang convertible, from Ford, and we did the whole thing. We built a Four-Valve Modular engine for it, as well as a racing transmission, rearend and all of the suspension, and the car ran 10.15. I drove it, and we did some local races at Milan Dragway and Detroit Dragway in Michigan, and we did some out-of-town races, too. That was the first year of the Modular V-8s, and we did some development and developmental testing, and we had really good results. We did that for two years, and then we got another SN95 Mustang from Ford, and we built the chassis and the Four-Valve Modular engine, for my son, Chuck, who drove it. This one had a blower, and my son drove it to 9.40s. That opened the doors with the automotive companies, especially Ford, and we got more business. The company started taking off like a rocket, and we devoted the following years to building the company.”
Watson Engineering/Watson Racing took over the building of the iconic Mustang Cobra Jets in 2013.
“We built the 50 cars in 2013, the 50 cars in 2014 and the 50 cars in 2016, so to date, we have built 150 authentic Cobra Jets. We’re excited about the 2018 Cobra Jet anniversary car, and 68 will be built in light of the 50th anniversary back in 1968. Our responsibilities include the building of the chassis, and then the cars return to the assembly plant for paint and then return to us for final assembly. We have on-site Ford engineers who supervise and sign off on the vehicles prior to delivery. The customers take delivery of them at our Brownstown facility. We also build the FP 350S road-race cars and the GT4 chassis for Ford.”
In addition to competing in NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Cars, you also compete in NHRA SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown.
“I try to race a full schedule for the NMCA and NHRA series, and it helps that they’re a complete crossover and we don’t have to change anything to the car to compete at one or the other. My current car, a blue 2016 Mustang Cobra Jet with a 5.0 liter and a supercharger, has been 8.02 and currently has the NHRA Factory Stock Showdown speed record with a 174.4 mph. My black 2014 Cobra Jet went 8.20 and my street-driven Mustang went 8.59. I have a lot of help from my family and crew, including my engine-builder and tuner, Kim Mapes, who tries to get more power out of my engine every day, and Rich Ademek. They do a killer job.”
You’ve had some pretty memorable moments with your son, Chuck Jr., racing with you.
“There is nothing cooler than having my son race with me. Last year, by coincidence, we got paired up for a run, and I happened to set an elapsed-time record with an 8.11. It was at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, and it was extremely special to me.”
You have a powerful passion for cars. Do you collect them?
“Yes, I do. I started collecting cars about six years ago, and I have accumulated 85 classic cars, hotrods and muscle cars. They’re all licensed, insured and drivable. I enjoy spending time and working on my cars at my shop after-hours and on the weekends.”
You have said you’re a very results-driven person.
“Yes, I’m like that by nature, and it keeps me motivated. It also makes me want to do well, for myself and my company. It helps that I love what I do, and it’s my hope that my sons love what they do, and that my grandchildren will become involved with the company and love what they do, too. I would love if they would carry on the legacy.”
You believe in supporting racers after you’ve built their cars. We reached out to one of them, NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Cars and NHRA SAM Tech Factory Stock Showdown driver Paul Roderick, to ask him to share his thoughts on you. He said “Chuck is an awesome businessman, racer, and friend who’s very good at what he does, but also really cares about people and would do anything to help anyone.”
“The special part about my job is meeting wonderful people who become clients, or more importantly, who become friends, and Paul Rodereick is one of them. At every race, we make it a point to pit with Paul Roderick, Gardner Stone, and Jason Dietsch, who are clients and great friends. I am blessed to be part of something so special.”
What’s in the future for Chuck Watson Sr. and the Watson Engineering/Racing empire?
“We are currently building a 60,000 square foot building that will be completed by the end of this year for future manufacturing.”
(Interview from the October 2018 issue of Fastest Street Car)