Interview by Mary Lendzion
Photos by FSC Staff
Kim Mapes was interested in mechanical items as a child in Woodhaven, Michigan.
He wanted to understand how they worked and how they were used. If they were broken, he wanted to fix them.
Before long, he was pulling apart and putting back together everything he could get his hands on, including a hairdryer for his fourth-grade teacher, who rewarded him with a vinyl single of the song “Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers.
Mapes moved up to working on cars for family and friends, and his skills helped shape his future success, as he went on to be a savvy and sought-after engine-builder, fabricator and tuner.
After working at, and even owning, several shops, he accepted a position with Watson Engineering in Taylor, Michigan and Watson Racing in Brownstown Township, Michigan nearly ten years ago. In a small glassed-in area that is as inspiring as it is immaculate, he focuses on building and beefing up engines for Mustang Cobra Jets.
In that spot where his inventiveness and ingenuity shine, he is surrounded by Mustang Cobra Jets belonging to customers who compete in NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Cars, NMCA Coan Stock/Super Stock Combo and NHRA Factory Stock Showdown. There, they are being tuned up for the track, and while Mapes would never boast about it, he plays a pivotal part in ensuring that they perform at peak levels, and that serves as a steady source of inspiration for him.
Read on for more about Mapes, who has a rock-solid reputation in the racing world.
YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED A LOT OVER THE YEARS. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST ENGINE-BUILDING EXPERIENCE?
The first engine I completely took apart and rebuilt was the 350 cubic-inch small-block Chevrolet in my sister Misty’s Monza when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. It had a lot of miles on it, but it didn’t necessarily need to be rebuilt at that time. I just wanted to do it. My dad, Kimmie, always took interest in what I was doing, and he was pretty proud of me.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST JOB YOU HELD?
When I was twelve, I would walk down the street to a shop where they were fabricating, and I would see what they were working on. Then, I started fabricating with them for a couple of hours each day after school. I would cut and weld, and I loved it. I built a lot of parts for my go-cart there. Then, when I was sixteen, I worked as a mechanic at the Mobil station in Riverview, Michigan. My sister, Misty, actually got me that job. She went there and told them that I could do whatever they needed in the repair shop. I liked the job, and it was definitely a stepping stone.
WAS IT RIGHT AFTER WORKING AT MOBIL THAT YOU BEGAN WORKING AT JOE’S RITE-WAY AUTO AND TRUCK REPAIR IN WYANDOTTE, MICHIGAN?
Yes. I started there when I was nineteen years old, and I was there for several years. The owner, Joe Ballog, drove the Ryder Racing Beretta in Top Sportsman and Quick 8, and I was the crew chief. We built engines together, and we had a big-block Chevrolet with a couple systems of nitrous in the car. We raced at Detroit Dragway, Milan Dragway and Ubly Dragway in Michigan, and we followed IHRA Top Sportsman, with the car running 7-flat at 199 mph. By that time, everything was cars to me, and I opened my first business, Kim’s Automotive Performance on Fort Street in Wyandotte, when I was in my late 20s.
WHAT DID YOU OFFER AT YOUR FIRST BUSINESS, KIM’S AUTOMOTIVE PERFORMANCE?
Buick Grand Nationals were at their peak at the time, and I was modifying a lot of them. I was building engines for a lot of people who raced at Detroit Dragway, Milan Dragway and Ubly Dragway in Michigan, and for some street racers as well. I also did chassis work, and just about anything needed for these cars. A good friend of mine, Tim Szabo, had a Buick Grand National, and he referred a lot of work to me. I expanded my knowledge, and I started working on a lot of different things. While I worked mostly with nitrous at Joe’s Rite-Way Auto and Truck Repair, I was working with nitrous, turbos and superchargers at Kim’s Automotive Performance. Also, fuel injection was really rolling out and getting popular at the time. Several years later, I gained a business partner and opened Kim and Larry’s in Taylor, Michigan.
DID THE KIM AND LARRY’S EXPERIENCE EXHANCE YOUR EXPERTISE?
It definitely did. Because Larry Durenzo and I pooled our funds together for a full-on machine shop, I didn’t have to send anything out to be worked on. I started doing more radical builds there, including my first ProCharger build. It was a 1969 Camaro for William Worley. I put together his whole package, including his fuel injection, for his 7-second car. It was very exciting. By that time, in addition to William Worley, I was doing builds for a lot of other people. I did an engine and nitrous system for the Chevy II Dean Parker ran in Outlaw 10.5, and Troy and Don Waterstradt were good friends and customers with their Chevelle with a big-block Chevrolet and nitrous, among other cars, including a ProCharged dragster. I also did engines for Eric Wieszkowiak’s black Nova. We did a lot of work at Kim and Larry’s for eight years. I learned a lot there, and met a lot of good people along the way, and then I worked for Motor City Motorsports in Riverview, Michigan. Joe Ballog owned it. We did the same kinds of builds I was doing at Kim and Larry’s, including a 1957 Chevy with a turbo for Dean Parker for Outlaw 10.5.
WAS THAT AROUND THE TIME THAT YOU BEGAN HELPING NMRA SUPER STREET OUTLAW RACER JOHN MCDONALD WITH HIS RACING PROGRAM?
Yes, it is. For the last two years that I worked at Motor City Motorsports, I was helping John MacDonald. That was about ten years ago. He bought a Mustang with no engine or transmission, and we updated the chassis and I built the small-block Ford, did the fuel injection and the plumbing for the ProCharger, and he ran 7.28 and 199 mph. He had elapsed-time and mph records on and off the whole time we were racing. After that, I moved all of my equipment to my house, and tried working out of my house for about two years, until It became overwhelming.
HOW DID IT COME TO BE THAT YOU WENT TO WORK FOR WATSON ENGINEERING AFTER THAT?
One day eight years ago, I was talking with Steve Ambrose and Bob Hutman, who have a six-cylinder NHRA Comp Eliminator car. I was telling them that one day, I would like to go back to working somewhere, rather than out of my home, and Bob suggested I go by Watson Engineering. So I did, and I accepted a welding job there. They were doing the 2013 Cobra Jets builds at that point, and I was assembling the parts for those, as well as some road race stuff. Jimmy Ronzello came in one day and asked them why they had me only welding when I could work in other areas, too. Watson Racing was just starting at that point, and Chuck Sr. became interested in racing his Cobra Jet, and I started doing chassis work with some of the other guys there, and that evolved into the racing side of it. We moved to the building with the chassis dyno, and we started doing some tuning and then building a couple engines. My first big project, with some of the other guys in the shop, was the red and black Super Stocker that Chris Holbrook drove. That was my baby. Holbrook built the engine, and I built the car with Watson Racing. Now I basically focus on and take care of NMCA Factory Super Cars, NMCA Stock/Super Stock Combo cars and NHRA Factory Stock Showdown cars that are at Watson Racing.
THAT’S AN INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT ROLE. WHAT’S INVOLVED?
I work on Cobra Jets belonging to Chuck Watson Sr., Chuck Watson Jr., Paul Roderick, Gardner Stone, Tripp Carter, Jim Betz, Dave Swanson and other racers. Every one of their cars has my engine in it, and in addition to building the engines, I take care of the converters, chassis set-up, suspension and gearing, and I tune them. We have a chassis dyno, and I’ll be using Big Stuff Gen 4 for tuning for the first time this year. I would also like to mention that Joel’s on Joy does the Turbo 400s for the Cobra Jets.
WHAT ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AT THE RACES?
I tune the Cobra Jets for Chuck Sr. and Chuck Jr. and our customers for each and every pass. In addition to tuning the Cobra Jets at the races, I make chassis changes to them. When things are going well, it’s a lot of fun, but when there are issues, it can be worrisome. My son, Kimmie, who worked at Watson Racing with me for seven years before leaving to spend time with his wife and baby, helps me at the races. Chuck Sr. always tells me to make sure everyone else is taken care of before I take care of him. We have a really good track family.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE INVOLVED IN SOMETHING SO IMPORTANT?
There is pressure, but when the cars run well and the racers go rounds, it’s very, very rewarding. When it’s not going so well, it can make me wonder if I should be doing this, but that feeling passes, because I’m doing what I want to be doing, and the feeling that comes with seeing the cars run well and the racers go rounds far outweighs a bad day at the track. I think, no matter how much you work with race cars, there’s always something to learn, whether you’re building it, driving it, hearing it or smelling it. There’s always a story to be told, and I like that.
WHAT ARE SOME THINGS ABOUT YOU THAT NOT EVERYONE KNOWS?
Music is important to me. I played in all of the bands in school, including jazz, symphonic, marching and concert bands, and I played trumpet, baritone and drums. I was in a band called Scratch, and we played rock and roll at different places for a long time. We took a break from playing gigs, but we still get together to play every Tuesday, and I play drums. We might play gigs again one day soon. Another thing is I built a 1985 Monte Carlo SS and my dad was my crew chief. The car had a small-block Chevrolet with nitrous, and I raced, on and off, in Limited Street between 1999 and 2001. I went as quick and fast as 8.30 and 168 mph. It was great having my dad as my crew chief, and my mom, Lynda, would come along a lot.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY DOING WHEN YOU’RE NOT WORKING?
My wife, Beckey Mapes, and I have an open-bow ski boat, and we like to spend time on the water by our seasonal place in Coldwater, Michigan. We have some friends there whom we like to cook with and hang out with. We also like to spend time with my kids, Kimmie, Tifany, Elisha and Danielle, and my wife’s daughter, Katie, and our truckload of grandkids. I have a good life.
(This interview from the May 2021 issue of Fastest Street Car went to print just before Chuck Watson Sr.’s passing. We offer our sincere condolences to Kim Mapes, Chuck’s family, fellow racers, friends and colleagues.)