Interview by Mary Lendzion
Photos by Mary Lendzion and NMCA Staff
Chuck Watson II spent countless hours in his youth watching his father, Chuck Watson Sr., work on cars in the garage behind their home.
He wanted to know what he was doing, and how he was doing it. And when he asked his father about the flashes of blue that he saw in the garage while peeking from a window in their home late at night, his father told him that he was making monsters, rather than truthfully telling him that he was welding.
In the years that followed, Watson II began working at his father’s famous company, Watson Engineering in Michigan, where he has done everything from push brooms to plan production work.
Watson II took on even more when Watson Racing was formed, and he and his father showcased what their companies are capable of by racing a pair of Modular-powered Mustangs in the 1990s, and recently, by racing Mustang Cobra Jets in NMCA Holley EFI Factory Super Cars and NHRA Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown. Watson Sr. came close to earning a championship, and Watson II, driving Jim Betz’s Mustang Cobra Jet, earned a win in NHRA Factory Stock Showdown, and set a track record with a 7.761, at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in June of 2021 at Summit Motorsports Park in Ohio. He doesn’t mince words when he says he wanted that win more than anything, as it was in memory of his father, who won the same event at the same track four years prior, and recently passed away.
Watson II followed that with a runner-up a month later at the Inaugural Arrington Performance NMRA/NMCA Power Festival presented by Force Engineering at U.S. 131 Motorsports Park in Michigan. Now, he wants to accomplish even more, personally and professionally, and it’s a sure bet that he will.
Read on for more about the insightful and influential Watson II, who lives in Grosse Ile, Michigan with his wife, Robyn.
WHICH SCHOOLS DID YOU ATTEND WHILE GROWING UP IN SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN, AND DID YOU TAKE PART IN SCHOOL ACTIVITIES?
I grew up in Taylor, Michigan, with my parents, Chuck and Fran, my brother, David, and my sister, Debbie, and I lived there until I was fourteen. I went to Holland Elementary, Hoover Middle School and Truman High School, all in Taylor, Michigan. I played baseball and football in grade school. Then we moved to Grosse Ile, Michigan, and I went to a different school, Grosse Ile High School, and went from being around the same people my whole life to not knowing anyone. So, in addition to focusing on my grades, I focused on meeting new people and making new friends.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CAR?
My first car was a 1987 Mustang GT that I bought in 1988 when I was in high school. It had 9,000 miles on it, and I paid $8,100 for it. It had a 5.0L 302 cubic-inch engine and a five-speed transmission. I did all of the normal bolt-on stuff to the car. Then, I got an Escort to drive that winter.
IS IT SAFE TO SAY THAT FATHER INFLUENCED YOUR INTEREST IN CARS?
Yes, he definitely did. In the late 1970s, dad worked as a fabricator and welder for Ford Motor Company. He had nine years and six months in when the recession hit and he was laid off. My mom took a job as a bank teller so that my sister, brother and I had insurance, and my dad constructed a two-and-a-half car garage behind our house. That’s basically how Watson Engineering started. We always had muscle cars and hot rods around the house. We lived on a dead end street, and the side of the garage faced the back of the house, and there was one window on the side of the garage. When he outgrew the garage, he went to brick and mortar.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB?
It was a paper route for the News-Herald in Taylor, Michigan, and I was ten or eleven years old. Collecting the money from some of the customers was an issue. They wouldn’t answer the door when I would come for the 55 cents, but most of the time, I could see them in the house, so I knew they were there. Also around that time, I had started helping my dad at Watson Engineering in the summer, when I wasn’t in school.
YOU WERE VERY YOUNG WHEN YOU STARTED WORKING AT WATSON ENGINEERING. WHAT WERE YOUR EARLY RESPONSIBILITIES?
I swept and cleaned, including the toilet. I did that for about a year, and then started to learn how to weld. You may recall that 302 shorty headers were sold through Ford Motorsports, and Watson Engineering made all of those for years. I had literally welded thousands of those. It was very challenging, and I got burned a number of times, but I enjoyed it. Then I was taught how to run the press, the Bridgeport and the lathe, and eventually, I was taught how to use all of the equipment that we had. I did that through high school, and then I went to college.
WHERE DID YOU GO TO COLLEGE?
I went to Northwood Institute, which is now called Northwood University, in Midland, Michigan. I went for four years, and came out with two bachelor’s degrees and an associate’s degree. When I came home from school, I bought my first home in Grosse Ile, Michigan, and I was working full-time at Watson Engineering. I was put into a purchasing position to learn the front office responsibilities. This was before cell phones and computers. I remember having Thomas Register books and catalogs, and at the time, doing a lot of work for Ford Motor Company, people would bring me instrumentation pieces and tell me they needed this or that, and I would have to look in the books. It was a different time. Now there’s Google.
WHEN DID YOU TRANSITION TO MANAGEMENT AT WATSON ENGINEERING, AND WHAT WAS INVOLVED?
It was a couple of years later, and it involved opening and closing the building, doing reviews and taking care of disciplinary action, among other things. It was different, and it was pretty tough. It was good that I had worked there when I was growing up, and that I had done the things that I had done. I wouldn’t have wanted to be telling someone how to do something that I hadn’t already experienced how to do it myself.
WHAT WILL YOU SHARE ABOUT THE MODULAR ENGINE-POWERED MUSTANGS THAT YOU AND YOUR FATHER RACED, AND HELPED DEVELOP AND TEST PARTS FOR, IN THE 1990s?
We had two SN95 drag cars in the mid-1990s. One was a convertible and one was a hard top. At first, I drove the convertible and dad drove the hard top, and then after a few years, I drove both. We followed the Fun Ford events and ran Super Pro. In around 2008, I started going to the PRI show in Orlando, Florida. The first time I went, I was walking around and looking at all of the parts, and all I could think about was how we could make a lot of them. I told my dad that I would like to get into the aftermarket parts business. I told him that for three years, and then finally, when he came to the show with me, we didn’t get fifty feet in the door before he hit me on the shoulder and said ‘Hey, Chuck. We can make this, and we can make that,’ and you know, that was a great day with my dad. We walked around and look at everything. Then, Watson Racing was founded in 2010.
DID WATSON RACING SHARE A BUILDING WITH WATSON ENGINEERING AT THAT TIME?
Yes, it was within the same building as Watson Engineering, but had different work orders. We now have three locations, with the race shop in Brownstown Township, Michigan, the headquarters in Taylor, Michigan and the manufacturing operations in Piedmont, South Carolina. At first, we offered parts and service, but what got it going parts-wise were the parts we made for the Cobra Jets and the Boss road race cars, which we have been instrumental in since 2008. If a guy rubs a wall while he’s racing, and he has to call someone for a part, I want to be the guy he calls for the part. On the drag racing side, people wanted to clone cars, so we had Cobra Jet parts available so people could clone a Cobra Jet.
WATSON RACING’S MUSTANG COBRA JET PROGRAM IS INCREDIBLY IMPRESSIVE. HOW DID IT COME TO BE?
In the early 1980s, a number of catalog components, like all of the shorty headers and H-pipes, were made by us so we had a relationship with Ford Racing, and they got into doing road race cars and drag race cars, and we were known as the fabricating people. We were awarded the business for roll cages and bracketry and componentry. The first year for the Cobra Jet was in 2008, and then in 2010 and 2012, it was done at the assembly plant in Flat Rock, and then in 2013, we got it. We do everything for the Cobra Jets, from start to finish, except the paint and the powertrain.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU, PROFESSIONALLY AND PERSONALLY?
It means a lot to me, and all of us. A lot of work and effort goes into building that relationship, and designing and partnering with Ford engineers for development and testing. It’s incredible how much is done to the Cobra Jets before the customers take delivery of them. Some people might not know that we also started building Dodge Challenger Drag Paks last year. I enjoy the challenge, and one of the neat things is that we do a lot of prototype work and development work with the Big Three, so we get to see some things before most people have heard about them. Watching the progression of things is very exciting.
WHAT’S INVOLVED WITH BUILDING THE CHALLENGER DRAG PAKS?
We’re building all fifty of the 2021 Drag Paks. The first one that we have had our hands on outside of the build process belongs to a gentleman in Texas named Dennis Chaisson. We went through his engine and worked on his suspension, converter and rear end gear ratio, and at the recent NMCA/NMRA race at U.S. 131 Motorsports Park in Michigan, he got his car into the 7s, so he has the first 2021 production car Drag Pak to get into the 7s. I’m happy for him, and for all of our guys.
HOW DID IT COME TO BE THAT YOU WOULD PILOT JIM BETZ’S 2019 MUSTANG COBRA JET THIS YEAR?
We had built Jim a car, and he was having fun, but he wanted a second car. We got the car done, with a 5.2L engine by Kim Mapes, a 3.0 Whipple supercharger, and a Turbo 400 by Joel’s on Joy, and when he came to look at it, he pulled me to the side and told me that he wanted me to drive it. I was at a loss for words, and I actually teared up a bit. That was a special moment, and I accepted. Jim is one of the most generous people, and one of the most amazing people, I have met.
YOU HAVE BEEN SO SUCCESSFUL IN BETZ’S CAR, AND MANY FANS AND FELLOW RACERS WERE TOUCHED THAT YOU DECICATED TO YOUR FATHER YOUR NHRA FACTORY STOCK SHOWDOWN WIN AT SUMMIT MOTORSPORTS PARK.
I was on a mission to win in that class and at the race since it’s the same race my dad had won four years ago. I wanted nothing more, and if I could only win one race in my whole life, I wanted it to be that one. I was very focused going into it, and we had some things happen along the way, but I kept my cool. In addition to meaning a lot to me, it meant a lot to my family, our employees, my crew of Kim Mapes, Craig Spuhler and Carl Feeny, and my sponsors, Dayco and E3.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH YOUR FATHER?
It was amazing. He taught me a lot, even before I started working with the company. I would shadow him, and he have me do things like take my bike apart and put it back together. When I needed help, he would help me and teach me, regardless of how busy he was. Of course, there were also times when he would put things in front of me and make me figure them out. That was in line with his thinking that there were two types of people, including doers and check-writers, and he wanted to teach me to be a doer.
WHAT DO ENJOY DOING WHEN YOU’RE NOT WORKING OR RACING?
I enjoy woodworking. If I wasn’t brought into the family business, I would be doing something with wood, like construction or building houses. I had a general contractor, but I built our house. I did the electrical, plumbing flooring, cabinetry and trim work. Robyn and I like to spend time with our two grandchildren, and we like to go boating on our Sea Ray Sundancer 320 on the Detroit River and Lake Erie. It’s a great way to relax.
(Interview from the October 2021 issue of Fastest Street Car Magazine)