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Behind the Scenes with NHRA Cobra Jet Racer Charlie Downing
We talk with NHRA Factory Stock racer Charlie Downing
Charlie Downing’s outspoken, opinionated and is often stirring the pot in the NHRA Sportsman Racer community. Known as “Charlie Bob” to many of his peers, he’s a prankster to his fellow competitors, finding ways to make the endless hours of waiting to be called up to the staging lanes bearable with sophomoric pranks. If there was a MTV Punk’D episode at the dragstrip, Charlie would its primary instigator.
While in the lanes, he holds court, with racers and the NHRA tech guys, sometimes telling it like it is when it comes to upside-down horsepower factors and bogus engine/body combinations that infiltrate the Stock and Super Stock classes. Charlie’s not afraid to march up to the NHRA Tech Trailer, voice these matters and call someone out.
He might be a character, and his age is way below the average median of most drag racers chasing points, records, glory, and even the much-coveted Wally. But when this 33 year-old climbs into his 2010 Cobra Jet Mustang, straps into the five-point harness, and begins grabbing gears, he’s all business.
How he got to this point in his young racing career is a tale of hard work, determination, and passion for a sport he grew up in.
Coming from a small farming town in southeastern Michigan, Charlie grew up in a racing family. His father, Robert, was an avid drag racer, and since Milan Dragway just up the road from their modest 2,800 square foot farmhouse nestled on 400 acres of rich Midwest soil, the elder Downing took young Charlie to his first race when he was only right years old.
Charlie was also a very observant as a youngster. He paid close attention to his father’s racing endeavors and noticed what other stalwart Stocker racers like the Emmons Brothers and Scotty Richardson did in getting their cars prepared and dialed-in for track and weather conditions. He learned quite early that discipline and a routine is just as important as being the baddest car on the property when it comes to winning races.
His early racing goals started out modest: win class at NHRA National Events, especially at the U.S. Nationals, the “Super Bowl” of all the NHRA events. To date, Charlie’s accumulated seven class wins at NHRA’s “Big Go.”
He then set his sights on winning an NHRA or IHRA divisional race. Charlie sort of side-stepped that and tasted his victory at a national event. Ironically, it was at the same track he frequented as kid with his dad, Milan Dragway. It was at the 2006 IHRA Motor City Nationals that Charlie drove his father’s ride to a victory in Stock Eliminator.
It was in the fall of 2009 that the factory Ford Cobra Jet team, led at the time by Brian Wolfe and others, took notice of Charlie’s determination, hard work and passion for the sport. The discussions began and quickly the Ford racing folks realized it was no-brainer and offered Charlie a Body-In-White deal on a Mustang Cobra Jet. Wolfe also hooked Charlie up with the folks at Varsity Ford, a major dealer located in Ann Arbor, Michigan who’s extremely active in the Mustang enthusiast and racer community and who’s name is synonymous with fast Stock and Super Cobra Jet Mustangs and even a couple of ’64 Ford Thunderbolts.
Coincidently, Charlie’s first victory behind the wheel of a Ford came at the NHRA Division 3 event at Stanton, Michigan in 2010. He was brought in to wheel a new Cobra Jet sponsored by Varsity Ford and claimed a Super Stock victory. This win helped solidify his new venture as a Mustang racer and secured a sponsorship with Varsity.
As work began on Charlie’s Cobra Jet project, there were many discussions with fellow Cobra Jet pilot and Ford engineer Jimmy Ronzello on which engine combination they should build. Charlie wanted to run the Windsor-based 352ci pushrod engine. Ronzello had other ideas. He suggested the 4.6L three-valve motor as it was more of a production engine and since it’s naturally aspirated, is cheaper to build. Plus, Ford Performance wanted to see how the 4.6L would run in the always-challenging NHRA Stock and Super Stock classes. “At the time, I knew nothing about Fords, especially the 4.6L. It was totally foreign to me,” said Charlie.
After it was determined to run the 4.6L, Charlie ramped up real quick on what the engine liked and didn’t like and worked closely with Ronzello’s expertise in making it a great little package. When the engine was on the dyno, Charlie and EFI guru John Meaney realized the 4.6L had a very tight power band and determined the car would be around three-tenths faster with a manual trans. Once again, Charlie went into uncharted waters and became a first time stick shift racer as a Jerico trans went behind the 4.6L.
Mike Pustelny Racing handled the Cobra Jet’s chassis chores. Mike’s been a top notch Stock and Super Stocker chassis builder for over three decades and has been involved not only with the Cobra Jet program, but also with the development of the Chevy COPO and Mopar Drag Pak.
After working out some minor new car bugs, Charlie quickly got acclimated to driving the four-speed and is now like a machine. He leaves the starting line between 6,500 and 6,700 rpm and yanks the Long shifter at 7,500 rpm. Charlie conservatively estimates the little 4.6L is making around 500 horses but we know it’s more than that. Depending on track and weather conditions, Charlie bounces back between either 5.14 or 5.38 gears in the nine-inch rearend.
When Charlie’s Cobra Jet hit the strip, he knew it was going to be a killer piece. So did NHRA as they quickly moved some of the Cobra Jets along with the COPO Camaros and Drag Pak Challengers into the new Factory Stock class in the beginning of 2015. Before getting lumped into the shark tank, Charlie’s Mustang originally fell into F/S or G/S and was a consistent class winner. Now, he’s running in FS/J and it’s a little more work but he’s not complaining. “It is what is and we’ll be fine”.
And fine it has been as Charlie’s Cobra Jet can turn 10.50s at over 130 mph. Under good conditions, 1.42 60-foot times are the norm with nine-inch Mickey Thompson slicks planting the 3,200 pound Mustang to the track. Not too shabby considering the current index in FS/J is 11.80.
Charlie’s driving record is just as impressive as the Mustang’s performance. In 2013, he runnered-up the NHRA Gatornationals and a NHRA Division 3 points meet. Charlie wound up finishing third in the world that year for Stock Eliminator.
His Cobra Jet kept going rounds the following year as he won the NHRA Luca Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minnesota and the NHRA Northern Class Nationals.
Last year, Charlie was runner-up at the NHRA Cajun SportsNationals and NHRA Division 5 Topeka Points Race. He ended up finishing number 10 in the world for 2015.
We recently hung out with Charlie at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis for the NHRA Division 3 opener. Here, he went a few rounds before the sky opened up with driving rain, howling winds, and a tornado thrown in just to remind us it’s springtime in the Midwest. For now, Charlie will keep hitting the NHRA trail and try to capture more wins with his Cobra Jet. He’s a new dad and realizes he’ll have to throttle back on his racing schedule but he knows his Cobra Jet will always be in striking range of anyone who lines up in the next lane.
Check out the video of Charlie banging gears and taking out a LS1 powered GTO during eliminations.