The TREMEC Stick Shift Shootout at the 2023 NMRA World Finals was loaded with firsts and great racing action. One of the most enjoyable first was seeing Dan Watts win his first ever TREMEC Stick Shift Shootout and his first overall event win ever. And carrying him to that victory was his TREMEC Magnum 6-speed transmission equipped 2003 Mustang Cobra.
Dan started his racing career in a second-generation Ford Lightning F-150 in 2005 in the Fun Ford series. In 2011 he sold the Lightning to buy his current 2003 Terminator Cobra and switched to NMRA competition in the 2012 season. Since then, he’s made continual modifications for more horsepower, speed and safety.
The stock suspension was upgraded front and rear to KellTrac Innovations components including the shocks. The car still uses the factory 8.8-inch IRS setup (more on that in a bit), but with upgraded GForce Performance Engineering Outlaw Axles. On the 4.6L DOHC V8, the factory iron block was replaced with a factory Teksid aluminum block for extra strength and a bit less front-end weight. The stock blower was put on the shelf in favor of a Whipple Gen V 3.0L supercharger for extra boost. Connected to the engine is a TREMEC Magnum 6-speed transmission using a Mantic twin-disc clutch system.
Dan has been a regular competitor in the TREMEC Stick Shift Shootout since the event’s inception. During the 2023 NMRA Norwalk event and first round of the shootout, the balancer on the front of the crankshaft came apart and threw both the blower and main drive belt ending Dan’s weekend. Seemingly a relatively minor failure, Dan returned home and installed a new balancer and belts. Little did he know, though, the pin had been pulled and a much large grenade was about to go off. During his first test drive after the balancer replacement, Dan goosed the throttle and the sudden engine RPM surge snapped the driver’s side timing chain, putting the engine down for the count.
After teardown it was found the snapped timing chain thankfully didn’t bend any valves in the driver’s side cylinder head. What was found though was the passenger head had “lifted” at some point which meant a full teardown was required to get things right. Thanks to the help of Advanced Airflow Cylinder Heads, the engine was rebuilt after the block was decked for a true flat surface again along with both heads being examined to make sure their surfaces were also true for proper sealing.
The NMRA World Finals in Bowling Green, Kentucky, were rapidly approaching and the rebuild process was getting a little too. But hard work by Dan, his friends and the companies lending him a hand paid off. The engine was test-fired the Thursday night before the event, the car went in the trailer and Dan started his drive from Ohio to Kentucky, arriving literally just before the event opened Friday morning.
Rolling into a race with an unproven engine is not at the top of any racer’s favorites list. Dan rolled the yellow Cobra off the trailer and got ready for the first run on the fresh 4.6 motor. Not wanting to chance things, the car’s first run wasn’t until Saturday morning before the True Street cruise and time trials.
True Street time trials went smoothly with no issues. Despite the engine being untested, Dan didn’t hold back on his first run with a 9.324-second pass. The following runs were 9.697 and 9.530 giving him a solid 9.517 average to secure his spot in the TREMEC Stick Shift Shootout and have him in the middle of the pack for qualifying times.
On Elimination Sunday, the car was still running fine with no issues. First round he sent previous shootout winner Jeff Smith home with a 9.57 at 160.73 run. Despite the clean run Dan still had a small nagging doubt about the new engine but it wasn’t holding him back for second round. The 2003 Cobra ran a 9.434 at 159.59 to put racer Robert Thompson (9.648 at 140.63) on the trailer. Dan was on his way to the finals, but he would face his biggest challenge of the day to get the win.
Lining up against Dan in the TREMEC Stick Shift Shootout final found was number one qualifier Mike Niehaus who had been running consistent mid 8-second passes in eliminations. Dan would get the head start at the line thanks to his slower dial-in, but Mike had enough horsepower to chase him down even if Dan ran perfectly and the Mustang had no issues. The yellows turned green for Dan and he shot from the line with a .157 reaction-time. Dan had traction issues before he finally hooked and rocketed to catch up with Dan before the finish line. The gap between the two closed quickly, but Mike’s traction issues off the line gave Dan just enough of a lead to capture the win.
It was a razor thin margin of victory, and as Dan turned off onto the return road he felt something funny from the rearend. Turns out, as the car was decelerating after the final run, and the ring and pinion gears were on the verge of letting go. After returning home, on his first short drive in the car it sheared several of the teeth of both ring and pinion gears. Had he made one extra run before competition, it’s likely the rear axle would’ve broke before the finals.
Not only was it Dan’s first-ever TREMEC Stick Shift Shootout title, it was also his first overall event win! Savoring these victories was made even better thanks to the extra $1,000 purse money contributed by TREMEC because his car was equipped with a TREMEC transmission in addition to the McLeod RXT clutch kit that was already part of the winner’s package.
The money from the win will go to rebuild the differential (ironically it was the car’s original ring and pinion from when it left the factory) but Dan has no plans to swap the IRS out for a solid-axle setup. Nor does he plan to ever switch from supercharger to turbo for boost. The car is a legit daily driver, and Dan doesn’t want to do anything that’ll change that.
Up next for Dan is the 2023 Mod Motor Nationals at Bradenton Motorsports Park, then getting the car ready to compete in the first TREMEC Stick Shift Shootout of 2024 at the NMRA Spring Break Shootout.