Aptitude for Achievement—Marvin Knack has a flair for winning season after season in NMRA competition

Written by Ainsley Jacobs

Photography by Kevin DiOssi

Ever since day one, Marvin Knack knew that his life would involve racing. Now, the three-time, back-to-back-to-back NMRA Roush Performance Super Stang champion looks forward to continuing his journey with new plans, new adventures, and hopefully, new titles as well.

Growing up in Illinois, Knack was the youngest of five brothers and he had a huge interest in anything automotive. His brother, Dean, told him about cars that were so fast that they used parachutes to slow them down while his brother, Ron, had a ’71 Ford Torino that Knack would help him work on.

“I remember looking through the Chilton repair manuals, memorizing the illustrations of the grilles of the Fords from the late ‘50s to the mid ‘60s,” reminisced Knack, now 61 years old, of his lifelong affinity for the Ford brand.

Eventually, hanging around his brothers’ friends while they worked on their cars wasn’t enough for Knack and he got one of his own: a ’68 Ford Mustang that he still owns today.

Knack “couldn’t leave well enough alone” with the Mustang, and often would work on it in a small building across the street form the Ford dealership where he was employed during high school.

“I learned a lot on my own simply from trial and error, and it was a lot of error,” laughed Knack, who bumped up the engine’s compression and messed with its valvetrain and ultimately gleaned a better understanding of what was going on. “The troubles benefitted me in the long run because when things go perfect, you don’t learn a whole lot.”

Not long after, he purchased a set of used cylinder heads from old school NMRA racer Ron Anderson, who helped Knack understand more about cylinder head flow. From there, Knack’s Mustang quickly picked up speed.

One night, around ’79, Knack was hanging out in Pontiac, Illinois, and got his first taste of not only the thrill of street racing, but also the feeling of victory. A man in a ’67 Pontiac GTO challenged him to a race, and Knack eagerly obliged. They did their burnouts and quickly tore down Old Route 66, with Knack securing the lead early on.

“I hooked up and was gone, I pulled away and it wasn’t even close,” he remembered, adding that the other driver (Dan Burkett) challenged him to another race simply so he could hear Knack’s small-block scream a second time.

In a region dominated by General Motors, Knack’s oddball Ford stood out and helped him gain respect for being so fast.

“Then the Pro Street era came around and everyone was cutting cars up, but I didn’t want to chop up my ’68,” explained the man of how he wound up with a ’76 Mustang II next. “I built the cage, chassis, and everything except the Proformance automatic transmission and slightly used Kuntz and Company 427 engine.” On the dyno, the naturally aspirated combination put out a healthy 700 horsepower, while the car itself weighed in at 2,600 pounds with Knack behind the wheel.

Eventually, Knack stepped back from racing to get married and focus on other things. Although his life was taking a different direction, he still made it a point to attend at least one NMRA race each year.

“When Ford came out with the Coyote, I was amazed by the engine and the numbers it was putting up, and I knew I had to have one,” he recalled of his first experience with the platform while attending the 2010 NMRA World Finals in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

It was actually Knack’s wife, though, who convinced him to pull the trigger and order one—which he did a few weeks later. The first brand-new car that Knack had ever bought for himself, his ’11 Ford Mustang GT, inspired him to get back into racing.

“In 2011, I entered True Street in both Joliet and Bowling Green,” said Knack, who wasted no time in deciding he would rather run for points and race at different tracks. Although his Mustang was mostly stock at the time with street tires, a cold air intake, and a tune, it fit the NMRA Roush Performance Super Stang rules and, with no electronics allowed plus a pro tree, Knack vowed to give it a go in the category.

In 2012, his first season, at his first race, Knack made it to the semi-finals at the Georgia NMRA event, but was taken out by Larry Firestone. Following the full NMRA tour for 2013, he finished sixth in NMRA Roush Performance Super Stang points, ended seventh overall in 2014, and kept right on truckin’ to come in fourth in 2015.

Right from the get go, Knack had the right folks in his Ford-focused corner. He met Brent White of Brenspeed fame and the two hit it off. White became Knack’s tuner, and the two men made tremendous progress together. “Brent has become a great friend and is a good guy with even better advice. I couldn’t be doing this without him. We discuss dials-ins together, he listens to me, and he wants me to win,” added Knack of the relationship that started back in 2012.

By 2016, his fourth full season on the circuit, Knack found his stride. “Everyone was trying harder and the competition was really getting tougher,” he said, making no effort to hide how difficult it was to win his very first championship title that same season.

Incredibly, Knack went on to win two more titles, in 2017 and 2018, to bring his total up to three in a row.

“The respect I get from sponsors, racers, even people I don’t even know, it’s really just amazing,” he gushed, astonished by the fact that complete strangers will come up to him and congratulate him if they see him wearing his championship jacket.

“When I was in high school, I almost always had a part-time job and I started at my hometown Ford dealership when I was 16,” recounted Knack of his days growing up in Flannagan, Illinois. He never focused on sports and considered himself  “average,” all the while idolizing racing stars like Ron Anderson and Animal Jim Feurer.

After winning three championships in a row, however, Knack knows he’s something special, not just average. “I feel like I’m in the same group of people that I used to admire when I was a young man. This isn’t just a dream come true, but a dream well beyond my wildest imagination. Now, Ron Anderson knows who I am, and I am a champion.”

The validation that Knack finally feels not only makes that early struggle worthwhile, but it also stokes the fire and inspires him to charge harder and continue on with an even more determined attitude.

Ironically, when he first started in NMRA ROUSH Performance Super Stang, Knack’s goal was to just win a race. “What happened was that I could always make it to the semi-finals, but never the finals. Then, I got there and could always make it to the finals but couldn’t win a race,” he laughed at how his inexperience and nerves always got the best of him. Knowing that he needed to calm down, slow down, and just relax, Knack eventually got that first win and many more soon followed. “Now, on a good weekend, I can go there and I just know it’s going to happen—it feels right.”

Knack’s propensity for cutting good lights has certainly played a role in his astounding success. Often producing 0.00-second and even perfect 0.000-second reaction times, Knack’s competitors know when they line up next to him that they’ll have to give it all they’ve got to get ahead. He’s learned that, while many folks are eager to celebrate his success, not everyone is happy when he’s winning so often.

Given his history of making it look easy (even though it isn’t), Knack struggled uncharacteristically during his 2019 season and came in third for the NMRA ROUSH Performance Super Stang championship points chase as a result.

He encountered a problem with his ’11 Mustang that would cause it to stumble and add a tenth to his elapsed time as a result. It was an inconsistent issue, though, which made troubleshooting tricky.

“I figured out that it would act up more in the heat, like at Bowling Green in 2019 where it was 9,500 degrees out,” laughed the jokester whose wit is still every bit as sharp as it was when he was a teen. “I went in with the points lead and made it through the first round, but the car stumbled when it left the line [in round two] and I couldn’t catch Larry [Firestone] in the other lane.”

It took him nearly the entire season to determine the cause, but Knack thinks he’s finally got it fixed. “Some argue with me about the diagnosis, but I have a 4.11 gear in the car, a high-stall torque converter, and it started when I put a shorter tire on,” explained Knack, whose Mustang’s 6R80 transmission shifts into second gear almost instantly after it leaves the starting line. “The engine snaps up so quick, I believe the computer can’t keep up and shuts everything down for a split second.”

Knack attempted some data logging but couldn’t replicate the stutter. Instead, he changed to a 3.89 gear ratio and believes that did the trick. While racing at the 2020 NMRA season opener in Bradenton, Florida, the car seemed happy and even picked up a few numbers. “It’s hard to tell since the air was good and it was cool, but from what I’ve seen and felt, it’s better,” he affirmed. “I should have won in 2019. I disappointed myself, but it was due to these circumstances that shouldn’t happen again.”

The 2019 season wasn’t a total bust, though, as Knack got an invitation to race with the Midwest Real Street Machines club.

“There was a 16-car shootout at US 41 Dragstrip in Morocco, Indiana, in August, and, when one guy dropped out, they offered me a spot in it,” noted Knack, who had never met the group before. After an initial hesitation, he decided to go for it. With only a $100 entry fee, Knack walked away as the winner and took home his prize of $1,000—a seriously good return on investment with only a 70-mile trip to the track.

Over the years, Knack’s Mustang evolved. While it’s fairly tame compared to other cars in quicker classes and lacks a roll cage, as his ET doesn’t call for one, Knack’s build is a thoughtful one that he took considerable time and care to compile. Through it all, though, the engine and transmission remained true to their Ford factory origins.

What first began with a simple tune and cold air intake soon incorporated a set of drag radial tires. Then, as the car began to hook up better, Knack saw the need to improve the overall chassis integrity.

“People said you don’t need to on the S197, but I’d rather it be too rigid than not rigid enough,” countered Knack, who partnered with Brian Figg and Mike Simpson of Stifflers Chassis & Suspension early on and added almost the entire array of Stifflers products to stiffen up his pony car to make it more consistent and predictable. “I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for Brian, so ‘thank you’ to him—he’s a major reason why I’m out there. He believes in me and knows what I’m capable of.”

Next, Knack installed a set of Kooks headers with a ROUSH exhaust, and “all the normal bolt-on stuff for a quick street car” that kept making it quicker and quicker. A Circle D Specialties torque converter was the next item in line and that really “woke up” the Mustang. At first, Knack’s Mustang would occasionally pull up a front wheel, but he’s changed things around, so now it hauls the front end evenly.

An aluminum driveshaft helped with some weight savings, and Knack slowly progressed toward a more race-centric setup. In early 2016, after chasing down endless issues related to the OEM brakes that resulted in his car pushing through the beams and turning on red light after red light, Knack opted to cut his losses and install a set of manual Aerospace Components brakes.

“That was a bigger part of making the car more winnable,” shared Knack, happy he no longer has his former woes.

Similarly, Knack contacted Billet Specialties when he was looking to make a positive change in the wheel department. Not wanting to put an 18-inch setup on his car due to the fact he liked a taller sidewall, Knack eventually reached an agreement with Jeff Witt at the company for a set of 15-inch rollers all around, to be wrapped in Mickey Thompson’s famous 275 drag radial rubber.

“I got to tour the Billet Specialties facility, too, and I’ve never seen anything like it—the machine shop was flawless and I was very impressed,” said Knack, who works by day manufacturing fuel system components with tolerances down to the tenth of a micron and sure knows his stuff when it comes to machining.

Out back, Knack put in a Strange Engineering 9-inch rearend with an aluminum center section and Detroit Truetrac limited-slip differential as overkill for future adventures. “I don’t like to break,” he affirmed, “I know the 8.8-inch is probably more than enough, but I’m familiar with the 9-inch Ford and love ‘em.”

In addition to the support from his daughter, Megan Knack, and his girlfriend, Deb Patterson who often attends events with him, Knack also receives assistance from his cousin and multi-time late-model dirt champion, Gary May of Minonk NAPA Auto Parts.

“I used to do minor cylinder head work for him when he was racing,” said Knack, proud of his relative’s achievements, “and now he repays the favor by helping me.”

With his setup solidified, Knack has found his biggest challenge to run his car consistently has been the reading the weather. He keeps things uncomplicated with an old school, analog weather station discreetly hidden in his pit area so his peers don’t poke too much fun at him, and he has gotten good at being able to “feel” the weather and its changes. It can be challenging to pay attention to the conditions when he’s got a racecar to focus on as well, but Knack has learned the value in studying the sky.

“The car could run quicker than what it does, but I usually tone it down,” shared Knack of how he’s backed away from teetering on the edge of the mid-11-second Mustang’s limits. To improve performance while still enjoying a buffer, though, Knack decided on a new engine. “It won’t happen this year, but it will stay naturally aspirated. High rpm, big cams, probably E85 fuel, and I plan on running in the 10s with it.”

Looking ahead, Knack’s 2020 plans have taken a detour due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the racing shutdowns that have come as a result. However, while he’s living through history at the moment, the three-time NMRA ROUSH Performance Super Stang champion knows it won’t be long before he’s back out there writing more of it himself.

The Details

Owner/Driver

Owner: Marvin Knack

Driver: Marvin Knack

Hometown: Lexington, Illinois

Occupation: Caterpillar CNC centerless grinder operator

Class: ROUSH Performance Super Stang

Crew: Deb Patterson, Megan Knack

 

Powertrain

Engine: Ford Coyote Gen 1

Engine builder: Stock

Displacement: 5.0 liters

Block: Stock

Bore: Stock

Stroke:  Stock

Crank: Stock

Rods: Stock

Pistons: Stock

Cylinder heads: Stock

Valvetrain: Stock

Camshaft—Brand: Stock

Type:

Carburetor or EFI system: Sock EFI

Power-adder: N.A.

Fuel brand and type: VP MS93

Spark plug brand: E3

Headers and exhaust:  Kooks headers and ROUSH Performance exhaust

Transmission: 6R80 automatic

Transmission Builder: Stock

Clutch/shifter/torque converter: Circle D

Rearend: Strange Engineering 9-inch

Differential: EATON Truetrac

 

Chassis

Body and/or chassis builder: Marvin Knack/ Stifflers

Suspension (Front): Vallow chassis

Suspension (Rear): Modified

Brakes (Front) Brand: Aerospace Components

Disc/Drum: Disk

Brakes (Rear) Brand: Aerospace Components

Disc/Drum: Disk

Wheels (front) Brand: Billet Specialties

Size: 15×3.5-inch

Wheels (Rear) Brand: Billet Specialties

Size: 15×10-inch

Tires (Front) Brand: Mickey Thompson

Size: 28×6.00R15

Tires (Rear) Brand: Mickey Thompson

Size: 275/60R15

Body modifications:

Fiberglass/Carbon body components:

Safety equipment: Stifflers driveshaft safety loop, DSL M03

Estimated or Verified Engine Horsepower and Torque: 500 horsepower

Vehicle weight: 3,770 pounds with driver

Quickest et: 11.45 seconds

Best 60-foot: 1.62 seconds

Fastest mph: 120.56

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