The Racing Capital
of the World
May 08, 2013 | By Tom Surber
The A.J. Watson roadster driven by 1960 Indianapolis 500 winner Jim Rathmann in the 1963 edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will be on display at the third annual Celebration of Automobiles, scheduled for Saturday, May 11 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Vintage car owners and automotive enthusiasts from around North America have flocked to IMS the last two years for the event, which pays tribute to the rich heritage of automotive development at the track for more than 100 years.
One of the famed 23 roadsters that ran in the Indianapolis 500 crafted by legendary car builder and Indianapolis resident A.J. Watson, the No. 16 Hopkins Coral Harbour Watson/Offy started the 1963 Indianapolis 500 in 29th position before dropping out of the race after 99 laps due to a fuel system failure. It marked the final appearance as a driver for the popular Rathmann, who along with his win in 1960, finished as the Indianapolis 500 runner-up three times in 14 starts.
Watson’s roadsters enjoyed an incredible run in the Indianapolis 500, winning the race in 1956, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1964. Offy-powered Watsons finished first and second in the 1959, 1960 and 1962 Indianapolis 500s, and in 1964 a Watson driven by A.J. Foyt was the last front-engine car to win at the Brickyard.
The 1963 Watson Roadster is owned by automobile dealer George Lyons of Erie, Pa., who did a lot of work to restore the car to its original condition.
“It was a complete bare-frame-up, nut-and-bolt restoration,” Lyons said. “I went to great lengths to get the car in the exact detail of how it was built by Watson in ’63, including everything down to the types of bolts and nuts, fasteners, clamps and assembly techniques. I really tried to duplicate very precisely how the car was built in those days.
“It doesn’t have any upgrades that have occurred over the years, with one exception: To run in the Celebration of Automobiles, I’ve got a more modern set of seat belts in it just because the old ones are too dried out and not safe. Aside from those seat belts, nothing else is upgraded on this car whatsoever. It looks exactly how it sat on the grid the morning in ‘63 for the race with Rathmann at the wheel.”
Lyons considered himself fortunate during the grueling restoration to receive assistance from a friend who knows more about these cars than anyone else.
“I’m very tight with A.J. Watson and his wife; we’re good friends,” Lyons said. “He worked with me on the restoration of another race car a couple years ago, and he did assist me in this restoration. He gave me a lot of guidance. He inspected the car a couple of times and kept me going in the right direction on a lot of stuff. He also helped me with a lot of parts that I was missing, so he’s been heavily involved with this restoration at 87 years old.
“He was my hero as a kid, as a race car builder and crew chief that so dominated the Speedway, and sometimes I’ll be doing something with him in the shop and we’re working together, and I’ll have to like pinch myself like ‘Am I dreaming this, or did I die and go to heaven and this is what I got?’
“It’s just incredible, and he’s the kindest, nicely spoken, fun guy, and he’s as sharp as can be. You would never hear him say a discouraging word about anybody. He’s got a great sense of humor, and I’m really fortunate that through these cars he and I have truly become good friends.”
Lyons joins other race fans in looking back at the roadster era as one of the most exciting and glorious times in the unique history of the Indianapolis 500.
“The roadster era was so incredible for Indianapolis because there was such a following and such a fan base that so tracked these cars, the drivers, the builders, the owners, and it just seemed like something got lost, although it was still good, when the roadster era ended,” Lyons said. “There were hot-rodders that were building cars in their home garages and some of them weren’t very good, but they were showing up every year and competing with all these radical, crazy designs, and people all over the world followed it intensely, and the roadster era will always be looked at as the high point of Indy car racing. I think even 50 years from now that’s what people are going to say.”
Lyons’ Watson roadster will be on display as part of a classic race car exhibition during the Celebration of Automobiles on Saturday, May 11. He’ll also join with other vintage racecar owners in driving around the iconic IMS oval during Legends Day honoring Parnelli Jones at IMS on Saturday, May 25.
Watson is excited to take part in the Celebration of Automobiles as a participant after previously experiencing the show as a richly entertained spectator.
“I got to be honest with you, I thought the show was spectacular,” Lyons said. “They’re doing a great job promoting this thing. They want to get it on the board with the shows like Pebble Beach and Amelia Island, and things like that. There’s definitely room for another high-end quality Concours like this, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is spectacular for this event.”
A Vintage and Classic Car Show on Saturday, May 11, featuring 200 of the most beautiful and rare cars from 1910-70, again will be the focal point of the 2013 Celebration of Automobiles. New additions to the show are the inclusion of categories for open-wheel race cars from 1910-70, Indy 500 pace cars and unrestored cars.
1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1978 Formula One World Champion Mario Andretti will serve as the honorary head judge.
One other exciting addition to the Celebration of Automobiles is a round-trip Scenic Driving Tour for COA participants to Terre Haute, Ind., on Friday, May 10.
Participants will enjoy Celebration of Automobiles activities from Thursday, May 9 through Saturday, May 11 at IMS, while fans can look at the beautiful cars and participate in other activities Saturday, May 11 – the first day of practice for the 97th Indianapolis 500.
2013 Indianapolis 500 tickets: Tickets are on sale for the 97th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race on Sunday, May 26 at IMS.
Race Day ticket prices start at just $30. Fans can buy tickets online at www.ims.com/tickets, by calling the IMS ticket office at (317) 492-6700, or (800) 822-INDY outside the Indianapolis area, or by visiting the ticket office at the IMS Administration Building at the corner of Georgetown Road and 16th Street between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (ET) Monday-Friday.
Children 12 and under will receive free general admission to any IMS event in 2013 when accompanied by an adult general admission ticket holder.
Tickets for groups of 20 or more also are on sale. Contact the IMS Group Sales Department at (866) 221-8775 for more information.