Remembering A.J. Watson
A.J. Watson, four-time Indianapolis 500-winning chief mechanic, prolific car builder and one of the most beloved characters in the entire history of the track, passed away in the early hours of Monday, May 12. He had just turned 90 years of age on Thursday, May 8.
Bashful, modest, and easy-going almost to the point of disbelief, the Mansfield, Ohio-born and California-raised Watson was considered by his legion of admirers for many years to be “The Man,” with four “500” wins as chief mechanic (Bob Sweikert in 1955, Pat Flaherty, 1956, and Rodger Ward in both 1959 and 1962) and six as the winning constructor, in 1956, 1959 and 1962, plus 1960 (Jim Rathmann), 1963 (Parnelli Jones) and 1964 ( A. J. Foyt). While Foyt’s 1961 winner was generally believed also to have been a Watson, it was actually constructed by fellow chief mechanic Floyd Trevis, who did so without any kind of arrangement with Watson in spite of it clearly having been a virtual duplicate.
“No, that never bothered me,” Watson would always say in his typical fashion, and in stark contrast to the lawsuit-way-of-life long since in vogue, adding, “In fact, we never even paid attention to the cars we had built and sold to other people. We just concentrated on what we were running ourselves.”
Although exuberant fans have suggested in recent years that the entire “500” field used to be made up of 33 Watson “roadsters,” it was never quite THAT many. The 1963 lineup coming the closest with 14, plus at least seven more, either built with his blessing by associates, or at least clearly copied from his design.
Watson first showed up at Indianapolis as a crew member in 1948 and made his debut as a chief mechanic the following year, fielding eventual winner Flaherty in a Granatelli brothers-sponsored stock-block-powered entry, which qualified but was subsequently “bumped.” Watson and Flaherty were among the huge wave of West Coast “track roadster” hot-rod racers who migrated to the Mid-West during the immediate post-war years, other notables being Troy Ruttman, Jack McGrath, Dick and Jim Rathmann, Bob Sweikert, Andy Linden, Manny Ayulo, Don Freeland, Jimmy Davies and Dempsey Wilson.
The following year (1950), Dick Rathmann successfully made the lineup with a new Watson-built car, powered by an Offenhauser and officially called the City of Glendale Special, although nicknamed the “Pots and Pans Special” due to its sponsorship having come from a variety of Glendale merchants, including several hardware stores. It was sidelined after 25 laps.
Watson and long-time friend and fellow chief mechanic Jud Phillips then joined forces with sportsman Bob Estes to field Don Freeland in the “500,” collaborating on a new “roadster”-type car for 1954 which Freeland drove to seventh.
In 1955, Watson took over as chief mechanic for car entrant John Zink, and with Bob Sweikert as driver, they won the “500” with an Offenhauser-powered Kurtis-Kraft KK500D and the AAA National championship with the team’s dirt car.
During the winter of 1955/56, Watson decided to build a new car of his own at his modest shop on a side street in Glendale, California, based on the Kurtis “roadster” concept, but simplifying the design somewhat and incorporating magnesium into the construction as a weight-saving measure. Simplicity was always a key for Watson, his typically understated reasoning being, “The fewer things you hang on them, the fewer things there are to fall off.”
Although the car had been intended for Sweikert, the defending champion left after a contract dispute with Zink and on board came Watson’s old friend Pat Flaherty. So light and flexible was the new car that Flaherty was able to delight the fans by spectacularly dirt-tracking through the turns with the left front wheel hiked several inches above the track surface as he rode to one and four-lap qualifying records of 146.056 mph and 145.490 mph respectively, and on May 30, winning the 500-mile race. As luck would have it, the throttle linkage broke just after Flaherty took the checkered flag, prompting another Watson quip, “Hey, we only build these things to last 200 laps.”
Watson built another car for 1957 and then two more for 1958, one of which would lead to an unfortunate dispute with Zink that would result in Watson departing the team. In addition to one for Zink---expanding the stable of “roadsters” to three---plus the dirt car, Watson also built one on what he considered to be his own time. It was called, quite simply, a Watson Special and entered for the “500” by longtime friend and crew member Henry “Hank” Blum. Watson never intended to campaign this car himself, entering it purely for the purpose of selling it to a customer in May. When trucking company owner Lee Elkins jumped on that opportunity and proceeded to win the “500” pole with Dick Rathmann, edging two of the three Zink cars over to second and third on the front row, Zink was far from amused. He insisted that Watson relocate to Zink’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where, to quote Zink, “I can keep an eye on you.”
Watson had no interest whatsoever in moving to Tulsa.
Because Jim Rathmann had wanted to take part in the second running of the Monza (Italy) 500 in June 1958 and his car owner, Lindsey Hopkins, did not care to go, Rathmann brokered a deal whereby his “500” sponsor, Leader Cards, Inc., of Milwaukee, would join forces with Zink and Watson. The combination went on to win all three segments of the Monza 500-miler, prompting Leader Card president Bob Wilke to make a very attractive proposal to Watson. The result was that Watson left Zink around Labor Day and went to work for Wilke, serving as Wilke’s own chief mechanic, while also producing Watson chassis for sale to customers through Leader Cards. The association with Leader Cards would continue on for several decades and the deal did NOT require Watson having to relocate to Milwaukee.
Two new cars were built for 1959, the Leader Card driver lineup at one point was scheduled to have been Rodger Ward and Jim Rathmann, but when Rathmann decided he would prefer to remain with Lindsey Hopkins, his planned “ride” was sold to Hopkins and the two drivers finished one-two in the “500” with Ward the winner.
“The Flying Ws,” as Ward, Watson and Wilke were known, compiled an amazing record in the “500” and in USAC National Championship racing, with Ward finishing no worse than fourth in the “500” for six straight years, with two firsts (1959 and 1962), two seconds (1960 and 1964), a third in 1961 and a fourth in 1963. Not only that but Len Sutton finished second to Ward in 1962, making only the third time, ever at that point, that teammates had finished one-two.
In USAC seasonal point rankings, it was even more impressive with the championship title in 1959, second to A. J. Foyt in 1960, third behind Foyt and Eddie Sachs in 1961, first in 1962 and second again to Foyt in both 1963 and 1964. Ward won 18 points-paying championship races between 1959 and 1963, with Watson claiming an additional nine during his career, with Jud Larson (four), Sweikert, Flaherty and Mike Mosley (two each); and Johnny Rutherford, his first ever in the 1965 Atlanta 250.
Watson’s successes weren’t just confined to National Championship events, either. For year after year, he either owned or fielded a sprint car, and later, prepped the Leader Card Silver Crown cars, enjoying successes over decades with Foyt (1960 USAC Mid-West Sprint Car champs), Mario Andretti, Jud Larson, Mike Mosley, George Snider, Gary Bettenhausen, Billy Vukovich, Tom Bigelow, Bobby Olivero and numerous others.
While A.J. and Joyce Watson still considered Burbank home (with the shop in nearby Glendale), they had purchased a house very close to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1955 and would spend the next 15 or so winters in California and the summers almost within the shadows of the track. In 1970, they decided they had had enough of packing and unpacking the china every few months, taking their three daughters out of school and then trekking everything back across the country, electing instead to remain permanently in Speedway.
“Although, we had a garage next to the house in Speedway and I sometimes worked on cars in there, we used the Garage Area as the team’s home base,” Watson once explained, “And we never built anything back here then. All the ‘roadsters’ were built in Glendale. We’d take orders throughout the year but we would wait ‘til we got back to California to start building anything. There would usually be a break of about six weeks after the Hoosier Hundred and Trenton and before Sacramento and Phoenix, so we’d go back for the winter and start building stuff.”
“The most we ever did in one year (winter of 1962/63) was eight. I always joke about drawing chalk marks on the floor, but we really did lay all the tubing out on the floor and we’d have them all going at the same time. I wasn’t a welder, so I would simply tack the frames together with spot welds and our regular welder would come in late afternoon and work on into the night. We used Ronnie Ward (Rodger’s brother) for that and he’d just keep stepping from one frame to the next.”
In stark contrast to how such business is contracted today, much of the work was done on a volunteer basis. Metal man Wayne Ewing built the nose sections (out of aluminum) and the fuel tanks (steel) and was paid by the job, while another fellow named Marvin LeBlanc usually did the fiberglass tails under a similar arrangement. But other than for the occasional paid “stooge,” it was pretty much Watson cronies from Lockheed Aircraft (and perennial May crew members) who would come over after work and help assemble the cars..…FOR NO PAYMENT!
Because it was for WATSON, for Heavens’ sake!
And some of those crew guys were pretty much legends of their own, in particular Larry Shinoda, whose design work included land speed record vehicles, the 1963 Chevrolet Stingray, a variety of projects for Bunky Knudsen, and in the late 1970s, the cab on the futuristic-looking Penske hauler.
Shinoda’s May digs?
In addition to Willie Davis, Don Koda, Hank Blum, “Eager” Edger Elder, Mel Leighton, Leroy Payne, Al “Einstein” Freedman, Kenny Moran and a variety of others, the Watson crew at one time had five different members all named George, each distinguished by a team-chosen nickname, hence “Hollywood” George, “Flat-out” George, and “County” George. Because they were unable to nail any particular character trait, there was also “Plain” George, and due to his rather odd and introverted demeanor, “Miserable” George.
Everything always seemed to be carried out with such good-natured camaraderie, with plenty of needling and laughter. And apparently there were no secrets. It seemed as if anyone was welcome in the garage at any time to come in and borrow tools or parts. “Flat-Out” George Bell was flabbergasted one time when somebody came in and started measuring one of the cars, and after he left, Watson enquired who he was. Each had assumed he was a friend of the other. When it was determined that nobody knew him, Watson merely shrugged and carried on with what he had been doing.
But that didn’t mean things were lackadaisical. Quite the reverse. Everything in his garages was always organized and SPOTLESS…..and his cars frequently WON.
It was always something quite special---even moving---during the 1960s to witness the affection the crew guys had for their bashful, boyish-looking leader. With all of his successes and fame (his name was as well-known in racing as just about any driver) he remained a very humble and down-to-earth person. It was obvious they absolutely ADORED him.
And could it really be that he had actually served as a navigator on B-17 bombers in Europe during WWII?
Years later, after he was no longer a participant, but still building replica race cars, he remained an icon for historians and race car restoration types. He appeared to be happy to chat with just about anyone and share information, most likely because he was, after all, a glorified died-in-the-wool enthusiast himself.
He was an inductee in countless Halls of Fame, and in late 2012, he was named a “Distinguished Hoosier” by then Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, with Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and Tony Stewart also taking part in the presentation.
A number of racing friends had stopped by for visits in recent days, that very gesture by a couple, in particular standing, out as tributes of their own. On Thursday morning, for instance, none other than A. J. Foyt showed up at the house, suggesting he would “come in” for a couple of minutes, but ended up staying to swap stories with Watson for an hour. Foyt doesn’t normally do such things. Al Unser was in town for the weekend and stopped off on the way to the airport back to Albuquerque on Sunday morning. Al Unser doesn’t normally do such things. Veteran fellow crew chief and team manager Jim McGee was another visitor.
It was, quite simply, impossible to find ANYONE who had anything but the greatest praise for A. J. Watson as a human being.
He was truly one of a kind.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations in A.J.’s memory be made to the Gentiva Hospice Foundation, 3350 Riverwood Parkway, Suite 1400, Atlanta, GA 30339