AJ WATSON
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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.”
Remembering A.J. Watson
May 8, 1924 - May 12, 2014
Watson (second from right) with Larry Shinoda (second from left),
Don Koda, and Johnny Boyd.
Rodger Ward and mechanic A.J. Watson chat before the start of
a 1961 championship car race at New Jersey's Trenton Speedway
Watson at the speedway in 2009
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.”
1964 Indy 500 Winner A.J. Foyt in a Watson Roadster
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!

Why?

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?

Watson’s basement.
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.
1959 Rodger Ward winning Watson Roadster
1956 Pat Flaherty John Zink Special Winning Watson Roadster
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.

- Donald Davidson
1960 - A.J. Watson with his Roadster