If you were among the millions who followed open-wheel racing during the ’50s and ’60s, all you needed were the initials “A.J.” Except during that same period there were two dominate racers named A.J.—one drove race cars (Foyt), the other built them (Watson).

You knew there was no greater place to be than in your garage twisting wrenches on your hot rod on Memorial Day, listening to Sid Collins on the radio call the Indianapolis 500. If that was you, your hero was Watson.

From the ’30s through the early ’60s, Indy was ruled by hot rodders from Southern California. Hot rodders brought innovation to the Brickyard, like fuel injection (Stu Hilborn), roller cams (Chet Herbert), magnesium wheels, and quick-change rearends (Ted Hilibrand). Plus the engine that dominated the Brickyard from 1934 through the ’70s was Fred Offenhauser’s four-valve-per-cylinder, dual-overhead cam four-banger that won Indy 27 times.

After the war, Offenhauser was ready to retire and sold the company to Louis Meyer (three-time Indy winner) and Dale Drake, known as Meyer-Drake Engineering, located in the city of Bell, California.

Jim Rathmann, Pat Flaherty, Parnelli Jones, Bob Sweikert, Rodger Ward, and A.J. Watson learned their craft on the dirt tracks of Southern California, building and driving Ford V-8–powered hot rods. They would ultimately win the most coveted motor race in America. In a matter of minutes, after crossing the finish line, they would become famous for the rest of their lives.

What does Indy have to do with Rod & Custom readers? It was hot rodders who made the Indianapolis 500 the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

A.J. Watson

When World War II began, A.J. Watson (born in 1924), like most hot rodders, gravitated toward the Air Corps and became a navigator on a B-17 and headed to England. “We were to fly over Germany on a bombing mission and it started to snow real bad and the planes were grounded. The next thing we heard was the Germans had surrendered. I lucked out,” A.J. laughs.

When the war finally ended, A.J. headed home to Mansfield, Ohio. One of his buddies was leaving town and A.J. asked where he was going. “I’m going to California.” A.J. said, “I’ll go with you!”

Not quite as adventuresome as it may seem, A.J.’s father, a former racing mechanic (racing was in A.J.’s genes) had already set up shop in Glendale making house trailer dollies. The Watson Dolly Company made a two-wheel dolly designed to take the tongue weight off the rear of a car or light truck. A.J. worked for his dad while enrolling into Glendale College on the GI Bill.

“The guy sitting next to me in a mechanical drawing class, Bill Skulley, wanted to go and watch the hot rods run at Bonelli Stadium in Saugus. We went out and watched them race and got interested. He said, ‘Let’s build one.’ So we built one and raced it for a couple of years.”

Track Jobs

A.J. was working at Lockheed Aircraft running a turret lathe when Watson and his circle of friends began moonlighting after work to first build the ’27 T and later a ’26 T. And A.J., who ran the show, was affectionately known by his shop crew as “Head” … as in head guy.

A.J. quickly found that he was not a race car driver when he scared the tar out of himself on the track: “I drove it once and that was it. I told everyone I had stomach trouble. After that, guys like Mickey Davis and Rathmann drove it at Bonelli, Bakersfield, the Rose Bowl (yes, that Rose Bowl), and Gilmore.”

Watson sold the ’27 T to another Glendale hot rodder, Pat Flaherty, who raced it at Bonelli, Carrell Speedway, Huntington Beach, and the Rose Bowl in the First National Roadster Championship.

The simple beginnings of the CRA had grown to attracting big crowds who filled the stands at Carrell Speedway to watch hot rods sling dirt. On Memorial Day in 1948, over 18,000 watched a 500-lap spectacular (call it a mini Indy) where the purse swelled to 7,600 greenbacks.