(Left to right) Jud Phillips,...
(Left to right) Jud Phillips, Bob Kayhill, A.J., and Howard Keffler. Egos didn’t get in the way of race car builders in the early days, according to A.J. since his close neighbor Frank Kurtis freely sold nose pieces, tail sections, and aluminum to him. “We finished all 200 laps in Seventh place with Don Freeland as driver.” Phillips was credited as the builder of the car when actually it was built in A.J.’s shop using A.J.’s chassis. Phillips provided the body, which used a Kurtis tail section.
British Formula 1 driver Stirling Moss was in the 1958 event (“The greatest driver never to win a World Championship”) to drive a specially constructed V-8–powered F-1 Maserati. The five-time World Champion, Jaun Manuel Fangio from Argentina, who drove for Maserati at the time, shocked everyone by driving a USAC Champ Car, the Dean Van Lines Kuzma Offy. Italian Luigi Musso was in a factory Ferrari. Frenchman Maurice Trintignant shared the heat races with a young rookie named A.J. Foyt when they teamed up to drive a Kuzma Offy while Rodger Ward drove a Lesovsky/Offy, to name just a few.
The road course part of Monza was eliminated, causing most of the Formula 1 teams to boycott the event. Being used to road race–style circuit racing, they deemed the 2.64-mile oval with its 80-degree banked corners as too dangerous.
There were a total of three 63-lap heat races with Rathmann driving A.J.’s Watson/Offy with Watson as crew chief. They won all three heats. Rathmann had set the fastest qualifying lap at a jaw-dropping 170 mph.
The Yanks proved that they were more than a match against some of Europe’s best, proving they were more than just dirt tracking mudslingers. For their dominant day at Monza, A.J. and Rathmann took home $40,000 in winnings. The event never returned.
That’s Troy Ruttman at Dayton...
That’s Troy Ruttman at Dayton Speedway April 20, 1952, just a month before he won the 500 at just 21. “I didn’t build a lot of Sprint Cars but I built that one,” A.J. recalls.
A.J. watched his Watson roadster cross the finish line in First Place with A.J. Foyt behind the wheel. Foyt would be the last driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in a front-engine roadster.
A.J. knew the roadster days were numbered, which prompted him to build two rear engine cars for the 1964 race with Rodger Ward and Don Branson as drivers. Ward came in Second behind Foyt that day. Ward after all, had won 11 races, driving a Watson roadster and he came close this day in the 500 as well.
“We decided on race day to switch from running gasoline to alcohol,” A.J. states. We ran alcohol for qualifying; I decided to use the same setup we used for qualifying for the race. We changed the fuel pumps and jets. We used too much fuel because we were supposed to run the car lean and it ran rich. We had to make two more stops than Foyt.”
That’s a very proud A.J. with...
That’s a very proud A.J. with his hand on the rollbar behind former track T racer Pat Flaherty, who just won the 1956 Indy 500 in an Offy-powered Watson roadster. Offerhauser engines powered all 32 cars in the field. The lone Novi-powered Kurtis finished in 33rd place.
For such radical departure from the front-engined race cars that A.J. had built his whole career to go home with a Second Place finish was phenomenal.
And so was Foyt phenomenal in 1964. He went on to win the Phoenix 100, Trenton 100, Milwaukee 100, and later in the year the Trenton 150 (he won there 12 times over the years) in the same Watson roadster he drove at Indy.
The beautiful, dangerous, and exciting roadsters would be no more. The last roadster to qualify and run at Indy (which happened to be a Watson roadster) was driven by Bobby Grim in 1966. The Roadster Era had really ended the split-second Foyt crossed the finish line in 1964.
The same hot rodders who waxed the competition in their Flathead Fords at tracks like Gilmore went on to Indy and the Championship Trail and did the same thing in their Watson/Offys and left some pretty big tire prints to fill at the Speedway, besides Sweikert and Flaherty in 1955 and 1956.
“That was my first shop at...
“That was my first shop at 1903 Brand Avenue in Glendale. We rented half the building from a Vulcan oil dealer. That’s the two-wheel dolly on my trailer that my dad made for the front of the house trailers. We were getting ready to pull out for Indy.”
Rodger Ward won the 500 in 1959 in a Watson/Offy; 1960 Jim Rathmann in a Watson/Offy; 1962 Rodger Ward won again in a Watson/Offy; in 1963 Parnelli Jones in a Watson/Offy; and in 1964, A.J. Foyt in the final Watson/Offy win.
In all, A.J built 23 Indianapolis roadsters between 1956 and 1963 that dominated the Speedway for 10 historic years and all 23 have survived. The Championship Cars that A.J. constructed won seven Indianapolis 500s in nine years. Finally, of the 57 United States Auto Club (USAC) Championship races from 1956-64, A.J.’s roadsters won 25.
For such unequaled achievements Watson was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1996, as well as the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993.