Open-wheel race cars doubled...
Open-wheel race cars doubled as Sprint Cars and Championship Cars in the early years. Jim Rigsby finished the 1952 Indy 500 in 12th place in a Watson/Offy. Rigsby was killed in August 1952 in a Sprint Car race at Dayton Speedway in the same car.
Think about it, two entirely different cars, one a modified Kurtis and the other A.J.’s own roadster with a sleek Larry Shinoda designed body with two different drivers (both from A.J.’s track roadster days). Flaherty was from Glendale, Sweikert from L.A. It goes to show you just how skillfully these hot rodders transitioned into the big time.
A.J.’s easy ways attracted talent and commitment in a sport that demanded the same: “Early on, Chet Bingham was the only one of us who knew anything about bodywork. Chet made the nose, the tail … well he did all the aluminum bodywork.”
A.J. resisted in laying the Offy on its side for a lower center of gravity like his competition but sat it as far left as the chassis would allow. Because the chassis weren’t built on frame jigs but by laying out chalk lines, no two cars handled quite the same.
“We started making the Speedway...
“We started making the Speedway Cars like a Midget, not so big and heavy. It was more or less a copy of a Midget but a little bit bigger. We called it a stretched Midget on a stretched Midget,” AJ. comments. Those are Ed Winfield carburetors sticking out from the Offenhauser-powered number 12 with Joe James as chauffeur. A.J. ground virtually all of the cams for the Offenhauser engines. He noted that early Sprint Cars would often compete in Championship races by simply moving the front axle to alter the wheelbase. Notice how high the Speedway Cars of that era sat before A.J. began getting the drivers deeper into the cockpit and the cars lower to the ground. “Joe James drove for me in 1951 at Indy,” A.J. states. James qualified Eighth fastest at 134.09 mph but transmission trouble took James out after only eight laps.
“Larry Shinoda came to a race when we were at Dayton Speedway at around 1949. Larry was a hot rodder from California and was in the Army back there. He was walking through the pits looking for guys from California. That’s how we met. Larry later worked for me designing the bodies on all my cars.”
Takeo “Chickie” Hirashima was a riding mechanic during the two-man days at Indy in the early ’30s. During the war his family was sent to Manzanar internment camp in California’s Owens Valley in 1943, but he escaped and enlisted in the 442nd, seeing combat in Italy.
Chickie went to work for Meyer-Drake after the war, building the Offenhauser engines. A.J. and Hirashima worked together developing a smaller 252ci Offy engine that became known as the Watson/Offy. With the shorter stroke, the engines were cranking out 450 horses on methanol, winning every Indy 500 from 1959-64.
Wayne Ewing was another gifted craftsman who worked for A.J. who loved shaping metal. Ewing had a talent for not just fabricating metal but creating it. He suggested the nosepiece of Watson’s ’57 Champ Car take on a more rounded look. He felt the Watson roadster was the most beautiful of race cars, thanks to Shinoda. “Wayne worked on dragsters before he worked for me,” A.J. says.
A.J. was more than a car builder; he was a hands-on chief mechanic before and during the race. As an engine builder he knew the Offys (literally) inside and out. But he also knew that the lighter a car was, the better it would handle. Out of his small shop in Glendale, A.J. averaged two new cars a year selling for $15,000 in 1960.
When they were racing in their Model T track roadsters, Rathmann and A.J. probably never dreamed they would someday be at Monza in Italy to compete against some of Europe’s finest. “The Race of Two Worlds” pitted Grand Prix cars/drivers against Champ Cars/drivers was held in 1957 and 1958. Instead of 500 nonstop miles like Indy, there were three-heat races with an hour in between for repairs.
The Americans let the Europeans know the definition of fast with Tony Bettenhausen’s blazing speed of 177 mph (remember this was 1957) in the Novi to win the pole. Jimmy Bryan won the first two heats, with Troy Ruttman winning the last.
“For the first time, European fans saw what Indy Cars looked like with their candy and pearl paintwork, what an Offy sounded like, and what our drivers were like. Cigar-chomping Jimmy Bryan from Phoenix was a hit with the foreign press.
“We didn’t know much about Formula 1 racing … we were just dumb kids. But after the race, we rode the train down to Enzo Ferrari’s house, sat at his table, and talked for about a half hour,” A.J. says.