This may look like an open...
This may look like an open field, but it’s Carrell Speedway, where this bunch of hot rod racers decided getting crossed up on dirt in front of the next guy was more fun and challenging than running solo for speed at the dry lakes. That led many to graduate to Midgets, Sprint Cars, and to the ultimate=⎯Championship Cars—eventually competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Track roadster racing was the rage in 1948, with capacity crowds at dirt tracks in California and spreading back east as well. Maybe seeing real California hot rods for the first time attracted the eastern crowds, or seeing the drivers they’d read about like Rathmann and Ruttman who were quickly becoming personalities at tracks like Soldier Field in Chicago that Andy Granatelli promoted.
The hot rods became the ticket into big time racing for A.J. and his roadster racing buddies, which led them closer to Indy: “When Rathmann, Flaherty, and all of us raced back east in Andy Granatelli’s Hurricane Association in Chicago we all stayed together in the same hotel. The only one who made any money back there was Jim Rathmann; he was winning all the races. We ate White Castles most of the time … they were a nickel.”
“I went back to Indy in 1948 with Connie Weidell (known for his Caddy-powered dry lakes car) who built a car for Indianapolis. I knew very little about Indy or the cars then. Bob Estes (Inglewood Lincoln Mercury dealer) sponsored the car. It had a Merc Flathead V-8 engine in it with Edlebrock heads. Manuel Ayulo, who raced track roadsters, drove it. We really didn’t know much. We didn’t make the race.”
Watson’s ’27 roadster was...
Watson’s ’27 roadster was already getting media attention by winning races.
The car was meticulously constructed not only by Weidell but veteran Indy driver and hot rod builder Rex Mays helped to prepare it. (Mays finished 19th in a Kurtis.) Mauri Rose won that year. “It was exciting to be in Gasoline Alley when the Novis were running. We weren’t even in the same league with our little Merc Flathead against the Offys,” A.J. laughs. “Our first time at Indy was exciting and I knew I’d return with my own car.”
The Watson ’27 roadster was...
The Watson ’27 roadster was a frequent visitor to the front row at the dirt tracks around Southern California with a number of drivers at the wheel. It wouldn’t be long until A.J.’s roadsters would be on the front row at the Brickyard and the Championship Trail as well.
“Dick Rathmann talked me into building the ‘Pots and Pans’ car while I was working at Lockheed,” A.J. continues. “Leroy Payne and Hank Blum were engineers at Lockheed. Blum and Payne handled the engineering on the car. We’d get off work and they’d work on the car at night at the shop for beer. We’d play poker on Saturday nights. They stopped there every night, including Sundays” A.J. laughs. “‘Chickie’ Hirashima worked at Meyer-Drake but he would work with us at night just for fun too.
“Guys would chip in cash, labor, or parts. We scrounged a lot of parts and that gave the car that name. When we were building the car we’d hear of another car being built and we’d go get parts from them. We got Offy parts that were cracked or broken and welded them up. We didn’t have any money to buy a complete engine. (The cost of an Offy engine in 1947 was $4,700.) Frank Kurtis was just down the street and we’d buy aluminum from Frank, which is what we made the body out of.”
Manuel Ayulo at Bonelli Stadium...
Manuel Ayulo at Bonelli Stadium in his ’32 roadster before he and A.J. headed to Indy for their attempt to qualify Connie Wiedell’s AAA Sprint Car in 1948. Ayulo was not able to get the Merc-powered modified up to qualifying speed to make the field.
Watson’s shop not only attracted the boys from Lockheed, a certain girl was attracted as well: “I just walked by A.J.’s shop one day,” Joyce Watson reminisces. “I wasn’t interested in cars but I guess I saw A.J. and was attracted to him. I was an usher at a theater at the time. I was 17.” They were married in 1951.
A.J. arrived back at the Brickyard (originally the 3.2-million, 10-pound bricks were laid in 1909) in 1950 with the “A.J. Special”, but as a joke the “City of Glendale” was painted on the hood. It looked impressive but was a bit misleading. The Glendale city fathers didn’t sponsor it; it was more like the hot rodders who lived in Glendale made the car happen. You know⎯a few bucks here, some parts there, and a whole lot of hands-on.
When word spread in the garage area on how the car was built, probably some well-healed fuddy-duddy gave the car the handle “Pots and Pans Special.” A.J. and his buddies didn’t care; they won a lot of races and set a lot of records with their pots and pans back home.