It would be a few years before a roadster built by A.J. Watson would dominate the United S
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.
That’s Dick Rathmann leading the pack in the freshly painted and scalloped T at Bonelli St
What does Indy have to do with Rod & Custom readers? It was hot rodders who made the Indianapolis 500 the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
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!”
A.J. Watson cooling down his roadster, but it wouldn’t be long until the Watson roadsters
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.”
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.
This photo was taken at a race at Crown Point, IN, before Rathmann graduated to the big le
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.
This may look like an open field, but it’s Carrell Speedway, where this bunch of hot rod r
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.”
Wow … Indy
“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 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.”
Pots and Pans
The Watson ’27 roadster was a frequent visitor to the front row at the dirt tracks around
“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 in his ’32 roadster before he and A.J. headed to Indy for
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.
A writer’s worst nightmare is misspelling a name (just ask me) that will be in print forev
They qualified 18th for the 1950 Indy 500 with Rathmann driving, but a broken crank ended their assault. The $2,148 in prize money went to getting the Offy well again and they entered a dirt race at Milwaukee where Rathmann finished Sixth. The engine let go again at Langhorne, a 1-mile dirt track in Pennsylvania, convincing A.J. that being a car owner was no bargain.
The car was competitive, but the basket-case engine needed to go. Cash was its only salvation and that came in the form of car dealer Bob Estes, who bought the car. Estes took the financial burden off A.J. by sponsoring him in 1950: “Jud Phillips and I became the chief mechanics on the car. Jud did the engines and I did the chassis. Plus, I got paid $50 a week and Jud Phillips did too. When I got married, Bob increased my pay to $75 a week.”
Once he was relieved of the financial burdens of ownership, A.J. could be proud of the success of the “Pots and Pans Special” when it was campaigned on the Championship Trail. In spite of the fact A.J. built it on a shoestring, it was a well-constructed race car. It qualified in 50 Championship races with 19 Top Tens by the end of 1953. (Sadly, driver Joe James was killed in the car at San Jose Speedway while leading the race.)
The grease from their track roadsters was still under the fingernails of these hot rod rac
Frank Kurtis radically changed the way Championship Cars looked and handled when he rolled out his revolutionary Cummins-powered KK500A in 1952. It was so low (because the turbocharged, injected diesel engine was laid on its side) that the front tires sat higher than the nose. It was also low because instead of the driver sitting on top of the driveshaft, he sat alongside of it. It was said when Bill Vukovich saw the Kurtis he remarked it reminded him of his roadster. The term stuck.
The KK500A’s turbo failed, which took the car out of the race, but the innovation of the design inspired future builders, including A.J. Vukovich, who won the Indy 500 in 1954 in a Kurtis powered by the bulletproof Offenhauser.
A.J. was hired by John Zink (a Tulsa, Oklahoma, industrialist) who purchased a Kurtis 500D kit for the 1955 race (which was set up for power steering but was never used at the Speedway, only on short tracks) from A.J.’s neighbor, Frank Kurtis. A.J. began assembling and modifying his own version of the low-slung Kurtis roadster in his shop.
Sweikert was another L.A. hop-up who honed his skills by racing track roadsters. Sweikert was chosen to drive the Watson-modified Kurtis roadster in the 500. Sweikert not only won Indy in 1955, he went on to win the AAA National Championship and the Midwest Sprint Car Championship that same year. (Tragically, Sweikert died in 1956 racing a Sprint Car at Salem Speedway.)
This was the first win at Indy for A.J. as a crew chief. “The first year we won the race in 1955 I got 10 percent of the purse, which was $5,000, with Bob Sweikert as the driver. We bought a house near the Speedway with some of the money,” in which he and his wife, Joyce, live to this day.
“I gave my kids a choice as to where they wanted to live, Glendale or Indy. They chose Indy. We moved back here for good in 1971. ”
That 1955 win would be the last time a Kurtis would cross the finish line in First Place at the Brickyard. (A.J. has never hidden the fact that the Kurtis configuration greatly influenced his Watson roadsters.)
Winning the 500 was no fluke because A.J. returned to the Brickyard the following year and repeated the highest of motor racing highs by taking the checkered at Indy, this time with another hot rodder, Pat Flaherty, behind the wheel.
Open-wheel race cars doubled as Sprint Cars and Championship Cars in the early years. Jim
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 Cars like a Midget, not so big and heavy. It was more or l
“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.
(Left to right) Jud Phillips, Bob Kayhill, A.J., and Howard Keffler. Egos didn’t get in th
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.
1964 Indy 500
That’s Troy Ruttman at Dayton Speedway April 20, 1952, just a month before he won the 500
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 his hand on the rollbar behind former track T racer Pat Flah
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 1903 Brand Avenue in Glendale. We rented half the building from
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.
The late Indy car builder Lujie Lesovsky said this about A.J.: “The Watson roadster is the Model T of race cars. No trick stuff, no monkey motion; everything so simple it’s hard for anything to go wrong.”
Why do the legends I write about live such long lives? Because they’re still acting like kids working on stuff and building things—they’re active! Hot rodders like A.J. don’t retire; they just wrench away. And while the days of competitive racing have ended for the roadsters, vintage racing has welcomed the front-engined Indy Cars with open racetracks.
If you want to know what it felt like to be a Foyt, Jones, or Ward behind the wheel, A.J. will build you a Watson roadster for vintage racing and since he—A.J. Watson—is the builder, it can’t be considered a reproduction.
A.J. leaves home every day to drive to his 25-acre farm outside of Indianapolis where he has a shop to spend the morning building a replica of the Pots and Pans Speedway Car or a Watson roadster for a customer. He goes home for lunch and back to the shop for a few more hours in the afternoon to maybe tinker with his ’27 roadster or his wild Harley Trike: “Now that I’m retired, I do all the work on the roadsters myself. Nobody works for me.”
A.J., we know a legion of hot rodders who would work for you and wouldn’t take a dime for the experience.
This photo was taken at A.J.’s shop in Glendale where nothing but winning race cars rolled
You can’t take the hot rod out of the hot rodder. A.J. built some of the most-winning Cham
“I built a whole series of cars going into production starting in 1958,” A.J says, examini
A.J. in his first shop holding the famous “shark nose” that made the Watson roadsters so l
The split-second that Foyt crossed the finish line, winning the 1964 Indy 500 into an A.J.
Hopefully you haven’t had a little cooking sherry when you see this in your rearview mirro