The Loss Of A Legend
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway lost another one of its iconic legends yesterday. Famed chassis builder A.J. Watson passed away at the age of ninety, after suffering a heart-attack last week. It’s another link to the storied past of The Speedway that is now gone.
Watson was from an era when Chief Mechanics and the men that worked on the cars were sometimes as famous as the drivers. In their day; the names of Jim Travers, Frank Coon, Jud Phillips, George Bignotti and A.J. Watson were almost as familiar as Vukovich, the Unser’s, Foyt and Ward – the names of their drivers. This was a time before computers and carbon fiber. Instead, cars were built by hand in home garages by laying tubing on the floor prior to welding; before being covered and caressed by hand-fabricated sheet metal. No one did it better than A.J. Watson.
A.J. Watson and Frank Kurtis were probably the two most prolific car builders of the fifties and early sixties. Watson was the Chief Mechanic for the KK500 John Zink Special – affectionately known as the “Pink Zink”, due to its Tropical Rose hue – built by Kurtis. It was driven by Bob Sweikert and won the 1955 Indianapolis 500. Watson built the 1956 winner, driven by Pat Flaherty; while working for John Zink. In 1958, Watson built three cars – two for Zink with Ed Elisian and Jimmy Reece the drivers and one that he built in his spare time and sold to Lee Elkins for Dick Rathmann.
John Zink wasn’t pleased that the car Watson built and sold, ended up on the pole; while the two Zink cars started second and third. Consequently, Zink informed Watson that he wanted him to move from California to Tulsa and build cars exclusively for him.
At the same time, Bob Wilke was looking to upgrade his Leader Card Racers team efforts in the Indianapolis 500. He hired Watson as a Chief Mechanic and car builder, not caring if he built and sold cars to other teams. With Rodger Ward as the driver, this marked the beginning of “The Three W’s” as A.J. Foyt referred to yesterday – Watson, Wilke & Ward. Together, they won two Indianapolis 500’s in 1959 and 1962. Watson also built Indianapolis 500 winning chassis in 1960, 1963 and 1964 – bringing his winning total to six as a car-builder, and four as a Chief Mechanic including his days with Zink.
Amazingly, Watson only built eighteen chassis himself. But his designs were successfully copied by other builders. In 1961, Eddie Sachs won the pole in a Watson chassis that was built by Wayne Ewing. A.J. Foyt won the race that year in a Watson chassis built by Floyd Trevis. Donald Davidson likes to poke fun at those that claim they remember when the entire field was filled with Watson chassis. He points out what an exaggeration that is, because the most Watson chassis to appear in any race is fourteen in 1963.
A.J. Watson also designed and built rear-engine cars, but they never matched the success of the Watson front-engine roadster. The last Watson rear-engine chassis to run at Indianapolis was in 1980, driven by Bill Vukovich II.
In the past few months, we have lost so many legendary figures of the Indianapolis 500. George Bignotti and Andy Granatelli both passed away in the latter part of 2013. Now we’ve lost another innovative mind from the sixties. All three men lived long and productive lives into their nineties. No one can outrace Father Time, but it is somewhat sobering that another household name from the time I grew up going to The Speedway has been lost. Unfortunately, there will be more to come.