Watson

23 Nov

Watson, our new Rhodesian ridgeback will be coming home Dec 10 and I absolutely can’t wait.

Anyone that knows me also knows of my love for Indy roadsters and my plan to build one when I finally get time. One day I’ll pull the blueprints back out of the safe, start beding tubing, learn how to work sheetmetal, etc and you’ll see me cruising a copy of the Ken Paul Spl around town, but until then I’ll settle for having just a little more testosterone in the house 😀 . As a compromise between a great dane and a yorkie we settled on a Rhodesian ridgeback and after some searching we finally found a breeder we are very comfortable with and trusting of and we have picked out the newest memeber of our family. 

 

Here’s our new little guy:

 

 

We are naming him Watson in honor of the great Indy roadster builder, chief mechanic and all around legend AJ Watson. AJ’s cars won the 500 seven times, tying him for first on that list and making him the dominating force during the Indy roadster era.

 

 
 
 
 
 
Some history:  

Watson got his big break at the end of the 1954 season when he became chief mechanic for the team run by John Zink, Jr., the son of a magnate in industrial heating from Oklahoma. He modified a Frank Kurtis-built roadster for the 1955 Indy 500, and with it Bob Sweikert won the race.

For the 1956 Indy 500, Watson built a roadster of his own design, offsetting the engine and driveline some 12 inches to the left to improve weight distribution for faster cornering speeds. Pat Flaherty set a new one-lap speed mark to sit on the pole at a record 145.596 mph in the first Watson-designed roadster, and then went on to win the race. Watson roadsters monopolized the front row for the 1958 Indy 500, and Watson went to work for Bob Wilke’s Leader Card team (named for the envelope company owned by Wilke’s father)

In the end, Watson built some 23 roadsters, including the cars that won the 500 in 1959-60, 1962 and 1963. When A.J. Foyt, Jr., recorded the last 500 victory for a front-engine car in 1964, he, too, was driving a Watson roadster.

 

AJ Foyt’s ride… pure mechanical beauty:

 

 

Here’s a Sports Illustrated article from May 1960:

May 30, 1960

The Wizard Of Indy

He’s car-builder A. J. Watson, and he has 11 chances to win next week’s ‘500’

Alfred Wright
 

It is almost axiomatic to report each year that the cars are running faster at the Indianapolis Speedway. A fortnight ago, for instance, the cars that qualified for the first 22 of the 33 positions available in the 500-mile race on Memorial Day averaged 145.513 mph. That is 2.5 mph faster than last year. Then just last weekend, Indianapolis newcomer Jim Hurtubise of Lennox, Calif. averaged 149.056 mph for the 10-mile qualifying run to beat the record 146.592 set the week before by Eddie Sachs. By Indianapolis standards, Hurtubise’s performance was remarkable and was greeted almost in disbelief. But by other standards it was one more step forward, typical of the way these fastest of all racing cars get better, by decimals sometimes and by leaps at others.

Everyone concerned with Indianapolis takes for granted the inevitability of higher speeds. Although the engines are periodically reduced in size, as they were most recently in 1958, still the speeds go up. The drivers, albeit a year older, are almost invariably the same fellows who drove a bit slower the previous year. The alterations in the cars from year to year—and particularly this year—are usually almost imperceptible.

Last weekend, while everyone at the speedway was standing around on one foot and then the other, waiting for the wind and the rain to go away, A. J. Watson tried to explain the improvement in this year’s cars. Watson is the quiet and unassuming Californian who built the Indianapolis winners of 1955, 1956 and 1959 and from his blueprints came this year’s fastest qualifier, the Travelon Special driven by Hurtubise. “I don’t know,” A.J. said without any false modesty. “The cars are about the same. Maybe it’s the tires.”

Tires, to be sure, are terribly important at the speedway, more important than at any other race. It is on the four gradually banked turns of this rectangular track’s two-and-a-half-mile course that a driver is most apt to pick up the fractional seconds that make a difference. And it takes a special kind of tire to withstand the speed at which today’s race cars go into the corners. Firestone, which has had a monopoly at the Brickyard for years, is constantly tinkering to make the speedway tires (used nowhere else in the world) faster, stronger and more adhesive. This year they have added a couple of grooves to the tires, and it is these, along with some minor alterations in the compound of the rubber, that Watson was referring to.

However, with the 1960 race still a week away, it was not Firestone but Watson himself who seemed to dominate the event. Of the 65 cars at the track trying for the 33 starting positions, 11 of the certain starters will be Watson cars, either built by him or built from his blueprints. Remarkably, all of the Watson cars figure to be in contention at the end of next week’s “500.” Of the eight fastest cars to qualify so far this year, six of them are A.J.’s.

It is generally conceded around racing people that the driver of a car is 50% of the race, and the car and mechanic are the other half. The folks in the stands at Indianapolis think largely in terms of the men in the cockpit—Sachs, in the pole position, Jim Rathmann, in second place, Rodger Ward, last year’s winner and national driving champion, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnny Thomson, Jim Bryan, Hurtubise and the other big names. Around the garage they talk about Watson and George Salih, Quinn Epperly, Eddie Kuzma, Frank Kurtis and the others who build the best of the cars.

Talking piece

Watson, of course, is the chief topic of conversation. His accomplishments and his reputation have been mounting steadily ever since Bob Sweikert drove Watson’s first winning car in 1955. Last year, during the 47th lap when Thomson (in a non-Watson) made a pit stop, the cars in the first five positions were all built by Watson, and those driven by Ward and Jim Rathmann finished first and second.

“Simplicity personified,” says Fred Agabashian, the elder statesman of the veteran Indy drivers, in accounting for Watson’s success. “A. J. never hangs a lot of superfluous metal on his cars. Everything has a function and is easy to fix. The workmanship is first class, and A. J. has a reason for each little thing he does. And don’t forget that A. J. is right there at the track working on his cars every year. He is always up to date. A lot of the fellows who build cars don’t ever get to the track, so they have to depend on hearsay and theory.”

A handsome man with just a sprinkling of gray in his crew-cut hair, Watson is almost deferential about his work. He makes no claims for himself as an engineering genius. About all he will say to define his success is, “I come back here and race cars all the time, and that’s where I may have a little edge on the other builders.”

If you wanted to buy a new Watson car for next year’s race it would cost you about $15,000, roughly $5,000 less than other top builders charge for just the chassis and skin, as racing people call the body. You would, of course, want to install the standard Meyer-Drake four-cylinder Offenhauser, the engine almost everybody uses in Indianapolis cars, but you would have to buy that separately for another $10,000 or so and install it yourself in your own garage.

Perfection in a small garage

As he did with the four new cars he built last winter for this year’s race, Watson would construct the car at the small garage he owns in Glendale, Calif. Much of the work there is done at night, since Watson’s labor is semi-voluntary. The four or five assistants who help him work for the love of the craftsmanship and racing. Most of them hold down daytime jobs at nearby plants like Lockheed and have a loose arrangement with Watson concerning their pay. Naturally, Watson’s wife, Joyce, and his two daughters, aged 6 and 2�, are not particularly enthusiastic about this way of life, for they don’t get to see very much of Daddy. But Watson, like most perfectionists, has a priestly dedication to his work. Aside from a little water skiing now and then, there is hardly anything that distracts him from the year-round occupation of building and racing automobiles.

Come April, Watson will have finished building whatever new cars he has contracted to deliver (the four he built last winter were the most he can produce at one time). At that point he packs up his family and heads for Indianapolis  where he owns a house in the little township of Speedway, on the outskirts of Indianapolis and near the race track. Watson sets up his headquarters at the Speedway in adjoining garages Nos. 16 and 17. From the day he moves in until the end of the racing season, he is the full-time mechanic for Bob Wilke, a machine card manufacturer from Milwaukee who runs an auto racing stable under the name Leader Card, which is also the name of his business. While A. J. is getting the Leader Card Specials ready for the big race, he also helps out his many other customers and friends.

There is a deceptive casualness about Watson’s operation, as if everything he did was a kind of afterthought. Speaking of the four new cars he built last winter for the 1960 race, he said, “I kind of promised Aggie [ J.C. Agajanian, the southern CAlifornia pig farmer and racing promoter] that I would build him a car if I had time, and then Wilke wanted a new one if I was going to build one for somebody else. The first thing I knew I was building four of them.” All four of these cars qualified the first day at speeds of better than 144 mph. One, the Leader Card Special, is being driven by Ward, one by Jim Rathmann, one by Len Sutton and Aggie’s car by Lloyd Ruby.

Watson had to turn down an order for a fifth new car last fall from Al Dean, a southern California trucker whose Dean Van Lines Specials have been contenders at Indianapolis for years. So Watson lent a set of his blueprints to his friend and fellow-mechanic, Wayne Ewing, one of the many car buffs who hang around Watson’s shop in Glendale. Ewing went ahead and built the car on his own and turned it over to Clint Brawner, the talented mechanic who masterminds Dean’s racing cars. On the first day of qualifying this car broke, with Sachs in the cockpit, all the records at the speedway. It set a new single-lap record of 147.251 mph which was later broken by Hurtubise’s 149.601.

Although Sachs, at the age of 33, has been one of the top dirt track drivers in the East since 1953 and ranked among the first 10 drivers in the national championship for the past two years, he has never finished a race at Indianapolis  Sachs is a fellow with a large and determined jaw and a keen sense of survival, and he has been heard to say that if he can win the big race this year, that will be it. He will be perfectly happy to make a full-time job of his cocktail lounge at Center Valley, Pa., just outside Allentown, near the New Jersey border. Despite his fast qualifying run, Sachs’s strategy, he has said, will be to lay back within hailing distance of the gang busters and avoid the free-for-all that usually characterizes the early stages of the “500.” The $150 that goes to the leader at the end of each of the 200 laps can be mighty attractive bait and can even mount up into big money over a period, but experience proves that the early-lap winners rarely drive their cars into the victory lane.

A hairy scramble

Among the front runners one can expect to find Jim Rathmann and his brother Dick. Jim, the younger of the two, is a saturnine blond and a truculent competitor who has three times finished second at Indianapolis  Naturally he has every intention of shaking the bridesmaid role this week. Rodger Ward in Watson’s No. 1 car is another front-running type. (The other Leader Card Special, for which Watson will also be the chief mechanic, is the car in which Ward won last year. It will be driven this time by Chuck Stevenson.) Along with Rathmann and Ward you can expect to find Tony Bettenhausen and Johnny Thomson, both of whom like the hairy scramble that goes on for the lap prizes, and, probably, the amazing Hurtubise, who, as a rookie, is still something of an unknown quantity.

Around Gasoline Alley, as they call the garage area at the speedway, it is customary to find most of the cars lying in a thousand parts inside their crowded stalls whenever they aren’t on the track for practice. An occupational disease of every Indianapolis mechanic is the urge to make just one more adjustment, no matter how well a car has performed up to that point. However, in adjoining stalls, numbered 62 and 63, the disarray and confusion is caused by something more serious than a mechanic’s persnicketiness. It is there that the two Novi Specials are parked, and this year, as quite frequently in the past, they are not well.

Ever since the war, the Novis have been almost as much a part of the Indianapolis scene as the brick paving on the homestretch. The deep-throated roar of their supercharged V-8 engines sends a thrilling shiver through the grandstands. Although today they are virtually the same machines that first arrived at Indy so many years ago and have since set their share of records, they can still travel faster on the straightaway than the very latest four-cylinder Offenhauser. It is the determination of Lew Welch, the Michigan air-conditioner manufacturer who owns them, that one day one of his Novis is going to win the race.

No day for the Novi

Unhappily, this is no more likely to be the year of the Novi than previous ones. No. 49 Novi was scarcely able to get on the track at all. First it was the impeller on the supercharger which broke into pieces while turning at something like 40,000 rpm. Then, on a practice run last Saturday, the engine blew completely beyond repair—for this year’s race. With young Dempsey Wilson at the wheel, Novi No. 47 seemed to be doing better and was turning laps at 143 or so last Saturday when it started spouting oil. At nightfall it was again in pieces, and only the most optimistic man in the garage would dare predict it would be ready to qualify, which it wasn’t.

The absence of the Novis will be a loss to the race. As Wilson said after one exciting practice session, “With the Offies you watch your tachometer to see how fast you’re going. With the Novis you watch it to find out when to slow down.” At 7,800 rpm, the Novis turn up about 630 hp. At a little better than 6,000 rpm, the recommended top speed, the Offies produce only 375 hp.

Yet it will most surely be an Offie that ends up in front next Monday, and if there is anything to the law of averages at the Brickyard, the Offie will be riding in a car that A.J. Watson built. It is hard to figure the race any other way.

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