Legendary Indy Mechanic A.J. Watson Dies
INDIANAPOLIS — Legendary Indianapolis 500 mechanic A.J. Watson has died, four days after his 90th birthday.
A car builder, mechanic and crew chief, Watson was in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area from 1948 through 1984. His cars won six Indianapolis 500s.
“A.J. Watson was one of the most innovative and successful mechanics and car builders in the 105-year history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Watson roadster that was so prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s remains one of the most iconic racing cars ever constructed,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President J. Douglas Boles. “The thoughts and prayers of the entire Indianapolis Motor Speedway organization are with the Watson family and the many friends and fans of A.J. Watson, who will always remember him for his passion for racing and his friendly and approachable personality.”
A World War II veteran, Watson saw his first race at Bonelli Stadium in Saugus, Calif., in 1947. Soon after that he built his first roadster and went to Indianapolis for the first time as a mechanic in 1948.
Two years later at age 26, he entered a car of his own creation in the 1950 Indianapolis 500 with Dick Rathmann driving.
Watson got his big break when he became chief mechanic for the team run by John Zink Jr., the son of a magnate in industrial heating from Oklahoma. Watson modified a Frank Kurtis-built roadster for the 1955 Indy 500 and Bob Sweikert drove it to victory.
The following year, 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 one-lap speed mark to sit on the pole at 145.596 mph in the first Watson-designed roadster and 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.
Watson built a dirt car, a roadster and two Offy engines for Wilke. Watson, Wilke and driver Rodger Ward quickly became the dominant combination at Indy and on the USAC championship trail.
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 recorded the last 500 victory for a front-engine car in 1964, he, too, was driving a Watson roadster.
“I was very good friends with A.J. Watson and his wife Joyce. He picked me up to drive his sprint car years back. We worked right there at his house, took the 220 Offy and built the Chevrolet,” said Foyt. “He was a pioneer. He came out against Kurtis and built the Watson roadster and I was lucky enough to win with it. In his day right here at the Indy 500, there was nobody that was going to beat the three W’s: Watson, Wilke and Ward.
“It’s hard to believe he’s gone. I’m just glad I was able to go see him on his 90th birthday [May 8]. We did talk about old times. He had a picture of me and him with his sprint car on the wall and I teased him, ‘A.J. were we ever that young?’ He said, ‘It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?’”
Watson was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1996.