A. J. Watson, At Large, Class of 1996
As we remember it now, the Fifties were a golden age at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sleek front-engine cars called roadsters dominated the Indy 500, and some 90 percent of them were built by five men who worked within a few miles of each other in Los Angeles. A.J. Watson was the most successful of all, an intuitive, gifted craftsman in the American tradition.
Watson first came to Los Angeles during World War II as a navigator in the Eighth Army Air Force and returned to California after the war. He went to Glendale college on the G.I. Bill and worked on the assembly line at Lockheed aircraft, but after seeing his first race at Bonelli Stadium in nearby Saugus in 1947, his life changed forever. First he built a track roadster, a hot rod set up for oval-track racing. Then he arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1948 as a mechanic. Two years later, 26-year-old Watson had built his own car for the 1950 Indy 500. Unfortunately the cost of campaigning the car for fellow hot-rodder Dick Rathmann drove Watson back to the assembly line at Lockheed at the end of 1950, but when it came time for the 1951 500, he laid down his tools one day and walked away without even punching the time clock on his way out.
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)
Watson built a dirt car, a roadster and two Offy engines for Wilke, enticing his old friends from Lockheed to moonlight at cut-rate prices with plenty of beer in the refrigerator at 421 West Palmer Avenue in Glendale. 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, Jr., recorded the last 500 victory for a front-engine car in 1964, he, too, was driving a Watson roadster.