Indy 500: Legendary Mechanic Celebrating 50th Year at Indy
22 May 1998INDIANAPOLIS, May 22, 1998 - One of the things that sets the Indianapolis 500 apart from all the other auto racing events in the world is the number of people who have been around it for a half-century or more.
Former drivers like Duke Nalon and Emil Andres have come to the race as competitors or "Oldtimers" for more than 60 years. Last Sunday, the Agajanian family was saluted for its 50-year involvement with the race.
Another Indy legend who is celebrating his Golden Anniversary at the track this May is car builder and chief mechanic A.J. Watson.
Watson, who turned 74 on May 8, still is trim in build and in his burr haircut. He doesn't look much different physically than he did in the late 1950s, when he was winning Indy with driver Rodger Ward and his cars made up the entire front row. This Sunday he will work in Jack Hewitt's pit during the Indianapolis 500, hoisting the stop signs and pulling in the hose for the PDM team.
"I'll probably see a couple more races as long as I'm still around and healthy," said the laid-back Watson, who owns a racing shop a couple miles west of the Speedway. "I can do the work I could four years ago if I wanted to, but now I work as fast as I feel like."
Watson restores vintage racecars. He rebuilt a roadster for 1960 winner Jim Rathmann. That year Rathmann drove a Watson-built car past Watson's driver Ward.
"I don't build them fast like I used to," he said. "But it pays 10 times as much."
Watson first came to Indy from his native southern California in 1948 after meeting the owner of the Estes Special, who had come by Watson's garage to have some throttle work done. He and driver Manny Ayulo towed the car to Arlington Downs in Texas for the first race. He returned to California and drove to Indianapolis with a flathead Ford engine in the back of his Chrysler.
The team missed the race.
Watson built his own car for the '49 race and it was called the Novi Jr. Pat Flaherty drove it and "damn near made the race," Watson said.
Going 0-for-2 didn't deter Watson. He was back the next year with his own car, the City of Glendale Special and Dick Rathmann (Jim's brother) as driver. Rathmann qualified the car 18th and fell out in 32nd place when the car stalled after 25 laps.
"That was a good feeling," Watson said about finally making the race. "In those days, if you had enough nerve to build a car, you could make it. That felt better than winning the race."
Watson became tied up with Jud Phillips, and they had drivers Joie James, Jim Rigsby and Don Freeland over the next few years.
In 1955, he teamed with John Zink and won his first "500" with Bob Sweikert, who drove a Kurtis chassis.
That winter Watson built his first car for Zink, and in 1956 Flaherty sat it on the pole and won the race. It was the start of a 10-year string where every car owner coveted a Watson-built car - and for good reason.
In 1957, his new and old cars sat on the front row. The next year, Dick Rathmann, Ed Elisian and Jimmy Reece started out front in Watson cars. That was his last year with Zink.
He joined Bob Wilke's team (today he's still associated with Wilke's son Ralph) that included Ward as driver. Over a six-year period Ward won twice (1959-62) and never finished lower than fourth. The team was known as the "Flying W's." Ward was hired because a deal with a second driver fell through.
"Rodger (also attending this year's race) was real consistent, but not a good qualifier," Watson said. "He was easy to work with. When he'd go out to qualify, he'd say, 'How are we running?' I'd say, 'Not so good.' He'd say, 'I guess I have to get with it.' He'd never say 'fix it.'
"He's the one who put me on Broadway. He would finish races, and if you can finish you've got a chance to win."
In 1960, Rathmann and Ward drove Watson-built cars in a tremendous race where they continually changed places in the front. Watson said he never got too excited, that he was pleased they both were racing with his cars.
Watson built 23 chassis during the peak of his career, including eight in 1963. The rear-engine racecar started to take over, and he built two for 1964. Ward grabbed second, but that marked the end of an era for Watson and Ward.
"I kept on building cars through 1983-84," Watson said. "I never had a good one. I copied the Lightning and March chassis. Aerodynamics got to me."
Then he joked, "I copied the wrong ones."
Watson likes the Pep Boys Indy Racing League concept because he feels it returned racing at Indy and elsewhere back to its roots.
"For the little guy, it's still expensive here like it was 50 years ago," Watson said. "We came here for nothing, but I guess $2,000 maybe wasn't nothing then. I had to borrow from everybody to get it. "Now, I've got the best dirt driver (Hewitt) there ever was in the PDM car. He made the Speedway, and that's darn near impossible for a dirt driver."