Known in Gasoline Alley simply as “The Head” (for head man), A.J. Watson’s cars of his design were winners of five straight Indy 500s, twice finishing first and second. All of his winning cars were roadsters and although he did win an award for his first rear-engine design, his cars would never win another 500 after A. J. Foyt drove his Watson roadster to victory lane in 1964.
“He was a pioneer,” Foyt said in a statement. “He came out when the Kurtis was king 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.”
Watson was a navigator in the Eighth Army Air Force, arriving in England just as Nazi Germany was preparing to surrender. He was fascinated by airplanes and when the war was over, he moved from his native Ohio to Los Angeles, where much of the aircraft industry was based and his father had a machine shop. He worked for both his dad and on the assembly line at Lockheed Aircraft, and enrolled in college on the G.I. Bill.
Southern California was the hotbed for the post-war hot-rod craze and it wasn't long before Watson built himself a race car. He soon discovered that driving wasn't for him, however, and he focused on working on the machines, not driving them.
He made his first trip to Indianapolis in 1948 as a team mechanic and two years later, at just 26 years old, the first “Watson” appeared at Indy. Dick Rathmann qualified the “City of Glendale Special” in 18th, finishing 32nd. The hook was set. When the '51 race rolled around, Watson quit his job at Lockheed Aircraft and headed back to Indy, this time working for the Bob Estes team.
Watson at first built his cars during the winter in his small garage in Glendale, California. He did most of the work himself, joined at night by a small group of friends, many of whom worked during the day at one of the aerospace facilities that dotted the Los Angeles area. In May he would pack up the family and move to a house he owned in the city of Speedway, Indiana, within walking distance of the track.
While the Estes team continued to struggle at Indy, Watson was helping to build its successful sprint car and championship winning dirt car. When Jud Phillips took the lead on the Indy program for the '54 race, Watson moved on to John Zink Racing. It turned it out to be his big break.
Watson completely rebuilt the Zink team car, and Bob Sweikert went on to the win the 1955 Indy 500 and become national champion. It was Watson's first 500 win as crew chief. The following year he built a new roadster from scratch. Driver Pat Flaherty set new one- and four-lap records in qualifying on the pole and then went on to win the race. The offset drivetrain quickly became a standard design feature that continues today and the Watson-era was officially launched.
By 1958 “Watsons” were becoming commonplace in the 500 as he began to sell customer cars to other teams. Zink, however, became increasingly unhappy with him building cars for other teams, so for 1959 Watson moved to a new team put together by Bob Wilke that included driver Rodger Ward. The press called the team the “Flying Ws.” Watson built two new Speedway cars, with Ward winning the 500 and going on to capture the National Championship. The 1960 Indy 500 was won by Jim Rathmann in a customer car and the rush to get a Watson was underway. At $15,000 a chassis, he couldn't keep up with demand.
A.J. Foyt won in a direct copy of a Watson built by Floyd Trevis in 1961, as fully a third of the field was comprised of Watsons. Watson loaned his blueprints to friends so they could build copies, when he was unable to meet all the orders for new cars.
Watson built two new cars for the Leader Card team in 1962, and they finished one-two in the 500, with Ward leading Len Sutton across the line. He got ambitious for '63, building eight new speedway cars. But it was Parnelli Jones' four-year old Watson that won the pole and the race, followed by Foyt's win in '64.
Watson remained involved in IndyCar racing and continued to live in his Speedway home. He had also been active in the booming race-car restoration business in recent years.
“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,” said IMS president Doug Boles. “The Watson roadster that was so prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s remains the most iconic of racing cars ever constructed.”
A. J. Watson was 90 years-old when he passed away on May 12, 2014.