1954 Indianapolis Roadster
The Bob Estes Special is a 1954 Indianapolis roadster built by legendary mechanic-constructor A.J. Watson and driven by Don Freeland to a seventh-place finish in the 1954 Indianapolis 500. The car was a proper representation of a new generation of racers that began invading the Brickyard in the 1950s, a time of advancements in American open-wheel racing, just as it was for the automobile industry and motorsports in general.
Improvements in aerodynamics and engine technology gained in wartime had begun to push aside the classic, high-riding car at Indianapolis, replacing it with lower, better handling machines specifically designed for the famed oval with the front stretch paved with bricks. Just as Harry Miller had reshaped engine and chassis design a generation earlier, so did Watson—a gentlemanly Ohio-born Southern California transplant with an easy-going temperament who contributed to the so-called “Roadster Revolution.”
Watson would go on to score six Indianapolis 500 wins as a constructor and four as a chief mechanic. Watson first came to Indianapolis as a crewmember in 1948, but his team failed to qualify. In 1949, his first year as a chief mechanic at Indianapolis, he fielded an entry sponsored by the Granatelli brothers. That car was bumped during qualifying, but it just made Watson determined to come back to Indianapolis and succeed. In 1950, a Watson-built car carried Dick Rathmann to the 18th starting spot in qualifying, only to drop out early in the race on the 25th lap.
His entrants failed to finish until 1954, when he collaborated with his long-time friend and fellow chief mechanic Jud Phillips—who himself would become an Indianapolis 500 winning chief mechanic—on the Bob Estes Special. Estes was a Lincoln-Mercury dealer in the Los Angeles area who was notable for being one of a group of wealthy sportsman car owners of 1950s. Freeland was tabbed to drive the car, and it proved to be a sage choice, as the veteran driver scored a seventh-place finish. This meant the Bob Estes Special became the first Watson-built roadster to complete 500 miles at Indianapolis. In 1955, Watson became chief mechanic for car owner John Zink of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
With Bob Sweikert driving, the team won the Indianapolis 500 with an Offenhauser-powered Kurtis-Kraft known famously as the “Pink Zink,” in honor of its distinctive Desert Rose livery. The team would utilize its dirt car to go on to win the AAA Championship. The following winter, Watson built a better mousetrap, something that would be faster than the Kurtis-Kraft, completing his own roadster at his Glendale, California, shop. The new creation employed simple construction and magnesium components to save weight and drive performance to higher levels than previously seen at Indianapolis.
Watson’s friend Pat Flaherty was tabbed as the driver, with the lightweight roadster—sporting Desert Rose paint—thrilling the large crowds by setting two qualifying records and claiming the first Indianapolis 500 win for a Watson-built car.
Watson’s winning ways were not confined to Indianapolis. During an incredible run, his cars finished no lower than fourth place in USAC seasonal rankings from 1959 through 1964, machines that were driven by a who’s-who of star drivers, including legends such as Rodger Ward, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones. The winning legacy that is legendary today began with this car, the 1954 Bob Estes Special.