A.J. Watson, the legendary race car fabricator whose machines dominated at the Indy 500 through the 1950s and 1960s has died at age 90. Watson constructed roadsters won six Indy 500 titles starting in 1956 and ending in 1964. Watson built Indy cars all the way into the 1980s and was regarded as one of the true living legends left with respect to this history and technology of the Indy 500. AJ Foyt won twice in Watson cars first in 1961 and again in 1964. The 1964 win was significant because it was the final time the Indy 500 was won by a car with the engine in the front. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was only 15 years old when AJ Watson was born. He began making trips to the race in the 1950s as a crewman and mechanic, earning his first win while wrenching on the car of John Zink in 1955. He would return with a car of his own design and construction in 1956 and the legend was born.
Watson was such a figure at the race in the late 1950s and into the 1960s that Sports Illustrated did a great story on him in ’60 and we have linked to it below. In that piece the writer, Alfred Wright talked to Watson about the cars and why his designs were looking so successful. In fact, 11 of the qualified cars in the field that year were either built by AJ Watson himself or they were constructed by guys who had bought the blueprints for the cars from him. Watson was a quiet California native and seemed to be the kind of guy you should always fear at the track, you know the one we’re talking about. Not the guy flapping him gums incessantly, but the guy paying attention and pretty much taking the whole scene in. AJ Watson didn’t do a lot of talking but his cars sure did.
A quote from the story sums it up pretty well:
A handsome man with just a sprinkling of gray in his crew-cut hair, Watson is almost deferential about his work. He makes no claims for himself as an engineering genius. About all he will say to define his success is, “I come back here and race cars all the time, and that’s where I may have a little edge on the other builders.”
Working in a small shop in Glendale, California with part time help that consisted of friends who worked at places like Lockheed and other manufacturing environments in the area, Watson was able to build four cars a year maximum, hence his ability and/or willingness to sell blueprints to qualified parties to built copies of his cars for customers. The volume was just too much when he was at the top of his game. Watson owned a home near the speedway in Indy and every April he and his whole family would traverse the country and settle in for a month where their dad was certainly in the area but very rarely at home. He lived on Gasoline Alley helping the racers who ran his cars and getting those new customers set up.
AJ Watson was 90 years old when he died and certainly stands as one of the most influential figures in Indianapolis 500 history. We can’t help but notice there strange pall that may be settling over the speedway this May already with the passing of Watson and the completely disastrous start of the Indianapolis Grand Prix last weekend. Here’s top hoping that the dark clouds part by month’s end so one of the grandest sporting events in the world and certainly one of the grandest auto races in the world can be held and this man who had such a role in shaping its growth can be properly honored. The big garage upstairs just got one hell of a wrench.
Godspeed, AJ Watson