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THE WIZARD OF INDY
Alfred Wright
May 30, 1960
He's car-builder A. J. Watson, and he has 11 chances to win next week's '500'
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May 30, 1960

The Wizard Of Indy

He's car-builder A. J. Watson, and he has 11 chances to win next week's '500'

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If you wanted to buy a new Watson car for next year's race it would cost you about $15,000, roughly $5,000 less than other top builders charge for just the chassis and skin, as racing people call the body. You would, of course, want to install the standard Meyer-Drake four-cylinder Offenhauser, the engine almost everybody uses in Indianapolis cars, but you would have to buy that separately for another $10,000 or so and install it yourself in your own garage.

Perfection in a small garage

As he did with the four new cars he built last winter for this year's race, Watson would construct the car at the small garage he owns in Glendale, Calif. Much of the work there is done at night, since Watson's labor is semi-voluntary. The four or five assistants who help him work for the love of the craftsmanship and racing. Most of them hold down daytime jobs at nearby plants like Lockheed and have a loose arrangement with Watson concerning their pay. Naturally, Watson's wife, Joyce, and his two daughters, aged 6 and 2�, are not particularly enthusiastic about this way of life, for they don't get to see very much of Daddy. But Watson, like most perfectionists, has a priestly dedication to his work. Aside from a little water skiing now and then, there is hardly anything that distracts him from the year-round occupation of building and racing automobiles.

Come April, Watson will have finished building whatever new cars he has contracted to deliver (the four he built last winter were the most he can produce at one time). At that point he packs up his family and heads for Indianapolis, where he owns a house in the little township of Speedway, on the outskirts of Indianapolis and near the race track. Watson sets up his headquarters at the Speedway in adjoining garages Nos. 16 and 17. From the day he moves in until the end of the racing season, he is the full-time mechanic for Bob Wilke, a machine card manufacturer from Milwaukee who runs an auto racing stable under the name Leader Card, which is also the name of his business. While A. J. is getting the Leader Card Specials ready for the big race, he also helps out his many other customers and friends.

There is a deceptive casualness about Watson's operation, as if everything he did was a kind of afterthought. Speaking of the four new cars he built last winter for the 1960 race, he said, "I kind of promised Aggie [ J. C. Agajanian, the southern California pig farmer and racing promoter] that I would build him a car if I had time, and then Wilke wanted a new one if I was going to build one for somebody else. The first thing I knew I was building four of them." All four of these cars qualified the first day at speeds of better than 144 mph. One, the Leader Card Special, is being driven by Ward, one by Jim Rathmann, one by Len Sutton and Aggie's car by Lloyd Ruby.

Watson had to turn down an order for a fifth new car last fall from Al Dean, a southern California trucker whose Dean Van Lines Specials have been contenders at Indianapolis for years. So Watson lent a set of his blueprints to his friend and fellow-mechanic, Wayne Ewing, one of the many car buffs who hang around Watson's shop in Glendale. Ewing went ahead and built the car on his own and turned it over to Clint Brawner, the talented mechanic who masterminds Dean's racing cars. On the first day of qualifying this car broke, with Sachs in the cockpit, all the records at the speedway. It set a new single-lap record of 147.251 mph which was later broken by Hurtubise's 149.601.

Although Sachs, at the age of 33, has been one of the top dirt track drivers in the East since 1953 and ranked among the first 10 drivers in the national championship for the past two years, he has never finished a race at Indianapolis. Sachs is a fellow with a large and determined jaw and a keen sense of survival, and he has been heard to say that if he can win the big race this year, that will be it. He will be perfectly happy to make a full-time job of his cocktail lounge at Center Valley, Pa., just outside Allentown, near the New Jersey border. Despite his fast qualifying run, Sachs's strategy, he has said, will be to lay back within hailing distance of the gang busters and avoid the free-for-all that usually characterizes the early stages of the "500." The $150 that goes to the leader at the end of each of the 200 laps can be mighty attractive bait and can even mount up into big money over a period, but experience proves that the early-lap winners rarely drive their cars into the victory lane.

A hairy scramble

Among the front runners one can expect to find Jim Rathmann and his brother Dick. Jim, the younger of the two, is a saturnine blond and a truculent competitor who has three times finished second at Indianapolis. Naturally he has every intention of shaking the bridesmaid role this week. Rodger Ward in Watson's No. 1 car is another front-running type. (The other Leader Card Special, for which Watson will also be the chief mechanic, is the car in which Ward won last year. It will be driven this time by Chuck Stevenson.) Along with Rathmann and Ward you can expect to find Tony Bettenhausen and Johnny Thomson, both of whom like the hairy scramble that goes on for the lap prizes, and, probably, the amazing Hurtubise, who, as a rookie, is still something of an unknown quantity.

Around Gasoline Alley, as they call the garage area at the speedway, it is customary to find most of the cars lying in a thousand parts inside their crowded stalls whenever they aren't on the track for practice. An occupational disease of every Indianapolis mechanic is the urge to make just one more adjustment, no matter how well a car has performed up to that point. However, in adjoining stalls, numbered 62 and 63, the disarray and confusion is caused by something more serious than a mechanic's persnicketiness. It is there that the two Novi Specials are parked, and this year, as quite frequently in the past, they are not well.

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