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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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It is almost axiomatic to report each year that the cars are running faster at the Indianapolis Speedway. A fortnight ago, for instance, the cars that qualified for the first 22 of the 33 positions available in the 500-mile race on Memorial Day averaged 145.513 mph. That is 2.5 mph faster than last year. Then just last weekend, Indianapolis newcomer Jim Hurtubise of Lennox, Calif. averaged 149.056 mph for the 10-mile qualifying run to beat the record 146.592 set the week before by Eddie Sachs. By Indianapolis standards, Hurtubise's performance was remarkable and was greeted almost in disbelief. But by other standards it was one more step forward, typical of the way these fastest of all racing cars get better, by decimals sometimes and by leaps at others.

Everyone concerned with Indianapolis takes for granted the inevitability of higher speeds. Although the engines are periodically reduced in size, as they were most recently in 1958, still the speeds go up. The drivers, albeit a year older, are almost invariably the same fellows who drove a bit slower the previous year. The alterations in the cars from year to year—and particularly this year—are usually almost imperceptible.

Last weekend, while everyone at the speedway was standing around on one foot and then the other, waiting for the wind and the rain to go away, A. J. Watson tried to explain the improvement in this year's cars. Watson is the quiet and unassuming Californian who built the Indianapolis winners of 1955, 1956 and 1959 and from his blueprints came this year's fastest qualifier, the Travelon Special driven by Hurtubise. "I don't know," A.J. said without any false modesty. "The cars are about the same. Maybe it's the tires."

Tires, to be sure, are terribly important at the speedway, more important than at any other race. It is on the four gradually banked turns of this rectangular track's two-and-a-half-mile course that a driver is most apt to pick up the fractional seconds that make a difference. And it takes a special kind of tire to withstand the speed at which today's race cars go into the corners. Firestone, which has had a monopoly at the Brickyard for years, is constantly tinkering to make the speedway tires (used nowhere else in the world) faster, stronger and more adhesive. This year they have added a couple of grooves to the tires, and it is these, along with some minor alterations in the compound of the rubber, that Watson was referring to.

However, with the 1960 race still a week away, it was not Firestone but Watson himself who seemed to dominate the event. Of the 65 cars at the track trying for the 33 starting positions, 11 of the certain starters will be Watson cars, either built by him or built from his blueprints. Remarkably, all of the Watson cars figure to be in contention at the end of next week's "500." Of the eight fastest cars to qualify so far this year, six of them are A.J.'s.

It is generally conceded around racing people that the driver of a car is 50% of the race, and the car and mechanic are the other half. The folks in the stands at Indianapolis think largely in terms of the men in the cockpit—Sachs, in the pole position, Jim Rathmann, in second place, Rodger Ward, last year's winner and national driving champion, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnny Thomson, Jim Bryan, Hurtubise and the other big names. Around the garage they talk about Watson and George Salih, Quinn Epperly, Eddie Kuzma, Frank Kurtis and the others who build the best of the cars.

Talking piece

Watson, of course, is the chief topic of conversation. His accomplishments and his reputation have been mounting steadily ever since Bob Sweikert drove Watson's first winning car in 1955. Last year, during the 47th lap when Thomson (in a non-Watson) made a pit stop, the cars in the first five positions were all built by Watson, and those driven by Ward and Jim Rathmann finished first and second.

"Simplicity personified," says Fred Agabashian, the elder statesman of the veteran Indy drivers, in accounting for Watson's success. "A. J. never hangs a lot of superfluous metal on his cars. Everything has a function and is easy to fix. The workmanship is first class, and A. J. has a reason for each little thing he does. And don't forget that A. J. is right there at the track working on his cars every year. He is always up to date. A lot of the fellows who build cars don't ever get to the track, so they have to depend on hearsay and theory."

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."

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