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Father: Then you can take your clothes and change your name and leave home.
Father: You haven't left yet. That means you're not gonna drive.
Aggie says today, "Well, I was tired and hungry—I had worked on that car all day—and I had a pretty good thing going at home. So I hesitated. I know now that father was bluffing, that if I'd started to go he would have grabbed my arm and said, 'Now wait a minute.' But we made a deal right there: I wouldn't drive and he would help finance the race car. It's a deal that still holds, and to this day I haven't driven a race car."
Nor did Agajanian play football beyond his freshman year in high school since his father considered football and auto racing to have approximately the same degree of mortality. Younger brother Ben Agajanian was not so protected, however, and went on to a 22-year career as a placekicker for teams in four professional football leagues, and is still the training camp kicking coach for the Dallas Cowboys.
Nondriver Agajanian got involved instead with the Western Racing Association, a ragtag group of drivers who promoted their own races and whose weekly cash balance always seemed to hover right around $100, no matter how big the gate. The week the WRA made Aggie its treasurer the balance jumped to $1,100, and his career as a race organizer—he hates the term promoter—was assured. Although just 20, Aggie was an instant success, not only because he was a shrewd businessman but because he quickly gained a reputation for honesty—a trait that was not exactly in vogue at the time. "About 90% of the race promoters in the '30s were crooks," Agajanian says, "and I would think that about 30% of them still are today."
As a businessman Agajanian has rarely been on the short end of a promotion as long as it had wheels. But in 1948 he was beaten by a baseball team, the Bisbee-Douglas (Ariz.) Javelinas, a rude member of the Class C Arizona-Texas League and a distant affiliate of the New York Yankees. He had been talked into buying the club almost on a dare, and early in the season it was obvious Aggie was going to lose a bundle. He did—a $30,000 bundle. He could handle the auto-racing crowd, but the diamond set was something else. "I'd need a pitcher," said Aggie, "and some owner would tout me on a guy from Yakima, or some such place, so I'd buy him for $2,500. Two days later I'd have to release him. At the end of the year all I had left was a bunch of uniforms and the team bus. The uniforms I gave to some charity; the bus didn't even make it back to California."
That was Agajanian's first and last venture away from cars. Meanwhile, back at racing things were jelling for him. He attempted to enter a car in the 1948 Indianapolis 500 but was rebuffed because the Automobile Association of America, the racing predecessor of USAC, felt that Agajanian was blocking its promotions on the West Coast. So his car was entered under the names of his two mechanics and was called, honestly, the Smith & Jones Special. That lasted until Agajanian and the AAA got together and agreed that he could enter the 500 under his own name if he would promote AAA races in California beginning in 1949.
Thus began Aggie's association with the Indy 500 and AAA/USAC, a happy union whose 25th anniversary was honored at the Speedway last May. Thus also began the self-establishment of J.C. Agajanian as the most famous race-car owner in America, a title often claimed by others but never for very long.
Agajanian's driver that first year was the late Johnny Mantz, a sprint-car racer of considerable talent who was the first in a long line of rookies Aggie has sponsored at the Brickyard. More important, Mantz brought to the team cat-number 98. His seventh-place Indy finish that year was hardly anything to excite the imagination, but the next season Aggie's "98 Jr." sprint car, with Mantz up, won 13 straight races—and all of them were Agajanian promotions. If 98 had had no special significance before, it gained it that season and quickly became the most famous car number in America.