May 12, 2014, 11:30 AM EDT
Car builder and mechanic A.J. Watson, whose machines won the Indianapolis 500 six times in the 1950s and 1960s, has passed away this morning according to various reports.
He had celebrated his 90th birthday just last week.
“AJ Watson was one of the most innovative and successful mechanics and car builders in the 105-year history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Watson roadster that was so prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s remains one of the most iconic racing cars ever constructed,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway president J. Douglas Boles said in a statement released by the track.
“The thoughts and prayers of the entire Indianapolis Motor Speedway organization are with the Watson family and the many friends and fans of A.J. Watson, who will always remember him for his passion for racing and his friendly and approachable personality.”
Watson earned his first ‘500’ win in 1955 as a member of John Zink’s team, which had Bob Sweikart driving a Kurtis. However, his first win as a builder came the following year in the 1956 Indy as Pat Flaherty claimed victory from the pole position.
From that point on, Watson’s cars became some of the most dominant at the ‘500’ through the mid-1960s. His work gained such a reputation that a Sports Illustrated article from 1960 dubbed him “The Wizard of Indy.”
In that piece, driver Fred Agabashian explained to writer Alfred Graham why Watson’s cars and expertise were so coveted:
“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.”
That year, Watson chalked up another win as eventual victor Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward (who had won the ’59 Indy himself in a Watson car) battled for the Borg-Warner Trophy in what many ‘500’ fans regard as perhaps the best one-on-one duel in the race’s long history.
Additionally, A.J. Foyt drove a Watson or Watson-Trevis roadster to 11 of his 67 career wins, including two (1961, 1964) of his four Indy wins as a driver. His 1964 win would would be the final ‘500’ win for a front-engine car.
“I was very good friends with A.J. Watson and his wife Joyce,” Foyt said in a statement released today. “He picked me up to drive his sprint car years back. We worked right there at his house, took the 220 Offy and built the Chevrolet.
“He was a pioneer. He came out against Kurtis and built the Watson roadster and I was lucky enough to win with it. In his day right here at the Indy 500, there was nobody that was going to beat the three W’s: Watson, [Bob] Wilke and Ward.
“It’s hard to believe he’s gone. I’m just glad I was able to go see him on his 90th birthday [May 8]. We did talk about old times. He had a picture of me and him with his sprint car on the wall and I teased him, ‘A.J. were we ever that young?’ He said, ‘It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?’”
Watson would continue to build cars into the 1980s, but it was his glory days in the “roadster” era that turned him into an Indy legend.
Five years ago at his 85th birthday party, Watson talked a bit about his career with former IMS Radio Network announcer Dave Wilson:
As news has broken of Watson’s passing, several key figures in auto racing have paid tribute on social media to him:
Target Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull:
A.J. Watson won races, & the Biggest One in multiple; He set standard w/ foundation of integrity as it's driving force for all to follow.—
Mike Hull (@IndyMHull) May 12, 2014
Former NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham:
IndyCar team owner Roger Penske, as relayed by Indianapolis Star writer Curt Cavin:
Roger Penske on A.J. Watson: "A real leader in the garage area, himself and his cars. Real integrity as an individual. Sorry to hear that."—
Curt Cavin (@curtcavin) May 12, 2014
Our thoughts are with Watson’s family and friends at this time.