Indianapolisracing cars have so many features in common that the best models areapproximately equal. Like certain animals in George Orwell's Animal Farm,however, some cars are more equal than others. This year the designer whoseracers are more equal than any other's is an unemotional, blue-eyed young mannamed A. J. Watson.
When the startingflag falls on Memorial Day for the 42nd Indianapolis "500," Watson willhave three of his slender, magnificently tuned roadsters on the front row ofthe starting field, with a fourth expected among the starters before thequalifying is finished this weekend—a unique feat for a man who does all hisown work in a tiny garage.
Beyond that, twoof Watson's cars have broken the qualifying record set by Pat Flaherty in abigger-engined car (also Watson-built) in 1956. That Watson has only four carsin all at the Speedway is an added measure of his achievement; that the polecar was tried out in practice for the first time on the day before thequalifying runs is perhaps the highest tribute of all.
Spare of speech,meticulous in his craftsmanship, Watson is one of the handful of designers whofigure so importantly in the "500" yet share so little of itslimelight.
To the public itis a driver's race—a fierce and exhausting contest among 33 brave men forAmerica's highest automobile racing honor and racing's largest purse (more than$300,000 this year). And again this year, as the Speedway opened for practice,it was drivers, not builders, who seemed sure to hog the headlines.
To the Brickyard,along with the established American stars, came Juan Manuel Fangio ofArgentina. Five times world champion on the Grand Prix circuit—the summit ofracing outside the U.S.—he faced the same difficulty that has frustrated somany superb road-racing drivers in recent years: how—in only a few weeks—toadapt themselves to the Indianapolis technique of closed-circuit racing wherethe brakes and transmission mean virtually nothing, the throttle everything.Although the French champion, René Dreyfus, managed a 10th in 1940 and Italy'sLuigi Villoresi finished seventh in 1946, the modern foreign attacks on the"500" have been largely disastrous.
"This track islike a violin with one string," said Corvette Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov,who took a French Talbot to the Speedway without success in 1946. "But youmust be a virtuoso on that one string."
At the age of 46Fangio adapted quickly, but realized he had neither time nor car enough tobecome a virtuoso in 1958.
Abruptly hedeparted, after driving some very creditable laps, saying the Dayton SteelFoundry Special given him was not in first-rate condition and that anyway hehadn't had enough time to solve the riddle of the turns. In brief, he believedhe had no chance to win the "500," and he would not gamble his greatreputation in a losing venture.
Mike Magill, theDayton car's regular driver, said he was sorry to see Fangio go. "He's gota lot of foot and a lot of savvy, that man. He hit nearly 142 mph out of thegroove." The "groove" at Indianapolis is the path around the2½-mile brick and asphalt track that has proved to be fastest over theyears.
Most of the otherdrivers, however, were in the groove as never before. "I have never seen somany good cars going so fast so early," said Sam Hanks, the 1957 winner,now director of racing for Speedway Owner Tony Hulman (see page 69). "Icouldn't have picked a better time to retire."
Easily fastest ofthe 56 entries were the Watson cars—all built in his 40x40-foot garage inGlendale, Calif. "I've got no employees," says the 33-year-old Watson,"but I've got a lot of friends who drop in and give me free help. As for myname, the initials A. J. are my name. They don't stand for anything."
Like the threeother major active builders of Speedway cars—Frank Kurtis, Eddie Kuzma andQuincy Epperly—Watson works in the vicinity of the Meyer-Drake plant, where theall-conquering Offenhauser engines are produced.
He modified aKurtis chassis for the late Bob Sweikert's 1955 "500" victory; heemerged as a full-fledged designer by executing Pat Flaherty's 1956 winner. A1957 Watson model driven by Troy Ruttman led last year's race briefly.
Watson's big earlyedge this year is further emphasized by his competitors' difficulties. EddieKuzma, especially, was having trouble getting the bugs out of his three newsuperlight racers. Driven by Troy Ruttman, Jimmy Daywalt and Eddie Sachs, theywere limping along in the 139-to-140-mph range last weekend and were nothandling well enough to be qualified in the first set of trials.
Epperly'sneedle-nosed cars did better, but did not threaten Watson's. Epperly's currenttrademark is a narrow chassis with the engine mounted on its side, aninnovation conceived by George Salih, former Meyer-Drake foreman, andhandsomely proved out by Sam Hanks last year in his record-breaking victory.Jim Bryan, the national champion driver and one of the solid favorites thisyear, put it into the third row of the starting field in the openingtrials.
Two new Epperlycars of similar design bowed in this month. Tony Bettenhausen qualified easilyin one; George Amick still needed time last weekend to get the hang of theother.
Kurtis, thebiggest builder in output (32 entries) and physical size (6 feet 4, 215pounds), sent out only one new model this year, the most radical of the lot.Owned by the D-A Lubricant team, a trio of well-heeled young Indianapolisbusinessmen, it featured independent front suspension instead of thetraditional rigid axle. It was too slow to qualify last week.
Kurtis, however,could count nine of his models among Saturday's 18 qualifiers, and if Watsonhad the first row, he had the second. (Kurtis cars swept the first row in 1952and 1953.) Beautifully situated between Bob Veith and Johnnie Parsons, the 1950winner, was Pat O'Connor, the lad who smiles from this week's cover.
To be sure, allthe "500" cars have much in common, and it is difficult to attributesuccess or failure to this or that feature. They all have simple space frames,rigid axles front and rear (except the new Kurtis), torsion springing, discbrakes and Offenhauser engines (except the two V-8 Novis which have never yetcracked the winner's circle in 13 years of trying).
So far, however,this has been Watson's year, and rightly so. He is a genuinely gifted designerand mechanic whose cardinal principle is simplicity, and he is backed by afellow perfectionist, John Zink, In the hundred variations that may be made inspringing and weight adjustment to suit different drivers and track conditions,Watson is unsurpassed.
Zink, thesuccessful young Tulsa industrialist who sponsored the winners Watson preparedin 1955 and 1956, owns two of this year's front-row cars, and Watson againserves as his chief mechanic. The pole car is a brand-new Watson, sold just twoweeks ago to a Kalamazoo, Mich. trucking executive, Lee Elkins. Zink's thirdcar (Flaherty's 1956 winner) went swiftly last week, but not fast enough for aqualification attempt by the regular driver, Jud Larson.
Zink, as usual,insisted that his cars be ready early. Winter work on engines made hastypractice experiments with fuel and new parts unnecessary. Watson could becounted on for perfection in chassis. Drivers would have the necessaryconfidence in their machines.
"The amount ofpsychology involved," Zink says, "is fantastic. When you get right downto it, the drivers have to be warmer than the cars. A driver has to want to winthe race. It's not good enough to think second or third will do. He must havethe confidence to try to win it. Sometimes it takes years to build up thatconfidence on this track. Every year, in the turns, you have to keep your footon the pedal longer before cutting off, and you have to get back into itsooner. I'd say there are only six or eight drivers here who want to win badlyenough, and I think I have two of them on the front row."
Zink's drivershave certainly been the sensation of the month, along with the pole man, DickRathmann. They and Rathmann were all the more remarkable since none of them hasbeen particularly prominent in the past.
After spiritedpractice sessions all week, Rathmann (older brother of Jim Rathmann, who placedsecond in the 1957 race but hasn't yet qualified) jumped into the untriedWatson on Friday. In the cool of the evening he turned the first 147-mph lapever clocked at the Brickyard.
That fired up EdElisian, a protégé of the late Bill Vukovich. Elisian received his chance todrive for Zink by showing him a 145.5-mph lap last fall at the Speedway in apractice tour. An inarticulate, fleshy and powerful Californian, Elisian hasbeen, until now, a singularly erratic and unsuccessful driver. But with the1957 Ruttman car he was unbeatable in practice. A few minutes after Rathmann's147-mph lap, Elisian smoothly achieved the astonishing speed of 148.148 mph.Zink's other front-row man, Jimmy Reece, topped 145 mph with Watson's other newcar. Next day, with the chips down for the qualifying run and the track a bitslower due to hotter weather, Rathmann averaged 145.974 mph for the four lapsto win the pole and surpass Flaherty's qualifying record of 145.596. Elisianaveraged 145.926 mph and had a record single lap of 146.508. Reece filled putthe row with 145.513.
That is not to saythat Watson & Co. have it made, by any means. Driving in traffic in therace itself is something else again. Bryan is a driver of great pride, staminaand determination. O'Connor knows the track better than any man, having driven4,800 miles on it testing the Firestone racing tires, and besides he is afierce competitor. Bettenhausen, of course, would drive through a brick wall ifthe "500" trophy were on the other side for the taking.
In short, the manwho gets bussed by musical comedy star Shirley MacLaine after nearly four hoursof racing next Friday will be a man of immense determination backed bymechanical wizardry, the kind A. J. Watson brings to racing.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
DRIVERS (AND CARS) TO WATCH ON MAY 30
Driving the McNamara Special, one of A. J. Watson's brilliant new racers,Rathmann won the pole for the "500" with a record qualifying speed of145.974 mph. He made the field twice before, placed fifth in 1956. This is his"greatest opportunity in 14 years of racing." He had only one day'spractice in the car before qualifying. Age: 32. Home: Trenton, N.J.
No higher than 18th in four previous races, Elisian became the Speedway'sfastest driver by averaging 148.148 mph (unofficially) on a practice lap. Hisqualifying speed of 145.926 mph in this Watson-built John Zink Special (TroyRuttman's 1957 car) placed him on the front row. His fastest single lap was arecord 146.508 mph. Age: 31. Home: Oakland, Calif.
Seventh in his first "500" drive—for John Zinkin 1952—Reece now rejoins Zink's terrific Tulsa team in a new Watson car. Hequalified third fastest, at 145.513 mph, completing Watson's front-row sweep.Here he lifts a wheel on the first turn at about 136 mph. The car's side tank,typical of Watson machines, holds oil. Age: 28. Home: Speedway, Ind.
Rookie of the year in 1956, placing seventh, Veith was ninth last year. At 235pounds he is the Brickyard's heftiest driver. Plugging away out of thelimelight he practiced swiftly in this Bowes Seal Fast Special, then deftly putit into fourth position among better-known cars and drivers in the trials.Veith is a former midget-racing star. Age: 31. Home: Oakland, Calif.
Entering his fifth "500" with one of the fastest Kurtis cars, a SumarSpecial, O'Connor sits beside Veith. Mechanical trouble cut short hisfront-running drives in 1956 and 1957; his nerve, skill and knowledge of track(through testing racing tires) could make this the year. O'Connor has beenMidwest Sprint Champion three times. Age: 29. Home: North Vernon, Ind.
Perhaps unsurpassed in determination and stamina, Bryan eyes the race with aproved car (last year's winning Belond Special), a proved pit crew, and achoice qualifying spot in the third row (144.185 mph). National Champion Driverin 1954, 1956 and 1957, he was second at Indy in 1954, third last year, firstin the 1957 Monza "500." Age: 31. Home: Phoenix.
PROUD PARENT of the front-row cars for the "500," Designer Watson stands bareheaded between those of Dick Rathmann (97) and Ed Elisian (5). Jimmy Reece is in 16. Beside Watson is Owner John Zink, at right Rathmann's mechanic, Floyd Travis.