Legendary Indy 500 car builder/mechanic A.J. Watson passes away

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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:

Former NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham:

IndyCar team owner Roger Penske, as relayed by Indianapolis Star writer Curt Cavin:

Our thoughts are with Watson’s family and friends at this time.

Hamilton: Abu Dhabi ‘the last race with good-looking cars’ in F1

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Lewis Hamilton believes that this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be remembered as the last race with good-looking Formula 1 cars ahead of the introduction of the ‘Halo’ cockpit protection for next year.

Officials from the FIA and F1 Strategy Group confirmed earlier this year that the Halo would be fitted to all cars from the 2018 season in a bid to improve safety standards, with the deaths of Justin Wilson and Jules Bianchi putting head protection high on the agenda for the series’ chiefs.

Hamilton has long made his opposition to the Halo clear, believing it will ruin the look of F1 cars, and echoed his thoughts ahead of the final Halo-less race in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

“It’s the last year of looking good I think in the cars. It’s the last race where the cars will look good,” Hamilton said.

“I think next year, it’s all downhill from there in terms of how they look.

“But safety will go up at least, and maybe it could be successful in some way.”

Hamilton’s F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel was less bothered about the change, believing the field will adjust and move on.

“The cars will look different next year. Everything I’ve seen so far looks different, but on the other hand it is something we all get used to,” Vettel said.

“But no doubt the cars look better now, but we’ll get used to it, and we’ll work on the aesthetics so it can be better. It is less of a big deal.”

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo shared Vettel’s view, saying: “I don’t think it’s gonna be as dramatic as most people make it out to be.”