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


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.

Report: Harvey seeking to get IndyCar program sorted by Christmas

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As noted on Monday, there hasn’t been much movement in the Verizon IndyCar Series driver market for 2016, and the available seats left out there are exactly the same ones (in theory, anyway) as they were this time 12 months ago.

And if Jack Harvey can get his program sorted, arguably the most intriguing of those remaining seats – the second seat alongside James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – could go away itself.

Harvey, who has been working to gather the necessary budget since the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September to graduate into IndyCar, has said he’s close for the better part of a month.

In early November, Harvey told The Linc in the U.K. there was an 80 percent chance he’d be in IndyCar next season.

He’s now expanded on those hopes in an interview with Autosport’s Marcus Simmons, renowned in U.K. circles as one of the leading journalists in discovering young open-wheel talent.

“The sooner the better,” Harvey told Simmons. “If we could be in before Christmas it would be better for me and the team, so we’re trying to work towards that.

“But we want to make the best deal, not just rush one – our foot’s in the door and it’s time to push the whole body through.”

He “graduates” from the Racing Steps Foundation this year; the RSF has been an instrumental part of Harvey’s upbringing.

Realistically, SPM makes the most sense for Harvey to graduate with. He’s been with SPM’s Indy Lights program the last two years, where he bagged seven wins, finished on the podium in 60 percent of his starts and finished second each of the last two years.

And frankly, he’s due for the opportunity. You can say “oh, he didn’t win a title” – but consider the list of Indy Lights non-champions in the current IndyCar field, a list that includes race winners Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball and Carlos Munoz among others – and he’d be more than fine to fit in.

Plus, with Spencer Pigot already confirmed for at least a three-race program with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, with hopes of more, it would be nice to see the two protagonists from this year’s Indy Lights battle continue their rivalry at the next level.

Vandoorne, McLaren lead Abu Dhabi’s single day of Pirelli tire testing

xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on October 11, 2015 in Sochi, Russia.
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It was only a test, two days after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix season finale at Yas Marina Circuit, but it’s still nice to write as the 2015 Formula 1 season officially draws to a close: A McLaren Honda was fastest.

GP2 Series champion Stoffel Vandoorne resumed aboard the McLaren MP4-30 Honda chassis and compared to a year ago, when he barely made more than an installation lap in the post-Abu Dhabi test, ended 2015 on top of the timesheets – albeit with times not really the focus in what was a Pirelli tire test of various configurations for the new “ultrasoft” compound.

“We had one shot when it came to testing tires for next season, and we can be satisfied by what we’ve achieved in this test, even if we have to fully analyze the data,” Pirelli’s Paul Hembery said, via Autosport.

The “ultrasoft” compound, marked with a purple stripe, could further the delta between Pirelli’s prime and option tires in 2016. There’s only been a step of one compound between primes and options between the four 2015 compounds: supersoft, soft, medium and hard.

As it was, Vandoorne’s best time of 1:44.103 was 0.353 clear of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, who ended his season on the podium with third place on Sunday.

American Alexander Rossi, who finished second to Vandoorne in GP2 this season, poked fun at Vandoorne ending P1 on Twitter.

Other 2015 regular season drivers who tested included Raikkonen’s teammate Sebastian Vettel, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat (although Kvyat didn’t turn a lap), Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Toro Rosso teammates Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr.

Fellow young guns – Mercedes’ Pascal Wehrlein, Lotus’ Jolyon Palmer, Sauber’s Adderly Fong, Force India’s Alfonso Celis Jr. and Manor’s Jordan King and Rio Haryanto – also ran during the private test session.

Here are the unofficial times below, via McLaren’s Twitter account:

Detroit Grand Prix names new General Manager, Michael Montri

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Michael Montri has been named the new General Manager of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, which runs next June 3-5, 2016.

Montri replaces Charles Burns, the former director of INDYCAR security who ran the event from the end of 2012 through the end of November, this year.

Since its return to the calendar in 2012, the Penske-run event has established itself as one of the best-run events on the INDYCAR calendar from an operational and organizational standpoint.

It’s also asserting itself as the lone doubleheader weekend on the INDYCAR calendar, following Toronto’s reduction to one race and the absence of Houston on the schedule.

Montri, as it is, has been within the Penske organization for more than a decade in a variety of roles, starting as a marketing and public relations intern when Penske still ran Michigan International Speedway.

From the Detroit Grand Prix release:

“Since 2002, Montri has worked with Penske Automotive Group (PAG), serving most recently as Vice President of Fleet Operations for Penske Car Rental and as Vice President of Procurement for PAG. For the last several years, Montri has also worked with the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix team, providing support leading up to and during race weekend.”

“We are excited to welcome Michael Montri as the General Manager for the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix,” said Bud Denker, Chairman of the Grand Prix. “Michael has a strong background in motorsports and he brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and leadership from his time in Detroit with the Penske Corporation companies. He has also worked closely with our Grand Prix staff over the last few events so he is a great fit to lead the team into 2016 and beyond.”

“The Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix is such a positive and important event for our region and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity of leading our Grand Prix team,” said Montri. “I’ve always had a passion for motorsports so this new challenge really represents a return to my roots. Most importantly, the Grand Prix is about giving back to Detroit and, specifically, to Belle Isle. I look forward to working with all the stakeholders involved with the Grand Prix and continuing its mission of revitalizing the jewel within our city – Belle Isle Park.”

As King, Haryanto test, Manor’s venerable chassis MR03B retires at last

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Will Stevens of Great Britain and Manor Marussia drives during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The period of transition continues for Manor Marussia F1 Team, as today two of its young potential future stars tested, while its own venerable, workhorse chassis MR03B took its last scheduled laps.

GP2 drivers Jordan King and Rio Haryanto were behind the wheel for today’s running at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. Neither was really in it for lap times – best times were only 1:49.593 (Haryanto) and 1:49.661 (King) respectively – but more a chance to go through Pirelli’s designated program and gain further experience in a Formula 1 car.

English driver King completed 59 laps in his first ever outing in a Formula 1 car, while Haryanto, the young Indonesian driver, made 56 laps in his first bit of F1 running since 2012. So this marked his first running in the current generation of machinery, which debuted ahead of the 2014 season.

“It has been quite a while since I last tested a Formula 1 car, with Manor, in fact, in 2012,” Haryanto said. “The cars of today though are quite a lot different, especially in respect of the new engine developments, so it took some time to get used to the changes, especially the engine management. As the morning progressed though I was improving all the time and with no issues I could really get into the program.”

King added of his day, “My first time at the wheel of an F1 car has been an incredible experience and I can’t thank Manor enough for providing me with this opportunity. Today’s Pirelli tire test had a very specific focus and I was determined to make the most of this chance to show my development capability as well as my potential for the future. We had a trouble-free day, so I could really get stuck into the plan, and this enabled me to build my confidence as the afternoon progressed.”

As for the chassis, which was Will Stevens’ race chassis this year, Manor confirmed it has completed more than 20,000 km over its two-year lifespan.

A calculation from veteran F1 journalist Adam Cooper puts that at some 65 race distances!

Manor Marussia F1 Team heads into the winter with former team chiefs Graeme Lowdon (sporting director) and John Booth (team principal) leaving and perhaps pursuing a new adventure, Dave Ryan (racing director) now entering and as the only team on the grid yet to confirm its driver lineup.

American Alexander Rossi is known to be among the contenders for a full-season seat, while Stevens, Haryanto and Mercedes reserve Pascal Wehrlein’s names have also been mentioned as possibilities.