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.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.