AJ Watson's Roadsters Still in Demand

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AJ spends 4 hours a day working on replicas in his Pittsboro shop.

Photo by Jay Thompson
(posted Sept 5)

At the age of 84, AJ Watson is still building race cars and participating in vintage races.

He is building replicas of his Watson Roadsters, cars made famous for their Indy 500 victories during the 50s and 60s. AJ built his cars without any blue prints.

When asked how many roadsters he has built, he quipped "it depends on who is writing the story", whether it is 22 or 23. There has been a lot of information written about Watson, he thinks one of more accurate books printed was The Watson Years, written by Gary Wayne. "He did a good job. He never contacted me."

Watson started building his cars in the City of Glendale, California, selling them for about $10,000 each. Eventually the City of Glendale became a car sponsor.

His roadster won its first Indy 500 with driver Pat Flaherty in 1956. Flaherty also won the pole, and Watson won the pole mechanic award. Watson's roadster was a modified copy of the Kurtis Kraft chassis that was predominate at the time. Watson said there are no patents in racing because "everybody copies everybody". His used magnesium's light weigh properties to give his cars an weight advantage. He said 22 of the cars still exist today, with five in the Hall of Fame Museum. AJ was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1996.

Watson first became interested in race cars when he attended Glendale Junior College. "I ran into a kid. He said, 'let's build a hot rod.' I said OK."

During those days, it was a big deal to be a mechanic compared today's standards. "They did all of the work."

Watson said his 1950 car was called the "pots and pans special". At one time Watson was a car owner with Pat Flaherty as his driver. Andy Granatelli sponsored the car by paying the $125 entry fee, but the car didn't make the race, so he got $100 back. Watson said he was only a car owner for a couple of years because of the expense.

Watson still drives a car on occasion in vintage races. He had planned to run the Indy 500 vintage race scheduled on Carb Day, but it was rained out. Watson did participate in the Milwaukee vintage race.

"It's not much of a race. It is just following the pace car for about 5 laps at about 75 mph." The slow pace vintage races are not excluded from mishaps or accidents. He described the starts as being kind of "hairy", with 30 to 35 cars merging for one spot on the track. Other problems include cars not starting. "It's kind of messy," he said, adding that a bolt fell off one car and caused the driver to hit the fence.

Watson said he resided in Dunn's Mobile Home Park on Georgetown Road before buying a home in Speedway and remembers strolling down the alley behind Main Street to eat at the Hollywood Cafe.