It is almostaxiomatic to report each year that the cars are running faster at theIndianapolis Speedway. A fortnight ago, for instance, the cars that qualifiedfor the first 22 of the 33 positions available in the 500-mile race on MemorialDay averaged 145.513 mph. That is 2.5 mph faster than last year. Then just lastweekend, Indianapolis newcomer Jim Hurtubise of Lennox, Calif. averaged 149.056mph for the 10-mile qualifying run to beat the record 146.592 set the weekbefore by Eddie Sachs. By Indianapolis standards, Hurtubise's performance wasremarkable and was greeted almost in disbelief. But by other standards it wasone more step forward, typical of the way these fastest of all racing cars getbetter, by decimals sometimes and by leaps at others.
Everyone concernedwith Indianapolis takes for granted the inevitability of higher speeds.Although the engines are periodically reduced in size, as they were mostrecently in 1958, still the speeds go up. The drivers, albeit a year older, arealmost invariably the same fellows who drove a bit slower the previous year.The alterations in the cars from year to year—and particularly this year—areusually almost imperceptible.
Last weekend,while everyone at the speedway was standing around on one foot and then theother, waiting for the wind and the rain to go away, A. J. Watson tried toexplain the improvement in this year's cars. Watson is the quiet and unassumingCalifornian who built the Indianapolis winners of 1955, 1956 and 1959 and fromhis blueprints came this year's fastest qualifier, the Travelon Special drivenby Hurtubise. "I don't know," A.J. said without any false modesty."The cars are about the same. Maybe it's the tires."
Tires, to be sure,are terribly important at the speedway, more important than at any other race.It is on the four gradually banked turns of this rectangular track'stwo-and-a-half-mile course that a driver is most apt to pick up the fractionalseconds that make a difference. And it takes a special kind of tire towithstand the speed at which today's race cars go into the corners. Firestone,which has had a monopoly at the Brickyard for years, is constantly tinkering tomake the speedway tires (used nowhere else in the world) faster, stronger andmore adhesive. This year they have added a couple of grooves to the tires, andit is these, along with some minor alterations in the compound of the rubber,that Watson was referring to.
However, with the1960 race still a week away, it was not Firestone but Watson himself who seemedto dominate the event. Of the 65 cars at the track trying for the 33 startingpositions, 11 of the certain starters will be Watson cars, either built by himor built from his blueprints. Remarkably, all of the Watson cars figure to bein contention at the end of next week's "500." Of the eight fastestcars to qualify so far this year, six of them are A.J.'s.
It is generallyconceded around racing people that the driver of a car is 50% of the race, andthe car and mechanic are the other half. The folks in the stands atIndianapolis think largely in terms of the men in the cockpit—Sachs, in thepole position, Jim Rathmann, in second place, Rodger Ward, last year's winnerand national driving champion, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnny Thomson, Jim Bryan,Hurtubise and the other big names. Around the garage they talk about Watson andGeorge Salih, Quinn Epperly, Eddie Kuzma, Frank Kurtis and the others who buildthe best of the cars.
Watson, of course,is the chief topic of conversation. His accomplishments and his reputation havebeen mounting steadily ever since Bob Sweikert drove Watson's first winning carin 1955. Last year, during the 47th lap when Thomson (in a non-Watson) made apit stop, the cars in the first five positions were all built by Watson, andthose driven by Ward and Jim Rathmann finished first and second.
"Simplicitypersonified," says Fred Agabashian, the elder statesman of the veteran Indydrivers, in accounting for Watson's success. "A. J. never hangs a lot ofsuperfluous 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 hedoes. And don't forget that A. J. is right there at the track working on hiscars every year. He is always up to date. A lot of the fellows who build carsdon't ever get to the track, so they have to depend on hearsay andtheory."
A handsome manwith just a sprinkling of gray in his crew-cut hair, Watson is almostdeferential about his work. He makes no claims for himself as an engineeringgenius. About all he will say to define his success is, "I come back hereand race cars all the time, and that's where I may have a little edge on theother builders."
If you wanted tobuy a new Watson car for next year's race it would cost you about $15,000,roughly $5,000 less than other top builders charge for just the chassis andskin, as racing people call the body. You would, of course, want to install thestandard Meyer-Drake four-cylinder Offenhauser, the engine almost everybodyuses in Indianapolis cars, but you would have to buy that separately foranother $10,000 or so and install it yourself in your own garage.
Perfection in asmall garage
As he did with thefour new cars he built last winter for this year's race, Watson would constructthe car at the small garage he owns in Glendale, Calif. Much of the work thereis done at night, since Watson's labor is semi-voluntary. The four or fiveassistants who help him work for the love of the craftsmanship and racing. Mostof them hold down daytime jobs at nearby plants like Lockheed and have a loosearrangement with Watson concerning their pay. Naturally, Watson's wife, Joyce,and his two daughters, aged 6 and 2½, are not particularly enthusiastic aboutthis way of life, for they don't get to see very much of Daddy. But Watson,like most perfectionists, has a priestly dedication to his work. Aside from alittle water skiing now and then, there is hardly anything that distracts himfrom the year-round occupation of building and racing automobiles.
Come April, Watsonwill have finished building whatever new cars he has contracted to deliver (thefour he built last winter were the most he can produce at one time). At thatpoint he packs up his family and heads for Indianapolis, where he owns a housein the little township of Speedway, on the outskirts of Indianapolis and nearthe race track. Watson sets up his headquarters at the Speedway in adjoininggarages Nos. 16 and 17. From the day he moves in until the end of the racingseason, he is the full-time mechanic for Bob Wilke, a machine card manufacturerfrom Milwaukee who runs an auto racing stable under the name Leader Card, whichis also the name of his business. While A. J. is getting the Leader CardSpecials ready for the big race, he also helps out his many other customers andfriends.
There is adeceptive casualness about Watson's operation, as if everything he did was akind of afterthought. Speaking of the four new cars he built last winter forthe 1960 race, he said, "I kind of promised Aggie [J. C. Agajanian, thesouthern California pig farmer and racing promoter] that I would build him acar if I had time, and then Wilke wanted a new one if I was going to build onefor somebody else. The first thing I knew I was building four of them." Allfour of these cars qualified the first day at speeds of better than 144 mph.One, the Leader Card Special, is being driven by Ward, one by Jim Rathmann, oneby Len Sutton and Aggie's car by Lloyd Ruby.
Watson had to turndown an order for a fifth new car last fall from Al Dean, a southern Californiatrucker whose Dean Van Lines Specials have been contenders at Indianapolis foryears. So Watson lent a set of his blueprints to his friend andfellow-mechanic, Wayne Ewing, one of the many car buffs who hang aroundWatson's shop in Glendale. Ewing went ahead and built the car on his own andturned it over to Clint Brawner, the talented mechanic who masterminds Dean'sracing cars. On the first day of qualifying this car broke, with Sachs in thecockpit, all the records at the speedway. It set a new single-lap record of147.251 mph which was later broken by Hurtubise's 149.601.
Although Sachs, atthe age of 33, has been one of the top dirt track drivers in the East since1953 and ranked among the first 10 drivers in the national championship for thepast two years, he has never finished a race at Indianapolis. Sachs is a fellowwith a large and determined jaw and a keen sense of survival, and he has beenheard to say that if he can win the big race this year, that will be it. Hewill be perfectly happy to make a full-time job of his cocktail lounge atCenter Valley, Pa., just outside Allentown, near the New Jersey border. Despitehis fast qualifying run, Sachs's strategy, he has said, will be to lay backwithin hailing distance of the gang busters and avoid the free-for-all thatusually characterizes the early stages of the "500." The $150 that goesto the leader at the end of each of the 200 laps can be mighty attractive baitand can even mount up into big money over a period, but experience proves thatthe early-lap winners rarely drive their cars into the victory lane.
Among the frontrunners one can expect to find Jim Rathmann and his brother Dick. Jim, theyounger of the two, is a saturnine blond and a truculent competitor who hasthree times finished second at Indianapolis. Naturally he has every intentionof shaking the bridesmaid role this week. Rodger Ward in Watson's No. 1 car isanother front-running type. (The other Leader Card Special, for which Watsonwill also be the chief mechanic, is the car in which Ward won last year. Itwill be driven this time by Chuck Stevenson.) Along with Rathmann and Ward youcan expect to find Tony Bettenhausen and Johnny Thomson, both of whom like thehairy scramble that goes on for the lap prizes, and, probably, the amazingHurtubise, who, as a rookie, is still something of an unknown quantity.
Around GasolineAlley, as they call the garage area at the speedway, it is customary to findmost of the cars lying in a thousand parts inside their crowded stalls wheneverthey aren't on the track for practice. An occupational disease of everyIndianapolis mechanic is the urge to make just one more adjustment, no matterhow well a car has performed up to that point. However, in adjoining stalls,numbered 62 and 63, the disarray and confusion is caused by something moreserious than a mechanic's persnicketiness. It is there that the two NoviSpecials are parked, and this year, as quite frequently in the past, they arenot well.
Ever since thewar, the Novis have been almost as much a part of the Indianapolis scene as thebrick paving on the homestretch. The deep-throated roar of their superchargedV-8 engines sends a thrilling shiver through the grandstands. Although todaythey are virtually the same machines that first arrived at Indy so many yearsago and have since set their share of records, they can still travel faster onthe straightaway than the very latest four-cylinder Offenhauser. It is thedetermination of Lew Welch, the Michigan air-conditioner manufacturer who ownsthem, that one day one of his Novis is going to win the race.
No day for theNovi
Unhappily, this isno more likely to be the year of the Novi than previous ones. No. 49 Novi wasscarcely able to get on the track at all. First it was the impeller on thesupercharger which broke into pieces while turning at something like 40,000rpm. Then, on a practice run last Saturday, the engine blew completely beyondrepair—for this year's race. With young Dempsey Wilson at the wheel, Novi No.47 seemed to be doing better and was turning laps at 143 or so last Saturdaywhen it started spouting oil. At nightfall it was again in pieces, and only themost optimistic man in the garage would dare predict it would be ready toqualify, which it wasn't.
The absence of theNovis will be a loss to the race. As Wilson said after one exciting practicesession, "With the Offies you watch your tachometer to see how fast you'regoing. With the Novis you watch it to find out when to slow down." At 7,800rpm, the Novis turn up about 630 hp. At a little better than 6,000 rpm, therecommended top speed, the Offies produce only 375 hp.
Yet it will mostsurely be an Offie that ends up in front next Monday, and if there is anythingto the law of averages at the Brickyard, the Offie will be riding in a car thatA. J. Watson built. It is hard to figure the race any other way.