Monday, February 21, 2011


Roadster, originally uploaded by William 74.
The term "roadster" is usually used to describe a small, open, two seat car-something like an MG or Alfa Romeo, or maybe a hot rod Ford. But for a time in the 50's and 60's, it also referred to the big, front engined racers that dominated Champ Car racing in general, and Indianapolis in particular. The cars were big, built by hand to a very high standard, usually ran the classic Offenhauser twin cam, and often came from one of four shops in the Los Angeles area. This one happens to be a Watson, and won the '56 500, Pat Flaherty up.

The progenitors of these cars can be traced back to the Indy racers of the 30's, as the cars began to get lower and faster, and the end of the "junk formula" that brought about the rebirth of purpose built, purebred racing cars. Postwar, Frank Kurtis became the king of Champ Cars, building cars suited for all classes, from quarter midgets up to the big Indy cars. His cars were always beautifully built and rugged, and generally ran some version of the Offy mill.

A.J. Watson first came to prominence in American racing in the early 50's, finally winning the 500 as crew chief for the John Zink team. The team was running Kurtis chassis, and for '56 the team decided to let Watson design their own car. Based on a Kurtis style spaceframe, Watson did a Chapman and "added lightness" by eliminating what he felt were unnecessary brackets and structure, as well as redesigning the steering system and using lightweight materials in several areas. Topped off with a sleek, Larry Shinoda designed ally body, the Watson looked fantastic and was fast, right out of the box.

Watson continued to refine the same basic design until 1963, pioneering the use of fiberglass bodywork, and 23 examples of the roadster emerged from his shops in Los Angeles. Like earlier Kurtis designs, Watson roadsters continued to race for several years, the final appearance at Indy being in 1966. A.J. Watson eventually moved his shop to Speedway, Indiana, and has even built a few more roadsters, as they've proven to be so popular.

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