Watson Indianapolis Diet Rite Cola Special
By 1963, legendary fabricator A.J. Watson had built 23 Indianapolis roadsters, including cars that won the 500 in 1959, 1960, 1962, and 1963. The most famous Watson Roadsters were part of the Leader Card team, owned by Robert Wilke, of Wisconsin, with Rodger Ward doing the driving. By this time, however, the crew had grown to the point where it had effectively become three separate teams running under Watson’s general supervision. The car offered here was driven by Len Sutton, working with chief mechanic Sonny Meyer.
Problems plagued Sutton and Meyer throughout the month-long qualification process, and for the first time, a new Watson was bumped from the Indianapolis starting field. Speedway problems, whatever they may have been, did not continue at the Milwaukee 100 in June, where Sutton was the 6th fastest qualifier; he would finish in the same position overall. In his last race for Leader Card, Sutton finished 12th in the Tony Bettenhausen 200 in Milwaukee that August.
The Watson Roadster was then refurbished for 1964 and entered as Rodger Ward’s back-up car at that year’s Indy 500. With Ward safely qualifying in the starting field in his new, rear-engined Watson-Ford, Chuck Stevenson put the older Watson Roadster, now #95 and liveried as the Diet-Rite Cola Special, in the 29th starting position for the race. Stevenson was caught up in the famous second-lap accident on race day and finished in 28th place.
Bobby Grim took over the repaired car for the 1965 season, including qualifying 9th and finishing 8th at the Milwaukee 200 and qualifying 6th and finishing 3rd at Trenton. The car then added a few more championship races for 1966, including 7th place at Trenton with Grim and 8th at Atlanta with Arnie Knepper.
The car was sold in 1966 to Jack Conley, of Michigan, later passing to Kenny Andrews, of Burlington, Ontario. Andrews modified the car with a Chevrolet V-8, roll cage, and new color scheme, and he raced it on short tracks in Southeastern Canada and the Northeastern United States. He was a regular at Oswego, New York, where he won five features and became the track’s first Canadian champion in 1969.
It was taken apart following the car’s retirement at the end of the 1970 season, but eventually its original frame was reunited with most of the original suspension, running gear, gasoline tank, and intact Watson roadster body panels by foremost Indianapolis racing car collector and restorer Bob McConnell. McConnell subjected the roadster to a complete restoration, wearing the Diet-Rite Cola Special livery from its 1964 Indy appearance, which was performed by Steve Miller and Classic Craft Motorsport.
Featured at the 2007 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, this immaculately restored Watson Roadster has attended several concours events, even winning its class. It is now fitted with the convenience of a self-starter and participated in the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2009. After being acquired by the current owner in 2010, the Offenhauser engine was rebuilt by VanDyne Engineering, of Huntington Beach, California, in 2012. The Watson was then driven at the California Speedway with the Vintage Auto Racing Association in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, the owner was even clocked at 147 mph, which was only 3 mph short of its qualification speed for the 1964 Indy 500. Included with the car are numerous historical records and photographs from throughout its extensive racing career. This Watson presents a unique opportunity for the racing enthusiast who wants to experience the thrill of not just showing but also driving a period Indy car from the glory days in organized track events.
Source: RM Sotheby's
Photo Credit: Robin Adams