BOURCIER: A Visit To Holy Racing Ground

Bones Bourcier

INDIANAPOLIS — To find them, you’ve got to be on the lookout. Four miles west of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, down a hill behind two modest homes, sits a pair of blue buildings that don’t give up their secrets.

But thread your way down either of the driveways flanking those homes and you are on holy racing ground.

In 1969 when A.J. Watson and Grant King opened their neighboring shops on Crawfordsville Road, this was the outskirts of town. But like every American city, Indianapolis blossomed outward. When today’s afternoon commuters hit the red light at Dandy Trail, traffic crawls past property famous for speed.

The King place, now operated by Grant’s nephew, retired racer Bill Throck­morton, is a beehive of activity. Its vibe is 25 percent race shop, 25 percent restoration facility and 50 percent museum. Step through one door and there’s Grant’s old drafting table; open others and you’ll stand where men shaped bodywork or assembled engines.

All is silent over at Watson’s old digs; a carnival outfit rents it for storage. But in the ’70s, it was the stage for the second act of Watson’s career. In the first, he’d owned the Indy 500’s roadster era; he built the cars that won in 1956, ’59, ’60, ’62, ’63 and ’64, and the 1961 winner was a Watson clone. Then rear-engined cars and the mysteries of aerodynamics turned Watson from trendsetter to admitted copycat; his late-’60’s mistake, he joked until his death in 2014, was “copying the wrong cars.”
But he stayed busy fielding Indy and Silver Crown cars for Milwaukee’s Wilke family and constructing the odd customer chassis. In other words, Watson still ran an active race shop. Between him and King, they attracted to this turf a mix of college graduates, self-taught artisans and hardcore racers — maestros all. Wally Meskowski, Don Koda, Jerry Weeks, Don Brown, Carl Cindric, Dale Burton, Jackie Howerton, George Snider, Ted Hall, Chalkie Fullalove, Dave Flick and more stayed busy bending sheetmetal, massaging cylinder heads and milling aluminum.

Gordon Barrett, who held a mechanical engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon University, recalls the design brief for the 1977 Wilke Indy car: “Watson wanted something that resembled the Lightning designed by Roman Slobodynskyj. He said, ‘If you can use anything we already have, do it.’ That meant wheels, hubs, brakes, gearbox, leftovers from his previous car. He also said, ‘We’ve only got one trailer, so when the car is finished and we bolt on the tow wheels, it has to fit into that trailer.’ So our track width was determined by the available room in the trailer.”

Galen Fox’s schooling began with night courses at various Indiana bullrings. That led to postgraduate studies at King’s, where he toiled on everything from sprint cars to Indy cars. Known as an engine man, Fox says, “If you worked at Grant’s, you did a little bit of everything. I helped fabricate the cars and I built some motors. Back then, nobody had the equipment they’ve got today, but Grant had the usual welders and saws and stuff like that.”

Two small shops run by two very different personalities. Watson was everyone’s favorite nice guy; King, according to Fox, “had an awful temper. The guys who stayed with him were the ones who could stand a little abuse.”

Yet deep down, declares Fox, Grant was “a goodhearted guy.” When Jerry Weeks left to start his own fab shop after three years with King — a record for continuous employment there — King insisted on being Weeks’ first customer, ordering some oil tanks.

Sacred ground, sacred stories. How about the nights when it felt like everybody with a Hoosier Hundred pit pass showed up at Watson’s annual post-race party? Throckmorton, just a boy then, says, “He’d have Bobby and Al Unser, Foyt, everybody. Both driveways were filled with iconic racers.”

Or the time when Jim Hurtubise stopped by with some suds, looking to socialize. King and Watson were out of town and their shops were empty, but young Billy Throckmorton was there, sweeping up. He’d never even sipped a beer, so Hurtubise broke him in: “We sat in his truck. He had those little bottles of Miller. I got hammered.”

Grant King died in a 1999 highway crash and Throckmorton bought the shop in 2003. In 2014, a fire ravaged the building and incinerated untold artifacts. Bill says he had “no doubt” that he would rebuild. His fabrication business and much of his life were inside those walls. Working from memories and scrapbooks, he set out to capture its heyday, “the way it was in 1970.”

The idea of making it a working museum was pushed along by Bill’s wife, Stephanie. They host the monthly Grant King Shops Speaker Series. For a small fee, attendees get hot dogs and brats, access to hundreds of photos and other items and story time with some of racing’s great characters.

There is an authenticity to King’s joint. There are cars being rebuilt and in the engine room you might find former Indy car driver John Martin coaxing new life from an old Offy. You get the sense that even on a grouchy day, Grant would approve. Yes, it’s sacrilege that next door, carny games gather dust where A.J. Watson labored. But you take joy where you can find it. I stood outside King’s old shop and imagined those driveways packed again for Watson’s Hoosier Hundred shindig.