When you get former NHRA star, salt flats record holder and vintage midget racer Bill Wendt and midget racer, show car owner and entrepreneur David Johnston together and add a couple of adult beverages, strange things happen. The latest result of this fearful combination is an assault this August on the Bonneville Salt Flats in a newly constructed recreation of the Watson roadster that Roger Ward drove to his Indy victory in 1959. Consulting in this venture is 88 year old A. J. Watson himself.
Before we get into the project, we need to look at the principals involved. Bill Wendt spent most of his racing career at the wheel of the NHRA Funny Car known as “Smokey Bear”. A welder by trade, Indiana born Wendt migrated to Texas for 26 years and now calls Cape Coral, Florida home. Wife and avid supporter Cookie can be found accompanying Bill at race events across the country. Bill is past president of the Daytona Antique Auto Racing Association where he campaigns his 1946 Hillegas V8-60 midget. Bill set a record for midgets in Ray Le Clair’s Offy at 136.094 at Bonneville on August 13, 2009. A native of Buffalo, NY, David Johnston’s career began rebuilding and selling used generators. After humble beginnings in 1990, David has grown Americas Generators into a massive operation in his adopted home town of Miami, Florida. As David’s success grew so did his interest in the collection of specialty and collector cars. While purchasing a midget for display he found the DAARA organization actually raced these treasures and he was hooked. David owns and drives three vintage midgets and is the title sponsor for both the spring and fall DAARA Nationals vintage events. David is an accomplished driver and an ace mechanic. He has passed on the leadership of Americas Generators to his son, Eric, and traded the full time corporate world for the pursuit of his passion for racing and being part of racing history.
Even the racing world in Indianapolis had no idea of what was happening in a small garage just southwest of town. There legend A.J. Watson, Wendt and Johnston were making a dream come to life. Along with Jerry Carbone, experienced chassis and body restorer, and a midget racer himself and Jim Himmelsbach, Offy builder extraordinaire, from world class vintage race car restoration company, Zakira’s Garage in Cincinnati, OH, progress is being made toward history. Tom Mc Griff, who has built enough Watson copies to field a race of these high priced collector pieces, was hard at work on the chassis. This latest creation will be true in appearance to the Indy winning Ward car with the exception of the required roll cage and safety equipment necessary for the record run. Mc Griff is incorporating design changes needed to make a circle track machine run as true as an arrow in a straight line. Working in the small inconspicuous garage there was not even a tubing bender on site. Challenges were met and overcome with an Indy roadster beginning to appear in these unlikely surroundings. One can only imagine the bench racing conversations that have transpired with this group. There had to be enough racing history expounded upon in that little shop to fill a racing encyclopedia.
The picture of the car as a roller shows what will soon be an alcohol burning, earth shaking streak heading across the salt to what this illustrious crew hopes will be a world record for its class. Speeds of over 200 mph are the goal of this veteran group. Powered by a specially constructed 270 Offy that will produce 425 hp the crew will attempt to set up this circle track car to run in a straight line for driver Bill Wendt to set one more record. The rare 270 Offy is being specially assembled to withstand the forces thrust upon it with multiple high speed runs in the heat and salt. From August 11th through August 17th many types of automobiles will show up at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in an attempt to come away with an official record time. Certainly one of the most interesting and popular will be the Johnston/Carbone/Wendt entry. Watson Indy roadsters have to be some of the most beautiful and famous race cars in the world and now another chapter for A.J.Watson and his masterpieces is about to be written. This venture whether or not the desired speeds are attained promises to write a new page in racing lore. With three experienced professionals like Johnston, Wendt, and Carbone, add the council of A.J. Watson and the expertise of the notable crew, this machine and its Bonneville challenge promises to live for generations to come.