Glendale's fast and flourishing past

GLENDALE — When the green flag falls at Indianapolis Motor Speedway today, all 33 cars in the 500-mile race will be Italian-built Dallara chassis.

While that's been the case since 2008, it wasn't always that way.

In an earlier era when technical innovation and experimentation was the norm, the Indianapolis 500 was dominated by cars built in Glendale.

From 1950 through 1964, cars built in two Glendale industrial buildings won the 500 a remarkable 11 times. And it was largely Frank Kurtis and AJ Watson who were responsible for it.

Kurtis was born in Colorado in 1908 and moved with his family to Los Angeles at age 13.

It wasn't long before he was working at Don Lee Coach Works, doing fabrication. Kurtis ventured out on his own for a while before returning to Lee. While at Lee, he worked on the Lee race cars and created several custom-bodied cars and trucks.

The 1930s witnessed the introduction of midget auto racing. Featuring smaller cars that could run on smaller tracks than Indianapolis cars, midget racing quickly became popular and spectators packed places like Los Angeles' Gilmore Stadium. After World War II, midget racing boomed and Kurtis was heavily involved. Sketching a design for an innovative new race car on the back of a placemat at the Tam O'Shanter Inn, Kurtis came up with the first rational tube-frame chassis, torsion-bar suspension car in American racing. To this day, virtually all midget and sprint cars follow the design that Kurtis scrawled on the placemat.

The Kurtis-Kraft shop at 1107 E. Colorado was soon busy turning out midgets. Kurtis also returned to Indianapolis, fielding a couple of cars without great success in the 1946 race. Demand was such for his midgets, that by mid-1946, Kurtis had outgrown the Colorado location and set up shop on Alger Street, between Sequoia and Baywood. Kurtis-Kraft midgets completely dominated midget racing.

Kurtis kept building Indianapolis cars, and finally came home a winner in 1950 with Johnnie Parsons driving. Cars built in his Glendale shop won in 1951, 1953, 1954 and 1955. In 1954, four of the top six finishers were Kurtis chassis. In 1956, 23 of the 33 cars were Kurtis'. Kurtis, who died in 1987, built Indy cars until 1963.

Gordon Eliot White, author of "Kurtis-Kraft: Masterworks of Speed and Style," wrote of Kurtis: "Frank Kurtis was a design genius like Henry Ford and Harry A. Miller. His skill was intuitive and his approach was as an artist, not an engineer."

While Kurtis was the first to put the "Jewel City" on the racing map, Watson quickly grabbed notice.

The winning 1955 car was completely rebuilt by Watson, beginning chapter two of Glendale's influence on the 500. Watson, who attended Glendale Community College, first arrived at the speedway when a group of young hot rodders put together the City of Glendale Special for the 1950 race.

Dubbed "The Pots and Pans Special," the low-budget effort qualified for the race, which is considered one of the great accomplishments in race history.

After winning the 1955 race, Watson began building his own cars at a tiny garage on Palmer Street, just west of San Fernando Road. The 1956 race marked the high point for Glendale cars, with 24 of the 33 coming from the city.

Watson cars won in 1956, 1959, 1960, 1962 and 1964. In 1959 and 1962, his cars finished 1-2. Unlike Kurtis, Watson was limited by his space. He only built a total of 23 cars.

"His genius was in taking existing ideas and finding ways to improve them," wrote Gary Wayne in his book "The Watson Years: When Roadsters Ruled the Speedway." "He made his cars lighter, narrower and more balanced."

Watson did the same with engines, tinkering with existing designs.

Watson also came up with arguably the most successful American take on the then-new rear-engine cars. Watson continued fielding cars at Indy, many not of his own construction, through 1984. He moved to Indiana where, at 87, he works in his garage building replicas and doing restorations.

While racing has certainly sped past Glendale, the Kurtis and Watson shops still stand, a testament to the time when Glendale builders dominated the 500.

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