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.
From the early days A.J. Watson use to draw the outline of his Watson roadsters on the floor of his shop. In the 1959 Indy victory lane with Roger Ward the Bonneville Salt Flats was the last thing on his mind. Until he was approached by the team of David Johnston, Bill Wendt, and Jerry Carbone for his blessing and help.
Salt will be a factor throughout this continuing story of the ?Three Amigos from Florida?s? need for speed. The day after day grind to bring the car from a pile of steel to a speed machine. Companionship is the key to the puzzle. Once the project was started, these gentlemen were going to be together 24 hours a day for close to 6 months. Living like gypsies in their motor homes and working, eating, and sweating together to make the August SCTA runs at Bonneville.
They camped out for three weeks in Tom McGriff?s Indianapolis front yard to help him get caught up completing the main frame and body panels. Their mentor was A.J. Watson who would cruise in driving his Smart car. They had planned to install the 270 Offenhauser engine before they made their trip south but Jim Himmelsbach was having dyno issues in Cincinnati. There was no time to wait, so the roller was loaded on the trailer to head south.
Shop was set up in David Johnston?s Americas Generators warehouse in Miami. The beginning of summer was a challenge in the tropical heat. Yes, you get ocean breezes at times but it?s hot and you can?t let that get you down because the clock is ticking. Bill Wendt, who designed the car and chose all the components now starts the second part of the fabrication with Jerry Carbone as his right hand man. All the welding needed to be completed by Bill. David?s job is to order parts, design the cosmetics, and pay the many bills. Jerry and the Americas Generators employees help fabricate parts along with Bill?s street rod friends from Cape Coral on the west coast of Florida. Home was behind the shop in their motor homes and working 12 to 14 hour days made for ?thirsty? late evenings. With a project of this size, men forget what their ladies have to put up with. Cookie Wendt and Debra Emery were running for parts and pieces all over Miami as well as taking care of things on the home front. Debra was also keeping a photo journal of the project and made the trip to Utah to nursemaid the whole team.
With the car nearing completion after two months in Miami, the final tweaking is taking place. The frame is powder coated and the cage is chromed along with a polished firewall that makes the Offy look like a straight eight. The fuel and brake lines look like they were factory installed. Provisions are made for the parachute which will be installed when they arrive in Utah. George at Fabulous Restorations has been working day and night finishing and painting the body. Crunch time is here and without the body a panic trip was made to an old road in the Everglades. Let?s see if the drive train can reach 100 mph and not finish upside down in the ditch with an alligator. Well they do have their helmets on so if they meet ole Al in the water they?re okay. Sure they are. The law enforcement officers pass by a couple of times but never stop because who would believe them when they said they got passed by a Watson Roadster at that speed.
Time passes by slowly waiting for paint to dry but not this time. David?s 30? stacker trailer door closed with the car having wet paint, no graphics, or decals. The Prevost motor home starts the westward trip with all 84 feet of rolling stock. Racking up 4 mpg the total fuel bill will add up to almost $6000 for the round trip to Bonneville.
The first pit stop is in the parking lot of ?Carmen?s Black & White Bar & Grill? in West Wendover, Utah. A frantic finish is done on the tailgate with dozens of spectators (including George Poteet and many Bonneville racers.) Next stop is on the salt flats for 2 ? hours of tech with as many as 5 inspectors. She passes with three very minor changes. All SCTA officials were very interested and impressed with the car, as there had been major communication with them during the build.
The sun reflects off the white salt as they start their quest to beat the xxo/vot class record of 176.5 mph. First they all need to get their SCTA licenses. Bill?s vintage midget record is 136.1 mph but he is only licensed to go 150 mph. That means three qualifying runs minimum to reach the 200 mph bracket. David and Jerry have to start their quest also for their licenses. Now you start putting runs on the motor and how many can you make without problems. I?m sure this 270 Offy is the only one of its type that is still in active completion today. Bill Wendt makes the first run ever that produces a spin out at about 155 mph. He thinks it was due to his not reaching the steering wheel correctly. Move the wheel back 1 ? inches and Jerry Carbone spins out at the same speed. Jerry learns that when you turn the wheel and the car won?t turn its time to pull the parachute and hold on.
Working in the 100 degree plus heat on the salt flats you will be surprised how many friends that show up to help. They drop by like they live down the street. Lowering the front end and moving some weight around to the front seemed to solve the problem. You would think when you?re flying across the salt at the two mile mark you wouldn?t have time to check the tach. But when you?re not qualified for your next step up the speed ladder SCTA frowns at that and will throw your run out. Calculations are a big part for the record and when you?re hitting 5400 rpms and the car is pulling hard you better be able to let off the gas pedal at the right time and coast across the finish line. Hoping the timing slip is not over 175 you hold your breath and thank god it reads 174.88. Now to check the GPS in the car and it reads 181 mph at the two mile mark and was heading for 200. The fastest vintage oval track car in the world in class xxo/vot. During the next two runs the Offenhauser engine starts acting like its hurt. All things check out normal but there is a feeling there may be a scuffed cylinder wall. So close but so far from the record do you sacrifice a $75,000 engine or stop the quest and return next August with fresh equipment. The hard decision is made to halt the venture. As they trailer across the salt on their way home, they know next year the golden ring is waiting for them to grasp.
The trip home was lengthened with a detour back to Indy to meet with A.J. Watson, Jim Himmelsbach, and Tom Mc Griff outside the gates at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To see these contributors, to the project, enjoying the completed car was like watching proud papas with their new baby.