Motorsports Hall of Fame of America president Ron Watson dies at 72
‘Hero of horsepower’ was the force behind the racing shrine
“Though his job was to honor them,” said John Doonan, “Ron Watson was, to me, the true hero of horsepower.”
Watson, president of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, died unexpectedly Sunday evening from natural causes at age 72. Doonan, the outgoing head of Mazda Motorsports North America and incoming head of sports car sanctioning body IMSA, is a board member and past chairman of the MSHFA, and helped lead the charge when the Hall was evicted from its longtime home in Novi, Michigan, to move it to the grounds of Daytona International Speedway.
Watson was set to retire in April of next year with plans to travel during his retirement years with his wife, Donna, and spend more time with his children and grandchildren. The board had already named its current treasurer, historian and former Autoweek editor-in-chief George Levy to succeed Watson, but that timetable must be accelerated.
“Tireless” is a word that has often been attributed to Watson, especially during the very complex and lengthy relocation to Daytona in the space occupied by the shuttered Daytona USA, a combination museum and hands-on interactive exhibit that closed to the public, reopening only for special events.
Doonan, then-Mazda public relations executive Dean Case and then-Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III, with help from International Speedway Corp. executive Herb Branham, helped pave the way for the ambitious plan for Watson and the MSHFA to relocate to Florida, for a while storing the irreplaceable memorabilia and historic vehicles shipped down from Michigan in a warehouse northeast of Orlando until the Daytona USA space was ready.
Aside from the day-to-day operation of the MSHFA, it fell to Watson and his small staff to plan the annual, massive banquet at a Daytona-area hotel that served as the induction ceremony for each new class, held each March around the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race and the IndyCar season opener at St. Petersburg.
Indeed, the MSHFA will induct its largest class in years on March 16-17, 2020, during its 32nd annual Induction Celebration. The Class of 2020 includes NASCAR’s first-ever champion Red Byron (Historic); flat track champ Chris Carr (Motorcycles); motorcycle racer, promoter and publisher Floyd Clymer (At Large); driver, series official and safety advocate Wally Dallenbach Sr. (Open Wheel); NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick (Stock Cars); Daytona 500 champion Tiny Lund (Historic); Can-Am and Rolex 24 at Daytona champion Jacky Ickx (Sports Cars), quarter-mile racing legend “Ohio” George Montgomery (Drag Racing); and Baja 500 and 1,000 and SCORE World Champion Ivan “Ironman” Stewart (Off-Road Racing).
As you can deduct, MSHFA does not limit itself to one form of motorsports, an idea Doonan credits Watson with helping to develop—“He wanted to recognize stellar accomplishments in most any form of racing,” Doonan said. “That was the genius of Ron Watson.” It results in a banquet of the sort that exists nowhere else, packed with racers from so many different disciplines, and every major sanctioning body is represented.
Next year marks the fifth consecutive induction ceremony in Daytona Beach since the MSHFA moved to Daytona International Speedway in 2016 from Novi. The Hall is housed in the Speedway’s Ticket and Tours Building located in front of the Speedway—visit MSHF.com for specifics.
Of course, what Ron Watson did best was, well, cajole—gently pushing for funding for the Hall, for exhibits, for archives, for sponsorship from major backers, companies and sanctioning bodies, many of whom bought entire tables at the March ceremony to help finance what has been invariably a first-class event, even dating back to the days when the banquet and the Hall itself was in an increasingly marginalized, segmented portion of the long-since-demolished Novi Expo Center in metro Detroit, before moving briefly to the Detroit Science Center and then Daytona.
Why Novi? Yes, it was the home of the brutal Novi Indy car engine, developed in the 1940s with money invested by Novi businessman Lewis Welch. But it was also Ron Watson’s home, where he was a councilman and mayor pro tem when STP chairman and racer Andy Granatelli, who bought the rights to the shrieking DOHC supercharged V8 and brought the by-then dated design back to Indy in the 1960s, donated his Novi stable to the city. That became the seed from which grew the MSHFA and its resulting exhibit.
Watson was also a master at cajoling many of us who cover motorsports to write lengthy features for the Hall’s annual program. We’d usually whine about it, but in reality, what an honor it was to be asked to write the biography of, for one personal example, a legend—and one of the nicest men in motorsports—Tom Carnegie, Indianapolis Motor Speedway track announcer for 60 years.
The MSHFA’s very first class, inducted in 1989, consisted of George “Cannon Ball” Baker (Motorcycles); James Doolittle (Aviation); A.J. Foyt (Open Wheel); Don Garlits (Drag Racing); Phil Hill (Sports Cars); Bill Muncey (Powerboats); Barney Oldfield (Historic); and Richard Petty (Stock Cars). When able, the inductees accept the award in person. When not, they may be represented by family members, friends, colleagues or crew.
The inductees are most often introduced by peers: For instance, last year NASCAR racer Jimmie Johnson flew in from California to introduce racer Tony Stewart. Then Stewart, the closing act, proceeded to deliver what may have been the funniest speech in MSHFA history, roasting on the spot the inductees—and Johnson, who had appeared immediately before him.
Sometimes the acceptances are controversial: Last year, drag racing team owner Don Schumacher used his speech to settle a score or two with past and current rivals—one reader said Autoweek, merely by publishing what Schumacher said, owned at least one competitor an apology.
The event is usually emceed by the best in the business: broadcaster, former driver and 2009 inductee David Hobbs, who this year managed to get in a dig on keynote speaker Chase Carey, chairman and CEO of Liberty Media, which owns Formula 1, for dropping Hobbs from the F1 broadcast team. Uncomfortable? Yes. Hilarious? Yes. In all, Autoweek wrote that the 2019 event was “arguably the smoothest, best-run ceremony in the MSHFA’s history.”
Which brings us back to the lone high-profile constant—Ron Watson, the only president the 30-year-old Motorsports Hall of Fame of America has ever known. Watson gave up a career as an attorney to devote himself to his passion for motorsports, of honoring its men and women.
Watson once joked that he had secretly helped build the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America so he could meet his heroes. Through him, we all did. And because of the foundation this hero of horsepower helped cast, we’ll get to continue meeting them for years to come.
Services are pending.