J.C. "Aggie" Agajanian will be remembered as one of the most influential figures in American motorsports history. Agajanian is best known for having cars entered in the Indianapolis 500 from just after World War II through the early 1970s. His entries won the historic race twice.
In motorcycle racing, Agajanian was one of the sport's foremost promoters. He promoted national motorcycle races across the country (including the Daytona 200 in the early 1960s), but is most closely associated with the races held at Ascot Park in Gardena, California. Ascot Park was the birthplace of countless racing champions. Always a colorful character, Agajanian was rarely seen without his trademark Stetson cowboy hat and his "Pepsodent smile."
Agajanian was born in San Pedro, California, on June 16, 1913, just six months after his father had smuggled his entire family, including some cousins, out of war-torn Armenia. He grew up a hard-working young man in the family’s refuse collection and hog ranching businesses, which Aggie would later oversee.
At 18, Agajanian had saved enough money to buy a race car. When he told his father that he was going to become a race car driver, the elder Agajanian’s reaction was not what young Aggie had hoped. Looking at the car in the garage, his father said to J.C., "So you are going to be a race driver, that’s fine. Just a few things I want you to do first. Go kiss your mother goodbye, pack your bags since you won’t be living here anymore and while you’re at it, change your name."
The racing game was brutal in the 1930s. Drivers were dying almost every other week on the dirt ovals of Southern California and Agajanian’s father understandably didn’t want his son to become another statistic. A compromise was settled upon. J.C. could keep the car, but only in the capacity of an owner. J.C. agreed and at 18 became perhaps one of the youngest car owners in automobile racing.
While Agajanian never achieved his childhood dream of becoming a race driver, he did almost everything else, from promoting races to building cars and discovering drivers.
While promoting a race under the blazing desert sun in Arizona, Agajanian purchased a cowboy hat to protect his head. The hat became Aggie's trademark and he was rarely seen without it.
"I didn’t even know my dad was bald until I was a teenager," joked his son, Cary. "He even wore the hat sitting down for breakfast in the morning. My mother was always getting on him about that."
From 1948 through 1971, his cars won the pole position for the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race three times, set four track records and won the race twice. Troy Ruttman (1952) and Parnelli Jones (1963) both won the 500 in Agajanian machines.
Besides being a car owner and promoter, Agajanian was also instrumental in the development of the air jack for faster tire changes at Indy and in the 1930s was president of the Western Racing Association. As a race organizer, his expertise spanned the country and he became the first race organizer to present 250 United States Auto Club events, ranging from Midget races, such as the traditional Turkey Night Grand Prix at his beloved Ascot Park in Gardena, California, to numerous Championship Car races at state fairgrounds tracks.
Agajanian began promoting motorcycle races as early as 1939. From the 1940s to the 1980s, Agajanian promoted motorcycling events at tracks such as Carrell Speedway, Western Speedway and Ascot Park. Many of the country’s top motorcycle racers, such as Sammy Tanner, Neil Keen, Al Gunter, Don Hawley and others, emerged from the weekly events put on by Agajanian at the half-mile circuit. The Friday night Ascot Park races were regular sell-outs from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s and riders from all across the country came to prove their abilities at the famed circuit. In the early 1980s Honda even named a motorcycle after Ascot.
In 1960, when the Daytona 200 was in jeopardy (Bill France was busy at work on building Daytona International Speedway) it was Agajanian who stepped in and saved the famous race on the beach.
As a promoter, J. C. Agajanian was known for his fair dealings and lucrative purses. His generosity was evident when he helped drivers or other people involved in racing who were down on their luck. The racers liked him very much and sensed that he had a genuine affection and respect for them as human beings.
In addition to being one of the country’s most successful promoters and team owners, Agajanian was a devoted family man and the father of four children, a girl and three boys.
Agajanian died on May 5, 1984. He left a legacy as one of the best promoters in the history of motor sports. His children carry on that legacy by continuing the family’s racing business.