Where in the world do we start the conversation on Ken Hamilton, the Eagle Aviation Flyer DW2-Chevy V8, Hamilton’s son Davey, the 1982 Indy 500, and the legacy of one of the craziest machines to turn laps the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
Before we get to the main story, let’s start with where the inspiration behind the exceptionally weird open-wheeler emerged.
Ken Hamilton’s first attempt to take part in the Indy 500 came in 1981 with an old Chevy-powered Riley chassis from the mid-’70s sourced through veteran driver Roger McCluskey. Despite the car’s age, the short-track oval racer from Idaho dreamt big about taking on the big 2.5-mile Speedway and was able to pass the Rookie Orientation Program. Days later, his Indy debut would be curtailed.
“In 1981, they had the largest field, not only of cars, but like 80-some potential drivers and 115 entries,” Hamilton said. “I lost an engine and by the time I got the other engine back, I missed qualifying. So I didn’t make it that year, but my car was fast enough.”
Despite the setback, Hamilton’s spirited attempt to race in the Indy 500 garnered considerable attention back home in Boise.
“Nobody from Idaho even thought about doing it,” said future IndyCar star Davey Hamilton, who was 18 at the time. “And he was doing it more as a hobby; he still had a business and work, trying to make it happen. It created a lot of energy around Idaho, and so that the gentleman that owned Eagle Aviation reached out to him and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to help you out. What’s it going to take?’”
Enter Joe and Dean.
“A multimillionaire, Joe Turtling, owned a bunch of Caterpillar dealerships and stuff around the country and he had a designer and engineer build him a crop duster airplane,” Ken Hamilton said. “It was called an Eagle Biplane. And in talking with Joe, he said that Dean Wilson could design a race car for Indianapolis, and he would get involved and pay to have one built if Dean could design it and build it.”
With his recent acquisition of Eagle Aviation, Turtling saw a chance to promote his new business via The Greatest Spectacle In Racing. The car would eventually carry the same corporate colors as its marquee biplane. A trip to the 1981 CART IndyCar Series season finale at the one-mile Phoenix oval in November got the 1982 Eagle Aviation Indy 500 program moving.
“They were talking about buying a car at that point, like a [Penske] PC-7,” Davey Hamilton said. “So they went to Phoenix that year and [Walker] started looking at cars, and he was a pretty intelligent guy, obviously, built one of the best crop dusters. I can’t remember what made it so special, but it was really good for a crop duster.”
Despite being a few years old by 1981, copying the championship-winning Penske PC-7 would have been a smart choice by Wilson.
“I remember them taking pictures of [a PC-7] with his hand by the race car to get the scale of what everything was,” Hamilton continued. “He actually whittled a 1/8th scale car out of wood. It looked just like a [Penske] PC-7. And then the problem is he kept whittling…he kept whittling and kept whittling. And then pretty soon, he came up with that [DW2] design.”
Wilson wasn’t the first person with aviation or aerospace experience to get involved with an Indy 500 design. He might, however, be the first to apply expertise in spraying crops with various chemicals from a low-flying aircraft to create an open-wheel racer meant to tackle the world’s most famous Speedway.
And where Wilson used his highly specific crop duster know-how to create the DW2, Hamilton did the same by contributing what he knew best to the project. Strip all the bodywork off the car, and you’ll find plenty of borrowed items from one of his non-winged sprint cars.
“That’s how I ended up with that [DW2],” Ken Hamilton continued. “[Wilson] was a very good airplane designer, but not much of a race car designer. So he designed it, Joe paid the money, I furnished all the suspension and stuff on the thing, and the engine, transaxles…”
Fabricated and assembled in Idaho, the DW2 was birthed in the same building where Wilson’s esteemed crop duster, the DW1, sprang to life.
“About 20 minutes outside of Boise, it was built in his hangar where he designed the aircraft, and I’d go out there with my dad and work on the car. As he built it, it was pretty wild, pretty crazy,” Davey Hamilton recalled.
As Kevlar, honeycomb and carbon fiber were taking greater holds in IndyCar as cutting-edge construction materials, the DW2 chassis was made from the same kind of supplies found in any good short track machine. What emerged from the hangar was a vessel that was unquestionably long and strange.
“It was a frame structure like half-inch and three-quarter square tube, chromoly frame with aluminum skin,” Ken Hamilton said. “Back then, they were using a lot of the honeycomb materials in [Dan Gurney’s All American Racers] Eagles, Marchs, Penskes, and so forth in that era. But [the DW2] was a complete nightmare. Unfortunately, being a poor boy and having no money, I had to go along with whatever they wanted to do to make it try to make it happen.”
It also utilized materials found in Wilson’s crop duster.
“That thing had some plywood in it, too.” Hamilton continued. “He did use some plywood in the back vertical fins. He used woods that they would use in an airplane like balsawood. I think he just put some sort of primer on and painted over that.”
Hamilton handled the motor for the DW2.
“I had Rex Hutchison build me an engine out of Sacramento; it was a Chevrolet 355,” he said. “At that time, Roger Rager made it in [the Indy 500] with a Chevrolet out of a school bus, and my engine was good enough. Just my chassis was not.”
The DW2 was a machine of extremes. Its 118-inch wheelbase was cartoonishly long among its contemporaries and the forward cockpit placement within its vast rectangular expanse was nothing less than shocking. Wilson’s design choice meant Hamilton’s feet and legs were precariously close to the leading edge of DW2’s nose where, oddly enough, its radiators also happened to be located.
Positioned so far forward that his lower extremities would double as impact structures, the DW2’s dash and steering wheel were nearly level with the rearward face of the front tires. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if he wanted to, Hamilton could have loosened his seat belts and leaned forward to touch the front wheels.
“Literally, my feet were six inches from the wall if I had gone straight into the wall…” he noted.
If the DW2’s chassis looked like the IndyCar version of a stretched limousine, the aerodynamics attached to the frame were from outer space. Although Ken Hamilton says Wilson told him his concepts for the bodywork were vetted in a wind tunnel, Hamilton’s son doesn’t believe it.
“Here we are from Idaho, know nothing, but pretty excited to have an opportunity to come to Indy…no wind tunnel testing, no track testing,” he said.
Ken Hamilton remembers the fateful call where he learned the original Penske-inspired car would be benched in favor of Wilson’s otherworldly ideas. Regrets were forming as the DW2 reached the end of its build.
“He calls me up and says, ‘Oh, hey, I’ve changed my mind; aerodynamically, it’s going to be better if we build it like this.’” he said. “I looked at it and I said, ‘Golly, Dean, I just don’t think that’s going to work.’ He said, ‘Well, this is gonna be ground effects.’ Ground effects was the thing to have.
“And I said, ‘Golly, you know more about it than I do. I have to take your word for it.’ But I tell you, when it was all done and painted, yeah, OK, this is a definitely a different animal than what I’m used to looking at and seeing. But it’s my only opportunity. I didn’t like it. But hey, if it’ll work like he thinks it’s going to work, that’ll be great.”