Ground effects — the use of large, upwardly curved tunnels contained within the sidepods that flank the chassis to generate massive amounts of downforce — made waves in 1978 when Mario Andretti won the Formula 1 world championship in a ground effects creation pioneered by Lotus that allowed the car to corner at mind-bending speeds. By 1980, the same aerodynamic technology was put to devastating use by Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford in the Chaparral 2K as ground effects became the must-have item in order to succeed at the Speedway.
Widely known at the time of the Eagle Aviation DW2’s creation, it was in the use of sidepods where downforce from ground effects was made, but that didn’t stop Walker from abandoning the well-proven aerodynamic solution for concepts of his own. The Eagle Aviation Indy car would ditch the sidepods in favor of fully independent ground effects systems placed at the front of the DW2 and at the rear of the car.
Where sidepods made downforce at the center of a car and pulled the front and rear tires into the track surface in unison, the DW2 used small tunnels built into fairings surrounding the front tires to try and achieve its downforce needs, and completely separate ground effects fairings to handle downforce generation at the back. To Wilson’s credit, great thought went into the DW2’s aerodynamics, with the rear fuselage treatment featuring beautiful tunnels and tapered underbody fairings that evoke images of a streamliner.
To work, the disconnected front and rear ground effects would need to generate downforce in harmony to give Hamilton a car that was fast, balanced, and safe to drive. To the surprise of no one, the DW2 was the only entry at the 1982 Indy 500 to deploy bisected ground effects.
“[Wilson] said, ‘This thing, I’ve designed it to go 250 miles an hour and it won’t turn over.’” Hamilton declared. “And I said, ‘Dean, I’m not worried about it turning over. I’m worrying about it spinning out, hitting the wall.’ He said, ‘Well, it won’t turn over.’ I said, ‘You’re not understanding. I’m sure it won’t turn over. But it won’t go around the corner. I’m afraid we need more down pressure. I don’t think you’re going to have enough down pressure with the way you have your air effects. We need a wing.’ He said, ‘No, it don’t need a wing.’”
Minus the wing, but featuring all of Wilson’s extravagant concepts, the DW2 was strapped in and sent from Iowa to Indianapolis. Amid the gasps when the car was rolled out of the trailer for the first time, a valid question was raised by one of Indy’s best drivers.
“I remember [IndyCar champion Tom] Sneva, because he and my dad were friends, goes up to him and a group of the guys with the car, ‘You guys put this in the wind tunnel or anything?’” Davey Hamilton said. “Because obviously when the car got unloaded, it got a lot of attention. And the guy that built the car, he looks up and down the straightaway at Indy and goes, ‘That looks like a good place, we’re gonna do right here!’”
It was time to learn about the DW2’s ability — or inability — to perform as expected on the straights and corner with speed and safety by venturing out onto the 2.5-mile oval and turning the Eagle Aviation Flyer’s first-ever laps.
Gobsmacked by the realization that Wilson intended for Hamilton to embrace the role of a test pilot, one who might not return with his life and limbs fully intact, he summoned the kind of courage that few humans possess and strapped into the mystery machine. It was time for another non-surprise.
“You still don’t know what you have until it gets on track,” Davey Hamilton added. “Bottom line was the front ground effects just took all the air away from the back of the car. The front was overly stuck and the back just had no grip because the air was going over the top of the back of the car, not underneath of it, for the ground effects to work.”
“You can see the front ground effects and rear ground effects, instead of one solid, went through the center, and he had all these ideas like the air intake that’s like you’d see on an airplane engine. Things like that were maybe a little bit ahead of their time…”
Although he got through Indy’s rookie orientation sessions with ease in 1981, the Speedway wasn’t about to let Hamilton and the curious Eagle Aviation Flyer saunter into the event without a few restrictions in place. Hamilton’s first outing came on the opening day of Indy 500 practice on Saturday, May 8.
“We had to go through my rookie deal again because I finished it the year before in my old car, and then they made me do it again because it was an unknown car, which I understand,” he said. “But I lost the thing twice.”
Coming up in part 2: Ken Hamilton, the world’s bravest man, prepares to drive the DW2-Chevy for the first time.