RETRO: The wild tale of 1982’s Eagle Aviation Flyer IndyCar, part 2

IMS Photo

RETRO: The wild tale of 1982’s Eagle Aviation Flyer IndyCar, part 2

Insights & Analysis

RETRO: The wild tale of 1982’s Eagle Aviation Flyer IndyCar, part 2


Along with the 300-foot slide in Turn 1 and its dreadful absence of speed, Hamilton’s son has vivid memories of the DW2 treating his dad like he was flying the DW1 crop duster.

“Another thing I remember is that it just wanted to pull his head off,” Davey said of the extreme aerodynamic lift happening above the cockpit. “That was another problem they had to deal with using [helmet] wickers and a windshield. It took the first week just to try to get the thing able to go around the track, honestly. And then once they started feeling like they did the most they could do to keep his helmet on his head, it still was just uncontrollable.

“So then what happens? My dad tells the car owner [Turtling], ‘You know what, it’s just not going work. If you want somebody else to drive it, so be it, but I’m out. And the guy goes, ‘We’ll just load it up, we’re done. I don’t want anybody else in it.”

The DW2 drew a crowd whenever it emerged. IMS Photo

Just as the DW2 appeared to kill Ken Hamilton’s Indy 500 dreams, Turtling seemed opened to buying a proven car from one of the Speedway’s legendary mechanics and entrants, George Bignotti. Like everything involving the Eagle Aviation Flyer program, there’s another story.

“Turtling came back, and in fact, at that time, Tom Sneva came down and said, ‘Why don’t you get your guy with the money to buy one of these Marches from Bignotti?’” Ken Hamilton said. “So I went and talked to George Bignotti and I took Joe Turtling down with me. And George says, ‘We’ll take your crew and take the car back to the shop, sell you this car here and have your guys go through it. Then we’ll have Tom shake it down and Tom guarantees you’ll run at 200 miles an hour, Kenny, right out of the box.’

“Turtling says, ‘OK, I’ll go back home and I’ll wire you the money on Monday morning.’ And so I’m down at the bank waiting for the money…waiting for the money. Nothing happens. Finally, I get a hold of him, and he said, ‘Well, I just can’t do that. My controllers lost me $11 million in the airplane factory.’ He had bought American Eagle. He said, ‘I just don’t have the money that I feel that I can spend on that car. What are you going to do next?’ I said, ‘Well, all I can do is load that thing in the truck and bring it home.’”

An off-the-shelf March chassis would have been a perfect solution for Hamilton. Marshall Pruett archive

“And it goes back to Idaho,” Davey adds. “Everybody’s tail between their legs, my dad’s super dejected. This was his opportunity. When you have an opportunity, and you take it, it might have worked and it might not, but you’ll never know unless you try it, right?”

Stuck with the laughingstock of the Indy 500, Turtling gave Hamilton the task of deciding the DW2’s fate.

“I went down to talk to him, and he had a great big table about 20 feet long, and he said, ‘Well, now what are you going to do with the car?’” he said. “I told him, ‘There’s nothing I can do with it, I mean, it’s not a race car. All I can do is take parts off of it and sell what I can to recoup some of my money.’ And he said, ‘OK, do whatever you want because it’s no good to me, either.’ So it was just a big white albatross around my neck. Sure, I did sell the engine out of it, and then I had it stored out here at one of my paint shops.”

The DW2 would eventually migrate to a more fitting home.

“It sat out in a barn in this field owned by one of my dad’s partners for the next nine years,” Davey Hamilton said. “They had a nice little custom car cover made for everything. And I remember a guy was racing a rear-engine car out in Meridian and had the steering break, so my dad goes, ‘Hey, go over to the barn and take the steering rack out of the Indy car because it’s the same kind.’ That was the only parts we took off it the whole time. It was still all there.”

So what happened to the bizarre car with the wacky farmland aircraft concepts? Yes, there’s another story to be told.

“Davey called me and said, ‘Hey Dad, what are you going to do with that car?” Hamilton said. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’d like to bury the son of a bitch somewhere, but I can’t find a hole deep enough!”

Like his father, Davey Hamilton felt the pull of the Indianapolis 500. Finding a way to get there was the problem. Enter veteran IndyCar entrant Ron Hemelgarn in 1991.

“I kept in touch with Ron and said, ‘Man, if there’s any way I can ever get a rookie test at Indy with you…’’ Davey said. “I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t have any money. And he says, ‘You still have that that car? Your dad’s Eagle Flyer?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we still have it.’ He goes, ‘Well, if you want to give me that car, I’ll give you a rookie test. So I call my dad I go, ‘Hey, buddy, what are you ever gonna do with that car? ‘ He says, ‘Take it!’ So I put it on an open trailer behind my pickup truck and headed to Indy.’”

As hard as it might be to fathom, after watching Hamilton try in vain to pass ROP in 1982, Hemelgarn locked the DW2 into his memory as a vehicle to pursue if it became available for acquisition.

“A lot of those old cars, if you get your hands on them, in time, they are going to be a very collectible,” Hemelgarn said. “Back then, it was a different time period. Today’s cars are all the same. When you take that car, and the story that goes along with it, and it did run a little bit at the Indy 500, it’s unique. And there’s only one of them.”

After receiving the car and running Davey Hamilton through his Indy 500 ROP in 1991, Hemelgarn put the Eagle Aviation Flyer through a full restoration that brought the car back to its original form.

The DW2 in all its restored resplendence. Amy Mauder photo

Hamilton would try to qualify for his first Indy 500 that year with Hemelgarn, and in another family parallel, he didn’t make it into the field of 33. In fact, Ken’s son would fail to qualify for his first three Indy 500s before qualifying 10th and finishing 12th for A.J. Foyt in 1996.

Hamilton would go on to become one of the biggest stars in the new Indy Racing League, adding a sixth-place Indy 500 result for Foyt in 1997 and a career best of fourth at the Speedway the following year for Nienhouse Motorsports.

Thanks to Hemelgarn’s appreciation for weirder IndyCar designs, all of the risks taken by Ken Hamilton and all of the distance Joe Turtling wanted from the costly failure he funded was turned into a most unexpected pathway for Davey Hamilton, who launched an IndyCar career that spanned 21 years because of the DW2.

Looking back on the 40-year anniversary of his ill-fated attempt to compete at Indy in the DW2, Ken Hamilton still can’t believe all he went through in 1982.

“I took the risk and went ahead and tried it,” he said. “And at the time, I was really glad to get an opportunity to try it…until I really saw the car was complete. And then after dealing with this [Wilson] guy — you know, the guy’s a genius, but he’s a dumb son of a bitch, also.”

And where can you find the mercurial Eagle Aviation Flyer DW2-Chevy today?

“The car is sitting in my lobby at one of my Super Fitness centers in Toledo, Ohio,” Hemelgarn said. “It’s quite the conversation piece.”

The DW2 alongside other additions to the Hemelgarn stable. Amy Mauder photo