Crop Killer - 1982 Eagle Aircraft Flyer Special Chevrolet Indycar

Back in 1977, the world of motorsport saw one of its biggest breakthroughs. After careful study of Bernoulli’s principles of fluid dynamics, the venturi effect and the radiators of a WWII-era de Havilland mosquito fighter plane, Colin Chapman of Lotus created the first true ground-effect racing car, the rather unstable 78. Through underbody wing profiles, venturi tunnels and carefully placed radiators, he was able to create a low pressure area under the car, which would suck it into the road, maximizing grip and traction.

For 1978, Chapman refined the concept with longer venturi tunnels and movable rubber skirts, which sealed off the underbody of the car to stabilize the low pressure area, and make his cars more manageable. This car, the 79, proved incredibly dominant and immediately propelled American rising star Mario Andretti to the rank of Formula One World Champion.

 Mario Andretti in the groundbreaking Lotus 78, 1977 Monaco Grand Prix.

Mario Andretti in the groundbreaking Lotus 78, 1977 Monaco Grand Prix.

Naturally, the advancements made by Lotus weren’t exactly going unnoticed. Far from the mad circus circling the pinnacle of motorsport, one of the industry’s oldest and most famous names took notes. Helped by F1-expat John Barnard (GB), formerly of McLaren and Parnelli, Chaparral released the 2K, a Cosworth DFX V8-powered Indycar heavily based on the design principles pioneered by Lotus.

 1979's Chaparral 2K, the first ground effect Indycar.

1979's Chaparral 2K, the first ground effect Indycar.

The 2K broke new ground for the technology overseas, taking six race wins and storming to the top step at the 1980 Indianapolis 500 and the 1980 CART title with veteran Johnny Rurtherford. With the writing on the wall, Chaparral’s rival teams scrambled to integrate ground effect into their future designs.

Most went the way of the 2K, while others like Dan Gurney’s All American Racers chose to develop the radically different Boundary Layer Adhesion Technology. And then, there was a third player who elected to do nothing of the above. That new team was Eagle Aircraft, the most unlikely racing outfit ever created.

 Dean Wilson's Eagle Aircraft Company was known for producing excellent cropdusters.

Dean Wilson's Eagle Aircraft Company was known for producing excellent cropdusters.

Eagle Aircraft Company was founded in 1977 by Dean Wilson, who ran the business from Boise, Idaho. Wilson showed skill as an aviation designer, focusing on the production of a high-quality cropduster, a popular machine in the wide-open farmlands of his home state.

His bi-plane was well received, and attracted the attention of millionaire businessman Joe Turling, owner of a large chain of Caterpillar dealerships. Turling was so pleased with his Eagle, he persuaded Dean Wilson to try his luck somewhere else. And avid racing fan, Turling offered to fund the construction of a bespoke Indycar for 1982, which Wilson would design.

 Short track superstar Kenny Hamilton decided to take a dive into the unknown.

Short track superstar Kenny Hamilton decided to take a dive into the unknown.

Turling then contacted Kenny Hamilton, a local driver who had become prolific in short track midget car and supermodified racing, winning several titles. Hamilton had already attempted to qualify a car for the 1981 edition of the race, but failed to make a cut as his engine gave up before he could set a time. Eager to get a second chance, Hamilton agreed to join the incredibly ambitious project.

Dean Wilson was meanwhile finding it hard to make the switch from the sky to the speedway. After coming up with a conventional-looking design which Hamilton liked very much, he called him back to explain he was going to things completely different after he’d done some wind tunnel testing. Unsurprisingly, Wilson now wanted to tackle the problem of going around a banked oval at 200 mph (321 kph) from the perspective of an aircraft designer.

 The Flyer looked just as futuristic as it was outdated, ill-conceived trash.

The Flyer looked just as futuristic as it was outdated, ill-conceived trash.

Inexplicably, this meant he wanted to abstain from using any sort of wings. When Kenny Hamilton first laid eyes on the concept, he was mortified. Forgoing any sort of knowledge or experience with car design, Wilson had stepped back several decades with his new chassis.

Instead of the popular aluminum honeycomb monocoque structure used by the entire grid, he had fashioned the car out of square chrome-molybdenum steel tubes. The body was mostly made up from thin sheets of aluminum, with some aircraft-grade balsa wood and plywood thrown in to make the rear endplates.

More worryingly, Dean Wilson had got it into his head that ground-effect was some sort of racing conspiracy. Breaking with all convention, he gave the car a needle-like body, peculiar fairings around the wheels and a massive 118 inch (2.99 meter) wheelbase. Without any sidepods to speak of, the car would not be able to generate any significant downforce from its floor.

Adding further fuel to the raging inferno of insanity storming through his head, he fitted the radiators in the front wing. On each side, the units were sandwiched by two sheets of aluminum, followed closely by Kenny Hamilton’s feet. Wilson’s design had pushed him so far forward in the chassis, he had only six inches between the tip of his toe and a limb-crushing concrete wall. Lastly, the alien machine was still devoid of any sort of wing.

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Realizing the ramifications of trying to speed through a banked turn at impossible speeds without a wing, Kenny Hamilton tried to pressure Dean Wilson into adding one. Wilson was adamant there was no need for such silliness, as his car was designed under the principles of “air effects”, a strange, previously unknown concept he had apparently come up with himself.

Sorry Dean, I don’t...I just don’t think that’s gonna work... / Well this is gonna be air effects, not ground effects.
— Kenny Hamilton and Dean Wilson.

The clueless designer then went on to defend his creation by claiming that it wouldn’t turn over while going through a corner at 250 mph (402 kph). Perplexed, Hamilton replied he wasn’t afraid the car was going to turn over, but that it was going to spin out due to the clear lack of downforce, catapulting him into a very unforgiving concrete wall.

As their argument ground to a halt, Kenny Hamilton was forced to go along with the bone-headed flyboy, as Wilson was paying all the bills. In spite of this, he did what he could to make the car as fast as possible. He arranged for quality suspension and transmission components, and found a competitive engine. His pick was a stock-block 355-cubic inch (5.8L) fuel-injected Chevrolet smallblock V8, producing an impressive 730 horsepower.

 Hamilton secured a very similar engine to the one used by Dan Gurney's front-running AAR Eagle team.

Hamilton secured a very similar engine to the one used by Dan Gurney's front-running AAR Eagle team.

The still wingless machine was then shipped over to Indianapolis, where Kenny Hamilton was forced to undergo his rookie orientation for the second time. Thanks to the outlandish look and unknown nature of the Flyer Special, United States Auto Club officials refused to let him out into qualifying without evaluation.

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On the first few laps, Kenny Hamilton’s fears were immediately confirmed. Lacking any sense of stability, the Eagle flew around the track in a wildly unpredictable fashion. Since Wilson had invested exactly zero time in learning the principles of genuine racecar design, the Flyer might as well have been called “flyswatter“.

Thanks to this instability, Hamilton was unable to get the car beyond 175 miles per hour (281 kph), some 10 miles (16 kph) slower than his 1981 effort. Since the minimum qualifying speed was 190 (305), the Flyer wasn’t even on nodding terms with the concept of speed. It had become painfully clear the car needed an extensive redesign to even be competitive.

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As Dennis Wilson was both unwilling and unable to rectify the car’s endless list of issues, Kenny Hamilton decided to take matters in his own hands. Frustrated with Wilson’s arrogance and incompetence, he ventured out into town after the first session and looked for someone who’d be able to build him a wing.

Eventually he found a local speedshop willing to construct a wing for him out of aluminum, which would cost him $1000 of his own money. Hoping the hastily-built piece would at least slightly alleviate the Flyer’s rear end instability and thereby raise its top speed, Hamilton agreed and waited for the wing to be completed. Once fitted however, he found it boosted the car’s top speed by just seven miles per hour.

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The minute increase in speed was further compounded by another batch of handling issues. Though the rear was more planted than before, Wilson’s air effectswere still working up a storm. Hamilton had simply now way of keeping the unruly machine on the right track.

At the second session, Hamilton sped up to start his first full speed lap, but never got far. On his first attempt to get round Turn 1, the car immediately bit him back. Kenny spun the car several times, cutting across the infield grass and narrowly missing the barriers on an access road. Emergency services quickly arrived at the scene, expecting the worst, but both car and driver were miraculously unharmed.

 Kenny Hamilton being towed back to the pits after his spin, Indianapolis 1982.

Kenny Hamilton being towed back to the pits after his spin, Indianapolis 1982.

After being towed back to the pits and taking a break to catch his breath, Kenny Hamilton was informed by his crew chief that Dennis Wilson had gone into the garage to randomly change the car’s suspension geometry without notifying his driver.

Hamilton rushed back to the car to check up on Wilson, since the cropduster king didn’t know a single damn thing about setting up a family car, let alone an experimental Indy racer. Whatever damage done by Wilson was duly corrected, and the car was prepped for its third time out. Against better judgement, Kenny Hamilton jumped in for a second rollercoaster ride, and got exactly what he expected.

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Within a few laps, the Eagle struck again. The rear let go with a vengeance once more, this time while Hamilton was powering through Turn 4. After seeing the world go by in a blur a few times, he was able to catch the spin, grab a gear and instantly steer his four-wheeled horror show into the pits.

His crew didn’t hesitate to wheel the car back into the pit box. After performing yet another death-defying save, Kenny Hamilton had had enough. The harrowing near-misses he experienced, and the completely unsafe design of the car scared him enough to realize he really shouldn’t be there.

Even if he could somehow keep the Flyer on the black stuff for long enough, its paltry 182 mph (292 kph) top speed would never be enough for the top 33. With this in mind, he told the crew to pack up, and Dennis Wilson was informed in no uncertain terms that it would be best for him to catch a plane back to Idaho.

[Dean Wilson], a great aircraft designer, not much of a racecar designer.
— Kenny Hamilton.

Following the dramatic failure of the Eagle Aircraft project, Kenny Hamilton was left to pick up the pieces. A proposed deal to buy used March chassis fell through owing to budget issues, leaving him without a way back into Indy. Worse still, he was burdened with the main character in his motoring nightmare.

As the team slowly disintegrated, Hamilton found himself in possession of the Eagle Flyer. In an effort to recoop some of his lost money, he sold anything worthwhile on the car, including the engine. After the yard sale the car ended up in a dusty corner of one of his paintshops, until his son Davey rang him up to ask what he was doing with it.

I’d like to bury that sumbitch somewhere, but I can’t find a hole deep enough.
— Kenny Hamilton.

Hamilton.

Through his son, he came into contact with Ron Hemelgarn, owner of Hemelgarn Racing, who had been in talks with Davey for an attempt at the Indy 500 in 1991. Though the deal fell through, Hemelgarn remembered the otherworldly Eagle, and persuaded Davey to ask his father about it.

Kenny Hamilton wasted no time on the deal, and immediately had the Flyer shipped to Hemelgarn’s museum. There the car was faithfully restored, which included repairing the delaminated sections of balsa wood and plywood on the rear of the car. Following its restoration, the car took permanent residence in Hemelgarn’s museum.

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The Eagle Aircraft Flyer Special was one of the craziest machines ever to show its face at the world-famous Brickyard. Designed and built by a man with not even the slightest grasp of racecar design, it displayed dangerously wayward handling, an extra-terrestrial appearance and a dismal lack of outright speed.

Owing to his incorrigible arrogance, ignorance and wanton stupidity, crop-dusting genius Dennis Wilson managed to create one of the most dangerous cars Indianapolis had ever seen. For whatever reason, Wilson chose to not only willfully ignore the basic concepts of an Indycar, but actively fought them with all his might. For a late-blooming hopeful like Kenny Hamilton, the prospect of a radical new design breaking into the upper echelons of American motorsport seemed attractive, but his enthusiasm quickly turned to abject horror.

After investing his own money to try and make the needle-shaped deathtrap manageable, and nearly losing life and limb twice, he sensibly chose to get as far away from the car as he could. Unfortunately the blasted thing followed him home, and he was forced to store it. In the end he preserved the automotive menace long enough for it to be immortalized in a museum, living on as a fair warning for any wide-eyed lawn mower, coffee machine or ceiling fan designer to abstain from trying to build an outrageously insane racer.

PODCAST: Ken Hamilton on the Crazy 1982 Eagle Aviation-Chevy