Building the Cragar got a...
Building the Cragar got a little ugly in Bill’s rented Texas garage while in the Air Force, but all the parts got put back in the right places. If a prospective Champ Car owner asked Bill if he had any experience in tearing down and rebuilding race engines, he could have honestly answered, “Why yes.” Seriously, this is why hot rodders made such great crew chiefs.
The ultimate for all American land speed racers was/is Bonneville. For many, their paths lead to the Indianapolis 500. The all-American racers who competed at Indy from its inception to the ’50s would give way to the foreign influence in the ’60s.
John Cooper had radically changed the design of his Formula 1 Grand Prix car from front-engine to rear-engine with Jack Brabham winning the F1 World Championship in a rear-engine Cooper in 1959, forcing every F1 team to follow suit. The rear-engine revolution was coming our way. It was either join them or get left in their methanol fumes. Of course the hot rodders weren’t about to let that happen. With our abundance of resourcefulness we let it be known we weren’t quite finished with Indy. So the Yanks and Brits teamed up (as we’ve been known to do in the past) to speed the demise of the front-engine roadsters. Bill Fowler, one of those all-American racers, from Sylmar, California, was there.
“I went to Roosevelt High School in East L.A.,” began Bill (born in 1930). “I had a Model A roadster in school, pretty much a stocker. I was lucky to have a car because my parents didn’t have a lot of money. I paid for it with my newspaper money. After I graduated in 1948, I went into the Air Force. After I got through basic training, I went back home and I drove my roadster to Amarillo, Texas, … it was a fun trip because I’d never done anything like that before in my bone-stock Model A. It never missed a beat during the trip.
That’s Bill (left) letting...
That’s Bill (left) letting his younger brother, Keith, take a lap around the block in their homebuilt open-wheel racer. “We didn’t really know much about the Soap Box Derby or we might have tried to build it to compete,” Bill says, who later built some mighty fast Championship Cars to participate at Indy.
“I went into aircraft engine mechanic school, graduating at the top of my class and I became an instructor. I had the Model A all through the service; at one point I had enough money to put a Cragar overhead-valve cylinder head on the engine. I had the roadster for seven years.”
While in high school Bill took the Red Car (trolley) into downtown L.A. and sold newspapers on the corner of 7th and Broadway: “The newsstand is where I saw the first issues of Hot Rod magazine; that’s how I learned about Bonneville and wanted to go and race there one day.”
Bill realized his dream and went to Bonneville in 1954, hauling his Harley behind his ’46 Ford pickup, sleeping in the truck once there. “I didn’t know the kid who went up there with me,” says Bill. “He was riding a Triumph but didn’t have a way to get there and I had room for two bikes in my truck. He was hurt really bad when he lost control of the bike because he was only wearing swim trunks, like Rollie Free, when he crashed. He felt the trunks had the least wind resistance. Back then, you didn’t have to have the fancy boots, leathers, and a helmet like today.” (Free positioned himself flat with his feet sticking straight out the back of his Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle with a shower cap, a bathing suit, and sneakers, resulting in a record and the most famous photo in motorcycling history, in 1948.)
That’s the Cragar after Bill...
That’s the Cragar after Bill finished it while stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. Souped-up engines were more valuable than the hot rods they were in. Like strays, they kept finding new homes. First the Cragar was in Bill’s roadster, and then after he went back to California it was ready for duty in his roadster pickup.
“I had my Harley all the time I was in the Air Force and rode it home on leave to California, it always handled beautifully but it did not want to go straight down that salt. It was hunting all the way down and I wasn’t real comfortable riding the thing. I went 135 mph on my Knucklehead Harley on gas at Bonneville and it was scary!
“After my discharge, Jerry Eisert and I started a small tune-up and speed shop in Montebello, California, called Automotive Specialty, in 1955. We had customers who had hot rods and customers who had sports cars.”
“When I was in the Air Force...
“When I was in the Air Force in Texas I had a Harley “bobber” based on a ’36 H-D frame and Knucklehead V-twin engine. I raced it on the streets and at Caddo Mills Drag Strip in Texas.”
Don’t you love it? You know...
Don’t you love it? You know those guys at Automotive Specialty knew a bunch about hot rods the second you pulled up. That’s Bill’s ’28 roadster pickup with the warmed-over Cragar two-port, a customer’s Sprint Car, and the bad A-Bone roadster parked on the side.
“There were no regulations...
“There were no regulations when I started drag racing my bike that said you had to wear a helmet, so I didn’t. But then NHRA started requiring a helmet. At Santa Ana Drag Strip I wore one on a run. The frame broke, I was pitched over the front of the bike, and my body went through the lights at 103 mph. I landed on my lid and took the helmet back to the manufacturer who said they tested their helmets by dropping anvils on them but they’d never seen one banged up that bad.” He hung up his motorcycle helmet after that and went back to racing cars.