This is the kind of stuff...
This is the kind of stuff you do when you retire from racing—you go racing. Bill read about Bonneville in Hot Rod magazine while selling newspapers in downtown L.A. and dreamed about competing there one day. He did so on his bike and in a belly tank when he was young. Today, Bill is listed as engineer on the crew of the stunning American Eagle Streamliner owned by Skip Hedrich. So far it set a record of 353.35 mph with a 372ci Chevy on gas—but Bill and crew are shooting for 400 on the salt this year. What a coincidence to have the late Lynn Yakel–designed body with and American Eagle on the nose!
Gurney felt the front-engine roadsters were nearing the end of their successful run and invited Lotus boss, Colin Chapman, to Indy in 1962 to the 500. A deal was struck between Ford Motor Company and Chapman to build a total of three cars: a prototype, one for Clark, and one for Gurney. A prototype Lotus was shipped first for testing: “I went to LAX in March 1963 and picked up the Lotus Ford prototype,” Bill says.
“I rented a U-Haul truck, drove it to the airport, and got the Lotus cleared through customs. They loaded it from a pallet to where I could roll it into the back of the truck and tie it down, and then I headed for Kingman, Arizona, to Ford’s Proving Ground facility. The prototype that I picked up was symmetrical; they hadn’t made the offset suspension for turning left yet.
“Jimmy Clark, Colin Chapman, and Gurney were already there when I got to the track. Clark and Chapman had never seen the desert so it was a new experience for them. Gurney and Clark began running laps with it. Nobody had run on the Ford Proving Ground track. The oval had progressive banking so it was possible to run the car around the track without touching the steering wheel at whatever speed you wanted to run, the car would seek its own grove. It wasn’t much good for getting handling sorted out but it was good for putting miles on the car.”
While a front engine Watson/Offy won the 500 with Parnelli Jones in 1963, Clark finished Second, and Gurney finished Seventh, both with rear 255ci pushrod Ford engines. The overhead cam Offys were cranking out 400 horses to the Ford’s 375 hp. Things would never be the same.
During a quiet moment together,...
During a quiet moment together, Bill Fowler and Dan Gurney can look back on careers that few in motorsports can hope to achieve. “Bill was the first employee I ever had,” Gurney says. “We were more like partners than employer and employee. Bill was always pushing the envelope, trying to do something that had a pioneering aspect to it. There was a great deal of responsibility in being the chief mechanic. The driver puts his life in the hands of the mechanic. That’s a huge commitment.”
“I’d make out a list of things that needed to be done on a given car and go to work on it … brakes, steering, etc. Being the chief mechanic I did whatever needed to be done. It was a 365 days a year job. As soon as a car was ready, I’d be on my way to the next racetrack. I eventually became the team manager when Bobby Unser began driving for Gurney.
“I was always concerned with safety. I was the first one to put a shoulder harness in a sports car. I put it in the Lotus 19. I used aircraft refueling caps instead of the LeMans-type fuel filler cap (the spring-loaded cap flips up by pressing down on a roller latch) where it could open if the car crashed or rolled over. Dan never spent a day in the hospital from driving a car that I prepared.”
Gurney introduced the first Eagle in 1966 and was the first American in the 100-year history of Formula 1 competition to win a race in a car of his own construction at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1967—a record yet to be duplicated.
Jeff Scott wrote in the June ’67 issue of Auto Racing magazine: “Do Americans stand a chance against the better-prepared Europeans? What Gasoline Alley needs is fresh designing blood. The only American who has shown tremendous promise at Indianapolis with cars of his own design is Dan Gurney. Of course Gurney is young and not a traditional Gasoline Alley type. He has much Formula 1 experience both as a driver and builder. One of his cars could do it this year at the 500.” (A.J. Watson may be astounded to learn that Gurney built 106 Indy Eagles.)
Bill, ever the practical joker; his shtick was known as “Fowlerisms” throughout All American Racers (AAR). Kathy Weida, vice president of AAR and Gurney’s personal secretary, started in May 1974 and got a taste of Bill’s skullduggery on her second week on the job as the Girl Friday: “I went to pick up my purse and Bill had attached it with a bunch of fire crackers, so when I pulled my purse away from the desk they all went off. Bill and the guys were hiding in the hallway laughing.