Wheelie king ‘Wild’ Bill Shrewsberry – interview

These days he's a quietly spoken American with a mid-continent accent, but in the mid-60s and 1970s Bill Shrewsberry justifiably earned the title 'Wild Bill'

Photographers: Peter Bateman, Dave Cook

This article on Bill Shrewsberry was originally published in issue no.17 of Street Machine’s Hot Rod magazine, 2016

THESE days he reckons it’s ‘Mild Bill’, but in his seventies he can still name drop great stories about all the legends of the quarter mile from those halcyon days of racing Factory Experimental muscle cars and a near lifetime career in wheelstanders.

Shrewsberry virtually invented the wheelstander, and gave up competitive quarter-mile racing in favour of the showman’s stage on the quarter with just two rear wheels in contact with the ground. His first appearances in Australia, in December 1969 and January 1970, stunned the crowds. He could spin out his ‘L.A. Dart’ ’stander on its rear wheels, and would finish the night coming back up the strip standing out through the windscreen waving to the crowd while on the back wheels, drop the car onto all four wheels, step out onto the bonnet and then off onto the strip, and as the Dart rolled at idle back into the pits and the hands of an assistant he’d turn and bow to the screaming crowd. They’d never permit it today, but it brought the house down every time.

While in Australia for a catch up with old friends we caught the legend for a brief recap on a life of standing up to the quarter mile. Can you still remember your first drag race?

Yes, I’m from a little town in Ohio where we had a fifth-mile drag strip. I was 16 years old.

Did it hook you enough so that you figured you wanted to make a living out of this?

No, I just did it because it was a lot of fun. I didn’t go out drinking or nothing, I just liked messing with cars.

So when did it start to become more than a weekend hobby?

Probably in 1962, when I got a job at the GM Tech Centre, in Detroit, Michigan. They hired me because they had a race car and I knew they were cheating and I figured out a way to beat them anyway, and so they hired me.

The climax to Shrewsberry’s act saw him come back up the track on his last pass of the night, standing out through the windscreen waving to the crowd with the car on its back wheels. Nobody here had seen anything like it, and they went wild

What was the race car they were cheating with?

It was a Pontiac. They were pretty slick the way they were doing it, but I just outsmarted them. I did a lot of things that they figured this kid from Ohio wouldn’t do. They hired me to go to their Tech Centre to learn things, then after I was there about six months, at Thanksgiving 1962, they sent me to California to work for a guy named Mickey Thompson.

I was sent out there to drive one of his Pontiac Tempests, a Super Duty Le Mans coupe, one of only six that were built. Mickey had a dragster too, which was being driven by Jack Chrisman, and the Super Stock Pontiac. I was paid to race that car each week, which was great.

They had a big race at Pomona in February — where I won the A/Factory Experimental class — and a big race at Bakersfield in March ’63 and as soon as we got back from that, Pontiac quit racing and pulled out of their deal with Mickey.

So where to from there?

I had to work so I got a job with a wheel manufacturer — Astro Wheels — and at the end of that year Jack Chrisman told me about a Mercury Comet Caliente with a 427 in it (one of only 50 built). I got that a week before the race and won A/FX at the ’64 Winternationals and set the national record at 11.02 and 128mph. That was fast then for a 3205lb car on gasoline.

By then I was back being a full time drag racer. One thing led to another and I took the car to race in Hawaii. There I met George Hurst of the Hurst Corporation, and he had this car that he said he wanted me to drive. He took me out on this boat for the day and I was so seasick that I just wanted to die and Hurst is at me and at me. Finally Ray Brock, from Hot Rod magazine, said, “Just tell him you’ll drive the thing to get him off your back.”

That car was the Hurst ‘Hemi Under Glass’, a Barracuda with this Hemi engine under that big back window.

What was intended to be a fancy display for the Hurst range of products in 1965, the ‘Hemi Under Glass’ Barracuda, with Bill Shrewsberry as the driver, was soon converted to a more sensational car that would do quarter miles on the rear wheels

This was a car that was made to be a fast quarter mile vehicle but turned out that it just wanted to do crazy wheelstands?

Yeah, it wasn’t made to do wheelies but it sure was capable of it. I knew that it would pick the front wheels up but when I did my first tests in it it had these 7in. tyres on the back. So when I took it to the first race, at the 1965 Springnationals in Bristol, Tennessee, I put a set of 10in. back tyres on it. The car went right up on the back bumper and everyone loved it.

Having pushed the Hurst Barracuda to carry the front wheels for as long as he could keep it in a straight line, Shrewsberry’s next breakthrough was to devise a steering system, with two brake levers, one for each side of the diff

And that was the beginning of the wheelstander?

Yeah, but I couldn’t control it though I could make it go 300-400 feet like that. I worked out if I had separately operated brakes on either side of the rear end I should be able to steer it, but with the Posi-Traction rear end in the car it wouldn’t work. I ended up with two brakes on each wheel, one of which worked with the foot brake and the other was worked with a little go-kart brake cylinder connected to a lever that you pulled to turn right and pushed to turn left. I found a rear end that worked real well, out of a Chevy truck and it would hold up good.

Hurst and I ran the car for a year because they were an OE manufacturer for Plymouth and the next year they were going to run an Oldsmobile and they built an Oldsmobile with two blown motors in it, one in the front and one in the back. That was the Hurst ‘Hairy Olds’. I did a few runs in it but I did not want to drive that car, it was real heavy and I told them they needed to get an experienced dragster driver for that car.

Then Dodge got a hold of me and I did a deal with them.

Shrewsberry was not averse to taking people for a ride down the quarter, hanging on to the rollcage. He didn’t see a problem with it but officialdom soon cracked down on the practice

So this became the immortal ‘L.A. Dart’?

Yes. I began running that car in 1966. It quickly became in real high demand and I had race tracks all over the country wanting me. I ran it about 120 to 130 times a year. Sometimes I’d run five times in a week.

It was Surfers Paradise track owner Keith Williams (right) who first brought Bill Shrewsberry to Australia, in December 1969

We heard a report that at one event the promoter offered you half the gate to get you to appear.

Well, they made the deal with me. I wasn’t hard to get along with. We also used to get a $250 payout if an event was rained out, but I always refused to take that because I figured why should the poor promoter be the only one to lose out when things like that happened.

It’s just like coming to Australia for the first time. Ray Brock, from Hot Rod, asked me at Indianapolis, “Would you like to go to Australia?” I said, “Sure.” When I got home to California, Ray had Keith Williams come over to see me and he made me a deal. We had E.J. Potter with his Chevy-powered motorcycle, Jess Tyree with his Pontiac Funny Car and there was me. Ray talked Keith Williams into bringing me because he didn’t want to do it, but after my first run Keith came down and said, “You’ve got to promise me you’ll come back again next year.”

Bill Shrewsberry is driven past a wildly cheering crowd at Castlereagh in January 1970

So how many times have you run in Australia?

Seven times.

Did you run in any other countries other than Australia?

Yes, I ran in New Zealand twice, and Canada, England, as well as at the Monaco Formula One race and the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget in about 1980.

With greater numbers of cars in the late-70s the spectacle of single wheelstanders became less dramatic and so the emphasis switched to racing them, and that meant space age chassis, single piece ’glass bodies and lower ride height

And didn’t you run in Mexico as well?

Oh yeah, that was a frightening experience. There were people all over the track, and they just told me to run and not to worry if I ran over anyone. I thought, “No, I’m not going to do that,”

You had a remarkable degree of control over what people might see as a very unstable car, being able to spin it out, do wheelstands in reverse and doing wheelstands while you were standing up out through the windscreen area. Was it that easy or were you just that good?

Well, they were just crazy things you do when you’re young. I actually figured I knew what I was doing. I never did anything to hurt anyone and had a real good time doing it.

But there were times when you used to take people for rides in your wheelstanders, just hanging on to the rollcage.

Well, I would only do that if the promoter agreed, and to me it was just like hopping into my street car and driving down the road. The NHRA eventually cracked down on me, and said I just couldn’t do that anymore and said I could blame them for it but I just had to stop, which I did.

I remember one race, before then, I was running with a Top Fuel show, and Tommy Ivo came over and asked me if I’d take him for a ride. I said sure, if the promoter agreed. A little later Ivo came back with the promoter who said to take him. Just before we were to go out Chris Karamesines, who was driving one of the fuelers, came over and said he had problems and needed some extra time and could I help. So when I did that run with Ivo I made sure I ran over the finish line lights. It was no big deal but it held everything up for 20 minutes while they fixed it. Anyway, the promoter came over all angry about it, and I said, “Ivo grabbed the steering brake and made me do it,” so the promoter billed him for the new lights. Ivo never lets me forget that.

Did you ever have any frightening experiences, or was this always just a lot of fun?

Yeah, I turned the A/FX car over once. It’s not a very good experience when you’re sliding on your head and it’s making all that noise.

SM: And you were involved in movie stunt work, with the Batman TV show?

Yeah, they needed some dummy to drive the car so they didn’t risk the big stars. I got to take that Batman car home on the weekend, and I even took my kids to school in it one time. I ran it at some drag strips as well.

How do you live your life now? Are you retired?

Yeah I’m sorta retired. I still have all my cars, from that Pontiac A/FX — which they tell me is worth a couple of million dollars now — to the Mercury Comet and all the wheelstanders, which I look after. I didn’t keep them for money, just because I didn’t want anyone else to have them. Now I have a place where I live out in the desert near Palm Springs and I have a big garage where I like to mess around with them.

So life is good for Bill Shrewsberry, and it seems it’s been that way for the past 40 years?

It’s been good, and I’ve made a lot of friends along the way, including here in Australia. Everywhere I went I always met nice people.