Story and photos by John Gunnell
In Wisconsin, Owen Russell raced a car wearing No. 83 that was
powered by a three-cylinder Scott outboard motor.
With a career that includes fuel engineering, sports car racing, NASCAR racing, small engine development, rotary engines and outboard motors, Owen Russell has contributed his technological talents to a number of companies. And not surprisingly, the lanky Wisconsinite remembers the six years he spent at Ford Motor Co. from 1963-1969 as a “very good time” for someone who was interested in racing.
Russell started working for Ford at the company’s proving ground. He then moved to the Special Order Department. In 1968, he worked his way up to a more exciting niche in the automaker’s NASCAR Racing Program. While there, he was the Power Plant Systems Group Engineer with responsibility for all of the moving and reciprocating parts in the competition version of the Boss 429 V-8.
Russell says he worked only on the NASCAR 429 that developed 550-560 hp. A de-tuned version of that engine was then used in the 500 Boss 429 Mustangs built to make the engine race legal. The engines that Russell helped build were used in cars driven by David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Bobby Isaac, Bobby Allison and Lee Roy Yarbrough.
“Ford never lost a race with that engine,” says Russell, with a real sense of pride in his voice.
Russell reminds one a lot of Carroll Shelby with his Texas drawl and his tall, blue-jeaned cowboy-style image. At age 15, he knew he wanted to be an engineer, and his goal was to design an engine that could win the Indy 500. His first serious engineering job was with Ethyl Corp. from 1955-’63, where he was a fuels specialist. During his tenure at Ethyl Corp., he also spent two years as a Marine Corps heavy equipment officer.
Russell went to Ford after turning down a job offer from Neil Newman at Gorman-Rupp in Mansfield, Ohio, though he did work there later. The reason he wanted to go to Dearborn was simple: He had heard that Ford was interested in buying Ferrari and add the Italian thoroughbred to its racing stable.
Between his stints at Ethyl and Ford, Russell built three sports racing cars. His first one, which wore No. 10, was constructed while he was living in Texas. It had a Crosley engine, a Fiat 500 transmission and frame and enough get-up-and-go to start a serious interest in motor sports. Ford’s “Total Performance” program was in full swing then, and Russell wanted to be part of this race-to-win program. He sent a resume and was soon packing his bags.
“By 1968, when I finally got into the NASCAR Racing Program, I had been racing my own sports cars for 10 years,” Russell recalled. “But the Ford effort was really a much bigger operation. It was a no-holds-barred, unlimited-budget program where not winning was not an option.”
Russell’s work involved projects like developing, creating, manufacturing, inspecting and monitoring the performance of the special connecting rods used in the NASCAR 429. The special-for-racing rods were manufactured at Ford’s forging plant in Buffalo, N.Y. He still has one of the un-machined connecting rod forgings, as well as a collection of broken pieces of pistons, con rods and other components that did not hold up well in competition.
Although it was fun to be involved in Ford’s historic racing program, it was stressful, too, Russell said.
“I worked in Detroit, but on Friday night, I had to get on an airliner for a flight to North Carolina, where we would work on the cars at Holman & Moody to ready them for the race. Then, we took another plane to go to the race. Then, we had to fly back to Detroit and be at work early Monday morning.” Russell still has power curve graphs for the NASCAR 429 from when it was tested on the Holman & Moody dyno in Charlotte in 1968-’69.
Eventually, Russell decided to move to Mansfield to work for Rupp, where he helped set up the company’s engine department. He said that Mid Ohio was always his favorite track to race on. His Lister-English Special was once photographed in the pits there and appeared in a sports car racing magazine. He also competed at the Waterford Hills course in Michigan. After his work at Rupp, Russell went to Curtiss-Wright to help develop its first rotary engine.
He built a car based on the Lotus 19. It was a new concept in sports cars and was featured in some magazines. The car became well known in the Midwest, but by then racing was starting to lose its appeal for the engineer.
“Ultimately, I quit racing like an alcoholic quits booze,” Owen said. “I stopped going to the tracks, sold my racing car and cancelled my subscription to Competition Press.”
Russell’s friend, Neil Newman, had gone to work for Carl Kiehhaefer’s Mercury Marine Co. in Fond du Lac, Wis. This opened another opportunity for Russell.
Mercury Marine had long been involved in speedboat racing and competed in NASCAR in the ’50s. The president of the company flew to an F1 race in Detroit, where he met Russell and offered him a racing job. Ultimately, Russell came to Mercury as Director of Outboard Engineering. He spent 20 years in Wisconsin working for Mercury and eventually retired from that firm.
In Wisconsin, Owen raced a car wearing No. 83 that was powered by a three-cylinder Scott outboard motor that he obtained from Newman. The car was eventually destroyed in a garage fire.
After retirement, Russell’s racing days were over, but he wasn’t finished building interesting machines to fly or drive. He put together a Mercury RV0 Rebel amphibious airplane, which he still has today.
Among his other retirement projects was a Ford GT 40 replica that he built using a Fiero body and a Taurus SHO V-6.