The Happy Bears
By “Animal Jim” Feurer
Many of ya'll may not know of my involvement with Indy Cars from 1972 through 1996. This time of year, needless to say, triggers those memories for me. Even though I ended up a drag racer, I always had a keen interest in stock car and Indy Car racing. In fact, all racing - local and national.
My early claim to fame at my auto shop here in Lacon, Illinois was suspension, steering and brakes. Shortly after opening my business in 1967, I realized the need for that type of service in this area, so I got myself a Bear 330 Wheel Balancer and Bear 680 Teleliner. Set me back over $6,500. That’s a lot of green in 1967! Soon after that, I also acquired a complete new brake shop.
The reasons I chose Bear were two: One, the Plymouth car dealer, in LaSalle, Illinois I worked for in the mid-‘60s had Bear equipment, which I had learned to use. The other reason came when another car dealer I worked for - who owned Car Town in LaSalle - took my wife Linda and me to Indy in 1965 for qualifying, where we heard the legendary Novi engine's screaming its unique message. A week later we went to the race where I got to see Clark win.
While viewing the garage area, I noticed Bear manufacturing had a support shop in Gasoline Alley, providing alignment service and wheel balancing for all the racers. Every wheel that hit the Indy track was balanced by a Bear balancer. Plus I like Bear's Logo. The profile of a laughing bears with his paw offered.
By 1971, I had a pretty fair auto repair and high performance business. The wheel service went well and I also got back to tuning cars along with my favorite thing - engine building. To enhance my service, I had gone that winter of ‘70/’71, twice a week to the Bear night school in Rock Island, Illinois, 100 miles each way. 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. I did that for several months. Those advanced night classes were set up to convenience shop owners and management who had tight schedules. I got schooled in everything Bear produced: wheel alignment, steering repairs, frame straightening, balancing wheels and engines and dyno engine tuning.
I noticed the instructors had Bear 500 patches on their uniforms, some of them being the Bear technicians I saw at Indy in 1965. So we talked some racing jive once in a while. When I brought up bump steer, wheel rates and other chassis dynamics, the bear instructors took note of that.
In May of 1971, my wife Linda Lou and I took our 5-year-old little daughter, Jackie, to Indy for the last weekend of qualifying. I conned myself a garage pass, posing as a reporter for The Lacon Home Journal.
I settled Linda and Jackie in the stands and went to Gasoline Alley. When I visited the Bear Garage, my former instructors remembered me and I got the tour. The public relations man even took my picture with the Bear Crew. As I talked to some of the other Bear workers, I found out they were just part-time, classified as casual employees, and owned their own shops elsewhere. Like me, most were involved in some sort of racing. So I asked about a job. Keith Andrews, the head of marketing and the Bear Indy Support Team, had me send a resume. A week later I got a call, and became one of the Happy Bears.
Today, May 12, I called my former boss from Indy, John Henninger who turned 78 on the 8th of May. He and his wife are retired at Black Mountain in North Carolina. We reminisced over our wonderful memories and laughed about the fun we had during those Mays of years gone by. Talking to John always helps me realize those years really happened. The stars and all their cars. And the Happy Bears.
There were years I would work the whole month of May. But, sometimes, due to my own escalating racing career, I could only do two weeks or ten days. Or, if need be, John would let me go race and then come back. On those adventures, my crew would come with my race car and rig, pick me up and we'd go wherever. Then, drop me back off at Indy afterwards and take my race stuff back to Lacon. One time, the race during my 1991 Indy job was the USSC at Epping, New Hampshire. And another one I recall was the AHRA Gateway Nationals in 1982. I won both those events and went into the points lead in each venue, each of those years.
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