We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley, Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
At the 2008 San Diego Bayfair, Unlimited hydroplane fans caught a glimpse from boat racing's classic past.
HURRICANE IV, one of the more famous Unlimiteds of the post-World War II era, made an exhibition appearance on Mission Bay with Dr. Ken Muscatel driving. Built in 1948, the 'IV' is the latest restoration project of the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum in Kent, Washington.
Much of the credit for the fine work done by the museum group on HURRICANE IV goes to the late Roger Newton who directed the restoration effort. Newton passed away on August 9, 2008, of complications from open-heart surgery.
Powered by an Allison engine, HURRICANE IV was at one time the third fastest boat in the world and was featured in the 1954 motion picture MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION.
Originally owned by Morlan Visel, HURRICANE IV in truth did not run in very many races--only eight. She nevertheless made her competitive presence felt.
The post-war years witnessed a boat building boom unprecedented in the sport's history. Between 1948 and 1950, more than 30 Unlimiteds were constructed, HURRICANE IV being one of them.
The 'IV', however, differed significantly from most of her contemporaries. She was a 'prop-rider' with a surface propeller. The majority of 1940s boats used a submerged propeller.
A prop-rider has much less wetted surface area than a non-prop-rider and is usually faster.
A representative of the Lake Tahoe Yacht Club of Southern California, owner Visel was a Limited driver of some repute who had won some important races in Florida in 1947 with his 135 Cubic Inch Class HURRICANE II.
It took a few years for HURRICANE IV to be 'dialed in' so that she could run efficiently. In her original configuration, she resembled a humpbacked white whale that seemed perpetually airborne.
HURRICANE IV's first race was the disastrous 1948 APBA Gold Cup in Detroit. At the start of Heat 1-A, she spun out of control directly in front of Guy Lombardo and TEMPO VI. Lombardo flipped his boat to avoid crashing into Visel and riding mechanic Don Glenn.
A prominent boating journal frankly described HURRICANE IV as a 'menace' in the aftermath of the 1948 Gold Cup, a race which saw only one boat out of 22 go the 90-mile distance within the allotted time.
During the 1940s, HURRICANE IV's best straightaway speed was around 125 miles per hour. This was not significantly faster than the old-style 'tail-dragging' three-point hydroplanes.
The boat participated in the 1949 Gold Cup at Detroit but failed to score points. After a DNF in Heat One, Visel turned the wheel over to relief driver Al D'Eath for Heat Two. Al (father of Tom and Roger) likewise was unable to finish but briefly ran head-to-head with Bill Cantrell and MY SWEETIE, the Gold Cup winners that year.
HURRICANE IV was a handful to drive in those early days and had a balance problem. At one point during Heat Two, D'Eath swerved close to the pits to allow Jack Bartlow, his riding mechanic, to jump out into the river to lighten the boat.
Visel skipped the 1950 campaign entirely. When he re-appeared in 1951, the boat's configuration was greatly altered, having been rebuilt by Fred Wickens. HURRICANE IV now somewhat resembled the Wickens-built 'tennis shoe' $ BILL of 1959.
Painted blue, she no longer resembled a whale but rather sported a distinctly flatter profile and a large white tailfin. (The blue was changed to red in 1952.)
Visel and HURRICANE IV finished fifth at 71.343 miles per hour in Heat One of the 1951 Gold Cup, the first Unlimited race ever run in Seattle. Relief driver Stan Dollar guided the 'IV' to fourth-place in Heat Two at 81.373.
With Visel back behind the wheel for Heat Three, HURRICANE IV ran third for two laps behind Lou Fageol in SLO-MO-SHUN V and Ted Jones in SLO-MO-SHUN IV before having to return to the pits with mechanical difficulties.
After the race, HURRICANE IV made an attempt on the world mile straightaway record at Seattle with a two-way clocking of 133.494. This was considerably off the pace of SLO-MO-SHUN IV's record of 160.323, set in 1950.
If Visel and HURRICANE IV had been able to finish 90 miles at Seattle in 1952, they could have taken the Gold Cup back to Lake Tahoe with them for 1953. No one completed more than two heats of 30 miles that day.
HURRCANE IV finished second at 86.318 in Heat One behind Chuck Thompson and MISS PEPSI, while both SLO-MO boats fell by the wayside. In Heat Two, MISS PEPSI blew her gearbox and was eliminated from the competition. Unfortunately, HURRICANE IV had troubles of her own. (She failed to start in time for Heat Two and lost her propeller while chasing Stan Dollar and SLO-MO-SHUN IV in Heat Three.)
Nevertheless, HURRICANE IV's overall performance was gradually improving. While qualifying for the 1952 Gold Cup, Visel posted a one-lap speed of 101.695. This compared to 104.651 by Fageol in SLO-MO-SHUN V and 104.046 by Thompson in MISS PEPSI.
The 1952 Gold Cup was HURRICANE IV's last major appearance. From then on, she ran mostly in local races on Lake Tahoe.
In late-season 1952, using a propeller borrowed from SLO-MO-SHUN IV, Visel and HURRICANE IV were clocked at 139 miles per hour on the straightaway during a regatta at Tahoe City, California.
Bill Stead of MAVERICK fame entered the ownership picture of HURRICANE IV in 1953, while Morlan Visel returned to the Limited ranks with his newly acquired HURRICANE V.
Stead's first appearance in competition with the 'IV' was the 1953 Lake Tahoe Yacht Club Championship free-for-all, where he finished third behind Dollar in SHORT SNORTER and Max Collins in FLEUR DU LAC. Later that summer, Stead (co-driving with Visel) finished second to Dollar and SHORT SNORTER in the Mapes Trophy at the Mile High Regatta, also on Lake Tahoe.
HURRICANE IV attended the 1954 Seattle Gold Cup but was unable to qualify. The 'IV' was the oldest boat there, the last active member of the Unlimited hydroplane class of 1948. Never the best cornering craft, HURRICANE IV was clearly not in the same league as such contemporary prop-riders as SLO-MO-SHUN IV, SLO-MO-SHUN V, GALE IV, GALE V, MISS U.S., MISS CADILLAC, WHA HOPPEN TOO, or even DORA MY SWEETIE, a step hydroplane.
To owner Stead, the handwriting was clearly on the wall. HURRICANE IV was obsolete. He did send her to one last closed-course event, the 1954 Mile High Regatta, which was attended by four Unlimiteds and two Limiteds.
The 'IV' finished an overall second in the Mapes Trophy to Jack Regas and the Allison-powered SCOOTER, a remodeled former pleasure boat.
In her final heat of competition, HURRICANE IV finished first in Heat Three of the Mapes Trophy, ahead of Regas in SCOOTER and Jay Murphy in BREATHLESS.
Before entering retirement, the 'IV' had two final dates with destiny.
In the first five minutes of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, a feature film, released by Universal Pictures Corporation, HURRICANE IV made a vivid impression. Filmed at Lake Arrowhead in California, the sequence features Rock Hudson, who is represented as being a millionaire playboy, piloting his high speed aquatic 'toy.'
The running shots show HURRICANE IV skimming over the water at a pretty impressive clip with a good-sized roostertail trailing behind it. The cinematography compares favorably to that of the MADISON movie, released a half century later.
For many years, hydro buffs debated the question of whether it was Bill Stead or Morlan Visel in the cockpit during the film shoot as a stunt double for Hudson. It turned out to be neither Stead nor Visel. It was Bill Cantrell. Stead and Cantrell were good friends. Stead had business interests in Europe and wasn't available to drive the boat.
Throughout its career, HURRICANE IV had steadily improved as a straightaway runner. The boat was now retired from competition, but Stead wanted to see what it could do in one last try over the measured mile. He sent the 'IV' to Salton Sea in November of 1954 for that purpose.
The Salton Sea Regatta in California had long been a hotbed of straightaway record activity, since as far back as 1935. It was here that Guy Lombardo raised the Gold Cup Class record to 118.229 in 1948 with TEMPO VI.
Stead had a very special ace up his sleeve at Salton Sea. This was in the form of a 'hopped-up' Avia Union Allison engine, prepared by Howard Gidovlenko, who had built Allisons for the SLO-MO team.
HURRICANE IV powered her way into the history books with a two-way average speed of 163.136 miles per hour. At the time, only two other Unlimited hydroplanes had gone faster. These were SLO-MO-SHUN IV, which did 178.497 at Seattle in 1952 with Stan Sayres driving, and SUCH CRUST V, which did 164.290 at Windsor, Ontario, in 1953 with Cantrell at the wheel.
Her Salton Sea performance solidified HURRICANE IV's reputation as one of the fastest boats of her day. At a time in history when straightaway records carried as much prestige as closed course victories, this was a major accolade.
For the next three decades, HURRICANE IV gathered dust in a barn at the Stead cattle ranch in Reno, Nevada, until her acquisition by the Hydroplane Museum.
Bill Stead went on to drive two different boats named MAVERICK for Texas oil millionaire Bill Waggoner between 1956 and 1959. Stead won the Gold Cup and National Championship in 1959 and died in a plane crash in 1966.
Morlan Visel returned to the Unlimited ranks with HURRICANE VI (the former MUVALONG and SUCH CRUST V) and finished third in the 1962 Harrah's Tahoe Regatta at Stateline, Nevada.
Visel's racing career ended tragically the following year at Detroit where he crashed the original MISS MADISON during a test run. He never recovered from his very serious injuries, which led to his death many years later due to bone cancer.
Very few of the Unlimiteds of the 1940s still exist. And almost none are in running condition. The '40s were a pivotal decade in boat racing history, when the huge supply of war surplus Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines became available for use in Unlimited hydroplanes.
As a prominent member of that pioneering first generation of Allison-powered Thunderboats, HURRICANE IV is a worthy addition to the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum's ever-growing 'fleet' of restored Unlimiteds.