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1968, The Checkerboard Comet and the “Year that Changed the World”

By David D. Williams

2008 marks the 40th Anniversary of the tumultuous summer of 1968. To those of us that lived through it, it was a long hot summer marred by riots, assassinations, political unrest and yes, some darn exciting hydroplane racing. Time Magazine calls 1968 “The Year that Changed the World!”

It struck me, that while I viewed the onrushing social change of 1968 from the safety of my living room via a 18” RCA Black and White TV; the “Teeny Bopper” crew of the Miss Bardahl was watching events first hand as they crisscrossed the country chasing the 1968 National Championship. I spoke with Bardahl Crew Member David Smith about that experience.

In 1968 Smith, the son of long time Budweiser crew man Burns Smith, was a Senior at the U of W and was starting his fourth year traveling with the Bardahl Crew. David, along with Bardahl Advertising Director Bill Voorhees, had designed the Bardahl’s new distinctive checkerboard paint job, and was looking forward to a competitive season.

“To be honest, the 67 season was a bit of a cake walk for us. The cabover boat was a real heavy boat, so we built up a lot of really strong engines for 1966. When we lost the cabover in DC, we had something like 12 motors left over. The yellow (Karelsen) boat was a real light boat and pushed easily, so we had this really light boat and a lot of strong engines, and the rest of the “big boys” were still recovering from their accidents in 66, so we pretty much had things our own way.” By 1968 everyone was back up to strength and Smith and the Bardahl team knew that they would have their work cut out for them.

The first race of the year was June 2nd in Guntersville Alabama.

“The thing that really sticks out in my mind about Guntersville” Smith said. “was when we arrived at the pits, I saw chain gangs working to cut the grass and set up the fences. I mean real chain gangs! Rows of black men, chained together with no shoes, working in the hot sun while a big ol white sheriff with a 12 gauge shot gun slung over his shoulder stood guard. It was like stepping back in time”

The Deep South in 1968 was still a very segregated place. “I remember going to restaurants and you wouldn’t see a black face anywhere, not even cleaning or cooking. They just weren’t allowed into the building. There were signs for the rest rooms, and there would be one that said ‘Men’ and another that said ‘Women’ and then there would be a third that just said ‘Colored. Under the ‘Colored’ sign, there would be an arrow pointing to an outhouse out behind the building. It was just unbelievable for a kid who grew up in a place like Seattle, that that type of thing was still going on.”

The length of a man's hair was a big issue in the 1968. Long hair was seen as a sign of rebellion. “There was a bridge that we had to drive over to get from the hotel to the pits, and on the bridge there was this BIG sign that said, ‘Clean up America, Get a Hair Cut!’”

In the race, Bardahl won their preliminary heats but didn’t finish the final. Warner Gardner and the Eagle Electric won and Bardahl had to settle for fourth place.

After the Dixie Cup, the boats headed north to Washington DC for the Presidents Cup. The Bardahl team elected to skip the race in DC as a tribute to their former driver Ron Musson, who had been killed there in 1966.

Tuesday June 4th, while the boats were on the road to DC, Democratic presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy was shot in California. Kennedy died the following day. The Nation was plunged in to deep mourning as Kennedy’s body was taken by train to Arlington for burial. The race promoters felt that it was wrong to hold a boat race at the same time as Kennedy’s funeral, so the race was postponed and the boats headed to Madison, Wisconsin for the Wisconsin Governors Cup. The boat crews, busy driving between races, didn’t have time to watch TV news. While they were aware of what was going on, they had work to do and didn’t get caught up in the event the way so many other Americans did.

Smith recalled that, “Even though we were out on the road, we were still pretty isolated. We drove the trucks, we worked on the boat and we slept. We didn’t have any time to watch the news or read the paper. Man if Ole, (Ole Bardahl, owner of the team) caught you sitting down reading the paper he would say, ‘Don’t you have some work to do?’”

Madison, Wisconsin was a Northern College town full of short haired, freckle faced boys and blond coeds in fashionable mini skirts. It was about as far away politically and geographically , from Alabama as you could get.

“Wisconsin was very good to the Bardahl Team!” Smith says with a laugh. It’s hard to tell if he is referring to the teams first place finish, or the coeds.

After Wisconsin, the boats moved on to Detroit for the Gold Cup July 1st. Detroit had suffered devastating racial riots the previous year, and the racers had to drive through several blocks of burned out buildings to reach the pits. “It was like a war zone!” Smith recalls. There were barricades and armed guards everywhere, and Jefferson Avenue looked like it had been bombed, with collapsed, burned out buildings. In previous years, the teams had stayed downtown in hotels near the pits, but now promoters felt it was too dangerous and the team stayed in a hotel in the suburbs. “We had to drive a long way to get to the pits. We had to go past the Black Panther Headquarters.” A car full of young white guys, driving past Panther Headquarters, could have been seen as a threat. “So we covered our heads with newspapers and crouched low in the back seat whenever we had to drive past the Panther Headquarters. The poor guy driving was on his own!”

Once the racers were in the pits, they could relax a little. “I talked to one police office and asked him, ‘What would he do if there was a problem?’ He said, ‘we won’t have any problems!’ I asked him how he could be sure. He took me over to his patrol car, popped open the trunk and pointed at two Thompson submachine guns and said, “If things start to get out of hand, I’ll just pull these out and spray them around!”

The weather in Detroit turned stormy and the race was postponed until September. The teams moved on to Madison, Indiana for a race on July 7th. Madison, then, as now, was a small, slow moving Midwest town and the hydro races were the most exciting thing that happened all year. “The people in Madison loved us! It was like the Circus came to town!” Bardahl won the race and took a slim 281 point lead in the National High Points standings.

After Madison, the boats returned to the west for the July 21st race in Tri Cities. After two months on the road, sleeping in hotels and eating restaurant food, the team was happy to be headed west. “Coming back to Washington was more then just coming home; it was like we were returning to the real world!” Hydro racing was still the biggest game in town for Seattle sports fans and the team was treated like heroes. People patted them on the back, shook their hands, bought them drinks and asked for their autographs.

The Washington races were disappointing for the Miss Bardahl. She won both preliminary heats in Tri Cites on July 21st, but went dead in the final, while the Eagle Electric claimed the Atomic Cup.

In Seattle on Aug 4th , the Bardahl went dead in the final heat again. Bill Muncey and the Miss US won the Seattle World Championship race.

The next race was in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. The Eagle Electric and My Gypsy were the only boats to hit the water when the course opened up on Thursday Aug 8. That night, the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach nominated Richard Nixon to be their presidential candidate for the coming elections. The following day, Miss Bardahl was the top qualifier and went on to win the race on Sunday. Bardahl gained ground and now held a 700 point lead in the High Point chase.

The boats headed back to Washington DC for the rerun of the Presidents Cup on Sunday Aug 25th. With the Points race so close, Bardahl elected to go to DC. It was an emotional time for everyone as they returned to the sight of “Black Sunday” for the first time since that awful day in June of 1966, when three drivers were killed. Once more, the Bardahl broke down in the final heat and the Eagle Electric cruised to victory and pulled even closer in the highpoints race.

The hydros headed to Detroit for a second try at the Gold Cup, while the rest of the country watched tens of thousands of hippy, yippy and antiwar protesters descend on Chicago for the Democratic National Convention on Monday Aug 26th. By Wednesday the 28th, the “whole world was watching, ” as Mayor Daley’s baton wielding policemen confronted young college aged antiwar protesters in the streets around the convention hall. Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s nomination as the Democratic parties’ presidential candidate was overshadowed by the bloody riots surrounding the convention.

Back in Detroit, security was still tight, and armed guards with shot guns were posted at the Holiday Inn, where the Bardahl team stayed. Smith recalls that there was still a lot of racial tension in Detroit. The pits were surrounded by a large African American ghetto, and “the second you left the pits, it felt like everyone hated you!”

The Miss Bardahl qualified fastest and had a perfect day winning all three of her heats. But the race was marred by a horrific accident that destroyed the Eagle Electric and killed Warner Gardner.

Smith said, “The instant that the accident happened, we knew it was bad! You could tell by the way the boat rolled over that it was going to be rough. The pits got really quiet. We didn’t talk much as we got the Bardahl ready for the rerun. I think the only thing Jerry (Crew chief Jerry Zuvich) said the whole time was ‘Is the prop good? Did you check everything?”

With the Eagle destroyed the Bardahl now had a huge lead in highpoints. The crew was able to relax just a bit on their way to San Diego for the race on September 22.

“Jerry and Billy (Schumacher) had a good friend named John who lived in San Francisco, so we stopped to visit him, and he took us down to Haight Ashbury.” Haight Ashbury was a small, bohemian neighborhood of San Francisco that bordered Golden Gate Park and became the epicenter of the hippy movement and psychedelic music scene of the 1960s.

Smith’s impressions of Haight Ashbury were very negative. “I couldn’t believe it! There were people just sitting around smoking pot in public. You could smell it everywhere. Most of the kids were just totally whacked out on some type of drugs. It was especially sad for me because they were all my age. I mean they could have been in my classes at the U of W, or friends of mine, and their lives were just being thrown away.“

With thousands of young runaways populating Haight Ashbury, prostitution was common and many girls conducted business out in the open. “I remember seeing this really beautiful girl, at least she would have been beautiful if she wasn’t stoned out of her mind. She was leaning up against a parking meter, and there was a guy behind her doing what ever he wanted. It was like she didn’t even know he was there!”

After leaving San Francisco, the Bardahl team continued down to San Diego, where they clinched the National Championship for the fifth time in six years, by taking a very conservative second place behind Tommy Fultz and the My Gypsy. The season concluded September 30th in Phoenix at the Arizona Governors Cup. The Bardahl took another second place behind Bill Sterett and the Miss Budweiser. With the season over David, returned to the University of Washington.

Smith Reflects, “We didn’t realize what a special time it was. We just took it all for granted. We thought it would never end.” But of course, it did end. Two weeks after the last race of the 1968 season Ole Bardahl announced that he and the Miss Bardahl were retiring. Two weeks later, Nixon won one of the closest presidential elections of all times. 1968 gave way to 1969 and another season of racing, but the world did seem different after 1968. Everything that had happened before 68 seemed old and part of history. Everything that happed after 68 was new and modern. In the end, Time Magazine was right; 1968 was the year that changed the world.

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