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Black Sunday Changed Hydro Racing

By Michael McLaughlin
Reprinted from the Seattle P-I, August 2005.

Black Sunday.

Memories of hydroplane racing's darkest day still resonate 40 years later.

On June 19, 1966, Ron Musson (center) perished in a hydroplane accident on the Potomac River. Hours later, drivers Rex Manchester (left) and Don Wilson (right) also died when their boats collided. It was June 19, 1966, when three of the sport's most popular drivers died during the running of the President's Cup on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

The winner traditionally received the championship trophy from the nation's president, but on this weekend, there was no post-race ceremony with Lyndon Johnson.

The cold hand of death took Ron Musson in a one-boat crash and then found Rex Manchester and Don Wilson at the same instant just hours later. Musson and Manchester were from Seattle, as popular here as the leading race car drivers in Indianapolis.

Initial reports blamed race officials for letting the boats compete under poor river conditions. There was too much floating debris in the river, they said, and a lack of safety patrol boats or a rescue helicopter. There are those who question to this day why the race was allowed to continue after Musson perished in the Miss Bardahl.

Mike Fitzsimmons grew up in Seattle and has seen every unlimited race on Lake Washington. He crewed for several teams before becoming a consistent voice of Seafair on television. Now a communications professor at Gonzaga, he has amassed a huge collection of records, interviews and photos and catalogued them for use in his broadcasts.

Fitzsimmons researched Black Sunday extensively. He interviewed as many people as he could locate who were there that fateful day, logged nearly 25 hours of interviews and produced several features on the tragedy.

"It's not a pleasant tale," Fitzsimmons said. "But there is a sunrise at the end of the story."

Broken prop leads to first crash

The President's Cup, the second race of the 1966 season, fell on Father's Day. Bill Muncey had won the first race of the season in Tampa, Fla., piloting the Miss U.S., but skipped the President's Cup to prepare his boat for the Gold Cup in Detroit two weeks later.

Bill Brow, driver of the Miss Budweiser, also missed the race after suffering a back injury in Tampa. In his place, Budweiser owner Bernie Little recruited Don Wilson, a Florida native, to pilot his boat.

Musson was the three-time defending national champion driver of the Miss Bardahl, and was now driving what was considered a radically designed cabover hull with the engine mounted behind the driver.

The hull was designed by Ron Jones Sr., who believed traditional hulls were dragging too much on the water and needed to become more aerodynamic to go faster.

The cabover design also eliminated much of the noise and fumes drivers put up with when the engine was front-mounted, and gave much clearer sight lines. The tradeoff was a loss of reference points drivers were accustomed to when looking over the engine. And drivers had difficulty "feeling" the hull for unusual vibrations with the engine behind them.

There's a famous Muncey quote: "If you drive a cabover, you're the first one to the scene of the accident."

Musson, 38, also didn't get much practice time in the cabover due to public relations obligations for the Bardahl Co. Most of the new boat's testing was done by a young, hotshot driver named Billy Schumacher, who was close friends with Musson and Manchester.

At the race in Tampa, Musson was the second-fastest qualifier, but gearbox problems kept the boat off the course during the race.

When Musson raced the following week on the Potomac, it was his first competitive experience in the boat.

Musson piloted the Bardahl to a victory in Heat 1A on Saturday, and then took the boat out to compete in Heat 2B on Sunday afternoon. The Bardahl completed its first lap in that heat and was heading down the straightaway toward the start-finish line when something went terribly wrong.

"The boat was porpoising on the straightaway," Fitzsimmons said, meaning the bow was rising, establishing an arc before coming down, and then bouncing up again. "His prop shaft was twisting and reaming the shaft area -- the process of self-destructing -- in seconds, and Ron was still accelerating.

"In a conventional hull, he would have felt those vibrations, but not in the cabover. He simply hadn't gotten used to it yet."

David Williams, executive director of the Hydroplane & Raceboat Museum in Seattle, has the Bardahl propeller. He brought in a pair of stress analysis engineers to examine it and they determined it was faulty.

They discovered the blade that broke was attached against the grain of the other two blades and appeared to snap at the point of connection.

"It was stress that caused the metal of the blade to fail," said former Bardahl crewmember Jerry Zuvich. "Once the blade broke, what happened next was instantaneous."

The angle of attack from the broken prop forced the back of the boat straight up. The 30-foot boat, going 160 mph in water not even 8 feet deep, plunged nose-first into the bottom of the river.

"At that point, it's all over," Fitzsimmons said. "He came to a dead stop like a spade being shoved into a garden. Five thousand pounds of energy came crashing forward. The front literally disintegrated, and Ron Musson was the first to arrive at the scene of the accident."

There's little doubt Musson was killed instantly. In 1966, seatbelts weren't allowed in boats, but the real danger was with the driver's helmet and chinstrap. The impact filled the helmet with water and pulled it back violently, like a parachute, breaking Musson's neck. In an instant, every orifice of his body filled with water.

"As hydro accidents go, it was as horrific as anyone had ever seen," Fitzsimmons said. "The rescue crew was stunned when they recovered his body. One rescuer said he was going to attempt to revive Musson, but he couldn't find his mouth. The impact was bone-crushing, like watching a head-on with a semi-truck. He never had a chance."

It was the first fatality in the sport since Bob Hayward died in 1961.

Teams say race should go on

Rex Manchester's wife, Evelyn, Ole Bardahl's daughter, had stayed in Seattle to attend the sixth-grade graduation of her son when she got a call from her husband, the driver of the U-7 Notre Dame, in between heats.

"He said Ron was hurt and I should get over to Betty Musson's house right away," she recalled this week. "Ron and Rex were best friends. We lived very close to each other, but Betty already heard the news by the time I arrived. She was beside herself, really upset. I kept calling back East but couldn't get any info. Phil Cole was the PR guy and he finally called me and said Ron was dead."

Back in the nation's capital, race officials asked drivers and crews if they wanted to continue racing. At the previous unlimited fatalities, at the 1961 Silver Cup in Detroit and the 1951 Gold Cup in Seattle, the races were canceled and the winners determined by points scored in preliminary heats.

A vote was cast in Washington and it was agreed that the race should continue and a final heat would be run.

Manchester and Wilson came to the Bardahl camp and said they wanted to run the final.

"They wanted to do it for Ronny," Zuvich said. "They really loved the guy and that's the truth."

"They said that's what Musson would have wanted," Fitzsimmons said. "But it was a stupid idea. Manchester was in shock, and Wilson was seen openly weeping. The drivers back then were a fraternity. They knew each other for years and loved each other.

"The race should have been canceled, because what happened next was almost predictable."

Manchester was clearly disturbed after losing his closest friend. Before the final heat, he left the pits in the Notre Dame and drifted aimlessly, waiting to start his engine just before the one-minute gun. Wilson left the pits long before the five-minute gun and tooled around by himself for several minutes.

When the final heat began, Wilson and Manchester roared to the front with Wilson and the Miss Budweiser on the inside. Halfway up the back straightaway, both boats hit swells. The Bud appeared to slow down, but Manchester drove hard heading toward the turn.

The Notre Dame then tilted right, exposing the boat's rudder, and then violently hooked perpendicular to the Bud's path. The Bud struck the bottom side of the Notre Dame and knifed through the hull. It was a horrific collision. Manchester's body was pitched far ahead of the crash, a moment captured in a Life magazine photograph.

Neither driver was found to have water in his lungs, suggesting they died instantly. What was probably most shocking was the angle of the crash. It wasn't uncommon for boats to bump, but to see a boat go to a 90-degree angle in front of an onrushing boat just didn't happen.

Back in Seattle, Evelyn Manchester assumed the race had been canceled after the Musson accident. Then came a call from her father.

"He said: 'They're all gone. Rex, Ron, Donny -- all gone,' " she recalled. "It was insane. I tried to get to my kids before they heard. The next thing I knew, the doctor was giving me a shot. It was a nightmare."

The President's Cup was awarded posthumously to Manchester, based on his point total before the crash. It was his only victory in five years of racing unlimiteds.

Deaths led to safety changes

The debate about whether to continue the sport raged for days, but as former P-I reporter Bill Knight once wrote, "The unlimited hydroplanes -- you can't kill them and they aren't going to die."

Two weeks later at the Gold Cup in Detroit, driver Chuck Thompson was killed when his boat, the Miss Smirnoff, disintegrated during its third heat of racing. Thompson was known as a "go or blow" type of driver, a lead-footed pilot with no fear of pushing his boat to the limit.

"He was a throttle jockey of the first order," Fitzsimmons said. "The timing of his wreck, after the three drivers were killed in the previous race, couldn't have been worse."

Yet Fitzsimmons said that two-week period stands as "a moment of enlightenment" for the unlimiteds.

"The sport was at a point where the current boats couldn't go any faster without putting folks in danger," he said. "It took several years before the changes took place, but June 19, 1966, forced the unlimiteds to change for the better. Those accidents ultimately led to safer, faster boats. They couldn't have found a bigger reason to make them safer."

Many people blamed the cabover design of the Miss Bardahl as part of the reason for Musson's crash, but in hindsight, that boat was the grandmother of modern hydroplane design.

"Nobody recognized it at the time," Fitzsimmons said. "Hydroplanes today have more pedigree from that boat than any other hull."

By 1974, the top six boats on the circuit were cabovers designed by Jones, and all were descendants of the cabover Bardahl.

At last week's Atomic Cup in the Tri-Cities, two boats flipped -- the U-1 Miss E-Lam Plus and the U-13 Acura of Bellevue. The E-Lam looped twice before landing, and the U-13 flipped violently backward. Without today's safety measures -- especially the enclosed cockpit -- there's little doubt both drivers would have been seriously injured.

"I can only say, 'Thank God,' " U-1 driver Dave Villwock said. "While tragic, an event like Black Sunday had to be a huge factor in guys like Bernie Little and others putting their hearts into building a safer cockpit for us. Those bad times really did lead to some positive things."

After much soul searching, Schumacher replaced Musson in the Miss Bardahl for the 1967 season, and the sport lurched forward.

"I knew not all accidents were caused by driver error," Schumacher said. "I had to convince myself that the risk was worth it.

"We were the gladiators of the sport and we lost a lot of guys along the way."

Black Sunday Aftermath

Royal Brougham, P-I sports editor, in 1966: "Without question, this was the blackest day in the annals of speedboat racing. As this is written, it is doubtful that the popular sport in Seattle can survive the loss of three of its most famous drivers and fastest hydroplanes. The tragic events on the Potomac remind anew of the uncertainties of life. Especially to a driver of the untamed mechanical monster known as an unlimited hydroplane."

Bill Knight, former P-I reporter: "I remember getting called into the office on my day off. The desk editor said a driver was killed and they needed me. By the time I got in the office, two more drivers had been killed. The impact was incredible in the Seattle area. I thought the sport was over. I really thought it was done. Like most athletes, the drivers thought they were indestructible. It's amazing how much safer and faster the boats are now. Maybe it took that kind of tragedy to push the safety issues forward. It was, by far, the biggest tragedy the unlimiteds ever dealt with."

Fred Farley, hydroplane historian: "The loss of Musson, Manchester and Wilson shook the boat racing world to its foundation. The impact would have been similar if Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney had been lost in a single afternoon. And like their auto racing counterparts, Ron, Rex and Don were professional athletes, loved and admired by thousands of fans. They were role models for a generation of youngsters."

Jerry Zuvich, crew member of the U-40 Bardahl: "It took me a long time to come to grips with it, but when a person loves what they're doing, like Ronny (Musson) did hydroplane racing, then taking those risks is OK. Look at firemen, fishermen, even writers that go to places like Baghdad. They take risks that others might think are crazy, but if a person has a passion for what they do, I understand taking the risks."

Bill Wurster, former driver and owner: "I was still a fan and spectator in 1966, but I greatly admired the sport and all the folks involved. When I heard of the tragedy on the Potomac, I was reeling for a while. Those drivers were more than heroes and much more popular in the Seattle area than most movie stars. In fact, movie stars weren't even in the running. It's difficult for any fan that wasn't following the sport 40 years ago to understand just how devastating the loss of those drivers was at the time."

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