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By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
Unlimited hydroplane racing has lost another of its most celebrated participants. Bob Schroeder, one of the sport’s top drivers of the 1950s and 1960s, passed away on June 28, 2009
He is survived by his wife Reta and son Robert, Jr.
"Rapid Robert" from Buffalo, New York, stepped up to the Unlimited level in 1957 after a successful 225 Cubic Inch Class Limited career with a series of boats named MY AMBITION.
Bob’s first Unlimited ride was arguably his best. This was the WILDROOT CHARLIE, the former GALE IV, with which he finished second and fourth in National High Points in 1957 and 1958. Schroeder purchased the hull from Joe and Lee Schoenith of Gale Enterprises.
WILDROOT CHARLIE could always be counted upon to make the front-runners work for it. With Bob driving, the CHARLIE came back to haunt its former owners--the Schoeniths--by finishing ahead of them in National Points and in nearly every race in which they competed against each other.
Bob’s crew chief in the early years was his father Edwin "Pop" Schroeder who is himself a racing legend as the builder of numerous Limited inboard hulls.
The Schroeders went with a new Les Staudacher-designed Unlimited in 1959 and 1960. This was the MISS BUFFALO, a very rough-riding craft, which failed as a competitor.
As driver of the Schoeniths' GALE VII in 1961, Bob saved the life of SUCH CRUST IV driver Fred Alter at the President’s Cup Regatta in Washington, D.C.
The right sponson of Alter’s hydroplane sheared off along with the entire right side of the boat during Heat 2-A. Fred was hurtled out of the driver's seat, bounced onto the Allison engine, and was thrown back into the cockpit. As Alter struggled to free himself from the rapidly sinking CRUST, a nearby patrol boat remained inexplicably motionless.
Fortunately, Bob Schroeder, who had been running 200 yards astern of Alter at the time of the crash, shut off his own boat, leaped aboard the quickly submerging SUCH CRUST IV, and rescued the stricken Alter.
Bob supported Fred on the sponson of the GALE VII, while a Coast Guard 40-footer finally moved in from a quarter mile away.
History records Schroeder as the first driver in competition of a Bernie Little-owned Unlimited hydroplane in 1963. This was the famous 4-seater TEMPO, a glorified pleasure boat that Little used to take celebrities and journalists for rides at the races. The following year, Bob became the first in a long line of MISS BUDWEISER drivers.
In 1967, Schroeder introduced Atlas Van Lines, Inc., to the Thunderboat sport. The craft was the former MAVERICK and had seen its better days. Nevertheless, with Norman Manson as the owner and Bob as the driver, the very first AVL boat did its sponsor proud, touring the entire circuit with stock equipment, taking fifth-place in the Gold Cup at Seattle, and placing ninth in a field of 23 boats in National High Points.
Schroeder took one last sentimental journey as an Unlimited pilot in 1974 with Paul Sawyer’s ALTER EGO. Sawyer himself had never raced the boat and rejected all offers to buy. He finally gave it to Schroeder because Bob was "like family." (Paul was in fact Bob Schroeder, Jr.'s godfather.)
Schroeder ran it in a few races as the unnamed CU-22, powered by an Allison. He finished 8th at both Detroit, Michigan, and Dayton, Ohio.
Although retired from driving, Bob never strayed far from the sport that he loved. He frequently attended the races at Detroit and assisted in the production of the hydroplane-themed MADISON movie, which was filmed in 1999.
At an antique Gold Cup exhibition in Toronto, Ontario, in 1984, Schroeder raised many eyebrows when he test-drove Gar Wood’s legendary MISS AMERICA X, 38 feet of mahogany, powered by four giant Packard V-12 engines.
Boat racing mourns the loss of one of its most respected competitors.