We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
Unlimited hydroplane racing has lost another of its all-time greats.
George Henley, one of the top drivers of the 1970s, passed away on December 14, 2009, following a recent heart attack. He was 72.
During an Unlimited career that lasted from 1970 to 1975, the Eatonville, Washington, resident won twelve out of thirty-four races entered.
Although short and stocky in build, "Smiling George" was a giant of a man behind the wheel of an Unlimited hydroplane.
Like very few drivers before or since, Henley could guarantee results. But his price was high, as Dave Heerensperger, the owner of PAY 'n PAK, will readily attest.
After a stellar 1974 campaign, George decided to concentrate on his Eatonville-based marina business and to retire from Unlimited racing.
Heerensperger soon discovered that it was easier to find someone to help with George's business than it was to find someone to replace George in the cockpit of the PAY 'n PAK.
So, Heerensperger became Henley's partner and the rest is history. In Dave's words, "When you give an arm and a leg, a checkbook, and the pen, I guess I know how [Sonics coach] Bill Russell feels."
A veteran Limited pilot, Henley started his Thunderboat career as a crew member in the 1950s on the likes of MISS B & I and CORAL REEF.
George's first Unlimited ride was the BURIEN LADY, a former NOTRE DAME (built in 1962), and owned by Bob Murphy. A modest budget notwithstanding, Henley raised many eyebrows when he finished a strong second in the 1970 Seattle Seafair Regatta. He won the Final Heat and defeated the overall winner MISS BUDWEISER with Dean Chenoweth in the process.
Before being tapped for the PAY 'n PAK assignment, George saw action with Bob Fendler's LINCOLN THRIFT'S 7-1/4% SPECIAL and Jim McCormick's RED MAN II. His best finish was a second-place in the 1973 Champion Spark Plug Regatta at Miami with LINCOLN THRIFT.
Then came the historic 1974 racing season when Henley joined forces with nonpareil owner Heerensperger and crew chief Jim Lucero on the "Winged Wonder" PAY 'n PAK, which was the boat that had popularized the horizontal stabilizer wing in Unlimited racing.
After paying his dues with the budget teams, George finally had a ride that was truly commensurate with his ability.
The "Winged Wonder" had won four out of nine races and the National High Point Championship in 1973 with Mickey Remund as driver. It was up to Henley to do it all over again.
In his first appearance with the Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered PAY 'n PAK at Miami, George experienced mechanical difficulty after winning both of his preliminary heats.
But a week later, in Washington, D.C., Henley won the President's Cup on the Potomac River. He defeated the likes of Bill Muncey in ATLAS VAN LINES, Leif Borgersen in the turbine-powered U-95, and Howie Benns in MISS BUDWEISER. There could be no doubt about it. George had achieved the big-time.
He followed this with victories at Owensboro (Kentucky), the Tri-Cities (Washington), Seattle (Washington), Dayton (Ohio), San Diego (California), and Madison (Indiana). Henley thus became the first driver to win seven High Point races in a single season.
One particularly memorable contest was the APBA Gold Cup on Seattle's Lake Washington at Sand Point. All day long, George battled side-by-side with MISS BUDWEISER, sharing the same roostertail, on extremely rough water in perhaps the greatest performance of his career.
And through it all, Henley impressed one and all with his friendliness and cheerfulness. He was a "regular guy." It's no wonder that he acquired the nickname "Smiling George."
According to rumor, he also smiled at his fellow drivers out on the race course, especially when he passed them (which he did frequently)!
Following a brief retirement from the sport, Henley rejoined the PAY 'n PAK team at the third race of the 1975 season in Owensboro. In the short time that George had been away, the WEISFIELD'S, chauffeured by Billy Schumacher, had garnered most of the glory and appeared a likely bet to unseat PAY 'n PAK from its National Championship throne.
On the first lap of the First Heat at Owensboro, Henley's boat swapped ends and caved in a sponson. PAY 'n PAK was forced to withdraw, and the race went to WEISFIELD'S. All hope of retaining the High Points crown appeared lost.
Over the winter of 1974-75, the PAK had been rebuilt. The boat now performed better on the straightaways but had difficulty in the corners.
Despite a formidable points deficit, George sparked PAY 'n PAK to one of the great comebacks in sports history.
The "Winged Wonder" took third at the next race in Detroit, but the set-up still wasn't right. The team finally found the winning combination a week later at Madison, where Henley retained his title in the Indiana Governor's Cup and decisively defeated the WEISFIELD'S.
In the Second Heat at Madison, Billy Schumacher went all out after George Henley. As the two juggernauts thundered toward the finish line, Billy gave it everything he had and almost blew the boat over. PAY 'n PAK averaged 115.148; WEISFIELD'S did 114.855.
Back at the dock, Schumacher commented, "I never worked so hard for second-place in my life."
"Smiling George" followed this triumph with victories at Dayton, the Tri-Cities, Seattle, and San Diego.
The end result was a third straight season title for PAY 'n PAK, which scored 8864 points to 8213 for WEISFIELD'S. Never before or since has one boat's momentum been so effectively halted by the performance of another boat.
In the words of Dave Heerensperger, "We've accomplished everything we set out to do and more."
In his last season of Unlimited Class participation, Henley won more races than any other driver and averaged more points per race than anyone else.
As a boat racer, the pride of Eatonville had no worlds left to conquer. His legacy to the sport is a standard of competitive excellence that few drivers in any racing category have ever achieved.
Farewell, George Henley.