We're racing through history!
By Brad Haskin
Unlimited Hydroplane racing is an old man's game. Bill Muncey earned the first of his seven National High Point titles at the age of 32. Jim Kropfeld was 43 for his. Even young Chip Hanauer was a finely aged 28 when he took his first honors in 1982. But there was a time when a youngster grabbed the boat racing world by the collar, and came to be one of the most legendary all-around Champions in the history of powerboat racing.
Born and raised in Seattle, William (Billy) Schumacher III was exposed to water sports at a very early age. Billy's father, Bill Schumacher Jr., in addition to running the family bakery in Seattle, was a champion water skier. His dad was also a founding partner in Roostertails, Inc. during Seattle's early hydroplane years. Billy learned to water ski at the age of six, and his love affair with the water began.
Fueled by his father's competitive spirit and demand for perfection, Billy began racing Outboard hydroplanes at the age of 8. He won the first race he entered in a Junior Runabout named "Lil' Bill". For the next several years, Billy and the entire Schumacher family traveled the country, racing on the different Outboard class circuits. The family dedication paid off to the tune of five National Championships, two Canadian Championships, and countless Competition and Straight-a-way records.
In the late 1950's, Billy's father bought him a 280 Class Inboard named "Dough Baby" from Bill Muncey. In the following years, Billy again tore up the Inboard circuit, setting several more records. He earned another National Championship, and engaged in several memorable races with Mira Slovak and the "Wee Wahoo". At the tender age of 18, Billy was already turning the heads of the boat racing world.
In the summer of 1961, young Billy stepped up to the Unlimited Class for the first time. Bob Miller was looking for a top driver to handle the driving duties of his U-1230-910 "Cutie Radio". Billy signed on to drive the boat at the Diamond Cup on Lake Coeur d'Alene. Though he managed to steer the former Gale IV hull to a third place finish in the race, he resigned his ride after the race, stating, "all I do is cruise around the course at 70 miles an hour". Undaunted, two weeks later Billy returned in the seat of a different Unlimited, Dave Johnson's U-5 "Miss Tool Crib" in Seattle. There he took the U-5 to a runner-up finish behind Bob Gilliam in the Seafair Queen's Trophy race.
Billy had no ride for the 1962 season, but in late 1963 he was offered the seat of Bill Schuyler's new U-21 "$ Bill". Though the first effort ended in a DNF, the ride was extended through the 1964 season, where Billy turned in several consistent finishes. It was not enough. Billy was not content with just driving an Unlimited, he wanted a competitive ride, and was willing to sit and wait for one.
Billy Schumacher's talents had not gone unnoticed by the rest of the racing world. In the spring of 1966, Ole Bardahl and Ron Musson enlisted Billy's help in designing and testing the radical new cabover "Miss Bardahl". Billy even test drove the boat when Ron Musson was out of town on a business trip, becoming the only person other than Musson to ever drive the ill-fated hull. Several weeks later Musson was killed on the infamous "Black Sunday" at the President's Cup in Washington, D.C.
Though Ole Bardahl seriously considered walking away from the sport, he regrouped for 1967 and returned with a vengeance! Billy, just 24 years-old, was offered the seat of a brand new Ed Karelson designed hull. After the accident in 1966, most of the "Bardahl" crew had retired from the sport. For 1967, Bardahl hired young Jerry Zuvich to lead a crew of young, relative newcomers on the team. Quickly dubbed the "Teeny Boppers" (all being in their early twenties), the "Miss Bardahl" team dominated the 1967 season, virtually rewriting every record in the book. The shy, unassuming Schumacher (now popularly known as "Billy the Kid" by fans and friends alike) steered the "Blonde Bombshell" to victories in 6 of 8 races, including the Gold Cup on Billy's home course in Seattle, and the 1967 National Championship.
Having won everything in sight and accomplishing everything he had ever dreamed during the 1967 season, Schumacher stunned the hydroplane world by quitting the sport. He found it difficult to motivate himself to his original level of enthusiasm. The retirement was short lived, however, as his competitive spirit ate away at him enough to sign with the Bardahl team again for the '68 campaign.
Again, "Billy the Kid" and the "Miss Bardahl" dominated the season. Dubbed the "Checkerboard Comet" to reflect it's new yellow and black paint scheme, the "Bardahl" engaged in a season long battle with Col. Warner Gardner in the "Miss Eagle Electric". The effort culminated in another Gold Cup victory and National Championship for Schumacher and the team. Ole Bardahl disbanded the team after the successful '68 season. Billy sat out the 1969 season, concentrating instead on his Limited racing, and helping his father run the family bakery. But it didn't take long to get him back in the seat of an Unlimited.
For 1970, Billy was hired to drive Laird Pierce's new "Parco's O Ring Miss", which was a virtual copy of the '67 "Miss Bardahl". Pierce purchased Ole Bardahl's inventory of Rolls Merlin engines, and hired Jerry Zuvich and most of the old "Teeny Boppers" to campaign the new hull. The entire season, however, proved to be an exercise in futility. The star-spangled "Parco" was a rough riding hull which thoroughly disenchanted Schumacher, and no amount of tweaking by the crew could help. Despite setting the fastest overall speed at the President's Cup in D.C., the best Billy could muster for the '70 season was a pair of 2nd place finishes.
In the spring of 1971, Billy signed on with Dave Heerensperger's "Pay' n Pak" team. Having been reconfigured from cabover to conventional hull, as well as reengined with a Rolls Merlin over the winter by Crew Chief Jim Lucero, the "Pak" struggled through the early part of the season. A violent hook pitched Billy out of the boat in Miami, and several mechanical failures resulted in DNF's. Starting at the Seattle race, though, everything fell into place. Billy and the "Pak" became the first combination to qualify at over 121 mph on a 3-mile course, and swept the last three races of the season.
1972 looked to be more of the same, but tension was developing amongst the team. The hull set-up was not right. Billy wanted the hull to be "glued down" like a Karelson-style hull, while Lucero felt the boat would perform best "flying". The tension came to a head at the World Championship race in Madison, Indiana. Due to bad weather and debris, the race had to be postponed until Monday. The delay helped, but the water conditions were still atrocious. In Billy's own words, " the debris-ridden water and stormy currents were too dangerous for boat racing. Those conditions motivated me to decline to drive in the race. This was a common sense decision, not a question of courage. Unfortunately, not everyone understood my decision primarily, the "Pay' n Pak" team. Billy and the "Pak" team parted ways.
Shortly after leaving the U-boats in the summer of 1972, Billy was asked to drive Rick Keller's Outboard Tunnel Hull. The combination proved fast right off the bat, and the team won several races. This performance led to an invitation to race an OMC Tunnel Hull in the Paris 6-Hour Grand Prix. The OMC team flew to Europe, and proved to be one of Billy's most memorable racing experiences. Racing on the Seine River, right in front of the Eiffel Tower, Billy and co-driver Johnny Sanders outduelled 106 other boats to bring home the Paris Grand Prix Championship.
Billy continued to race Outboard Tunnel hulls through '72 and '73, including the "Seafair 225" in Seattle in 1973. Held the weekend before the Unlimited races, on the same 3-mile Lake Washington course, the race consisted of 75 laps around the circuit. Additionally in 1973, Schumacher was approached by Jim Clapp to drive Clapp's radical new U-95 turbine Unlimited hydroplane. Billy spent many months researching the project and helped Clapp convince the Unlimited Racing Commission to grant a two-year experimental period to test the turbine concept. In the end, however, personality conflicts between Schumacher and members of the crew led Billy to leave the team, never having driven the boat.
Again, Billy dedicated the "off time" to running the family bakery. It was not long until another opportunity came along that was too good to pass up. For the 1974 season, Seattle businessman Les Rosenberg had debuted a state-of-the-art Ron Jones hull named "Valu-Mart". The U-74 had struggled during the entire season at the hands of rookie Ron Armstrong. When the boats came to Seattle for the Gold Cup, Rosenberg persuaded Schumacher to come out of retirement (at the "old" age of 31!). Rosenberg also hired Billy's old friend Jerry Zuvich to turn the wrenches on the hull. Though the boat withdrew from the event with hull damage, the rest of 1974 proved that the combination had what it took to be a front runner.
Renamed "Weisfield's" for 1975, Billy and the U-74 won two out of the first three races of the season, and jumped out to a huge lead in National points.
As the season wore on, the mighty "Pay' n Pak" team gathered steam and started eating away at Schumacher's point lead. In one particularly close duel at Madison, the "Weisfield's" and "Pak" hooked up in a match that saw both boats literally run deck to deck for the entire 5 laps. After losing by inches to George Henley and the "Pak", Billy commented to historian Fred Farley that he had "never worked so hard for second place" in his life! Unfortunately, as the season ran on, the "Weisfield's" team ran out of strong equipment. Despite holding a slim lead going into the final race in San Diego, the "Pak" team was able to overtake them to win the National Championship. "The Kid" managed to hang on to win his third National Driver's Championship.
For the 1976 campaign, Billy and the team, now running as "Olympia Beer" again looked strong. They won the second race of the year in Washington D.C., and were leading National High Points going into the Gold Cup at Detroit when tragedy struck. Charging for the start of a heat race, the "Olympia Beer" stuffed a sponson into a swell on the notorious Detroit river. The impact tore off the right sponson, and the boat sank. Billy and the team raced a replacement hull at several Mid-West races while the primary hull was being rebuilt. Though the team was able to quickly repair the hull, it was never able to perform to it's pre-accident potential. Crew Chief Zuvich tried everything to get the boat back to form, but the boat was consistently 10-15 mph slower. Schumacher managed to win the final race of 1976 in San Diego when Bill Muncey and the Atlas Van Lines jumped the gun. After the season, Les Rosenberg disbanded the team, and sold the hull.
Once again having truly accomplished everything he set out to do, Billy decided to hang it up for good, and as such, went out a true champion, winning his final race. With the exception of a brief test session at the wheel of Pete LaRock's U-96 "KYYX" in 1977, Billy has never set foot in an Unlimited again. After retiring, he dedicated his time to operating the family bakery in Seattle. Today, Billy Schumacher is Vice President of 2nd Home Hotel Company, in Dallas, TX.
When reflecting back over his long career, Billy cites such names as Lynn Ivey, Al Benson, Hugh Entrop, Bill Muncey, Ron Musson, Jack Regas, and numerous others as his influences. In his own words, "All of my heroes inspired me in many ways. I learned a great deal from their exceptional talents. Some of my heroes spent time with me and advised me on the best methods of driving. Others I studied closely while they were racing." Asked who he sees as the best driver's of recent times, Billy said, "I always enjoyed watching Chip Hanauer race, because he was the best, in my opinion. Tom D'Eath was also exceptional. Chip's professionalism and competitiveness were unmatched, as was Tom's."
Chip Hanauer was equal in his own praise for Schumacher: "Billy was my hero in powerboat racing when I was growing up. We have always had a wonderful relationship, and I will always value the fact that I had the opportunity to race against a childhood idol."
Though out of the sport for over twenty years now, Billy still likes to follow the Unlimiteds. "As I travel around the country, I often see waterways which make me think 'what a great place for a hydroplane race'." He also gets the urge every now and then to try his hand at racing one of the modern, encapsulated, turbine Unlimiteds of the 1990's. "The cabover "Bardahl" and the Tunnel Hulls I raced were driven from in front. I liked the control from that position", he commented. Asked his opinion on the current state of the sport, he responded, "My prognosis for the future of Unlimited hydroplane racing is very good. I believe the UHRA needs some new blood, new national sponsors, and more race sites, the expanded media exposure will follow"