We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
No one can deny that Unlimited hydroplane racing has had its share of ups and downs in recent years.
For a sport that, two years ago, was administratively dead after the last race of the season in San Diego, the Unlimiteds have staged a remarkable comeback.
And while no one is closing the door to future improvement, the sport is definitely back on track. The race teams and race sites are working together as never before. And the races themselves have been pretty exciting, too.
In a changing world, it is sometimes necessary for a sport to re-define itself. This is a challenge that has faced Unlimited racing more than once in its history.
In the years following World War II, the problem was what to do about power sources. There were no suitable engines being manufactured in the sizes prescribed by the then-current rules. In a bold move, the rule makers abandoned the 732 cubic inch piston limitation requirement of the pre-war years.
This signaled the death knell for such time-honored power plants as the Packard and the Hispano-Suiza. At the same time, the door was opened to the huge supply of government surplus Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, originally developed for the war effort.
For the next four decades, the Allison and Rolls-powered Unlimiteds--or “Thunderboats” as they were nicknamed--defined the state of the art in hydroplane racing, until the turbine revolution of the 1980s.
During the 1950s, the sport experienced growing pains. The Unlimited Class chaffed within the administrative confines of the American Power Boat Association’s Inboard Racing Commission. Often, the Unlimiteds were hamstrung by rules that applied more to Crosley-powered 48 Cubic Inch Class hydros than to the world’s largest and most spectacular racing boats.
Following the incredible mismanagement of the protest-ridden 1956 APBA Gold Cup at Detroit, which took 85 days to settle, the Unlimited Class severed all but nominal ties with the parent APBA.
In 1957, the Unlimited participants established their own administrative entity, which was originally entitled the Unlimited Racing Commission (URC). In the 1990s, the URC was renamed the Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association (UHRA).
The next crisis to bedevil the sport was an unfavorable ruling by the Internal Revenue Service. Gale Enterprises team owner Joe Schoenith was told that he could not write off racing-related expenses as advertising. According to the IRS, Schoenith was indulging in a hobby--not in a business.
This problem was fortunately resolved in 1963 when MISS U.S. racing team owner George Simon introduced records in tax court that showed how his U.S. Equipment Company’s volume of business had increased substantially during the years (since 1953) that he had been involved in racing. And this was with no other change in normal business promotion. Simon’s presentation resulted in a favorable ruling from the IRS that Unlimited hydroplane racing was indeed a legitimate business expense within specified guidelines and thereby tax deductible.
This opened the door to major corporate involvement in Unlimited racing. One of the first companies to jump on the hydroplane band wagon in a big way was Anheuser-Busch, which introduced its first in a long line of MISS BUDWEISER boats in 1964.
In order to keep the IRS happy and to stem the rising costs of operating a modern Unlimited hydroplane, the sport needed to professionalize itself. This included mandatory cash prizes at all Unlimited events. And from 1963 onward, the Gold Cup race location was determined not by the yacht club of the winning boat but by the city with the highest financial bid.
A rash of fatal accidents took its toll on the sport between 1966 and 1982. During that sixteen-year period, eleven drivers died driving Unlimited hydroplanes--three of them in one day at the 1966 President’s Cup in Washington, D.C.
Designer Ron Jones, Sr., who had pioneered the modern cabover hull concept in the 1960s, made an important contribution to the sport’s safety technology in 1986. He installed an F-16 fighter plane canopy on both the MISS BUDWEISER and the MISS 7-ELEVEN.
The URC was quick to recognize the value of the F-16 canopy and made it mandatory for all Unlimited hydroplanes. Starting in 1987, all new Unlimiteds had to have one; older boats were given until 1989 to make the change-over.
Since the introduction by Ron Jones of the F-16 canopy twenty years ago, only one driver has died in an Unlimited hydroplane. Since 1986, drivers have literally walked away from accidents that just a few years earlier most certainly would have been fatal.
The sport’s problems in recent years have been not so much competitive as administrative.
A new group, called HYDRO-PROP, Inc., bought the licensing rights to the Unlimited Class from the APBA, beginning with the 2001racing season. For three years, this arrangement seemed to work rather well. But there were rumblings of discontent that were noticeable almost from the start.
HYDRO-PROP did indeed produce a quality show out on the race course. There was plenty of deck-to-deck action. But purists of the sport objected to the arbitrary assignment of fuel allowances. If a boat (i.e. MISS BUDWEISER) was considered “too successful”, it had to make do with fewer than the 4.3 gallons of fuel per minute allowed to the other turbine-powered boats.
This was “managed competition.” The rules did not apply equally to all of the boats in the race.
A few weeks prior to the start of the 2004 season, an impasse was reached. When HYDRO-PROP refused to negotiate on a number of administrative issues, three race sites went “independent” and dropped off the H-P tour. Evansville (Indiana), the Tri-Cities (Washington), and San Diego (California) lined up their own insurance coverage and applied to the Unlimited Light Hydroplane Racing Association (ULHRA) for a sanction.
As a result, the 2004 season is remembered as the most bizarre in history with two competing organizations administering the Unlimited sport, which was truly a house divided. Four race sites (Madison, Detroit, Seattle, and St. Clair, Michigan) stayed with H-P, while the rest went the ULHRA route.
The media had a Roman holiday.
HYDRO-PROP, Inc., folded its tent and rode off into the sunset at the end of 2004. But the sport was in a shambles and desperately needed to put its house in order.
And that’s exactly what happened.
When the starting gun fired for the start of the 2005 campaign at Evansville, a new organization, the American Boat Racing Association (ABRA), was solidly ensconced. At the helm of the fledgling ABRA was veteran hydroplane administrator Sam Cole, who had served as Executive Secretary of the old URC in the 1980s.
Spectators at that first race in Evansville found a rejuvenated format in evidence. Gone was the “managed competition” of recent years with all turbine boats allowed 4.3 gallons of fuel per minute. And no longer were boats assigned starting lanes. In every heat of every race, boats had to fight for lanes as in days of old.
Prior to the 2005 season, Cole pledged a minimum field of at least eight hydroplanes at all seven ABRA races. He kept that pledge.
With the on-shore wrangling of recent years thankfully in the past, the sport was able to concentrate on putting on some top-notch racing in 2005. The Madison Regatta in particular witnessed some of the finest competition in years for the Indiana Governor’s Cup.
In 2005, four different teams and five different drivers achieved victory on the seven-race tour.
The 2006 season looks even better for the Unlimited sport. As many as eleven teams are expected to do battle at the first two races in Evansville and Madison as they vie for the coveted U-1 distinction that goes to the defending National Championship team. And that’s great news for the real winners in Unlimited racing, the fans.