We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
Warner Gardner was Unlimited racing's OTHER "Flying Colonel" (together with Colonel Russ Schleeh, who raced from 1955 to 1963).
Colonel Gardner didn't start driving Thunderboats until rather late in life. (He was 46 years old when he qualified as an Unlimited driver at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in 1962.) Warner was a competitive presence until his death at Detroit in 1968.
He raced Limiteds and test drove boats built by Les Staudacher. When Shirley Mendelson McDonald bought her first NOTRE DAME from Staudacher in 1962, Les recommended his friend Gardner for the driving job.
Warner drove for NOTRE DAME for two seasons and finished fourth and fifth in National High Points in 1962 and 1963. His highest race finish was a second-place in the 1962 Spirit Of Detroit Trophy.
Gardner was discharged by the NOTRE DAME team after 1963 when Bill Muncey became available to drive following the retirement of the MISS THRIFTWAY. But Warner was hired almost immediately to drive Jim Herrington's MARINER TOO in 1964.
MARINER TOO, truth to tell, was a very ill-handling boat. Gardner, in fact, referred to it as "that crazy MARINER." Nevertheless, it was with this craft that Warner won a decisive--and surprising--victory in the 1964 San Diego Cup on Mission Bay.
In 1965, owner Herrington purchased a second boat, the MISS LAPEER, as a teammmate for MARINER TOO. MISS LAPEER was the former MISS SPOKANE. Gardner took an instant liking to it.
It wasn't long before MISS LAPEER became the primary Herrington hull, while MARINER TOO was shunted to the background.
The Colonel piloted MISS LAPEER to victory in the 1966 Sacramento Cup on Lake Folsom. He finished second in the 1966 Indiana Governor's Cup at Madison and the 1967 APBA Gold Cup at Seattle.
The Herrington team was not a big-budget operation. At some races, the entire crew consisted of Gardner and his teenage son, Warner, Jr.
Following the retirement of Jim Herrington after the 1967 season, the Colonel signed with Dave Heerensperger's MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC team. The "Screaming Eagle" was the former $ BILL. For six years, it had been the epitome of mediocrity and had never won a race.
But with the newly formed team of Heerensperger, Gardner, and crew chief Jack Cochrane, the Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC came alive and was the scourge of the Unlimited Class in 1968. Gardner took first-place in the Dixie Cup at Guntersville, Alabama, the Atomic Cup at the Tri-Cities, Washington, and the President's Cup at Washington, D.C. MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC also took second-place at Madison, Indiana, and third at Seattle.
Some of the other top teams on the circuit that year included Billy Schumacher in MISS BARDAHL, Tommy Fults in MY GYPSY, Bill Sterett in MISS BUDWEISER, Jack Regas in NOTRE DAME, Bill Muncey in MISS U.S., Dean Chenoweth in SMIRNOFF, and Jim McCormick in HARRAH'S CLUB.
But all good things must come to an end. And the end for Warner Gardner came on September 8, 1968, on the Detroit River. While contending for high position during the Final Heat of the Gold Cup, the "Screaming Eagle" became airborne and cartwheeled itself to pieces. The Colonel was critically injured and never regained consciousness. He died the following day in a local hospital.
A veteran of 63 combat missions during World War II, Warner was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Gardner's Unlimited career was comparatively short--only seven years. He is one of only a handful of drivers to win a race past the age of 50. Always a fan favorite, the Colonel is remembered as one of the better of the best in the water sport of kings.