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Reprinted from The Spokesman-Review
It was a perfect fit from the start.
The Pacific Northwest, the self-styled boating capital of the world, and unlimited hydroplanes, the world’s fastest fleet.
It’s a union that spawned hydro fever and in the fall of 1957. It spread from Seattle to Spokane, where the Miss Spokane - the U-25 Lilac Lady - rose out of a local fund drive.
The Miss Spokane was campaigned for four seasons of near-misses from 1958 through 1961 with Dallas Sartz, Norm Evans and Rex Manchester alternating at the wheel.
It preceded this city’s high-water season of 1968, when owner Dave Heerensperger and crew chief Jack Cochrane teamed with driver Warner Gardner.
Their story started modestly with the purchase of a gaudy, unsuccessful boat named Dollar Bill. It ended in tragedy in September of that year, when Gardner was killed dueling for the lead in the final heat of the Gold Cup on the Detroit River.
But in the months between, in seven races through the spring and summer of ‘68, the Eagle of Spokane and the Miss Bardahl of Seattle were the hottest things on water.
Heerensperger ultimately was associated with the 1970s and ‘80s innovations that made his Pay ‘n Pak the fastest boat of her time. His name is now associated with racing of a different sort - horse racing.
In March of 1969, Heerensperger renamed the Eagle Electric the Pride of Pay ‘n Pak after he had assumed control of a chain of 22 stores. By February of 1970, the leader of the Pak had moved to Seattle and Spokane was without a hydroplane.
Spokane’s introduction to unlimited racing came prior to Heerensperger’s emergence, when a reported $13,000 was raised in the fall of ‘57 to buy a hull from none other than Bill Boeing, the aerospace giant who had it built as a backup for his unlimited, the Miss Wahoo.
The drivers of Miss Spokane built a legacy as hard-luck chargers.
Typical was a 1959 heat of the Diamond Cup on Lake Coeur d’Alene, when Evans - leading the race - spun out and was tossed from the boat.
Bruised, soaked and bleeding from minor lacerations, Evans swam back to the boat and tried to fire it up until the batteries gave out.
Those who saw it remember it as the embodiment of a committed but futile effort to bring a winner to Spokane.
It was an era when drivers as well as boats went dead in the water. The sport was never very far from controversy.
Manchester led the final lap of the 1960 Seafair Trophy Race in Seattle and was closing on the finish line when another boat, the U.S. I, caught fire in the distant south turn.
The Coast Guard fired red flares as the Miss Spokane hit the line, alerting emergency crews and canceling the heat.
In a rerun later that day, Manchester missed a buoy and had to turn around. Bill Muncey was coasting to apparent victory in the Thriftway when driver Russ Schleeh was pitched out of another boat, the Thriftway Too, depriving Muncey of the win.
When the race was run a third time the next day - on rougher water - Muncey was first, Manchester a distant second.
Bud Simons, president of the Miss Spokane hydro association, took the class approach to the outcry.
“We are disgusted over the way it was ruled but we know in our hearts we won the race on Sunday,” Simons said. “What good does it do to protest? There is already too much of this bickering. It’s a mixed-up situation as it is. Why add to the confusion?”
Manchester had the Miss Spokane sailing clear in the final turn of the final heat of the ‘61 Gold Cup on Nevada’s Pyramid Lake when the boat flipped and sank in 80 feet of water.
Manchester recovered, only to die in a 1966 crash in another boat.
Ownership of Miss Spokane passed in late ‘61 from cash-strapped community sponsors to Bob Gilliam of Seattle. Idled in ‘62 the boat came back the next year as the Eagle Electric, headed by crew chief Kent Simonson and the 26-year-old Heerensperger, then president and chief stockholder of Eagle Electric and Plumbing in Spokane.
The first Eagle ran for two years until Simonson sold it in the fall of ‘64, ending for a brief time Heerensperger’s sponsorship.
In August of 1967, Heerensperger bought the laughable Dollar Bill and renamed it the second Miss Eagle Electric.
That became a screamin’ machine.
With the retired Air Force Col. Gardner at the controls, the Eagle won the 1968 Dixie Cup in Guntersville, Ala., the first win for a Spokanebased unlimited.
Gardner won again in Tri-Cities in July 1968, and later bagged the President’s Cup on the Potomac River. In August of that year, the Eagle turned what was at the time the secondfastest qualifying lap in the sport’s history, 120.267 mph, on Lake Washington.
The season ended in tragedy when Gardner - battling the Miss Bardahl for the national points championship - went airborne and crashed on the Detroit River in September, 1968.
It claimed Gardner’s life, and some of the city’s taste for the sport.
The original Miss Spokane ran as the Miss Lapeer until 1967, when it was retired. The boat surfaced in 1983 when a Spokane hydro fan named Ron Miller bought it from Jim Herrington of Lapeer, Mich., and returned it to Spokane.
The city, in a hydroplaning sense, is back with Tom Hindley driving the U-19 Appian Renegade presented by Team Spokane.
Although it’s owned by former driver Bob Fendler of Honolulu the boat is stored in a welding and machine shop in Veradale.
The plan is to run four races out of Spokane and see how it goes.
If that’s a humble start it’s typical. Spokane unlimiteds have started with less.