We're racing through history!
The zealots who cannot shake the unlimited hydroplane habit open the new season in the certain knowledge that heartbreak lies around the bend.
By Coles Phinizy
Reprinted from Sports Illustrated, June 2, 1975
After 15 honest years of handling lesser brutes, in 1973 Tom D'Eath, a 29-year-old Michigan boat driver, got his first try in an unlimited hydroplane. When he moved up into the biggest class of them all, D'Eath joined an elite group of boat owners, drivers and mechanics of assorted genius and curious disposition.
In the Kentucky Derby a jockey named Shoemaker once stood in his stirrups too soon, costing his irate backers a bundle. At the Masters a golfer named de Vicenzo once signed an incorrect scorecard, thereby losing a chance at a green blazer and a bundle. In 1908 a base runner named Merkle blew a pennant by failing to touch a bag, and in 1929 a California football player named Riegels lost the Rose Bowl by running the wrong way. Such freakish turns of fate, occasional in other sports, are commonplace in unlimited hydroplaning. Scantily defined, an unlimited hydroplaner is a mystical mix of optimist and masochist. To survive he must believe in winning while reveling in the fact that at any moment, for one unforeseen reason or a hundred others, he may end up with egg on his face.
Two years ago, when Tom D'Eath joined the unlimiteds, or "thunderboats" as they are also called, he brought with him the sort of track record and bloodlines that horse fanciers respect. He had won three national titles in the 2.5 liter class and held the straightaway record in that category. His father was a thunder-boat hero of the Guy Lombardo era; his brother has a winning record in three limited classes. As might be expected, in his rookie season D'Eath finished in the ruck driving Miss U.S., an old boat owned by George Simon, a Detroit tool manufacturer. Despite his bloodlines and competence, last year in a spiffy new Miss U.S. furnished by Simon, D'Eath did even worse. He got into the water by the one-minute warning gun for only 10 of the 34 heats run that year, and on four of those 10 occasions never made it across the starting line. In one race Miss U.S. began handling like a berserk hay wagon, in another her throttle cable froze and in another her battery failed - such are the ills that these boats are heir to. Midway in the season in her opening heat for the Gold Cup, the classic contest of unlimited hydroplane racing, by the luck of it poor Miss U.S. came up against the hottest boats in the fleet: Pay 'n Pak, the 1973 champion; Miss Budweiser, the 1973 runner-up; Atlas Van Lines, driven by Bill Muncey, the biggest winner of all; and an experimental turbine-powered boat called U-95. D'Eath led for two laps, or until U-95 blew up and sank, stopping the action. In the rerun of the aborted heat D'Eath was again in the lead when his gear box disintegrated, blowing hot metal through a fuel cell and burning Miss U.S. to the waterline.
Any thoroughbred horse that performs as badly as Miss U.S. did last year runs the risk of being shipped to a meat-packer, but thunderboating is a different kind of sentimental game. And to judge by the record, George Simon, owner of Miss U.S., is the gamest kind of sentimentalist. He has owned unlimited hydros for 20 years. Back in 1962 Roy Duby piloted one of his hulls to and fro over a straight mile at an average speed of 200.419 mph to set a world propellered-craft record that still stands. His boats have won almost every unlimited honor, but never the cherished Gold Cup or the annual title. Bernie Little, owner of rival Miss Budweiser, says of Simon, "George gets inspired. When he hears his boat firing up, he is ready to bet a bundle on it, and when he is in that kind of inspired condition, the rest of us can pluck him like a chicken."
Be all that as it may, this past winter Simon had Miss U.S. rebuilt. Last week in Miami in the Champion Spark Plug Regatta, the first race of the 1975 season, Miss U.S. went back into action with Tom D'Eath again at the wheel. And how did they do? Worse than ever. On the first turn of the first lap of the first heat Miss U.S.'s ignition failed; her intake took in water. In the second heat, while boiling along at a comfortable 150 mph seconds before the gun, Miss U.S. was washed out by the rooster tail of an overeager rival.
Nobody should consider getting into thunderboating unless he is willing to be unlucky. The anxious mother who does not want her boy to become a driver should take the following precautions: first, never let the kid get his hands on any outboard motor, not even the tiniest Evinrude. One horsepower often leads to another and before you know it the kid has a helmet and life vest. Second, never take a child near Seattle or Detroit in the summer. The unlimited hydro bug is particularly virulent in those areas at that time.
A boy may grow up devoted to stamp collecting and fern pressing, but that does not guarantee that he will not later succumb to a pastime like thunderboating. There is a bit of the motor-mad Toad in many adult males, and no one can be sure when or how the mania will crop out. Consider the case of 39-year-old David Heerensperger. From his teens on, in the process of carving out a living, Heerensperger, present owner of two-time champion Pay 'n Pak, rarely had time for anything more frivolous than high school baseball in Longview, Wash. In 1963, three years after he opened his first electric store, he saw a news item about a sunken hydro, Miss Spokane, that had been salvaged and was going for $5,000. For reasons he does not try to explain, Heerensperger momentarily lost his good business sense and went for it.
For two years he campaigned the boat, renaming it Miss Eagle Electric, after his business. He spent $28,000 and won nary a purse. Realizing that to campaign properly would cost more than his whole business was then worth, Heerensperger got rid of the boat. He swore off even attending races, but the bug still had him. After two years of total abstinence he was back.
Because of all the twists of luck, now and again an upstart driver in a lesser boat outscorches the top dogs, but the life span of such supernovas is usually brief, their exits often made with a loud bang as half a dozen connecting rods burst through the walls of their old and overtaxed engines. The only adequate power plants available today are antique Allison and Rolls-Royce engines made 25 and more years ago for fighter planes. In wartime the engines were designed to cruise at about 2,200 rpm and were red-lined around 3,500. In hydros they are pushed up to 4,500 rpm to turn propellers at better than 13,000. When so pushed the old engines frequently blow. Broken rods and broken hearts are the order of the day. Coming out of a turn when his blower is behind schedule, so to speak, the driver of a modern thunderboat caresses a button on his steering wheel two or three times, adding nitrous oxide, a heady compound better known as laughing gas, to his fuel to effect a faster burn. If he is a pennyweight too heavy on the button, within five seconds it is goodby engine. The old engines, which originally cost around $30,000, could be bought just after World War II for $125. Off the shelf they now go for $5,000 and, race-prepared, for twice that.
The three-point hulls used today are still undergoing change by the tedious process of trial and error. Whatever breakthroughs the future may hold, the hulls forever will be a compromise between what runs well flat-out on a straight and what is necessary to survive in the brawling uncertainties of the turns. Today when boats are hitting 180 mph on straights and lapping at 115, the driver Who does not back off enough and catches a sponson in one of the queer holes that suddenly appear in the troubled water of a turn can easily spin his boat full circle and end up on the obituary page. For all its whims thunderboating is still a percentage game, and the owner or sponsor who is not willing to put $125,000 into it annually is not apt to get anywhere.
It is logical enough that a town like Spokane, in a heartland of the sport, might have a community-sponsored hull named Miss Spokane, but no one visiting Madison, Ind. would suspect that such a quiet old town could be similarly afflicted by the bug. In the early 19th century, before the railroads went west, Madison was a busy Ohio River port. Today it is in large part a memory, a showplace of gracious architecture by early 19th century masters. A bawling hydro no more fits into the Madison scene than a stable of Indy cars would in Colonial Williamsburg. Nonetheless the town has harbored, patched, repatched and campaigned a succession of Miss Madisons for 14 years, winning almost nothing. The most that can be said for the effort is that some of Miss Madison's drivers have gone on to greater things. One of them, George (Buddy) Byers, is now the commissioner of thunderboating. Another, Jim McCormick, drives Pay 'n Pak.
McCormick is a mechanical contractor by trade, a boat driver by preoccupation. Before he bought a 280-cu.-in. inboard racer by mistake in 1963, casual water sports were his recreational bag. (His wife Bonnie remembers that he spent an inordinate portion of their honeymoon wearing a face mask in the bathtub to find out how long he could hold his breath underwater). McCormick never saw a boat race, real or televised, before he ran in one in 1963 against two dozen hot-shot 280-inch hydroplaners at the Calvert Trophy regatta in Louisville. McCormick took fifth in his heat to make the final round. In the finals, running third, he popped his propeller shaft 100 yards from the finish line. His score for the day was DNF, but he was hooked.
When McCormick applied for the job aboard Miss Madison, his wife cottoned to the idea. Working on his own boat had consumed much of his spare time; if he became the exalted jockey of a thunderboat, he would have loyal monkeys to tinker it into shape for him. The Miss Madison management apparently entertained some doubt about how long its association with McCormick might last. Despite his suggestion that his name be painted on the boat, as is the custom, they declined to do so.
At Tampa in 1966 McCormick won his very first heat in an unlimited hydro, blowing off great ones like Miss Budweiser and Miss Smirnoff. When he ended up third overall in the three-heat race, the Miss Madison management wrote his name on the hull with a felt-point pen. His next race was the President's Cup in Washington, and McCormick relates, "In the first heat I break out ahead. I am blowing and going. Then I hit the first turn and scattered our only engine all over the Potomac. In a word, I really garbaged it." It was not only a bad day for McCormick, but also the darkest day in more than a half century of unlimited racing. Three of the 13 drivers were killed. "That one bad day," McCormick says, "cooled my wife off real quick."
Although the money didn't mean much to him, the following season McCormick left Miss Madison for better rides in hulls like Notre Dame and Atlas Van Lines. By 1970, however, he was back with Miss Madison. But as if there were not enough freakish disasters on the racecourses, Miss Madison's chances were dashed before the season began. While the crew was trailering her through Georgia en route to the first race in Tampa, a drunk driver coming out of a side road broadsided them and knocked the 28-foot hull off her rig.
The following year was Miss Madison's finest. After the first three races the 12-year-old boat stood second in championship points. The classic four-heat Gold Cup competition is bid for annually by interested communities, and in 1971 by fluke the consistently low-bidding town of Madison was the only one that made an offer by the deadline. Going into the last heat with a solid chance to take the Gold Cup in its home waters, the crew told McCormick, "We are either going to win or blow you sky high." They drilled out the nitrous oxide orifice and the fuel orifice and added nitromethane to the fuel, and somehow the quivering bomb held together. "When Miss Madison won the Gold Cup right in Madison," McCormick remembers, "they damn near burned down the whole town."
At the next race, in Pasco, Wash., Miss Madison won again to take the lead in championship points. Apparently giddy with success, at a race in Seattle the crew got the engine timing off 180 degrees and blew out the front end. "The dream ended about there," McCormick says. "We finished second that year, which is not bad for a volunteer crew, an antique boat and a fouled-up driver."
The winner of the first race of 1975 in Miami last week was a boat called Weisfield's, which unsuccessfully campaigned in 1974 as Valu-Mart (the whimsies of thunderboat naming would give a horse breeder fits. Not only do drivers jump from boat to boat, but boats change names with abandon. For example, the latest Miss Budweiser, the seventh so named, was Pay 'n Pak a few years ago and the Valvoline now active on the circuit ran last year as Miss Technicolor and sometimes as Miss Colt Beverages and also as Miss Northwest Tank Service).
Bill Schumacher, the two-time national champion who drove Weisfield's to her Miami win, led the sort of early life that worries mothers. He was bombing around racecourses in five-hp outboards at 30 mph at the age of eight. Before moving up to beefier stuff he won three national titles and set competitive and straightaway records in the 9- and 12-year-old classes. By the time he was 15 he was driving four different hulls in eight classes. In one weekend regatta at Devils Lake, Ore. young Schumacher ran 30 heats in 11 different classes.
Schumacher has been in and out of thunderboats for a dozen years, injuring himself seriously only once. In 1971 on the same Miami course where he won last week his rudder linkage failed while he was traveling 155 mph, putting the boat into a 360-degree spin and throwing him out. A year later he quit a boat in mid-season because he considered the debris-filled waters of a racecourse too dangerous. "There is risk enough in the sport," he says. "I am not interested in playing Russian roulette."
It was expected that the 1975 season would be a red-hot competition between the defending champion, Pay 'n Pak, and Miss Budweiser, Atlas Van Lines and Weisfield's, but in Miami Weisfield's had it all her way. She won both her heats and the final round for a perfect score of 1,200 points. Only one boat got within two mph of her hot pace in qualifying and competitive laps. In thunderboating, for sure, one race does not a season make. Given enough time and the usual quota of freakish bad luck, even the best of the big boats may blow up, wash out or spin out. Now and for all time it is a game with slings and arrows aplenty, a game where the only certainty is uncertainty.