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First Unlimited Hydroplane Race at Tri-Cities

On July 24, 1966, the first Unlimited Hydroplane Race occurs on the Columbia River at the Tri-Cities. Bill Brow in the Miss Budweiser wins the race. On this warm and windy day, Miss Budweiser wins both of her qualifying heats and qualifies for the final race. At four o'clock this afternoon, Miss Budweiser rips through the water and beats out her competition with an average speed of 92.402 miles per hour.

Crowds Line the Columbia

This year was the first time the big boats raced on the two-and-a-half mile course on the Columbia River at the Tri-Cities. The race has occurred annually ever since. The boats must have a certain minimum speed to qualify (which has changed from year to year). "Unlimited" refers to the fact that there is no maximum horsepower.

At least 50,000 people crowded the shores of the river to watch the races. On the Benton County side, the four-mile long Columbia Park along the river provided ample room for spectators. A smaller crowd watched from the Franklin County side from atop the river dike. Both sides had a terrific view of the race course. Cars lined Canal Drive, a Kennewick Street that overlooks the race course about 50 feet above the river.

Twelve drivers with 12 boats were on hand for the big race. They were:

  • Mira Slovak driving the U-3 Tahoe Miss
  • Jim McCormick driving the U-6 Miss Madison
  • Walt Kade driving the U-10 Savair's Mist
  • Bill Brow driving the U-12 Miss Budweiser
  • Jim Ranger driving the U-15 Miss Gypsy
  • Bob Fendler driving the U-19 Wayfarer's Club Lady
  • Bill Manchu driving the U-21 Dollar Bill
  • Bob Miller driving the U-37 Miss Tri-Cities
  • Red Loomis driving the U-50 Savair's Probe
  • Bill Sterett driving the U-77 Miss Chrysler Crew
  • Bill Cantrell driving the U-80 Smirnoff
  • Bob Gilliam driving the U-88 Hilton Hy-Per Lube

This was the first year Miss Tri-Cities competed in the hydroplane races. During time trials, she reached 130 miles per hour on the straightaways and an average lap speed of 95.329.

Fast Times and High Stakes

There was approximately $25,000 in prize money at stake. The first place winner would be awarded $4,500. The second place winner would win $3,200, with each remaining place receiving a decreasing amount. Each heat winner took an additional $500. Each legal start in each heat also resulted in additional award money. Time trials took place on Friday and Saturday preceding the race. All 12 boats qualified for the final races on Sunday. Unfortunately, Bill Manchu in the Dollar Bill, had mechanical problems that kept him from starting on Sunday.

On Sunday, Bill Sterett piloted the Miss Chrysler Crew to the fastest time in Heat 1-A, averaging 97.122 miles per hour. Bill Brow in the Miss Budweiser took Heat 1-B, with a speed of 94.246 miles per hour. Mira Slovak, a Czechoslovakian airplane pilot, took first place in Heat 2-A in the Tahoe Miss with a speed of 96.531 miles per hour. Miss Budweiser, "The Bud," also won Heat 2-B with a slightly better speed of 96.368. The first and second place finishers from each heat qualified for the final race. This resulted in a field of six boats for the final race: Miss Budweiser, Smirnoff, Savair's Probe, Wayfarers Club Lady, Tahoe Miss, and Miss Chrysler Crew.

By the final heat, the wind had gained momentum, making the racing just a little bit more treacherous. A bad turn could result in swamping the boat, or worse, flipping it. The water was choppy and the air was dusty. Two boats, the Tahoe Miss and the Miss Chrysler Crew, developed mechanical problems and did not finish the race.

Miss Budweiser Takes All

Ultimately, Bill Brow held out in the Miss Budweiser. It was the first win for owner Bernie Little, who had competed in 29 races and had won several heats, but had never won a complete race. It was the start of a long dominance by Miss Budweiser in unlimited hydroplane racing.

The entire event was known as the Water Follies and Atomic Cup Unlimited Hydroplane Races. Crowds also enjoyed other events throughout the weekend, although they were overshadowed by the big boat races. A two-day arts and crafts show took place in Kennewick. Pasco hosted a Kiddies parade in the downtown area. Sham-Na-Pum Golf Course hosted a two-day golf tournament. Young and old could also have fun during a three-day carnival.

These events made the weekend a memorable one for Tri-Citians. It began a tradition that continues to this day.

Reprinted from http://www.historylink.org.

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