Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum

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The History of Hydroplanes and Folsom Lake

By Fred Farley - H1 Unlimited Historian

Unlimited hydroplane racing returned to Folsom Lake this May 31 - June 2 2013 as part of “Big Wake Weekend” at Granite Bay in Sacramento, California. The world’s largest and fastest racing boats last appeared on Folsom Lake in 1966 and 1967. The event was known as the Sacramento Cup in those days.

The fleet of boats that showed up for those early Folsom Lake races had almost nothing in common with their modern counterparts. All were piston-powered and all but one used government surplus Allison or Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, left over from World War II. (Jet turbine power in race boats was considered to be in the realm of science fiction in the 1960s.)

The pit area at Folsom Lake in 1967 – Courtesy of the Hydroplane & Raceboat Museum.

The hydroplanes themselves were rather narrow and quite box-shaped. The driver sat behind – rather than in front of – the engine in an open cockpit with no seat belt. (In the days before the F-16 safety canopy, it was believed that a driver had a better chance of surviving a serious accident if he were thrown clear of his boat.

The modern Unlimiteds are wider and flatter and can corner much better and faster than the earlier designs.

The one thing that the boats of 1966 did have in common with those racing in 2013 was tremendous straightaway speed. Then as now, the sight of an Unlimited hydroplane at full throttle and with a roostertail of spray trailing behind it is the most awesome spectacle in all of motor sports.

Some of the most prominent names in hydroplane history appeared at that 1966 Sacramento race. These included Bill Harrah’s National Champion TAHOE MISS, Bernie Little’s MISS BUDWEISER, Bill Sterett’s MISS CHRYSLER CREW, Jim Ranger’s MY GYPSY, the community-owned MISS MADISON from Indiana, and Jim Herrington’s MISS LAPEER, the eventual winner.

Veteran Unlimited hydroplane fans, arriving for the first time at Folsom Lake, were surprised to behold a smaller than usual race course: 2-1/2 miles instead of the usual 3 miles.

During the post-World War II era from 1946 to 1965, virtually every Unlimited venue measured 3 miles or larger. The trend to smaller courses began in 1966. “This was done to improve spectator vantage points,” Sacramento Cup promoter Phil Cole explained. “When the turns are closer together, the spectator can see more of the race.” All of today’s H1 Unlimited race courses are 2 miles or 2-1/2 miles in circumference.

1966 SACRAMENTO CUP

The 1966 Sacramento Cup saw Herrington’s MISS LAPEER rebound from a distant second-place in Heat One to a couple of solid victories in Heats Two and Three. Piloted by Warner Gardner, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, the Herrington team outscored Ranger in MY GYPSY, 1100 points to 969. This was in the days when a winner was determined on the basis of total points scored in all three heats rather than by a first-place finish in the Final Heat.

MISS LAPEER turned the fastest competition lap of the day at a speed of 105.820 miles per hour. Built in 1956 by Les Staudacher from a Ted Jones design, MISS LAPEER was one of the oldest boats in the race and had previously campaigned as MISS SPOKANE. The 1966 Sacramento Cup was the boat’s only race victory.

1966 Final Standings:

  1. MISS LAPEER, Warner Gardner
  2. MY GYPSY, Jim Ranger
  3. MISS CHRYSLER CREW, Bill Sterett
  4. TAHOE MISS, Mira Slovak
  5. SAVAIR’S PROBE, Red Loomis

1967 SACRAMENTO CUP

The 1967 Sacramento Cup saw a point tie at the end of the day between Billy Schumacher in MISS BARDAHL and Mike Thomas in MISS BUDWEISER. Both had two firsts and one second-place heat finish. Schumacher received the victory nod on the basis of faster total elapsed time for all three heats. MISS BARDAHL averaged 100.396 miles per hour to MISS BUDWEISER’s 97.203.

The victory on Folsom Lake was one of six during the 1967 season by pilot Schumacher en route to claiming the National High Point Championship for owner Ole Bardahl. Billy remains active in the sport to this day as co-owner (with wife Jane) of the Seattle-based 37 MISS BEACON PLUMBING.

1967 Final Standings:

  1. MISS BARDAHL, Billy Schumacher
  2. MISS BUDWEISER, Mike Thomas
  3. MISS CHRYSLER CREW, Mira Slovak
  4. MISS U.S., Bill Muncey
  5. WAYFARERS CLUB LADY, Jim McCormick

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Comment by Glenn Landguth on January 9, 2015 at 11:23am

We watched the 1966 race. When I mentioned it to my dad, who was working for Bill in the Mercer Island store, he mentioned it to Bill.  Bill invited us to join him and his wife to watch the 1967 race.

In 1967  my wife and I sat on top of Bill Muncey's (motor home?) to watch the race. We were able to visit during heats that he did not race in.

I have some 8mm home movies taken during the race and some clips of Bill and his wife.

Bill was driving the Miss US. He talked about how difficult it was to get the Miss US set up consistently. The metal hull seemed to change, probably due to the flexing of the metal joints. It would run great one time and the next time everything would be different. It was a beautiful boat, but due to the constant flexing, it was never consistent. He never knew what to expect.

We also talked about the difficulty of preventing flipping. He mentioned that there had been wind tunnel testing, but that the wind tunnel testing did not correlate with actual behavior on the water. The wind tunnel could not accurately simulate the boat-water interface.

On one occasion, as he was coming back to the (motor home?), some other drivers were talking to him about his agressive driving. His reply was a suggestion that they just stay out of his way and everything would be fine. I came to realize how important phychology was in hydroplane racing. I got the impression that itt was just as important to be able to intimidate the competition as it was to have a fast boat. Bill was obviously a very competitive driver.

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