The sport of hydroplaning, in which the sight of burning boats, crippled drivers and squabbling officials has become commonplace, degenerated into a grisly parody of itself at the Seafair Trophy races in Seattle last week. The regatta produced a winner (of sorts) in Miss Thriftway, driven by Bill Muncey, but only after the event, scheduled to start and finish on Sunday August 7, was dragged out through the late afternoon of the next day. It left four men in the hospital, 200,000 witnesses utterly bewildered, and the $6,600 in prize money locked up in litigation.
The carnage began early in the second section of the first heat. Mira Slovak, piloting Bill Boeing's Wahoo, blasted into the north turn at an estimated 160 mph, caught a sponson and turned completely over. Slovak was catapulted into the water as red disaster flares sputtered from the official barge. At that instant Boeing's prerace remark (SI, Aug. 8), "When Slovak quits, so does Wahoo. They'll finish together," seemed prophetic. Unconscious and in shock, suffering from hip contusions and internal injuries, Slovak was plucked from the water by a helicopter and carried to the hospital. All heats were delayed for nearly three-quarters of an hour while patrol boats cleaned the course of Wahoo's debris.
When the wreckage had been towed away, racing was resumed, and by late afternoon Miss U.S. I, having won each of her heat sections, was leading with 800 points. Miss Spokane and Miss Thriftway were close behind. With the third and final heat about to begin, the Seafair seemed to be stabilized. Then, out of a plane cruising over Lake Washington, six sky-divers came hurtling down in pairs, their parachutes popping open, two and two and two. The jump was a planned part of the Seafair program, to provide additional thrills for spectators. In a horrifying way it was successful.
Five jumpers landed safely; but the sixth, Charles Kirkpatrick, veteran of 166 jumps, misjudged his drop to the water, cut his harness too soon and plummeted 100 feet to splash flat on his back near the barge. As soon as he could be fished out, Kirkpatrick was on his way to join Slovak in the hospital. Kirkpatrick's injuries brought him close to death.
August 21, 1960
At 6:20 in the evening, shortly before the five-minute warning gun for the final heat, Don Wilson, driver of Miss U.S. I, kissed his pretty blonde wife Sandra and gunned onto the course. He hit the line in close contention with Miss Spokane and Miss Thriftway, then dropped steadily behind as Miss Spokane took charge. By the fifth and last lap, Wilson was nearly two miles back of the leaders. Miss Spokane was still in front, and to all appearances it was her race as she charged past the 1,000-foot marker some 17 seconds from victory. At that instant red flares again erupted off the official barge: Miss U.S. I, far down on the south turn, had burst into smoke and flames. Wilson, his burning hydro still moving at 90 mph, tried to jump but his right foot caught in the cockpit and, in the few agonizing seconds before he could release it and plunge into the lake, his face, arms and legs were severely burned. Once again the rescue helicopter went into action, and, as his wife looked on, Wilson, too, was bundled onto a stretcher, and whisked to the hospital.
Almost everybody—except Referee Stan Donogh and a handful of other officials—assumed Miss Spokane had won. And everyone was more than willing to go home. Donogh, however, invoked the rule to the effect that the last heat of a 45-mile race must go the full five laps to be completed and called for a rerun. Miss Spokane's backers stormed the official barge, protesting that the fire in Miss U.S. I in no way endangered the leading boats. Practically all the other owners and drivers sided with Miss Spokane.
Into the drink
Nevertheless, 20 minutes before sundown, the rerun was started. It had scarcely gone a full lap when red flares once again dotted the lake. Miss Thriftway Too, sister ship of the contending Miss Thriftway, caught fire on the backstretch. Her driver, Colonel Russell Schleeh, jumped ship and was picked up by helicopter, suffering from minor leg burns and a possible fracture of the vertebrae.
After another delay, Donogh announced the final heat would be tried again at 4:30 p.m. Monday—a decision to which the American Power Boat Association, governing body for big-time hydro racing, acceded only on condition that no "official" winner would be declared and that the prize money be held up.
Meanwhile, George Simon, owner of Miss U.S. I, had gone to the airport, sick of hydroplanes and Seattle. As he waited for his plane, however, Simon began to brood. The more he brooded, the more often the thought recurred to him that somehow Miss U.S. I had won the race. Five minutes before flight time, he canceled his reservation.
"I won me a race," he declared. "That's my race, and I'm going to get it." Back to town went Simon to file a protest. In essence, he charged that the Seafair race was scheduled for one day and no third heat was completed in the allotted time. Therefore, claimed Simon, the race was over at the end of two heats-and Miss U.S. I was leading at the time with 800 points.
Out of the sport
Monday's rerun went on as scheduled, with perhaps 50,000 diehard hydrophiles enduring 94° heat to watch the curious, anticlimactic runoff. This time, Miss Thriftway worked into the lead and successfully held off the pursuit of Miss Spokane to win the heat and the race—providing the APBA does not cancel the victory as a result of Simon's protest.
Thus ended the wildest hydroplane race of them all. Thus ended, too, the hydroplaning careers of three men, bringing to something like a dozen the number of top racers and boat owners who have dropped out of this anarchistic sport in the past five years. From his hospital bed Don Wilson, whose wife is expecting their first child in January, spoke through burn-swollen lips: "It's all over. I've had it." In another room Mira Slovak, under heavy sedation, rolled over in bed and told reporters that he, too, was out of racing for good. "Bill Boeing and I started out with the Wahoo...five years ago on Lake Washington," he mumbled sleepily. "We ended up the same place. We've done our share. It's up to the other guys now." Bill Boeing confirmed Slovak's announcement. In a letter to the APBA, he submitted his resignation as a member of the unlimited racing commission—in effect, declaring his complete retirement from hydroplaning. "There is always a right time to get out," said Bill Boeing. "This is the time."