All that is good in the small domain of the thunderboat was demonstrated last Sunday on the Detroit River during the second annual World's Championship Race for unlimited hydroplanes. First—and best of all—no one was killed, for a change. There was also another change. Bill Sterett, a white-haired, 42-year-old Kentuckian who until Sunday had never won anything, won the race in a boat that had no relationship at all to an airplane. Instead of the conventional World War II surplus aircraft engines that have been driving the big hydros for years, Sterett's winner was powered by twin 427-cubic-inch Chrysler hemi-head engines, the same kind that Richard Petty uses in his stock car racer, and the same kind, with a few slight adjustments, that you can pick up at your neighborhood Chrysler dealer's.
Jim Ranger in My Gypsy and Sterett in his Miss Chrysler Crew won two preliminary heats each and went into the championship tied for first with 800 points. But just after the flying start, everything was decided. My Gypsy came across the starting line on the outside, where Ranger wanted to be, but when he attempted to cut in and position himself for the first turn, his left sponson caught water, ripping off a section of Gypsy's deck. The boat continued to run, but by the time Ranger recovered control, Sterett had an unbeatable advantage. He crossed the finish line nearly half a lap ahead of Ranger to conclude a perfect afternoon of racing.
The perfect afternoon, unfortunately, has become exceedingly rare. When all goes well a hydro under a full head of steam is the most spectacular sight in sport. Although Sterett's fastest lap in the heats was 104.046 mph, some 181.167 mph slower than Lee Taylor had done two days earlier at Lake Guntersville (see box opposite), a closed-course race in a piston-driven boat and a straightaway assault on a time record in a turbine are two entirely different breeds of cat. Unlimited hydroplane racing in its ten previous outings has produced a casualty list that reads like a Vietnam war report.
Three weeks ago during the Suncoast Cup race in Tampa, with the 1967 unlimited season one minute old, Bill Brow charged down the straight of the 2½-mile course in Miss Budweiser at 170 mph. He was 100 yards ahead of the nearest boat when he began lifting out of the water. Budweiser wobbled twice, like a quail wounded in full flight, bounced, reversed direction, bounced again, rolled over in the air and plunged to the bottom of Tampa Bay. Brow died two hours later.
July 9, 1967
"I thought about going to Brow's funeral—he was a good friend of mine—but I didn't," Sterett said. "I knew it would affect me the wrong way. I sent a wreath and a telegram to his widow and then forgot about it. I don't know what it is, but I guess the whole thing about racing is a matter of proving something to yourself. Like when I was starting out in the construction business I had this terrible fear of being buried in dirt, but I went down and shored up sewers when nobody else would. I got buried five times one day, once for an hour and a half. It cut off the circulation in my legs so bad you could see the marks where the dirt clots were. But after every cave-in I went back down. I had to. And I would rather die in a boat than in an old folks' home. I've lived a full 42 years."
On June 19 last year, during the running of the President's Cup on the Potomac River, Rex Manchester in Notre Dame and Don Wilson in Miss Budweiser raced flat out toward the second turn on the first lap of the championship heat. They were not more than five feet apart. There was no way either boat could have properly made the turn. Suddenly Notre Dame lifted out of the water and slammed down on Budweiser's hull. Both boats exploded in a ghoulish shower of spray and broken plywood. Both men were killed.
Just three hours earlier, Wilson had knelt on the dock in a pathetically futile attempt to revive Ron Musson, who had also crashed. Musson had sheared his propeller. His hydroplane, Miss Bardahl, nosed into the water and flipped end-over. That was the bleakest afternoon in the history of unlimited racing. A former American Power Boat Association president called it "an act of God."
There are four main groups involved in unlimited hydroplane racing, the drivers, owners, boatbuilders and race officials, and nobody knows what happened. Was the water bad? Water conditions at Tampa and on the Potomac were listed as "good." Was it design failure? Les Staudacher of Kawkawlin, Mich. built or designed eight of the 15 boats that started in the Detroit race and has been constructing hydroplanes for nearly 20 years. He feels the problem was largely one of aerodynamics. "When a hydroplane is planing," he said, "if its attitude is 5° too high, it tends to kite. If it's 5° too low, it tends to nose into the water. The proper balance is theoretically built into the hull."
Lee Schoenith, the czar of unlimited racing—it says so on the back of his jacket—disagrees. "Kiting is a factor," he says, "but that really doesn't come into play until about 150 or 160 mph."
And Bill Newton, the race referee in Detroit, says, "If a boat got into trouble every time it started kiting, we'd have to stop racing today. We set up a safety committee last year and there's a list of specifications a mile long. If anybody thinks he's got a better way, and can prove it, we'll let him run. That's what we're after."
That leaves driver error, but if somebody is thinking along that line, they'd better not mention it to Bill Muncey, the four-time Gold Cup winner who is probably the best hydroplane driver still racing.
"Driver error?" Muncey says. "I don't buy that for five minutes. It's easy to blame Brow for his crash [some knowledgeable people claim Brow knew a split second before his accident that he was in trouble and he could have taken his foot off the throttle], but racing is more than getting in that tin can and zigging and zagging and turning left. They weren't in his cockpit. They don't know what the manifold pressure was or what the oil gauge showed or a whole lot of other things. Musson? He was one of the best chauffeurs this business has ever had.
"What caused the accidents? It's a trite phrase, but I'd call it the pressure of competition. Most outsiders don't realize it, but there's an awful lot of pressure on a driver. Owners put a lot of money into these things and they expect something for it. Then there's a lot of competition among the drivers, too. Some guy is always after another driver's seat. But driver error? I love this sport, and I won't have somebody stand there and tell me it was driver error."
Two weeks after the triple disaster in Washington last year, Chuck Thompson in Smirnoff was racing Tahoe Miss, driven by Mira Slovak, in heat 3-A of the Gold Cup on the Detroit River. Thompson trailed Slovak by a boat length and was on the inside heading for the first turn when Smirnoff went up on one sponson, lifted into the air and dived back into the water. Thompson was in an ambulance within three minutes of the crash, but died an hour later.
"Thompson was always sort of a wild man," says Staudacher. "But he'd driven that way for years, and the other drivers all knew it. He would come into my shop or call just about every week, and I'd say, 'Chuck, the guys tell me you're pushing it.' He would answer, 'Naaw, Les, I've got everything under control.' "
Referee Newton said in Detroit, "I can fine a driver, give him a week's suspension or a month's suspension or a year's suspension if he cuts a guy off or does something like that. But I can't call down somebody for overdriving or what somebody might think is bad driving. Hell, the guys that got killed weren't new to the game. They were all pros, the respected drivers, the best in the business."
And so the debate goes on, with everyone concerned taking the attitude of stoic fatalism and with no real solutions in sight. The owners, officials, builders and drivers create their own rooster tails and wakes that everybody else is forever getting caught in. But then the water closes over and all is the same as it was before, and nothing is settled. After Brow's fatal accident, one driver said, "I've made my peace with God." Well, everybody got out of Detroit alive, but there are six more races on this season's calendar. That's plenty of time for the others to get religion.
TAYLOR'S LAST FAST TRIP ON THE GOOD SHIP 'HUSTLER'
Early last week the weather was terrible and the boat was 2½ tons of trouble. Then, on Friday, skies cleared over Lake Guntersville—home of the most frightened fish in Alabama—and Lee Taylor Jr. got aboard the Hustler. It is really a surplus J-46 Douglas jet engine surrounded by 30 feet of boat trappings, so scary that when Taylor first tried it four years ago he panicked and bailed out. Since then, world water-speed record holder (at 276.333 mph) Donald Campbell had been killed at 310 mph. But this time Taylor stayed aboard and hit a sample 299.181—with only 20 minutes left on his Coast Guard permit. He got an extension, refueled, and really hit it: one run at 288.1216 mph, a return at 282.3039, for an average of 285.2127 mph and the new world mark. Taylor, 33, will let it stand. "The Hustler," said its builder, Richard Hallett, "is a tired old boat."