Deadly" is a word that over the last three years has more and more frequently been used to describe the sport of hydroplane racing, and journalistic sensationalism has nothing to do with it. Over that period of time a rash of accidents involving the roaring thunderboats has killed five top drivers.
The first casualty was Ron Musson, who died as his Miss Bardahl nosed over in a whoosh of spray at the start of the President's Cup in Washington in 1966. Later in the same race Rex Manchester's Notre Dame flew free of the water, climbed skyward, then swooped down full tilt on Don Wilson's Miss Budweiser, killing both drivers. Two weeks later Chuck Thompson's boat, Smirnoff, killed him at Detroit. Then, in 1967, another Miss Budweiser, in the words of an eyewitness, "skipped into the air like a 7,000-pound flat stone" and hurled her driver, Bill Brow, to his death.
Last week, on the ruffled surface of a man-made TVA lake at Guntersville, Ala., another season of hydro racing began. It was marked not by further casualty but by the debut of an unlimited hydroplane specifically designed to avoid the suicidal weaknesses that destroyed the other boats.
The new Smirnoff, a boat with a bow like a pickle fork and a stern like an airplane, was designed and built by Gale Enterprises, which is just another way of saying the racing Schoenith family, of whom father Joe and his son Lee are the most notable. Lee has a particular interest in making thunderboat racing safer because he happens to be chairman of hydroplaning's Unlimited Racing Commission.
The Schoeniths, like all hydro men, knew all about the tendency of the standard wide-shouldered, spindly-tailed hydros to take off into uncontrolled flight at the slightest ripple. They also knew that what caused fatal accidents was not the first but the second leap into the air, the leap they call "the death dive" that sends a boat hurtling into the water nose first like an airplane in a spin. With only two square feet of hull in contact with the water at top speed, unlimiteds are, in fact, more airplane than boat, and the wonder is that no hydro designers up to now ever treated them as such by thoroughly testing their designs in wind tunnels.
"They probably just never gave it much thought," says Lee Schoenith. Gale Enterprises did not make that mistake. Before building their boat, they gave all their ideas a vigorous wringing out in a wind tunnel made of plywood, a 7½-horsepower motor and the back rotor off a helicopter.
As first trial horse, Gale's Chief Engineer Dick Brantsner used a model of the Gale-built My Gypsy. The tunnel quickly revealed a mass of drawbacks. The Schoeniths shaved a bit here, padded there, bent this, straightened that and accumulated some 60 pages of data that were run through a computer at General Motors. The data made it plain that many of the ideas previously held inviolate in hydroplane circles were dead wrong.
A wide bow and narrow stern once were thought to be a must for stability, but the tunnel data indicated that, by adding deck area at the back until it almost equaled the amount of deck area up forward, the death-diving tendency would be minimized.
Furthermore, the tunnel showed that by forking a pair of tails upward, in the same butterfly-wing effect as in a Bonanza airplane, the boat's horizontal and vertical stability were markedly improved.
But most telling of all the innovations suggested by the tests to make hydros safer was a system for releasing the air that is scooped up and trapped between the water and the boat's bottom. This pocketed turbulence can hurl a hydro into wild and unpredictable gyrations that many drivers find impossible to control. To the men of Gale, a system of ventilators running right through the hull seemed a likely answer. "We hoped they'd meter off a lot of the air caught underneath," explains Brantsner.
It's one thing to simulate 200 mph on a toy boat within the relatively safe confines of a wind tunnel. It's quite another to do the same trick with a real boat on real water. When at last Gale's model turned into the full-sized Smirnoff, the job of trying her out fell to Wild Bill Cantrell, who faced it seemingly unawed. He took the new boat around the three-mile Gold Cup course at low speed to warm her up, then came in for a sparkplug change. Next time out he picked up the pace and skirmished with My Gypsy. At last Cantrell apparently figured he'd seen, felt and heard enough. Smirnoff went back in. "She turns nice," said Dick Brantsner, drawing a pleased smile on his face with his forefinger. "Yup, that's right," agreed Cantrell. "You don't have to fight her much."
Soon afterward, when her regular race driver, Dean Chenoweth, took over from Cantrell, all this optimism surrounding Smirnoff's first test turned to gloom as a piece of metal called a deflection plate tore off her stern, letting in gallons of dirty Detroit River water. Other, more basic weaknesses appeared. The ventilating holes, officially known as tunnel ports, revealed a tendency to bleed off too much of the cushion of air under her bottom. As a result, the boat behaved like a car in need of new shock absorbers.
Before they could solve this problem thoroughly, Smirnoff's builders had to report in at Guntersville last week for the Dixie Cup. There, before the race began, the testing and adjusting took up where it had left off. Time after time, propellers were changed to find the right combination of thrust and balance. Weighty bags of ballast were stowed aboard first in this place, then in that, to get a proper trim. All this fussing ate into badly needed practice time, but, for all her tribulations, there were bright spots. Smirnoff, fresh in her racing colors of scarlet and white, was hitting a very respectable 150 in the long straights. "And," said Dick Brantsner, "the drivers say she's the easiest boat they've ever driven."
"We've got a ways to go," declared a cautiously optimistic Lee Schoenith, "but I'll be satisfied if we finish in the top three or four."
As it turned out, he had to be satisfied with somewhat less. Despite the fact that Chenoweth made one of the best starts of the day in the first qualifying heat, he finished well behind Miss Budweiser. A poor third-place finish in the second heat cost him a spot in the finals, which was won by Warner Gardner driving Miss Eagle Electric.
As for Smirnoff: it was back to Detroit for more testing, not in wind tunnels but in her proper element—the water. Guntersville seemed to prove that she had the desired safety factor. It definitely proved she needs a lot more speed if she is to win races.