By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian
Unlimited hydroplane racing in the Pacific Northwest caught on in a big way during the decade of the '50s.
The success of the Seattle-based Slo-mo-shun IV and Slo-mo-shun V in the Gold Cup series was indeed phenomenal. The Slo-mo boats precipitated an East-West rivalry that reached fever pitch between 1950 and 1956.
Much has been said and written about the Slo-mos and the other Seattle stalwarts of those years -- Hawaii Kai III, Miss Thriftway, Miss Bardahl, Shanty I, Maverick and Miss Wahoo. All of these for the most part were fielded by wealthy sportsmen like Edgar Kaiser, Bill Boeing, Bill Waggoner and Ole Bardahl . . . people who could buy and sell the sport with their pocket change.
But even in those days, there was a second echelon of Seattle's unlimited fleet. These were the "blue collar" boats, whose owners chose to participate with a beer budget in a champagne hobby.
The Pacific Northwest became the home playground for such bargain-basement boats as Miss Skyway, Fascination, Whiz-ski, Miss U and Adios. Most of these teams had difficulty reaching the minimum qualifying speed, and none ever won a major race.
There was, however, one budget boat that was a cut above the rest. She was the Tempest from Seattle. Owned by Norm Christiansen, Tempest proved on more than one occasion that she could run with the "big money" boys and make them work for it.
Christiansen designed the boat himself. She was 27 feet, 4 inches in length, now considered rather short for anything with an Allison engine. Norm built Tempest in his basement with the help of friends.
At a time when all of the top Seattle boats affiliated with the socially conscious Seattle Yacht Club, Christiansen registered his craft with the Seattle Inboard Racing Association.
Norm's first choice for a boat name was "Banshee". But a local inboard owner already had the name and didn't want to relinquish it. So, Christiansen showed up for his first race, the 1956 Seattle Seafair Regatta, with Tempest painted on the sides. The APBA registration number was U-4, which the boat retained throughout its four-year racing career.
The 1956 Seafair Regatta was a race of almost mythic proportions. Seattle had lost possession of the Gold Cup the year before to Detroit's Gale V. But the Seafair Trophy was more than a mere Gold Cup substitute. A substantial cash prize ($25,000) was offered. And the APBA Inboard Racing Commission went so far as to designate the event as the "National Championship Race" for unlimited class hydros.
Seventeen boats flocked to the shores of Lake Washington, vying for 12 spots on the starting grid for the first set of preliminary heats. Tempest qualified 10th at a speed of 103.422 miles an hour for three laps around the 3.75-mile course.
At the wheel was rookie Bill Tonkin. The '56 Seafair race could be his one and only appearance as an unlimited pilot. But Tonkin's driving was exemplary. (Some of the other rookies in attendance were Mira Slovak in Miss Wahoo, Norm Evans in Miss Seattle and Bob Gilliam in Miss B&I.)
In the opening, 30-mile heat, Tempest ran a steady fourth behind Russ Schleeh in Shanty I, Slovak in Miss Wahoo and Bill Cantrell in Gale V. Early leaders Bill Muncey and Miss Thriftway faded to fifth, while Fred Alter and Such Crust III failed to finish. Tempest averaged 92.727 for the eight laps, compared to 104.6 for the victorious Shanty.
Tempest came alive, albeit briefly, in the second heat. Tonkin and the U-4 gave spirited chase to Don Wilson and the Miss U.S. II with laps speeds in the 107 and 108 mph range. (This was at a time when the course record was 107.965, set in 1955 by Slo-mo-shun IV.) Slovak in Miss Wahoo, Muncey in Miss Thriftway and Jack Regas in Hawaii Kai III wallowed in the wake of Tempest.
A broken fitting on the oil line finally halted Tonkin's charge and forced him into the pits. The race was over for the Norm Christiansen team. But they had made their presence felt by performing more impressively than a lot of other boats with substantially bigger bankrolls.
Christiansen and his volunteer crew chose not to participate in any more races during 1956. They concentrated instead on preparations for an expanded 1957 campaign.
Unlimited racing, in the '50s, exuded a distinctly regional aura. There was a West Coast fleet, and there was an East Coast fleet. Only a handful of boats ever competed in both the East and the West. And about the only time that most of the top unlimiteds were ever on the same race course together was at the Gold Cup.
Tempest was strictly a West Coast entry. During her entire career, the U-4 never ventured any farther from home than Las Vegas, Nevada. She was counterpart to such eastern boats as Wha Hoppen Too, What A Pickle, Bill-der, Miss Ricochet, It's A Wonder, and My Darling, which likewise never crossed the Mississippi River.
The performance of the Tempest in the '56 Seafair race was sufficient to attract the attention -- and patronage -- of Seattle industrialist Ole Bardahl. For the 1957 season, Tempest became the Miss Bardahl.
Here was a sponsorship coup if ever there was one! Bardahl had financed race cars at Indianapolis, but the U-4 represented Ole's first tentative step into boats.
Granted, the dollar figure in the agreement between Bardahl and Christiansen was a modest one. But this was the start of a competitive dynasty that would become downright legendary in unlimited annals.
Selected to occupy the Miss Bardahl's cockpit during her debut season was Norm Evans, who had been an APBA member for less than a year but who had steered the Miss Seattle to some good finishes in '56. Norm was the father of future unlimited luminaries Mitch and Mark Evans.
Miss Bardahl experienced mechanical difficulty at her first race, the Lake Chelan Apple Cup in eastern Washington, and scored no points. But she finished all three 30-mile heats at Lake Tahoe, Calif., to capture fourth place in the Mile High Mapes Trophy Regatta. This accomplishment garnered reluctant praise from Detroiter Lee Schoenith, whose Gale V and Gale VI had both failed to finish.
As quoted in Motor Boating Magazine, Lee complained: "Here, a guy builds a boat in his backyard. And he's beating us!"
Between the Lake Chelan and Lake Tahoe meetings, Miss Bardahl participated in a one-heat exhibition on Lake Washington for delayed broadcast on Dave Garroway's "Wide Wide World" television program.
The U-4 ran a pre-determined fifth behind Miss Thriftway, Hawaii Kai III, Miss Wahoo and Maverick. This was the first use of the brand new Stan Sayres Memorial Pits, which replaced the outmoded Mt. Baker and Leschi pits as headquarters for the Seattle race.
At the Gold Cup on Lake Washington, Evans and Miss Bardahl brought the hometown crowd to its feet. They led Slovak and Miss Wahoo for four laps in Heat 1A. The U-4 then maintained second place over Cantrell and Gale V until the tenth lap when Miss Bardahl conked out in the north turn -- one mile shy of the finish line.
In Heat 1A of the Sahara Cup on Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, the U-4 posted the first heat victory for a Bardahl hydroplane. It would not be the last. Evans averaged 97.344 miles an hour for 15 miles, compared to 86.227 for second-place Jay Murphy in Breathless II. Miss Bardahl wound up fourth overall behind Hawaii Kai III, Miss U.S. IV and Thriftway Too.
The 1957 season having concluded, Christiansen and Bardahl amicably split. Ole ordered a new boat of his own from designer Ted Jones. Norm Evans left the U-4 team to accept the driving assignment in the new Miss Bardahl (U-40).
During the winter of 1957-58, Norm Christiansen retired from the sport and sold the U-4 to his crew. The group became Tempest, Inc., with Peter Woeck serving as representative owner.
Prior to the 1958 season, sponsorship was obtained from the community of Burien, Wash., south of Seattle. For the duration of her career, the U-4 raced as the Miss Burien.
Woeck and company started looking around for a rookie driver for the boat. In the meantime, Mira Slovak, on loan from the temporarily retired Miss Wahoo, handled Miss Burien at the 1958 Apple Cup.
Slovak did a good job and qualified for the final heat. But the boat sustained major sponson damage and was unable to finish.
Between the Apple Cup and Diamond Cup races, the Miss Burien team conducted a series of driver tryouts on Lake Washington. Two candidates -- Bill Brow and Dick Short -- were selected. (One of those that tried but didn't make the final cut was future Sunny Jim driver Tom Martin.)
At the inaugural Diamond Cup in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Brow and Short traded off behind the wheel during preliminary heats. Brow easily outperformed Short and was promptly promoted to full-time driver for the team.
Bill Brow developed into one of unlimited racing's most respected competitors. He went on to win six races between 1963 and 1966 for the Miss Exide and Miss Budweiser teams. Billed as "The World's Fastest Milkman," Brow raced a limited hydro, the Miss Vitamilk, before stepping up to the unlimited ranks.
In his first heat with the Miss Burien, Bill demonstrated his potential. While running third behind Alter in Miss U.S. I and Muncey in Miss Thriftway, Brow executed a daring maneuver. He crossed over Muncey's wake and grabbed the inside lane away from him. The Allison-powered Burien then rocketed away from the Rolls-Royce powered Thriftway and never looked back.
Brow and Miss Burien posted a respectable 101.580 mph, fastest heat of the U-4's career, compared to Miss U.S. I's 104.166. And a new star was born.
Miss Burien went the 90-mile distance at the 1958 Gold Cup in Seattle and appeared to have captured third place. Unfortunately, Brow hit a buoy in the final heat and was disqualified.
At the season-concluding Sahara Cup, Miss Burien posted a third and a second during the preliminary action but conked out while warming up for the final.
Miss Burien continued her practice of putting pressure on the frontrunners at the '59 Apple Cup. Brown ran head-to-head with Chuck Hickling and the eventual winner, Miss Pay 'n Save, in Heat 1B. Hickling had to "work like hell" to stay ahead of the "Suburban Streak," which finally withdrew because of a blown quill shaft.
All good things must come to an end. And the end for Miss Burien came on July 19, 1959, at Lake Coeur d'Alene.
After taking a third in Heat 1B of the Diamond Cup, the red-and-white U-4 caught a wave, barrel-rolled, landed upside down, and sank on the second lap of Heat 2A. Bill Brow escaped with minor bruises. He spent one night in the hospital and was released. But the boat was totaled.
As it developed, Miss Burien was not the only casualty at Coeur d'Alene. Hickling was hurt in the Miss Pay ' Save, Jack Regas suffered critical injuries in the Miss Bardahl and Norm Evans was pitched out of Miss Spokane while leading in the final heat.
With their boat a shattered wreck, Tempest, Inc., folded its tent for 1959. But it wasn't long before Peter Woeck placed an order for a replacement hull, to be designed and built by Ted Jones.
The new Miss Burien (later renamed Tempest) was a bigger boat than her predecessor but likewise used Allison power. The second U-4 was a competitive presence at the western races from 1960 to 1963 with Chuck Hickling in the cockpit.
As for the original U-4, she is remembered as one of the more popular supporting players in the Pacific Northwest's early love affair with high-speed hydro racing.
© Fred Farley. For reprint rights to this article, please contact the author at <email@example.com>
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