The Harrah's Tahoe Miss Camp Story (Part II) :
We Try for the Mile Record
[1967]
by Mira Slovak

The Tahoe Miss Camp Story (Part I) by Eileen Crimmin

The Harrah's Tahoe Miss Camp Story (Part II) :  We Try for the Mile Record by Mira Slovak

In the business of speed it's possible to spend five years, three boats, two drivers and thousands of dollars to go a mile-and still not make it!

Last Fall, between October 17 and 31 [1966], speed became the business of the Tahoe Miss unlimited, its owner Bill Harrah the crew and me, Mira Slovak.

Mira Slovak, Hot Boat Magazine, February 1967We converged upon the beach at Zephyr Cove, Lake Tahoe. There, in a temporary pit area, we worked and schemed to prepare Harrah's Tahoe Miss to surpass the present unlimited speed record of 200.49 mph.

There we tried to achieve a dream situation in which the 1966 Gold Cup winner and National High Point Champion also would post a new world water speed record for propeller-driven craft.

And there, after much effort, bad luck, weariness, near-disaster and gradual discouragement, we finally failed.

But do you blame us for dreaming? What a triple crown of racing achievement it would have been if we had succeeded!

Now we are all scattered from Zephyr Cove, its high hopes, laughter, tensions and problems. Each of us carries, a special remembrance of two weeks enclosed in the world of speed business. Each probably carries a private opinion of why we failed-nobody dissects success, everybody analyzes failure.

On several important factors all agree. The hull engines, gears and props are capable of record speed and I think I'm capable of driving it.

What escaped us this time was the proper combination for the proper time — 17.7 seconds or less which would give us 203.390 mph or more for a secure new record.

HOW IT WENT WITH US

Since only a few persons are present during a major speed assault Hot Boat asked me to describe our effort. I agreed after warning the editor that as a writer I'm a good flier, and making notes is for me a lost art!

If I remember correctly, we got the word at Diamond Cup in Idaho that owner Mr. Harrah had okayed a mile run to be staged on Lake Tahoe using the turbocharger set-up developed under former Crew Chief Everett Adams. We'd all discussed the mile possibility and Team Manager Harry Volpi told me the late Chuck Thompson registered more than 200 mph on Tahoe Miss' speedometer when testing on Pyramid Lake.

I was delighted. Though I had nothing to gain and everything to lose, I had asked for the chance to drive for the record. I had every confidence in Tahoe Miss, the crew and myself. Contemplating the run from a distance of several months was exhilarating. But as Oct. 17-31 approached I became more nervous.

In the mile the unforeseen can happen. Those 17.7 seconds would seem like 17.7 hours. "You and your big mouth, Slovak," I chided myself.

THE SETTING

Mira Slovak adjusts his oxygen mask before a speed run, a safety measure made necessary because the turbocharger sometimes gives off noxious fumes. (Photo by Bob Carver)

From the last unlimited race at Sacramento the Tahoe Miss went directly to Reno for preparation for the run. We'd won the High Point Championship at San Diego. Only the speed run was left to give us a triple crown. I arrived in Reno Oct. 18th and visited the Zephyr Cove pits the 19th.

A pit area for mile trials of smaller racing classes is open to the public and any number of participants. In contrast, a mile-trial pit for an unlimited run is highly restricted with public excluded and passes required for regular working personnel.

Our pits contained the former Tahoe Miss on her trailer; a huge heated tent with coffee, water, tables and central information desk; the Tahoe Miss' mobile van; a crane, the Budweiser equipment and both the boats. (Any number of unlimiteds may participate in a mile run, but only Budweiser availed herself of this opportunity.)

Stretching into the lake was a long dock lined with patrol and work boats. Because all the ground was sandy the two unlimiteds and crane rested upon a specially constructed bed of timber bulkheading and metal road strips. The slope to the water was sharp enough so I could almost rest my chin upon the bow of Tahoe Miss sitting on her trailer. Approaching, one could stare down her air tunnel.

I feel affection for this boat, but in the two weeks since I'd driven and seen her she had grown alien. She was a stranger instead of friend. But, of course, this was only in my mind and apprehensions.

I'm a moody man, I admit. And a sensitive one, I believe. At first sight of Tahoe Miss again I felt both moody and sensitive. Silently I asked the machine "Where are we going, you and I? What will we find out there on the water? Whatever it is and wherever we go, let's take good care of each other, shall we?"

After these silent questions she (or I) relaxed and we no longer seemed like strangers.

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 19

Harry Volpi tested Tahoe Miss. Bill Brow tested Budweiser. Both boats experienced difficulties; ours mechanical; theirs in the hull. Our crew conferences are full of mechanical talk, most of it incomprehensible to me.

The course is beautiful, surveyed, anchored, flagged and ballooned in fluorescent orange -glorious! On 28-mile-long Tahoe we have about a five-mile in-run and at least a ten-mile out-run. It's the best mile course I've seen, surpassing the two on Seattle's Lake Washington.

Word has come. Tahoe Miss must change engines so no more runs will be made today.

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 20

Tahoe Miss (3), 1966 record run
Mira heads out to the course for testing. The Tahoe Miss is 32 ft. LOA with a 12 ft. beam, is aluminum with birch deck, glass coated. Its Allison engine power develops about 3000 hp. The vessel was christened by Scherry Harrah, June 5, 1964, is the 1966 Gold Cup winner and national high point champion.

What a gale! The lake is rolling, capping and throwing spume off five-foot waves. The crew still works on the boat. Between weather and problems I am without a job, a restless necessity whose moment has not come, whose function is suspended.

In keeping myself out of everybody's hair I discover a fact which shocks me. The physical setup alone for this run already has consumed about $10,000 and we have 11 more days to go! This figure makes no allowance for meals of personnel, special lodging for guests, Mr. Harrah's usual gracious hosting, long-distance phone calls and a hundred other "small" expenses which will mount as days pass.

From Dorothy Johnson, Harry's secretary, I learn that no less than six departments of Harrah's have loaned equipment and personnel to our effort: the Reno and Lake Tahoe Transportation departments; Lake Tahoe Food & Lodging; Security; Boat & Aircraft Dept. of Harrah's Auto Collection and Lake Tahoe Maintenance Dept.

From Harrah's Reno have come at least 21 employees; from Lake Tahoe a minimum of 16. Working directly on Tahoe Miss are 10 persons; with Budweiser, 11.

Amazing!

And that's only the beginning. There are 5 American Power Boat Association officials plus assistants, a minimum 30 persons with the U.S. Coast Guard course Patrol and other duty; 8 persons in Search and Rescue (I hope I don't become number 9!); 2 divers; 4 officers from the Douglas County Sheriff's Department and a U.S. Army Reserve crew handling the crane.

There must be about 150 persons involved with this run at one time or another, not counting photographers, public relations people and press. They come and go and today are patiently disgusted with the wind. We all are.

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21

Today we planned to open the trials. We can't. Neither boat is ready and the water still is bad.

Finally Budweiser got in two test runs at moderate speed then the wind rose and the Coast Guard closed the course.

Tahoe Miss has turbocharger trouble. We all feel glum. The smell of bad luck is in the air. Maybe tonight's dinner will change it all.

Our chef, Jimmy Hill, charged that he could drive Tahoe Miss a thousand times better than I. I answered I could damn well cook a thousand times better than he. Insult followed insult until we agreed to exchange jobs.

I shall prepare dinner for my crew with entree of stuffed, glazed duck, sweet kraut, dumplings with croutons. We also shall have champagne, French onion soup, green salad, rolls, sauce and simple dessert.

We'll see who can or can't cook! And I wonder if we'll also see how good a boat driver Jimmy is! . . . By 9:00 p.m. there is not a scrap of food left and each crewman is 10 pounds heavier and three hours mellower / I am five hours tireder! Besides, I have a time slip from the Harrah organization stating that I am a "student cook" entitled to an 8-hour day at $16 per day and must report for duty at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. FIVE A.M.! Not me. I quit and will stick with boat driving!

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 22

Tahoe Miss (3), 1966 record run
One of the few shots taken of the Tahoe Miss during an actual record attempt (with Mira Slovak at the wheel) is shown here. It was taken by Ken Adams, a Harrah's Club photographer.

We delay no longer. Water is perfect, weather too. Harry Volpi received APBA sanction to open the course. Today we run.

From everywhere have come dozens of friends and a great influx of press and racing people. For one, Les Staudacher is here, the man who designed and built more unlimiteds than any other and who designed both Budweiser and Tahoe Miss.

I delight in these people individually. Collectively, they increase my nervousness. Then, suddenly, I'm overjoyed they are all here.

Tahoe Miss has severe mechanical trouble. Harry tests the boat and like a reluctant fish she refuses to leave the water. She wallows stern down and will not lift up on a plane. Her great power whispers and roars but is ineffective. Harry returns to the dock concerned and puzzled. Adjustments are made. He tries again. Explosion. We have blown another turbocharger.

Now I appreciate the friends. We joke. Make small talk. Recall other racing times. We boost each other's spirits.

Budweiser manages one run about 165 mph. But she is not riding properly. I am beside Les Staudacher, a deeply religious man who never swears. As we watch Budweiser in this bad attitude Les breathes, "Oh, God." It is a prayer, not an oath.

Budweiser returns safely and the camp begins a series of conferences. They make a sponson change and run again. The hull handling is better but not perfect. Their speed is timed at a fraction more than 169 mph.

The day rocks back and forth from frustration to tension to boredom and finally dies in resignation. Now we have conferences. No more can be done for Tahoe Miss. Her carburetor must go to a specialist.

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23

We have a crippled boat and absent Team Manager. Harry Volpi has flown the ailing carburetor to Oakland and will return about 4:00 p.m. Again friends rescue us from the tedium of a long day's wait. Finally, they too depart for their homes and tomorrow's jobs.

Harry arrives at 4:30 p.m. A fresh engine awaits. The crew quickly connects everything and the boat is swung to water. I am ready in life jacket and helmet.

Tahoe Miss and I drift out as I engage the starter engine. Several times the main engine does not fire, then finally it roars to life. I have orders to stay near the pit area until the whole boat checks out ok.

I wait for that lifting moment when the boat rises from the stern hole dug by the prop. It doesn't come. I circle to use my own wake to lift us. We don't lift. Again we circle, then again and again until finally I rock the boat and swing the steering wheel back and forth in an irritated, puzzled attempt to get Tahoe Miss on a plane by any method or fluke that may favor us.

Finally, I give up.

Harry tries. Nothing. Now the sun falls behind the mountains and our world turns black as our hopes. The course is closed.

MONDAY, OCTOBER 24

Our two days of companionship are over. The pit area is deserted except for the working crew. It's Monday-morning business for the championship crew of Harrah's Tahoe Miss. Herb Witherspoon, Dax Smith, Mike Fontana, Walter Borland and George Goeschl roll another engine toward Tahoe Miss.

"What number engine is this?" asks someone.

I reply jokingly, "We don't number them anymore, we just call them "next!" Aloud we make light of it but inside we all are sick at the equipment destruction. This is the fourth engine used. Three other set-ups have succumbed to our efforts.

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 25

Budweiser driver Bill Brow leaves us for business in Seattle. Their boat is buttoned up, their crew scarce.

Mr. and Mrs. Harrah visit us again, even though Mr. Hurrah should have gone to Florida on business several days ago. They amaze me. How calm they are. They never demand or blame or ask silly questions that are unanswerable to begin with. If this were my boat and my mile run and my costs mounting daily I believe I'd be jumping up and down shouting at everybody!

Finally Harry gets in another test run in late afternoon. The boat will not lift on a plane. There's no describing our gloom.

Our crew readies the boat for another test run. Harry and I joke about which one of us should risk this equipment. Harry, I know, wants to turn the boat over to me when it is perfect. If he could, he would prepare it to go 250 mph then say, "Here, Mira, go out and officially break the mile record." An intense, conscientious, unusual man, this Harry.

I hand him his life jacket and helmet while asking myself silently if I'm being chicken or understanding.

Within moments I almost regret my decision, for Harry has the boat running on a plane but not thoroughly warmed when the turbocharger lets go with a loud explosion. Did I send him out to injury? Fortunately, he is not hurt and the boat not damaged.

The faces of the crew are a study in relief about Harry then disbelief when they view the turbocharger. None of this, their expressions say, is possible. What dogged bad luck plagues us and for what reason?

As we stop for a coffee break I ponder. Since 1929 only four American water locations have hosted the unlimited world speed record. Only five Americans ever have set one: Garfield A. Wood, Stanley S. Sayres, Jack Regas, Bill Muncey and Roy Duby. These men boosted straight-a-way speed from 93.123 mph in 1929 to 200.419 mph in 1962. Hopefully, I will join this select group as the sixth man.

Perhaps tomorrow will be better.

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 26

Bill Brow is back and now I must leave to return to flying, but there is time for a test run. Another new engine setup is installed. My crew reminds me to watch all gauges carefully to confirm various modifications made over the past nine days. The boat rises on a plane and I run carefully to warm up the equipment.

Everything looks ok. We increase speed slightly, back off, increase again. Still ok. Well then, let's move into even higher speed range. I run in the 160 mph range and the throttle is barely a quarter used. What tremendous power this machine has!

I turn and begin running back through the mile from north to south. I see 173 mph on the speedometer but slack off again into the 160 range and as the mile ends reduce speed even further as I pass directly in front of our pits.

At about 125 mph the world explodes in sound and flame. I experience a dozen sensations at once. I duck behind the windshield, but not quickly enough. Suddenly the cockpit is scorching. I smell my leather flying jacket cooking. Metal pieces scattered somewhere up front of the engine. Better not breathe. Must get out of here. Shut off fuel. Turn on fire system before I go. My face feels hot. I hear flame sounds. I push hard and jump sideways and over. I hit. The water's cold. I'm out, yes, I'm out. Good. There is Brow in Budweiser and I wave him to try to put his roostertail over Tahoe Miss to help put out the fire.

The big flame is gone. The CO2 system is working. Good. Budweiser is going too slow to get any roostertail on the Miss. He drifts back toward me. Friendly sight. Here is Harry in a crash boat. I'm shaking. I'm ok, so it's not fear. Boat's ok, so it's not worry. Trouble is over so it's not excitement. Still I shake. Cold water and a little shock.

At the dock I'm met by Dr. Cliff Wright, the doctor provided by Mr. Harrah whenever the boat runs. He is all for rushing me into the waiting ambulance so I can be checked at a hospital. Cliff is my friend so I resist and tell him I'm ok. He says I should go. I say I don't want to. We have this half laughing, earnest, anxious argument in a circle of silent people.

Cliff doesn't like my shaking but I explain it's the cold water. He humors me and examines me hastily at first. Together we discover my trousers are ripped wide open, my right hip twisted and sore, the top of my helmet charred, the left arm of my leather jacket scorched and seared, my lips beginning to blister.

Then Cliff gets down to real doctor business and checks my heart, lungs, eyes and so on. When he is satisfied that I'm really all right he gives me a shot for the shaking and dismisses the emergency equipment.

Gene Evans then comes to tell me that when I jumped from the boat I bounced "like a skipping stone." He examines my face. "Sunburn?" he jokes.

People ask questions. I don't know what I answer. I hope I say the right things. I go for fresh clothes. In my first moments alone I breathe deeply and reflect that it's a kind accident that only requires a change of clothes. I catch a look at myself in a mirror and see an owl-brilliant red skin surrounding two pale circles where my goggles protected my eyes.

When I return to the boat I see where exploded metal penetrated the stainless steel sheathing that lines the engine well. The explosion forces blew open the crankcase and bottom of the starter housing. Almost the entire impeller housing is gone with only a few jagged pieces left around some screws. Paint on the tailfin is blistered.

Gene Evans asks me about the explosion which is beginning to sort itself out in my mind by now. I tell him I am surprised at my reactions, shutting off fuel and hitting fire suppression system, and that I don't want to leave the machine but I got to, it's unbearable.

As we all look at the boat I think we know then that the assault is over. But we politely avoid saying so, and since we have sanction time left, we keep trying. We will use the regular racing setup with auxiliary stage blower. It's clear now that the turbocharger has too much power for us to control at present. More modifications are needed. We will do them at another time.

Budweiser announces it is abandoning its effort. We will try until we have no more equipment.

THURSDAY THROUGH SUNDAY, OCT. 27, 28, 29, 30

Our regular racing equipment is brought from the Reno boat shops to Zephyr Cove. It is installed, tested, adjusted, tested again, modified. Finally, on Sunday, after clocking 163 mph, we give up officially our try at a new world speed record. All thought of running again on Monday, last day of our sanction, is abandoned when the blower shaft between supercharger and engine snaps.

What we have to show for our time and Bill Harrah's faith is a sobering array of shattered equipment-7 mechanical setups blown — much of it irreparable.

Mr. Harrah admits he is disappointed — as are we all but insists that failure is no disgrace if the effort was strong and sincere. Then he tells everyone he would like us to try again in a few months or at the close of the 1967 racing season.

I am delighted. I have every confidence in Tahoe Miss, the crew and myself. Contemplating another run from this distance of time is exhilarating.

Suddenly, I realize what I am thinking. "Slovak, you big crazy fool," I chide myself, "you've been through all this before. When the run draws near, you'll be nervous and apprehensive again and wonder why you ever agreed to drive it! Don't you ever learn?"

There's only one answer to this if you love a sport and I give it.

"No," I tell myself happily, "Where speed and racing are concerned I never learn. Does anybody?"

(Reprinted from Hot Boat February 1967, pp.34-39, 43)


Hydroplane History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at wildturnip@gmail.com
Leslie Field, 2001