Chapter 13 - First You Get Into the Cockpit
But, conversely, the spectators would not go to the races if there wasn't a race there. Perhaps one of the more important links in the chain of the Unlimiteds is the driver. The crews, designers, builders, owners and sponsors make the boats go, but it is the driver who risks his life so that the spectators can be entertained.
The driver is the glorified member of the team. He is the name that the fans know best, he is the person who signs most of the autographs, gets most of the attention and also carries the largest insurance policies. He gets the interviews, he is the spokesman for the organization and the representative for his sponsor.
It is not easy to become a driver, however. Most began racing Limiteds when they were young and spent perhaps ten years doing so. Then, one day, a sponsor or an owner saw him race, was impressed, kept track of him and, if he proved worthy of the honor, signed a contract to drive an Unlimited Hydroplane. But this is still not enough.
American Power Boat Association rules are very specific as to the requirements of a man who can drive an Unlimited in a race. If he has never driven in Unlimited competition or he did not drive the year before he must pass a strict oral examination on Unlimited Class and General Racing Rules which is conducted by the referee.
An affidavit, signed by an Unlimited owner, stating that the prospective driver has had at least three hours of experience or practice time in an Unlimited cockpit, is presented. He must then prove his driving ability. He is asked to qualify his boat at an average speed of not less than 100 m.p.h. on a 3-mile course or 95 m.p.h. on a 2½-mile course, for three consecutive laps under the observation of a Driver's Qualification Committee.
This committee consists of the referee and at least four qualified individuals appointed by the local race committee, with the approval of the referee. The qualifying run is conducted with the use of the five-minute gun, the one-minute gun and the starting clock. Finally the driver must have in his possession a current Federal Aviation Agency Class 2 Physical Certificate.
To drive in a Gold Cup Regatta a driver must pass additional qualifications. If the driver has not completed at least eight heats of racing during a sanctioned APBA regatta in any Inboard Class (two of which must be Unlimited Class for National High Points) or completed four Unlimited heats for high points, within 24 months prior to the current Gold Cup race, he must make a qualifying run. If the driver has competed in either of the two previous Gold Cup contests, he has merely to pass the oral examination on rules and possess the F.A.A. certificate.
What is it like to drive an Unlimited Hydroplane? What do the drivers experience'?
The office of the hydroplane driver is the cockpit. It is kept fairly simple and free of sharp protrusions so that the driver will not impale himself on a knob during a particularly rough ride. The dials must be kept simple because they should be read in a fraction of a second while in the midst of a race.
APBA rules forbid the use of any safety belt or strap by a driver. If an accident occurs it would be better that the driver be thrown from the boat than to be strapped into a sinking hull. To help hold him in the cockpit during the race, however, the driver uses a couple of methods. He sits in a padded leather seat that has arms which curve slightly around the driver and over his thighs; this helps to hold him in the seat. Also, the driver's left foot rests upon a bar under the dashboard. By stiffening his legs he pins his tail-bone against the back of the seat which helps to hold him in the boat.
As he sits in his seat the driver has the steering wheel and instrument panel before him. On the panel is a manifold pressure gauge, a tachometer, torque indicator, oil temperature and pressure gauges, voltage indicator and water speed indicator. He also has a bank of switches to play with; there is the magneto switch, the starter, the primers and the mixture control.
The steering wheel is fairly large and plain with four spokes, in most cases. Sometimes a small button is added to the steering wheel that shoots the Nitrous Oxide into the engine for a burst of speed. A windshield sits above the dash and along each side of the cockpit is leather padding.
Before he climbs into the cockpit for a race the driver dons his driving suit. It is made of fireproof material, has long sleeves and tight cuffs. All sharp objects are removed from the pockets, along with anything that the driver does not want to get wet, before he puts on his lifejacket with sturdy leg straps. The life jacket is also specially designed so that if he is thrown from the boat unconscious it will hold him up with his head out of the water. Finally, he puts on his gloves, if he chooses to wear them, and follows with his helmet, colored red for easy recognition when he is in the water.
Somewhere between five and 15 minutes before the race the drivers will climb into their cockpits. Best wishes are given by the crew, his windshield is given a wipe and he pulls his goggles down over his eyes. The driver is not ready to enter competition.
He reaches out and flips the magneto switch on, then places one finger on the starter and pushes down, with another finger he touches the primer-a shot of gasoline goes into the engine, it catches with a puff of black smoke. He pulls back on the mixture control and the boat jumps to life. Our driver then settles himself in his seat while he proceeds onto the race course at about 70 m.p.h. He assumes a comfortable driving position, usually with a straight back and with arms extended, hands on the steering wheel at ten and four o'clock to offer the maximum use of his back and shoulder muscles.
As he gets onto the course he slowly accelerates to a more desirable warm-up speed, which is usually determined by the crew. Then the five minute gun fires. "I will note my position on the race course at that time and begin to sort out the competition in my mind", says champion Bill Muncey. "I continue to sort out the competing boats in an effort to locate the most strategically sound lane for my run to the starting line." The boat speed is continuously increased.
Sometimes what is known as a "hooker" will attach himself to a boat. A hooker is a driver who has decided to use another boat to time his start. It takes tricky maneuvering to get rid of one of these. The driver must speed his warm-up and try to lose his friend so that when the one-minute gun fires the hooker is caught in the front-stretch and would probably overwork his engine to hit the starting line on time. The maneuvering before the race is known as "dicing".
The one-minute gun fires! The boats gather to make their run at the starting line, the black-out clock begins, excitement filters through the driver's body. Timing is very important at this stage, most drivers wear a stopwatch so that they can hit the line right on the gun while traveling at full speed. The fight begins for the starting lanes.
Many drivers prefer the number one lane, or the closest to the buoys, while others would rather start from the outside. Largely the choice of a lane depends upon how the boat is running and how the competition is operating. If a driver chooses the inside lane it requires an almost perfect start with quick acceleration and good top speed. If these qualities lack he will probably get shut down or chopped-off by roostertails in the first turn.
The boats come out of the turn, fall into their chosen lane and make the charge for the starting line, the flying start. The starting gun fires, the boats roar across the line and the race is underway. Into the first turn they go. The driver cannot be timid but he should not be too aggressive either. The boats are all close together. "You have the sensation that everything is now happening twice as fast," according to Fred Alter.
When they come out of the turn the boats begin to spread out and each driver settles to his own chores. Going down the straightaway "you simply stab it and steer. You hold close to the buoy line, check your gauges, and plan for the next turn", explains Alter. The driver continually pushes with his left hand while he pulls with the right, because of the prop torque, as he takes his boat down the chute. The driver uses his top speed as long as he can without overdriving the corner.
To go through the turn each driver has his own specific style. They will usually pick a spot near the end of the chute, called the "back-off point". At this spot the boat speed surpasses the engine speed, if things have gone right, and the propeller begins to act as a brake (which happens when the boat moves faster than the propeller pushes). With a slight lifting of the driver's foot from the throttle the propeller will walk the stern to the right and cause the boat to approach the turn at a mild inward angle - even before the rudder has been turned.
If top speed is used without overdriving the boat will be in proper attitude for cornering. With a good position the hydro will enter the turn smoothly. At first the boat slides because there is air beneath that must be "spilled". When this air is dumped a groove is found and acceleration begins again. Power is applied to keep the boat pointed at the apex of the turn and this radius should be maintained throughout the turn, although, depending on traffic, this radius may be altered. The goal is to recover top speed as quickly as possible.
The driver takes his boat out of the turn and stomps on the throttle, the entire sequence begins again. As he pilots the craft the driver must also be aware of his instruments at all times. For example; if the manifold pressure builds without sufficient engine revolutions to consume the pressure there will be a blow of the supercharger followed by a fire. He must know his equipment's limitations and how to use all the power to his advantage.
He should have a tuned ear and be sensitive to vibration and smells so that he can recognize trouble with the engine. He must stay alert constantly to anything that might happen to another boat or driver. As the boat speeds about the course the driver must also wrestle with the steering wheel which can pull up to 70 pounds, due to the torque acquired from the powerful engine. It is very energy consuming.
Some like more tension in the steering wheel than others. Bill Muncey likes the tension at about 40 pounds at speeds over 135 m.p.h., with a steering ratio of 4 to 1. A driver also can "feel" the boat through the steering wheel. When the boat speed catches the engine speed the torque in the steering wheel is not quite as strong. This is an aid in responding to trouble.
A driver takes his boat around the course with care. One boat may have good chute speed while another might have better handling and acceleration so the driver should know his weaknesses and strengths as compared to his opponents. Heavy-footed drivers may overstress the equipment while others might save theirs too much. Each driver must compute all this information into a winning formula.
The driver presses on and makes each boat ahead of him his immediate goal. One technique in passing an opponent is to follow him; this makes him nervous. Our driver can hide behind the other's roostertail and run so close that he could not see if anybody were there. He could pass inside or to the outside, in the turn or in the straightaway. The driver can out-accelerate the other or maybe out-maneuver him, or just stay behind and wait for a mistake. The decision depends upon the abilities of the opponent.
Some drivers will refuse to give way to another boat, a game called "chicken" by Alter. This often results in accidents. Playing it safe is no reflection on a driver's courage, sometimes good judgment wins races by saving equipment, not getting caught and washed out in a turn or avoiding collisions.
It is sometimes the best idea to finish second rather than first. If a driver finds himself behind another hydro he could ruin his equipment in an attempt to catch up. It would be best in this case to hold the position and save the engine for subsequent heats or races. In other cases pressing the leader might lead him to mechanical breakdown.
What is the sensation like though? Perhaps the best explanation comes from an Associated Press correspondent named Saul Pett who took a ride in Miss Burien with her driver Peter Woeck. The report that follows tells about that ride...
"You've got to have raw, unadulterated courage to speed 150 miles an hour in a boat. But I went along, anyway. What's it like racing 2½ miles a minute over water in a hydroplane? The water feels like concrete. It's like riding a wet earthquake. It's like riding a berserk firecracker in a big cocktail shaker. It's like crazy, the most, the end, man."
"In a purely academic way, I inquired about the hazards. Pete said there wasn't much to worry about -- except maybe floating debris in the water. At high speeds, he said, even a floating half-filled can could put a hole in the boat. A submerged log could convert a hydroplane into assorted canapes."
"I crawled into the open cockpit with Pete. I said, "Don't we get strapped in?" Pete said, "Oh, no, in case anything happens the idea is to be thrown free."
"We took off. At the very start we were going 40 miles an hour. We didn't work up to that; we started there. The hydroplane has no clutch. It just takes off. The speedometer needle climbed, the engine roar increased. My teeth shook, my liver cried, my back ached. Behind us we were throwing up a spray 60 feet high and 100 yards long. It was impossible to look at the water and even the distant shoreline seemed to be a shimmering, bouncing blur. I wondered how Pete would spot any floating debris."
"Suddenly, we were doing 150 miles an hour and the lake seemed smaller than a goblet. Roar, vibration, bounce, galloping fear reached an insane pitch. At this speed we were incredibly high out of the water. The total surface the boat presented to the water now was about 16 square inches, half a man's handkerchief, Pete said later."
"And suddenly it was over and we were back at the dock. My body felt black and blue all over and my psyche felt scrambled. On the dock, I did an uncontrollable cha-cha. Pete said, don't worry, everyone shakes after the first time. He said I wouldn't shake if I tried it a few more times."
"I took the first plane out of town."
There have been many fine drivers since the introduction of the 3-point suspension, but, perhaps the greatest of them all is Bill Muncey. He first drove an Unlimited in 1950 then in 1955 started handling Miss Thriftway and has been a constant performer since while driving such boats as Notre Dame, Miss U.S. and Atlas Van Lines. In his career Muncey has won 33 major races, including five gold Cups, four national championships and has won more than 110 heats out of almost 300 entered.
Other drivers out to make their marks on the Unlimited scene are: Jim McCormick who began driving in 1966 and has since owned a couple of boats, the Sterett family which includes Bill Sr. who drove Chrysler Crew and his two sons Billy Jr. and Terry. Colonel Russ Schleeh drove hydros from 1955-64 including Shanty I with which he won the '56 National High Point Championship, Jack Regas handled boats from 1954 until 1968 and won the 1957 national championship behind the wheel of Hawaii Kai III, Ron Musson was Rookie-of-the-year in 1959 and drove Bardahls until he was killed in 1966 and Bill Cantrell who first drove an Unlimited in 1939 and had since driven boats like My Sweetie, Gale V and Smirnoff.
Bill Brow made his Unlimited debut in 1958 and drove Miss Exide and Budweiser until he was killed in 1967; Mira Slovak piloted Wahoo in 1956, won the '58 national championship with Bardahl and the 1966 title with Harrah's Tahoe Miss. Chuck Thompson entered the sport in 1948 and handled Miss Pepsi, Tahoe Miss then was killed driving Smirnoff in 1966; Dean Chenoweth made his debut in 1968 and has since taken two national crowns while driving Miss Budweiser.
Billy Schumacher had his first ride in an Unlimited in 1961 at the age of 18. Since his debut he had driven $ Bill, Parco's O-Ring Miss, Pride Of Pay 'N Pak and Bardahl, which gave him his greatest glory. He drove for the
Bardahl camp only two seasons but won the national championship in both of them, 1967 and 1968, and took 33 out of 52 heats entered. Bill quit racing halfway through the 1972 season.
Of course there were others too: Fred Alter, Jim Ranger, Don Wilson, Norm Evans, Bob Fendler, Dallas Sartz, Leif Borgersen, Walt Kade, Chuck Hickling, George Henley, Danny Foster, Bob Schroeder, Brien Wygle, Bill Stead, Rex Manchester, Bob Miller, Bob Hayward, Tommy Fults, and Bob Gilliam. They all have made their own special addition to the sport of the Unlimiteds.
Just as there have been great drivers through the years there have also been some outstanding hulls too. The Miss Thriftway boats completely dominated the seasons from 1955-63 having taken four Gold Cups, three straight national titles and set many speed records. The Bardahls also managed to place high in the seasons that they ran, 1957-69, and won six championships. Then, of course, there was Slo-Mo-Shun IV and her sister Slo-Mo-Shun V.
The Gale entries were a constant thorn in the side of the Seattle boats throughout the 50s, Hawaii Kai III, the "Pink Lady", was the 1958 national champion and 1958 Gold Cup winner and Shanty I was the national champ in 1956. Miss Wahoo was always a threat even as Miss Exide later in her career, Miss U.S. I is the holder of the mile straightaway record and Miss Seattle Too was another speedster.
Bill Stead took Maverick to a national title in 1959 and the hull stuck around until 1970, Miss Madison ran from 1960 until 1971, amassed a 92% rate of reliability of heat finishes through her career and was the oldest hull to ever win the Gold Cup. The Fascination, later called Pizza Pete, was active after 13 seasons of competition.
The Bill Harrah boats - Tahoe Miss, Harrah's Tahoe Miss and Harrah's Club - were always strong contenders, Chrysler Crew was a constant threat, when it finished a race, and My Gypsy made a strong showing before she was retired in 1968.
Lately, Miss Budweiser has been a big winner by taking national titles in 1969, '70 and '71. The Notre Dames have been in there fighting most of the time, Pride Of Pay 'N Pak holds a number of speed records and Atlas Van Lines took the 1972 national championship by winning six out of seven races and by taking 18 of 21 heats entered.
Other boats that have raced and should be mentioned include: Wayfarer's Club Lady, $ Bill, Eagle Electric, Lincoln Thrift's 7¼% Special, Miss Timex, Myr's Special, Savair's Mist, the Such Crusts, Thriftway Too, Burien Lady, Nitrogen and Nitrogen Too, Hallmark Homes, Miss LaPeer, Miss Detroit, Miss Spokane, Wildroot Charlie, KOL-roy I and Tempest. There are many, many more of course.
No matter how good the boat is, however, the driver will still suffer some kind of injury. Bill Muncey has survived two nearly fatal accidents, Bill Cantrell has had his share of cuts, bruises and burns, Mira Slovak has lost a couple of teeth from the game and Jack Regas was nearly killed on Lake Coeur d'Alene.
Others were not so lucky. Ron Musson was killed during the 1966 President's Cup when his Bardahl disintegrated and then an hour or so later Don Wilson and Rex Manchester were killed when their boats collided and exploded. A couple of weeks later Chuck Thompson was killed when his Smirnoff was destroyed during the running of the Gold Cup on the Detroit River. In 1967 Bill Brow met his demise when his Budweiser suddenly disintegrated at the Tampa Suncoast Cup, Warner Gardner was killed while driving Miss Eagle Electric in 1968 and Tommy Fults died after his spinal cord was severed as a result of a freak accident while testing his Pay 'N Pak's 'Lil Buzzard in 1970.
As the driver proceeds around the course he is tossed around in his seat by the constant vibration. A 150 m.p.h. wind clobbers him in the head with gigantic force, his teeth rattle and his face is distorted from the stress, the noise is tremendous, the slap of the hull against the water punishes the body. The hydro driver is a subject of wracking strains.
But it is fun - any driver will tell you that. Most would not give tip the thrill for anything, it is in their blood.
The entire sport is a contagious thing, from the drivers to the spectators. Once one has witnessed them they are hooked. It takes technical minds, money and guts to get those hulls in the water. It takes the efforts of many people to make the sport a success.
Some skeptics proclaim that the sport is dead. They should ask the nearly 300,000 who go to races in Detroit or Seattle, the fans in Miami, Washington, D.C., San Diego and Tampa. Ask the thousands of fans in Kentucky. Ohio, Washington, Alabama and Wisconsin if their sport is dying.
More money, technology and innovations are being introduced every season. Unlimiteds are not dead - they are very much alive.
We have taken glances at the history of the sport, the owners, the boats, the crews, the races, the drivers, the sponsors, the spectators and the engines. But the real thrill of the Unlimited Hydroplanes cannot be transmitted through this paper adequately, it must also be witnessed in person.
A critic must hear those beasts to appreciate them, marvel at their suicidal chauffeurs and watch how fast they really go. It is hard to visualize for someone who has never seen one.
Just imagine ...almost a football field per second, on water!
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© Leslie Field, 2000