Chapter 7 - The Crew
When the word leaks out that a new Unlimited Hydroplane has been created many different suitors will come pounding to the organization's garage door in search of a job on the pit crew. To weed out these hydro fans one must be a true talent scout.
The crew, of course, plays a vital role in how well the boat runs. In most occasions, there will be two or three full-time crew members, experts at everything connected with the hull. To fill out the gang are four or five volunteer or part-time crewmen. These are the positions usually filled with those eager enthusiasts who solicit the owner.
To head this group and to "carry the whip" is the crew chief. This man is the expert of the experts. He is usually hired before the boat is constructed so that his knowledge and experience can be used in the assembly and his suggestions put into effect; this practice also gives him a deeper understanding of the particular boat. Next to the owner's and sponsor's money and the drivers ability, the crew chief is most responsible for the boat's success or failure.
Among the crew chiefs in the modern history of Unlimited racing there are a few names that stand out in excellence. Mike Welch got his start with the Slo-Mos and went on to the Hawaii Kai as the operator of the entire camp. Richard C. Woeck of the Bardahl, Jack Ramsey of Thriftway and Leo Vanden Berg were all successful crew chiefs. George McKernan from the Bardahl, Miss U.S., Exide and Seattle Too camps and who was with Budweiser from 1963-71 is a well-known name in Unlimited circles. His boats have taken 37 trophies, three national crowns and have made him the Crew Chief of the Year in the APBA on a triad of occasions.
In later times there is the veteran driver Bill Cantrell who now manages the Gale Organization's boats, Walt Kade who chiefed the hulls that he drove for more than a decade and Bob Espland of the Notre Dame. There is Jim Lucero who redesigned and rebuilt the Pride Of Pay 'n Pak during the off-season and changed her from erratic to winning behavior, Jerry Zuvich who formerly had been with Bardahl and who completely outfitted Van's P-X in less than a month to take third in the 1972 Seafair Race, Harry Volpi of Harrah's Tahoe Miss who developed the life support decelerator for drivers, Jim Kerth and Bill Boat.
To serve as the crew chiefs right-hand-man is the chief lieutenant, normally a full-time member who does nothing all year but assist the boss in working on the boat. Sometimes, depending on the resources of the owner, there is a third full-time crewman who also spends his time in the pursuit of a faster hydroplane. The full-timers are usually specialists in the engine and the hull and it is upon their shoulders the pressures of the hierarchy rest. These men have usually worked their way up by serving as a volunteer for many years.
The part-time members are the non-paid segment of the camp. They are, in most cases, hydro enthusiasts who have been "bitten by the bug" and set out in search of their fondest dream - to be on a crew and travel with a boat. The applicants, and there never seems to be a lack of them, are carefully screened as is their knowledge of mechanical matters in the boat and in the end perhaps only four will be chosen.
The typical volunteer has his regular job and flies to meet his beloved boat every weekend to assume the role of master mechanic. Different crews demand different things from the helpers during the off-season, some work evenings after jobs, others meet once a week to discuss their business while still others gather only once a month. While the boats race, however, every spare moment is spent with the hydroplane. Expense paid trips to the hydro pits in Miami, Detroit and Seattle are given the volunteers so their presence and help is available come race day. Then they are hurried back to their salt-mine on Monday. If he shows promise and ability he will work his way up the ladder of success and maybe, someday, be the leader of his own crew.
To better understand the crew of a hydroplane let's look at two examples - the old and the new - Slo-Mo IV and Miss Budweiser. When Stanley Sayres stunned the residents along the shores of Lake Washington in October of 1949, a crew of experts had to be gathered to make the Slo-Mo a winner.
Eventually the clan looked like this in 1953: crew chief Mike Welsh, a Boeing engineer; Elmer Leninschmidt, a marine engine man and an expert on the entire boat; Martin Headman, a top man with Western Gear and an absolute authority on Unlimited gear boxes and Al Johnson, an expert fuel man from General Petroleum. There was Wes Kiesling, who was a fine mechanic; Harold Wortman, an accomplished machinist to whom drive shafts were a specialty; Bob Swanson, a boat builder and Harold Gidovlenko, who was a genius on engines. Crews of this caliber are now hard to gather into one organization; the record of the camp these men operated in proves their abilities.
The Slo-Mo organization used the, latest in techniques for the well-being of their boat. A special movie camera recorded a continuous reading of a duplicate set of cockpit instruments located just behind the driver's seat. The results were graphed and any fault in the operation of the hull was changed, maybe another propeller or a different carburetor setting was needed.
To compare the elitism of the Slo-Mo camp there is the equally successful crew of the Miss Budweiser who managed to capture three consecutive national championships. Although smaller, this crew worked in a more coordinated manner to get the most out of the talent available. Each member is given a specific responsibility in the boat while he still must be able to pitch-in and help any other section of the "Bud". If the supercharger should fail, for example, there is no problem pointing the finger of blame at a single responsible crew member.
On the national champion crew there was: George McKernan, crew chief, who assembled this team of experts in 1963 and whose exploits have been previously expounded upon; chief lieutenant is Howie Lichtenwalter, who is an amiable man and the winner of the "outstanding crew member award" in 1969 (when I told him of my plans to write this book he quickly pointed out that he had forgotten enough to fill one) and Tommy Frankhouser who is an engine specialist who would later become the top man in '72 when McKernan retired.
Part-time are: Scott Freeman from Boeing who is another engine man; Nelson Kinney, an ignition specialist and Burns Smith, another engine specialist. Both the latter two are IBM executives in Seattle. The entire group still gathers twice weekly to attend to details and to make the Budweiser a top boat. It apparently works.
(Reprinted from Roostertails Unlimited by Andy Muntz, 1973)
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