The Saga of Jim Clapp and the U-95
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian
In the 1990s, turbine engines are the accepted power source for Unlimited hydroplanes. In the 1970s, they weren't accepted at all.
Since the end of World War II, the Thunderboats had relied primarily on an ever-dwindling supply of Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, intended for use in fighter aircraft.
There were a couple of turbine-powered experiments in the late 1960s, but none of these ever reached fruition. A boat called Golden Komotion was built in 1969 but never made it into the water.
With the dawn of the 1970s, Allison and Rolls engines were still the power plants of choice for Unlimiteds. Turbines were confined to the realm of science fiction.
Enter Jim Clapp.
A prominent Seattle businessman, Clapp had been a fan of Unlimited racing for nearly two decades. He liked new and innovative things. Jim loved to watch the Thunderboats in action on Lake Washington but wasn't intrigued with their 1940s technology.
Encouraged by his good friend, broadcaster Pat O'Day, Clapp decided to try something completely different in the area of hydroplane racing. He committed himself to the development of a turbine-powered U-boat for the 1973 racing season.
Jim hired well-known boat-and-air racer Chuck Lyford as Project Manager. They requested and received an unprecedented waiver of rules from the APBA Unlimited Racing Commission for a three-year maximum time period. Construction work on the U-95's hull began in February, 1973, at the Costa Mesa, California, boat shop of designer Ron Jones.
Even after the project was well underway, Clapp admitted to moments of doubt: "As I viewed it, I felt the entrenched position of the sport itself would be U-95's greatest obstacle. Present day (1973) Unlimited owners have both financial and emotional vested interests" in the status quo.
Happily, the turbine concept was enthusiastically received by the URC. According to Jim, "Owners who should be our fiercest competitors extended help during the many meetings. Several went far beyond usual courtesy to aid us, even though our success with U-95 probably means the end of an era of racing as they know it." Clapp sensed that, deep down, the Commission realized that the sport needed new directions and design vitality.
The 28-1/2-foot hull weighed 5800 pounds in racing trim. The U-95 was fitted with a pair of side-by-side Lycoming T-53 engines, each weighing 465 pounds and each rated at 1700 horsepower. The T-53s turned a single propeller shaft through a special gearbox, which cost a reported $250,000.
Painted white with red, orange, yellow, and blue trim, the futuristic U-95 created quite a sensation when it appeared at the 1973 Seattle Seafair Regatta. The boat was only there on display. But this was the first time that a turbine-powered craft had ever been physically present in an Unlimited hydroplane pit area.
The U-95 had its first water test on September 12, 1973, on lake Washington with Leif Borgersen at the wheel. Borgersen was a five-year veteran of Unlimited racing and had previously driven the Notre Dame, the Hallmark Homes, and the Miss Van's P-X.
The craft was tested extensively during the off-season of 1973-74 and became the first boat with turbine power to start in a heat of competition. This was at the 1974 Champion Spark Plug Regatta in Miami, Florida.
Jim Clapp, unfortunately, died during the winter and did not live to see the realization of his dream.
But Jim's widow, Pamela Clapp, saw to it that her husband's dream did not die with him. Mrs. Clapp took over the leadership of the team and honored Jim's commitment to race the boat.
The team finished fifth at Miami, third at Washington, D.C., second at Owensboro, and fourth at the Tri-Cities.
At Owensboro, Kentucky, they were the fastest qualifier (119.048). The U-95 turned the fastest heat at both Owensboro (112.952) and the Tri-Cities, Washington (113.469).
The team's best showing in competition was in Heat 2-C at the Tri-Cities. Pilot Borgersen ran head-to-head with Pay 'n Pak driver George Henley and beat him, 113.469 to 113.071. Leif and George kept the crowd enthralled with Pay 'n Pak on the inside and the U-95 on the outside. When the checkered flag dropped in Borgersen's favor, there could be no doubt that Jim Clapp's vision of a competitive turbine hydroplane had been correct. Piston power in the Unlimiteds would soon go the way of the bi-plane and the Model-T Ford. Turbine power was the future of the sport.
The U-95 team's final appearance was at the ill-fated Sand Point Gold Cup in 1974. The boat blew one of its T-53 engines and sank. Borgersen was unhurt. A few months later, Pam Clapp sold the hull to Pete LaRock who installed an Allison engine for 1975. The craft last competed in 1983 as Bill Wurster's Executone.
The hydroplane that started the turbine revolution is retired but not forgotten.
In 1997, the former Mrs. Clapp donated on Jim's behalf, the U-95's gearbox to the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum. The gift is a fitting tribute to the man who forever altered the course of Unlimited hydroplane racing.
© Fred Farley. For reprint rights to this article, please contact the author at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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