Smirnoff/Myr/Atlas Joins Museum Fleet
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian
The newest addition to the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum's Unlimited fleet is the former batwinged Smirnoff of 1968. A product of the famed Gale Enterprises team of Detroit, owned by the late Joe and Lee Schoenith, the craft arrived at the Museum's South Park facility in January, 1999.
During a racing career that lasted from 1968 to 1974, she won five races and finished second in National High Points in 1969. Her drivers in competition included Dean Chenoweth (1968-69), Bill Muncey (1970-71-74), Terry Sterett (1971), Tom Sheehy (1972), and Fred Alter (1973-74).
Like an oft-married woman, the boat raced under many names, which included Smirnoff (1968), Myr's Special (1969), Myr Sheet Metal (1970), Atlas Van Lines II (1971-72-74), Go Gale (1972), Gale's Roostertail (1973-74), Pizza Pete (1973-74), Miss Cauffiel (1973), and Atlas Van Lines (1974).
Designed by Dick Brantsner and "Wild Bill" Cantrell, she was built at a time when "heavier was better" in terms of safety philosophy. An earlier Smirnoff hydroplane had crashed in 1966 and the driver (Chuck Thompson) was fatally injured. The 1968 hull weighed 8000 pounds, at a time when most Unlimiteds weighed around 6000 pounds.
The 1968 Smirnoff was the first Unlimited to be built with a "picklefork" or "forklift" design. By cutting back on the forward tip of the bow, it was believed that the boat would be less likely to "stuff its nose" at high speeds. This was a concept that had been tried in outboards in Italy as early as 1950. But this was the first time that the idea had been seriously attempted in the Unlimited Class. Smirnoff thus paved the way for the modern "picklefork" configuration used by all of today's Unlimiteds.
The new Smirnoff was pronounced "kill-proof and spill-proof" when she first appeared on the Unlimited scene. But could such a heavy boat be competitive with the likes of Miss Bardahl, Miss Budweiser, Miss Eagle Electric, My Gypsy, and the other top boats of her day? The answer to that question was a resounding "No," at least during the first few months of the season. Despite the efforts of driver Dean Chenoweth and crew chief Jim Lucero, the Smirnoff could finish no higher than sixth at any of the first seven races of 1968.
The boat's performance started to improve at season's end when she took third in the Gold Cup at Detroit and fourth at both San Diego and Phoenix.
Despite a last-minute change in sponsors--when Heublein's dropped out and the Arthur B. Myr Sheet Metal Company took its place--the craft had its best season in 1969.
In only his second year as an Unlimited pilot, Chenoweth was driving like a seasoned veteran. And new crew chief Jim Kerth really had the Rolls-Royce Merlin engines humming.
The renamed Myr's Special took first-place in the Indiana Governor's Cup at Madison and the Atomic Cup at the Tri-Cities, Washington, for a team that hadn't won a race since 1964.
When the National High Points were added up at the end of the year, Myr's Special fell only 600 points short of High Point Champion Miss Budweiser. The Myr finished way ahead of Bill Muncey in Miss U.S., Leif Borgersen in Notre Dame, and Jim McCormick in Atlas Van Lines.
Myr's Special was almost unrecognizable from the year before. The boat had been extensively rebuilt and repainted. Gone was the odd-looking bat-shaped tailfin. And she was a whole lot more competitive. Her much-improved performance caused many race fans to forget her original name.
During the 1969-70 off-season, Dean Chenoweth left the Schoenith team and signed on as driver of Miss Budweiser, after the retirement of Bill Sterett. Taking over the wheel of Chenoweth's former mount was the reigning Unlimited superstar, Bill Muncey, who had more victories than any other driver.
But Muncey's career had not been going well for quite some time. His last really good year was 1962, when he was National Champion. But since the retirement of the Miss Thriftway team in 1963, Bill had been unable to win more than one race in any one season. But that situation was soon to change.
Muncey and the former "batwing" boat, now renamed Myr Sheet Metal, took second-place in the 1970 season-opener at Tampa, Florida. Then, Muncey and Myr reeled off three wins in a row and showed the rest of the field the short way around the race course in the President's Cup at Washington, D.C., the Kentucky Governor's Cup at Owensboro, and the Horace E. Dodge Cup at Detroit. At the half-way point in the season, Myr Sheet Metal appeared en route to a national crown.
But then, former Myr pilot Chenoweth bounced back with a convincing win at Madison with Miss Budweiser, while Myr Sheet Metal slipped to fourth.
At the next stop, in the Tri-Cities, the Myr recorded its first DNF of the year, when she conked out in the second heat and wound up a dismal seventh overall.
Still, Myr Sheet Metal was very much in the running for the High Point Championship. Rival Miss Budweiser had crashed and sank at the Tri-Cities and Chenoweth had been injured. The Budweiser team's participation at the next race on the tour in Seattle was questionable.
But when the starting gun fired at Seattle, there was Miss Budweiser, repaired and ready, while Myr Sheet Metal had a perfectly miserable day.
Muncey was slapped down for cutting off Jim McCormick and the Miss Madison in the first heat and had to run an extra lap. When Muncey and Lee Schoenith complained rather heatedly to the news media about the incident, they were both assessed a monetary fine by the referee for unsportsmanlike conduct. Then, in a later heat, Myr Sheet Metal went dead in the water and had to be towed back to the pits.
At the season finale in San Diego, both the Gold Cup and the National Championship were on the line. It proved to be another great day for the Miss Budweiser and another off-day for the Myr Sheet Metal.
Again, Muncey was called for chopping another boat--this time, the Miss Budweiser, which managed to win the heat anyway. Muncey again protested his innocence, but white paint from the Myr's transom was found on the Budweiser's bow. This settled the argument rather quickly.
The only bright spot at San Diego for Myr Sheet Metal was her victory in the consolation race, which ironically turned out to be the fastest heat of the day, at 105.489 miles per hour.
After four months and eight races, the High Point Championship for 1970 boiled down to Miss Budweiser with 7244 points, followed by Notre Dame with 6840 and Myr Sheet Metal with 6740 in a field of sixteen competing boats.
The 1970 campaign proved to be the last for the Myr as the Schoenith team's primary hull. The lessons learned on the former Smirnoff were incorporated into a successor hull, built for the 1971 season and sponsored by Atlas Van Lines. The new boat, at 32 feet, measured six inches shorter than her predecessor, weighed a thousand pounds less, and was much narrower and less box-shaped in the transom.
Reduced to secondary status, the former Smirnoff/Myr nevertheless made her presence felt in the years that followed.
Renamed Atlas Van Lines II with Terry Sterett driving, she gave spirited chase to McCormick and Miss Madison in the 1971 Gold Cup at Madison. Atlas II really made the hometown favorite work for it on that unforgettable Fourth of July.
When the Atlas I was rammed by another boat at Seattle in 1971, the Atlas II was hurriedly trucked to Eugene for the Oregon Emerald Cup as a replacement. She finished third with Muncey in the cockpit.
Her best 1972 finish was a third-place in the UIM World Championship at Madison as Go Gale with Tom Sheehy driving. This was the race that almost didn't happen on account of heavy drift that plagued the Ohio River.
When the Atlas team's primary hull was damaged in a pre-season trial on the Detroit River in 1974, the secondary hull again took her place at the first three races. With Muncey driving, she finished second in the President's Cup behind George Henley and the "Winged Wonder" Pay 'n Pak.
The 1973 and 1974 seasons belonged to the Pay 'n Pak and the Miss Budweiser, a couple of Ron Jones creations, that had re-defined the state of the art in Unlimited racing. The new trend was toward wider, flatter, and less box-shaped hulls with superior cornering ability.
Although obsolete, the former Smirnoff/Myr/Atlas hull still turned in some powerful performances during her final two seasons with "Fearless Fred" Alter at the wheel. And on several occasions, she actually outperformed her younger sistership, which was running quite poorly at the time in comparison to her National Championship year of 1972.
Before entering retirement at the end of 1974, the 1968 hull finished third at Detroit, the Tri-Cities, Seattle, and Toledo, Ohio, in 1973. Her final two podium finishes were a second at the Tri-Cities and a third at Seattle in 1974.
Prior to being acquired by the Museum for future restoration, the veteran craft rested in state for a number of years at the San Diego Hall of Champions. As one of the top boats of the late 1960s and early 1970s, she is a worthy addition to the fleet.
© Fred Farley. For reprint rights to this article, please contact the author at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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