A Personal Remembrance
After the 1967 season Gardner signed on with Dave Heerensperger to drive the Miss Eagle Electric which, coincidentally, was the same $ Bill he had run to victory in the '66 Gold Cup final. The Eagle Electric team had changed from the somewhat unreliable fuel injected Messerschmidt to the more conventional two stage supercharged Rolls Royce powerplant. The result was spectacular. The hull went from a fringe competitor to a dominant force in Unlimited racing; so, in fact, did Colonel Gardner. I will never forget the thrill I experienced when I first saw the gold fringed Eagle thunder down the backstretch of the three mile Detroit River course throwing a towering white roostertail as it rocked back and forth ever so slightly on its Hallet style drop sponsons. The roar of its engine rivaled that of the Bardahl in intensity. Gardner and the Eagle Electric upstaged the National Champion during June qualifying for the Gold Cup. Billy Schumacher and the Bardahl team were hard pressed to keep up with the Screamin' Eagle. All week long they scrambled desperately to find a set up that would allow them to run with the Eagle. By race day it was obvious that their efforts were fruitless.
If the 1968 Gold Cup had been held on June 30th as scheduled Warner Garder would probably have won the race going away but the Detroit River is a fickle mistress as is Michigan weather. Strong winds from the west-southwest blew the course into a froth of white caps that even the sturdiest of the old displacement hulls would have found impossible to negotiate. By 3 O'clock that afternoon with 500,000 people lining the banks of the river the race was cancelled by referee Bill Newton. It was decided to run the Cup in September at the end of the season. This was a momentous decision for Warner Gardner and his Screamin' Eagle.
By the time September rolled around several teams had upgraded their machines enough to be competitive with the Eagle Electric; particularly Bardahl and her sister ship the Miss Budweiser. Colonel Gardner had his work cut out for him if he expected to win the Gold Cup.
On race day [September 8, 1968] Gardner and his vermilion and gold craft were flawless posting victories in all three elimination heats. For the final heat he would meet the Miss Bardahl for the first time that day. Bardahl wasn't the only competition he would face however as Bill Sterett in the Miss Budweiser had found some extra horsepower and were poised to use it to the fullest of their capabilities. At the start of the heat the unpredictable Sterett plowed through the wake of the Eagle to steal the inside lane away from Gardner. This was something that the Colonel didn't expect as he had concentrated on beating the Bardahl to the line without ever considering a challenge from Budweiser. He knew that Miss Bardahl driver Billy Schumacher had the habit of swinging wide to the outside on the straitaway and did not think he would be challenged for the inside lane. Sterett had upset his strategy and now Gardner would have to make adjustments. By the end of the second lap the Bardahl had been disposed of and the Colonel was trying to chase down the rocketing Miss Bud with Billy Schumacher about three boat lengths back. In the turns Gardner would catch up with the heavier Bud only to be bested down the straightaway as Sterett used everything the Rolls Royce had to stay ahead by about one and a half boat lengths. By the third lap with the Cup slipping away from him Col. Gardner became desperate. He had always been known for going deep into the corners before backing off the throttle. He had done it continuously in the heavy underpowered Miss Lapeer and had some considerable success with it. With the Screamin' Eagle this had seldom been necessary but with the race in the balance he would return to it. Coming out of the Belle Isle turn he was head to head with the Budweiser. Then, as they came down the backstretch Sterett edged back out in front of him. At the end of the straightaway was the Roostertail turn; the sharpest turn in Unlimited racing. About 200 feet in front of the entrance buoy Sterett backed off the 7000 lb plus U-12 and began sliding through the hairpin. He was about three boat lengths ahead of the Eagle as his roostertail began to recede. Gardner came on still charging hard. I remember thinking at the time that he was going to swing wide and try to keep up his engine rpm up in order to accelerate faster out of the turn. When he was about 100 feet from the turn marker he still hadn't slowed at all. Even to the novice fan it was apparent that he was moving too fast to negotiate the turn; still on he came. As the Eagle Electric reached the marker buoy Gardner finally took his foot out and began using his prop as a brake. He was still clinging as closely as he could to the inside without riding up the Bud's wake but it was obvious that he was experiencing some turbulence. Then suddenly the Eagle was out of attitude. Her left sponson began to lift and slowly she rolled upward showing her entire bottom. It all seemed to happen in slow motion as the hull continued over her aluminum underside glittering in the afternoon sun. She landed upside down and disappeared into a shower of spray while everyone around me was stunned to silence. The oily smoke of the red warning flares blossomed all around the racecourse and the rescue helicopter hovered over the spot as divers frantically searched for Colonel Gardner. What remained of the Eagle Electric was slipping under the water as rescue crews tried desperately to attach lines to it. After some time his body was recovered and the course was cleared while referee Bill Newton scheduled a drivers meeting to determine if the race would continue. Word as to Col. Gardner's condition was passed on to waiting spectators about an hour and a half later when it was related that he had died. Sometime later the race was restarted and the Miss Bardahl was victorious in one of the wildest unlimited heats ever run; the Miss Budweiser ending her challenge after a supercharger let go on the fourth lap.
I saw the entire thing from the top of the judges stand where I was working as a volunteer. This was the last time I participated in any capacity on any unlimited race. To this day I am still stunned by what I saw and even at later races as a spectator I found it hard to enjoy the contests without being anxious with dread over the possibilities of impending disaster. Perhaps with today's ultrasafe enclosed cockpit the chances for disaster are drastically reduced but for me it is too late. My heroes like Warner Gardner are gone and so I'm afraid is my enthusiasm for the pastime of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing.
(contributed by Thomas Moran, Detroit Michigan)
|10/4/64||San Diego Cup (San Diego CA)||Mariner Too/Warner Gardner|
|10/2/66||Sacramento Cup (Sacramento CA)||Miss Lapeer/Warner Gardner|
|6/2/68||Dixie Cup (Guntersville AL)||Miss Eagle Electric/Warner Gardner|
|7/21/68||Atomic Cup (Tri-Cities WA)||Miss Eagle Electric/Warner Gardner|
|8/25/68||President's Cup (Washington DC)||Miss Eagle Electric/Warner Gardner|
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