1966 APBA Gold Cup
Detroit River, Detroit MI, July 3-4, 1966
Detroit Powerboat Races Postponed After
Exploding Craft Kills Thompson
Fatality Fourth in Last 2 Weeks
Boat Noses Up, Then Down and ExplodesRegatta Canceled at First
By Steve Cady
Detroit, July 3 At noon today, a crowd of 200,000 lining the Detroit River stood in silence as taps were played for three speedboat drivers killed two weeks ago.
Then the 58th Gold Cup Regatta began. Six hours later, it was at first canceled and declared no contest, then postponed until tomorrow after an accident that killed Chuck Thompson.
Thompson's boat, Smirnoff, broke up in a geyser of flying plywood and spray about half a mile after the restart of Heat 3A.
The 52-year-old driver, tied for the point lead at the time, was taken to Detroit General Hospital with chest injuries, a fractured thigh bone and sever lacerations of the legs. He died about an hour later.
At first, officials appeared to be ready to continue the regatta, as had been done in Washington two weeks ago when Ron Musson, don Wilson and Rex Manchester died in two separate accidents.
Association Men Intervene
However, high-ranking officers of the American Power Boat Association moved in today and intervened.
While preparations for rescheduling the heat went on atop the judges' stand, James Just asked Charles D. Strang, "Don't we overrule the unlimited hydroplane commission?"
Just is president of the APBA, powerboat racing's governing body. Strang, a former president, is chairman of the APBA safety committee.
Both felt the remaining contestants were in no condition, physically or emotionally, to continue driving.
However, their decision to cancel was reversed a few hours later after a meeting of the Gold Cup Contest Board. The board said boatowners had voted 9 to 0 (with two abstentions) to complete the regatta tomorrow, and that APBA rules stipulated such a procedure. Heat 3A has been reset for noon tomorrow.
"we agreed the earlier decision was reached under emotional stress," a spokesman for the board said.
Actually, the original cancellation had been ordered even before it was known that Thompson had died.
Thompson,, oldest of the 12 drivers in the $75,888 contest here, had won every major unlimited hydroplane trophy except the Gold Cup. This was his ninth attempt in a 33-year powerboat racing career, and it looked as if this, finally, going to be his day for the Gold Cup.
Smirnoff, the heaviest boat in the fleet at 7,800 pounds, had handled the rough water well, winning her first two heats. In Heat 3A, she met Tahoe Miss, driven by Mira Slovak, who had also won two earlier heats.
On the first lap of the three-mile, egg-shaped course, Tahoe Miss had conked out and Smirnoff was out front all by herself. But moments later red smoke billowed over the course as the race was halted. Bill Sterett had been pitched into the water, uninjured, from Miss Chrysler Crew and the heat had to be restarted.
It was in the restart that disaster struck. Thompson, on the inside lane and trailing Tahoe Miss by a boat-length or so, tried to coax more speed out of Smirnoff as the boats roared toward the first turn at 160 miles and hour.
Suddenly, Smirnoff appeared to go up on one sponson, lift into the air and then nosedive back into the water and explode. The accident was grimly similar to the one in which Miss Bardahl broke up at Washington with Musson at the wheel.
Unlimited hydroplanes, biggest and fastest of all racing boats, are propeller-driven craft that become virtually airborne at high speeds. Since they touch the water then only on the edges of their two sponsons and the bottom half of the propeller, they are termed "three-point hydroplanes."
The "explosions" they occasionally suffer occur when the highly pressurized aluminum-skinned plywood undergoes an unusual impact and comes apart. Normally, the drivers survive such mishaps.
In the 20 years since "unlimiteds" began using aircraft engines (Smirnoff used a 2,200-horsepower Allison), only three drivers had been killed until two weeks ago when that toll was equaled in one afternoon on the Potomac.
Now the list has grown to seven. Like Musson, Wilson and Manchester, Thompson was rated in the top echelon of this tightly knit, fatalistic clan of about two dozen drivers.
Muncey Forced Out
Several times, the Detroit businessman (he owned an electrical supply company) had appeared on the verge of winning a Gold Cup, as had today in the early heats. Bill Muncey, the favorite, had been force to withdraw after the first heat when his boat, Miss U.S., hit a roller on the choppy course and smashed her superstructure.
Miss Chrysler Crew, the new boat that uses automobile engines, had been having engine trouble, failing to finish a heat. Powerboat racing's most famous event had settled into a duel between Thompson and Slovak.
The came the fatal restart, witnessed by Thompson's wife, Christine, and 23-year-old son, Chuck Jr. Tahoe Miss got the lead in the five-boat scramble. Smirnoff went after her on the straightaway leading past the Whittier Hotel, and suddenly those who had been at Washington were gasping, "Oh, my God, not again!"
Thompson had driven Tahoe Miss the last two seasons. He switched to Smirnoff in the opener this season at Tampa, after Wild Bill Cantrell suffered burned hands in an early heat.
He died despite the most extensive safety precautions in the history of the Gold Cup. Eight extra doctors were stationed on boats around the course(each heat consisted of five three-mile laps) and helicopters with skin-divers aboard hovered over the racing boats. One of the helicopters took Thompson out of the water and brought him to an ambulance on shore.
(Reprinted from the New York Times, July 4, 1966)
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