1966 APBA Gold Cup
Detroit River, Detroit MI, July 3-4, 1966
Investigation of Hydroplane Accidents Ends
Drivers Cleared of Responsibility
Deaths Fail to Discourage Owners From ContinuingNew Smirnoff Readied
When an unlimited hydroplane is going right, nothing else can match it for excitement.
Unlimiteds are the biggest (up to four tons), the fastest (up to 200 miles an hour in special time trials), the loudest (noise from their 2,000-horsepower aircraft engines is deafening) and the most photogenic (two tons of water thrown in a white roostertail 75 feet high and 300 feet long).
For the vast majority of hydroplane fans, these sights and sounds are enough. For 20 years, the "thunderboats" have drawn crowds 10 times bigger than any other powerboat class, even though other classes have suffered far more fatalities.
However, in recent weeks the unlimiteds haven't been going right at all, and the fatality situation has changed drastically. Three drivers were killed in the President's cup regatta at Washington on June 19, another in the Gold Cup regatta last Sunday.
Yet the tendency in hydroplane circles has been to cross off the misfortunes as "freak accidents"and continue with the show. For example, the special committee appointed to investigate Chuck Thompson's death at the wheel of Smirnoff in the Gold Cup has found "absolutely nothing out of order" in the mishap. And a new Smirnoff is being readied for the next regatta.
The accident, in which Thompson's boat came apart half a mile after the start of Heat 3A, was carried on tape yesterday as part of the American Broadcasting Company's "Wide World of Sports" television program.
Procedures Found Normal
In its official report on the accident, the committee concluded, "There was no indication of deviation from normal competitive procedures as outlined in the rules of unlimited hydroplane racing." Smirnoff, the committee said, had become airborne after hitting a lumpy patch of water, "tripped" as she came back on the the water and exploded.
The committee consisted of Lee Schoenith, chairman of the American Power Boat Association's Unlimited Racing Commission; Bill Muncey and Buddy Byers, both drivers, and Les Staudacher, designer of most of the big hydroplanes.
"Our conclusion was that nothing could have been done to prevent that accident or the ones at Washington," Schoenith said. "The boats all had been inspected and pronounced sound for racing. There were no indications of driver negligence. And the boats aren't going any faster this year than they were last year."
In the Gold Cup accident, some observers suggested that Thompson was pushing Smirnoff too hard after being late at the starting line.
Present Construction Favored
Asked if all-aluminum boats might be less apt to come apart under unusual impacts, Schoenith said he thought the current aluminum-skinned plywood construction was stronger. In the Washington regatta, Ron Musson was killed when Miss Bardahl exploded in an accident similar to the one involving Smirnoff. Rex Manchester died in the same regatta when Manchester's boat became airborne, veered and landed on top of Wilson's racer.
In the 20 years unlimiteds had been using aircraft engines only three drivers had been killed. The recent four-death carnage has failed to discourage any owners or drivers from continuing in the sport. Ole Bardahl reportedly intends to campaign a new Miss Bardahl next year, and Shirley Mendelson is expected to be back with a new Notre Dame to replace the boat in which Manchester died.
Miss Budweiser, the boat Wilson drove, was replaced by a new boat of the same name for the Gold Cup.
(Reprinted from the New York Times, July 10, 1966)
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