1966 President's Cup
Potomac River, Washington D.C., June 19, 1966

Black Sunday:
Unlimited Hydroplane Racing's Darkest Day
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian

bullet Sterett Captures Hydroplane Contest
bullet Musson, Manchester and Wilson Killed in Speedboat Regatta on Potomac
bullet 3 Hydroplane Drivers Killed in Explosions

Three Drivers Killed In Hydroplane Race

bullet Top Hydro Drivers Killed in U.S. Hydro Tragedy
bullet Black Sunday
bullet Denny Boyd
bullet Hydroplane Crash Probed
bullet Prop Blamed for Mishap
bullet No Changes Seen for Hydroplanes
bullet Fragile Sport
bullet Potomac Tragedy Shocks Boating Officials

For most Americans growing up in the middle of the 20th Century, two dates are burned indelibly into the collective consciousness. For the World War II generation, December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, was a defining moment. For the Baby Boomers, it was November 22, 1963, when an assassin's bullet took the life of President John F. Kennedy.

Seemingly everyone old enough to remember can recall, with vivid detail, where they were and what they were doing at the exact moment that these tragedies occurred.

For post-war Unlimited hydroplane devotees, a third such date is likewise remembered for all of its gut-wrenching intensity. This was June 19,1966, "Black Sunday," when three of racing's finest were lost in two separate accidents at the President's Cup Regatta in Washington, D.C.

Stricken from the list of the living on that fateful day were Ron Musson of Miss Bardahl, Rex Manchester of Notre Dame, and Don Wilson of Miss Budweiser.

Musson perished when his radical-designed craft, running in only its second heat of competition, became airborne and crashed to the bottom of the Potomac River, while battling for the lead in Heat 2-B.

Manchester and Wilson were killed when their boats collided while contending for first-place in Heat Three.

The loss of Musson, Manchester, and Wilson shook the boat racing world to its foundation. The impact would have been similar if Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, and Dan Gurney had been lost in a single afternoon. And like their auto racing counterparts, Ron, Rex, and Don were professional athletes, loved and admired by thousands of fans. They were role models for a generation of youngsters.

The people in the sport felt a special kind of grief in the aftermath of Black Sunday. The late Bill Muncey once told an interviewer that, for the rest of his life, not a week would pass when he wouldn't think about his three fallen comrades. (It was Bill who had recommended that Musson be hired to drive for Ole Bardahl in 1961; Wilson had been Muncey's roommate in college.)

In truth, no one who experienced the 1966 President's Cup, in person or in spirit, will ever forget it. June 19 was truly the sport's darkest day.

Unlimited hydroplane racing, in its first two decades after World War II, saw six fatalities. (Driver Orth Mathiot; and riding mechanic Thom Whitaker expired when Quicksilver crashed at Seattle in 1951; Miss Supertest II pilot Bob Hayward perished at Detroit in 1961.)

That half of the sport's casualties should have occurred within three hours of each other was a cruel twist of fate.

* * *

Unlimited or Thunderboat racing had grown out of the ashes of the pre-war Gold Cup and 725 Cubic Inch Classes when the huge supply of World War II fighter plane power sources became available for sale to the general public.

The Packard Rolls-Royce Merlin, the G.M. Allison, and the propriding three-point hull design, developed by Ted Jones, transformed the sport. By the middle 1950s, the Unlimiteds were the showcase of APBA racing. In 1957, the parent American Power Boat Association allowed the Unlimited Class to break away from the administrative restraints of the Inboard Racing Commission and form a separate APBA entity.

The early 1960's witnessed the dawn of professionalism with mandatory cash prizes at every Unlimited event. And, in 1963, the IRS upheld the Unlimited Racing Commission's contention that Thunderboating was a legitimate business expense {within specified guidelines} and thereby tax deductible. This opened the door to big money corporate sponsorship on a scale previously unimagined.

One of the first companies to sponsor an Unlimited hydroplane on a large national scale was Anheuser-Busch, which introduced the Miss Budweiser, owned by Bernie Little, in 1964.

The 1965 racing season had been one of the more successful campaigns in history with 23 active boats and nine scheduled races. These included the APBA Gold Cup at Seattle and the UIM World Championship at Lake Tahoe, sanctioned by the Union of International Motorboating.

Musson and the Miss Bardahl captured the Gold Cup (their third in as many years), the World Championship, and the National High Points crown. Second in 1965 National Points was Notre Dame, driven by Manchester, who ironically was Ole Bardahl's son-in-law. Rex won no races in 1965 but always gave the Miss Bardahl a good battle.

At the last race of the year on San Diego's Mission Bay, Musson and the "Green Dragon" Miss Bardahl became the first to turn a lap in competition at 117 miles per hour on a 3-mile course. The record provided an upbeat ending to the 1965 season, which had been highly competitive. The outlook for 1966 appeared bright indeed.

The first hint of the dark days to come occurred two months before the start of the season. URC official and former champion driver Bill Stead was fatally injured when his private plane went out of control while practicing an aerobatic maneuver and crashed into Tampa Bay.

Stead, a successful Nevada cattle rancher, had served as Unlimited Drivers' Representative since his retirement from competition in 1959. The man had a lot of class, and his loss was keenly felt by the Thunderboat fraternity.

Nevertheless, the sport had a lot going for it at the outset of 1966. Some promising new race sites had been added to the Unlimited schedule;Tampa, Florida; Kelowna, British Columbia; the Tri-Cities, Washington; and Sacramento, California. And the time-honored Washington, D.C., event was back on the calendar after a one-year hiatus.

The season-opening Tampa Suncoast Cup on June 12 attracted eighteen hopefuls. This was the largest first-day field for the Unlimiteds since 1949.

Host owner Bernie Little had acquired, during the 1965-66 off season, the Miss Exide from Milo and Glen Stoen. Little had persuaded the Exide mechanical crew, headed by Bernie Van Cleave and George McKernan, to transfer en masse to the Miss Budweiser team, together with Miss Exide driver Bill Brow. This was the same group of competitive wizards that had won the 1965 Coeur d'Alene Diamond Cup so convincingly. They had also set the current world record of 120.536 for a 3-mile qualification lap at Seattle in 1965.

After three years of also-ran' status in the Unlimited ranks, Little now had an acknowledged front-runner. There could be no doubt that the "new" Miss Budweiser - a 1956 Ted Jones creation - would be a factor in the season ahead.

George Simon's Miss U.S. racing team had Bill Muncey, the all-time winningest Thunderboat pilot, at the wheel. Muncey had recently undergone successful surgery for a back ailment that had prevented him from accepting a full-time driving assignment in 1965. Bill had been on the fringes of the sport since being fired off of Notre Dame in mid-season 1964. He was anxious to reaffirm his status as the sport's number one driver. Since the retirement of Miss Thriftway in 1963, Muncey's career had not gone well.

Owner Simon had signed Bill to a five-year contract, starting with the last race of 1965. The Miss U.S. team had set a mile straightaway record of 200.419 in 1962 but hadn't won a race since 1958.

Rex Manchester, Muncey's replacement in the Notre Dame cockpit, was in his seventh season as an Unlimited chauffeur. But he had never won a race. This was a situation that Manchester vowed to rectify in 1966. Notre Dame, a 1964 Les Staudacher hull, was fast but had a tendency to ride roughly.

Owner Shirley Mendelson McDonald, whose father (Herb Mendelson) had raced boats quite successfully between 1935 and 1947, had only one victory to her credit after four years in the sport. This was the 1964 Dixie Cup at Guntersville, Alabama, with Muncey driving.

Ron Musson was the defending National Champion and the sport's reigning superstar. Since his 1959 Unlimited Class debut, Musson had achieved winning results, almost from Day One, with the Hawaii Kai III, Nitrogen Too, and Miss Bardahl racing teams. His victory total (sixteen wins) was second only to Muncey who, at the time, had nineteen first-place trophies.

But Ron's 1966 chances were uncertain. Gone was the old reliable Green Dragon, designed by Ted Jones, that had served Musson so well since 1962. The new Miss Bardahl was a cabover creation, from the drawing board of Ron Jones, Ted's son.

The '66 Bardahl was not the first Unlimited to seat the driver ahead of the engine. (Other forward-cockpit boats included Sant' Ambrogio and Skip-A-Long in 1948, Scooter in 1954, and Thriftway Too in 1957). Miss Bardahl was patterned after a successful 225 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane, the Tiger Too, built by Ron Jones in 1961.

Unlike previous cabovers, Tiger Too was wider and flatter and less box-shaped to allow for more effective cornering. But the concept had yet to be proven in the Unlimited Class. And there was a lot of prejudice against cabover hulls at the time. Most people considered them unduly hazardous.

In the words of Bill Muncey, the driver of a forward-cockpit boat was "first to the scene of the accident," although even Muncey later changed his tune. Ron Musson, likewise, had some misgivings about cabovers, as did some members of the Miss Bardahl mechanical crew. But Musson obviously appreciated what Jones had done with Tiger Too and was willing to give the new Green Dragon a try.

Musson was also grateful to Ron Jones for the fine work that Jones had done in fine-tuning the sponsons on the 1962 Miss Bardahl, which had resulted in some additional miles per hour for the boat.

Other new Unlimiteds at the 1966 Tampa race were Bill Sterett's Miss Chrysler Crew and Jim Ranger's My Gypsy. The Chrysler Crew was the first serious attempt at twin-automotive power in the Thunderboats and was an enlarged hull duplicate (designed by Henry Lauterbach) of Sterett's 7-Litre Class National Champion Miss Crazy Thing. My Gypsy was a typical Detroit riverboat from Gale Enterprises, designed by Bill Cantrell, in the tradition of the 1964 Miss Smirnoff and the 1965 Gale's Roostertail. Sponsored by the Dodge automotive family, Ranger took his rookie driver's test at Tampa with My Gypsy and passed it, despite having had no previous experience in race boats.

Brow and Miss Budweiser qualified fastest at Tampa with a speed of 106.132; Musson and Miss Bardahl were next at 103.806 on the 2 1/2 mile course. Tampa Bay was definitely one of the rougher venues in Unlimited history. The chop could be downright ocean-like at times. The fastest lap of the week (by Smirnoff in Heat 2-C) was only 108.434.

The 1966 Suncoast Cup almost didn't happen when an early season hurricane ripped through southern Florida and inflicted major damage to the newly constructed pit area. In response, Bernie Little opened his checkbook and recruited every available laborer in Tampa to help clean up the debris so that the race could be run as scheduled.

After three heats of racing, Miss U.S. and Notre Dame were tied with 1100 points apiece, based upon two firsts and one second-place finish. Manchester finished ahead of Muncey in the Final Heat of 15 miles, but Miss U.S. won the Suncoast Cup on the basis of a faster total elapsed time for the 45 miles. It was career win number twenty for Bill and another frustrating defeat for Rex.

In winning preliminary Heat 1-A over mediocre opposition, Manchester had backed off after the first three laps and cruised to the checkered flag at a leisurely 94.537 miles per hour. Muncey, on the other hand, had kept the pressure on and averaged 100.483 in Heat 1-B. Rex's laid-back performance in 1-A came back to haunt him at the end of the day and ultimately cost Manchester the race.

The Suncoast Cup emerged as something of a destruction derby. The victorious Miss U.S. suffered severe hull and sponson damage and had to cancel plans for the following weekend's President's Cup. The Chuck Thompson chauffeured Smirnoff, likewise, had to withdraw from the Potomac River meet on account of hull damage. Bill Brow took a bad bounce in Heat 1-C with Miss Budweiser, cracked his shoulder, and had to be replaced by Don Wilson. The red-headed Wilson had last raced in 1964 as pilot of Simon's Miss U.S. 5. Don had won the 1963 Lake Tahoe race as relief driver for Musson in the old Miss Bardahl.

The anxiously awaited debut of the cabover Miss Bardahl had to be put on hold at Tampa on account of a gearbox that kept overheating. But the advance word on the new Green Dragon was favorable. According to crew chief Leo Vanden Berg, the boat ran quite well in tests and could corner at over 100. (This was at a time when most Unlimiteds could do 175 or more on the straightaway, but were unable to exceed 90 in the turns.)

This was good news for designer Ron Jones. His fervent hope was for the 1966 Miss Bardahl to be a trendsetter in the tradition of Slo-Mo-Shun IV, which his father had introduced so successfully in 1950.

Construction of the cabover Bardahl had actually been completed the previous year. She would have raced in 1965 but for a delay in the arrival of component parts. The boat had experienced difficulty in spring testing. She had carried too much weight in the rear end. But the crew had shifted some of the weight forward to help alleviate this problem. Now, at long last, Miss Bardahl was ready to enter competition.

Heading into Washington, D.C., the odds-on favorite had to be Notre Dame. After having been a bridesmaid but never a bride so many times in the recent past, the Shamrock Lady was certainly overdue for a win. Owner Shirley McDonald had fond feelings about the Potomac River race site. It was here where her father's boats had won in 1935, 1937, and 1940 with Clell Perry and Dan Arena as drivers.

With two of the fleet's toughest competitors( Miss U.S. and Smirnoff) temporarily off the circuit, most observers confidently predicted that come Sunday, Notre Dame would take the President's Cup trophy home. And so she did, but under well-known tragic circumstances.

Thirteen of the boats which appeared at Tampa made the trek to Washington. They were joined by the Detroit-based Miss Dixi Cola, handled by Fred Alter. Driving assignments from the previous week remained the same with Don Wilson continuing in his role as Miss Budweiser relief pilot. {Wilson had won the 1958 President's Cup with Miss U.S. I.}

Heats 1-A, 1-B, and 1-C were run on Saturday, June 18. The first-place finishers were Sterett in Miss Chrysler Crew, Manchester in Notre Dame, and Musson in Miss Bardahl respectively. Twenty-four hours later, of the three Saturday winners, only Sterett remained alive.

In notching Heat I-A, the auto-powered Miss Chrysler Crew fooled the skeptics that predicted she wouldn't be competitive. Sterett outran Mira Slovak and Tahoe Miss, 99.337 to 99.228. Bob Fendler was a distant third with Wayfarers Club Lady, followed by My Gypsy, while Jim McCormick and Miss Madison failed to finish.

Manchester and Notre Dame lucked out with an easy draw in Heat 1-B. Rex checked in first at an unhurried 96.826, the slowest winning speed of the weekend. The lesson of the previous Sunday on the matter of total elapsed time had apparently made no impression on Manchester. A distant-running Jerry Schoenith and Gale's Roostertail finished second, ahead of Miss Dixi Cola, while Walt Kade and Savair's Mist failed to finish.

The new Miss Bardahl, running in competition for the first time, justified the faith of her owner, driver, and designer. The Green Dragon dominated section 1-C and posted the fastest heat (101.218) and lap (102.975) of the entire race. The crew had feared that the 8000-pound craft would be hard on engines. But this wasn't the case in Heat 1-C. Miss Bardahl handled the Potomac River beautifully, an instant contender, just as Tiger Too had been. The much-maligned cabover concept of Ron Jones all of a sudden had credibility.

Far behind the victorious Dragon, Wilson in Miss Budweiser and Warner Gardner in Miss Lapeer battled spectacularly for second place. Wilson took it, 95.238 to 95.026, while Norm Evans and $ Bill trailed in fourth.

A crowd estimated at 40,000 turned out for the Sunday heats. Weather and water conditions were the closest thing to perfect. Miss Madison had withdrawn. So, the rest of the field was consolidated into two sections of six boats each for Heats 2-A and 2-B.

Most people seemed upbeat after the successful series of Saturday heats. But Bob Carver, the dean of boat racing action photographers, felt strangely troubled. It was nothing that he could define. But something warned Carver that Sunday's racing would not go well. Although Heat 2-A turned out to be brilliant.

Wilson and Miss Budweiser held off a formidable challenge from Sterett and Miss Chrysler Crew in one of the more aggressive contests in Thunderboat history. Sterett went all out after Wilson for four dynamic laps as the two powerhouses tore around the 2 1/2-mile oval. These were a couple of champion Mid-West Limited drivers, showing the fans what Unlimited racing is all about. Budweiser maintained first-place throughout, but Chrysler Crew was only a heartbeat behind.

A mechanical malfunction eventually halted Sterett's valiant drive for the lead. Miss Chrysler Crew then faded to sixth and last. But Wilson knew that he'd been in a boat race.

Miss Budweiser averaged 98.468 for the 15 miles. Tahoe Miss inherited second place at 95.759, followed by Miss Lapeer, $ Bill, My Gypsy, and Miss Chrysler Crew in that order.

The victory in Heat 2-A brought Budweiser's point total to 700, compared to 600 for Tahoe Miss. In order to surpass Miss Budweiser, both Miss Bardahl and Notre Dame would have to win Heat 2-B.

Once again, it was Musson versus Manchester, the Mantle and Maris of boat racing, intense rivals out on the race course; close personal friends off of it. Their families often fished and cruised together in the San Juans on their pleasure crafts. Their wives, Betty Musson and Evelyn Bardahl Manchester, were also friends.

It was at the President's Cup in 1959 where Ron Musson had qualified as an Unlimited driver. But despite Ron's many victories, the President's Cup was one award that had consistently eluded his grasp.

The crowd, which included Musson's teenage son Robert, tensed in anticipation as the field for Heat 2-B took to the water. The starting gun fired. Miss Bardahl and Notre Dame exited the first turn together and charged down the backstretch. Once again, the cabover creation of Ron Jones was holding its own in the acid test of competition, as Musson raced full-tilt with Notre Dame.

66_pres_cup_musson_thumb.jpg (5677 bytes)The boats rounded the second turn, near National Airport, and ran head-to-head back down the front straightaway toward the completion of lap one. Then, according to Jones, the Miss Bardahl's propeller sheared off. This caused the prop shaft to twist into a corkscrew. The bow pitched skyward out of control. The Green Dragon slammed down hard and disintegrated, directly in front of the judges' stand.

The race announcer screamed, "It broke in two! The boat broke in two!" Miss Bardahl had indeed broken cleanly just behind the cockpit.

Rex Manchester, unaware of the accident, continued racing down into the next turn. Only when Notre Dame entered the backstretch did Rex see the red flare, signaling postponement.

Musson was found floating face down. The boat that had debuted so promisingly the day before was a shattered wreck with the cockpit area completely destroyed. This was 1966; not until 1986 would the F-16 fighter plane safety canopy, which likely could have saved Ron, be introduced into Unlimited racing.

Musson, age 38, was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. The man, widely regarded by hydroplane historians as the all-time greatest Unlimited driver, belonged to the ages.

Not since Bob Hayward in 1961 had death visited Thunderboat racing. It was the first President's Cup fatality since Billy Freitag, driver of Miss Philadelphia, a Gold Cup Class boat, in 1931.

Ron Jones blamed the propeller for the crash, although Miss Bardahl crew member Dixon Smith speculated that the boat may possibly have struck a log. There was no way to tell what had really happened, although everyone seemed to have a different opinion about it. But there could be no doubt of the end-result. The sport had lost its most prominent personality.

Betty Musson learned of her husband's passing from Evelyn Manchester. Rex had called from Washington. Evelyn went over to the Musson home to console Betty. It was there, a few hours later, that Evelyn Manchester would learn of her own husband's death.

Back at the race site, the Miss Bardahl pit crew picked up the pieces, while chief referee Bill Newton ordered a rerun of Heat 2-B. But a distraught Jerry Schoenith would have no part of it and relinquished the seat in Gale's Roostertail to team manager Bill Cantrell.

The re-run of Heat 2-B was itself stopped. Miss Dixi Cola came to an abrupt halt while chasing Notre Dame and Wayfarers Club Lady down the first backstretch. An overanxious course judge fired off a signal flare just as Notre Dame was about to finish lap one.

For the re-re-run, Cantrell pursuaded Schoenith to re-claim the Gale's Roostertail cockpit. Jerry went out and finished third behind Notre Dame and Savair's Mist and ahead of Wayfarers Club Lady. Manchester posted a winning speed of 97.192 with the rest of the field far astern.

This brought Notre Dame's point total to 800. Manchester led Miss Budweiser by 100 points going into the Final Heat. But Rex's lead in total elapsed time was only two seconds.

The Notre Dame team, then, had two options. They could finish first in the Final and win the race outright. Or, they could finish second to Don Wilson and tie The Miss Budweiser on points. The winner would then be determined on the basis of total elapsed time. Notre Dame would have to finish within two seconds of Miss Budweiser in order to claim the President's Cup.

For the second week in a row, Manchester's slow performance in Heat One had come back to haunt him.

Joining Notre Dame and Miss Budweiser in the Final Heat were Tahoe Miss, Gale's Roostertail, Miss Chrysler Crew, and Miss Lapeer. From the standpoint of speed, it was anybody's boat race. Of the six finalists, Chrysler Crew had the fastest competition lap of the weekend at 102.506, followed by Budweiser at 101.351, Notre Dame at 100.671, Tahoe Miss at 100.446, Gale's Roostertail at 96.983, and Miss Lapeer at 96.567.

A voice over the public address system at the five-minute gun confirmed what was already obvious--that Ron Musson had died. There were tears in Wilson's eyes as he steered Miss Budweiser away from the dock. In the 1950s, Musson and Wilson had raced Limiteds together on the Mid-West Inboard circuit. Don vowed to "win the race for Ron."

Manchester sat motionlessly in the Notre Dame cockpit. The five-minute gun fired, and there was still no movement from Rex as the boat drifted aimlessly away from the dock. Finally, at the last possible moment, Manchester cranked the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Notre Dame roared to life and headed for the race course.

At the two previous Unlimited Class fatalities in the 1961 Silver Cup (Detroit) and the 1951 Gold Cup (Seattle), the races were cancelled and not resumed with the winners determined on the basis of points scored in preliminary heats. But drivers at the 1966 President's Cup all voted to continue racing, a decision that would later be criticized.

The boats came around for the start of the Final Heat with Miss Budweiser in lane one and Notre Dame in lane two. Miss Chrysler Crew, Tahoe Miss, and Miss Lapeer occupied lanes three, four, and five respectively with Gale's Roostertail failing to start.

Wilson and Manchester crossed the starting line together and stayed together through the first turn. Miss Budweiser thundered down the backstretch in first place with Notre Dame close behind. Manchester found some extra fire in the engine room and pulled along side Wilson as the two neared the National Airport turn.

Miss Budweiser was running rock steady, but Notre Dame was starting to get out of attitude. Manchester, nevertheless, kept going at top speed. Budweiser backed off slightly to set up for the turn, but Notre Dame kept the power on in hopes of coming out of the turn first. Notre Dame became airborne, bounced on the left sponson, then on the right sponson, and then hooked uncontrollably into lane one, just as Miss Budweiser reached the same spot.

Thumbnail of collision involving Rex Manchester & Don Wilson (7212 bytes)
June 19, 1966. Black Sunday. Rex Manchester and Don Wilson lost their lives in this collision between Notre Dame and Miss Budweiser during the President's Cup on the Potomac River at Washington, D.C. in 1966. Ron Musson had been killed earlier in the race in a separate accident. Chuck Thompson was to lose his life in Detroit just two weeks later. One of the darkest times for the sport.

A photographer from LIFE Magazine captured the moment of impact: an explosion of water and boat pieces with the lifeless body of Don Wilson hurtling through the air. Miss Budweiser's bow had speared the underside of Notre Dame. When the spray subsided, nothing remained of the two boats. Both had already sunk to the bottom of the Potomac.

The other drivers swerved frantically to avoid the scene of the crash. Mira Slovak dove from the Tahoe Miss into the water and held Wilson's face out of the water until the arrival of a Coast Guard patrol craft. (Nine years earlier, Slovak had likewise gone to the aid of Bill Muncey when Miss Thriftway disintegrated at Madison, Indiana.) Skin divers freed Manchester from the Notre Dame wreckage almost immediately.

Wilson, age 37, was already dead from a ruptured heart. Manchester, 39, had a broken neck and a nearly severed left leg. He lived for less than an hour and never regained consciousness.

The impact of this second tragedy--occurring as it did so soon after the first--hit everyone hard. According to Hot Boat Magazine writer Eileen Crimmin, the pit area became "a scene of mass shock, aimless wandering, and thorough confusion."

This time, no attempt was made to reschedule the race. Referee Newton declared the 1966 President's Cup a contest on the basis of the preliminary action with Notre Dame announced as the winner.

But, for a while, Jim Hay, the crew chief of Miss Chrysler Crew, wouldn't take "No" for an answer. He demanded that the Final Heat be rerun. Hay and Bill Sterett almost came to blows. But Sterett ultimately prevailed. "We're through for the day!" Bill roared at Jim. "If they rerun the final, we won't be in it! Get that into your head!"

Actually, the thought of rerunning the last heat was the farthest thing from almost everyone's mind at Washington. No one could believe what had happened. Everyone was just devastated. All three deceased drivers were well-liked by their peers; and all three were fathers of pre-school age offspring.

Fred Alter demonstrated considerable class in the aftermath of Manchester and Wilson's crash. Alter went from one boat camp to another, bedding down the equipment, comforting the bereaved, and being a tower of strength for those whose courage had failed.

A lot of angry words were spoken about the decision to continue after the Musson tragedy. "The race should have been stopped after the first accident," declared Warner Gardner. "None of us wanted to run after Ron's death," affirmed Bob Fendler. And Bob Carver insisted that running the Final Heat was unnecessary, since all of the preliminary heats had been completed, and the race could have legally been declared a contest.

My Gypsy crew chief Graham Heath, a close friend of Musson, had a difficult time, as did everyone else, in dealing with the loss. "I've been in racing where bad things occurred," Heath acknowledged. "But that was the worst blow to me that's ever happened .Afterwards, Graham did a lot of soul searching. "I thought to myself, 'We've got to be crazy! Sane people don't do this!' But there's just something about racing. It's in your blood."

Radio commentator Jim Hendrick refused to announce the fatality of Don Wilson, knowing that Wilson's elderly father was listening to the broadcast in Dearborn, Michigan. Hendrick did so over the violent objections of his producer, who wanted an "exclusive." That morning, Don had asked Jim to wish the older Wilson a happy Father's Day.

Past-APBA President Red Peatross told the New York Times, "The boats were well designed and constructed. The water was reasonably calm. Both accidents occurred on the straightaway, so the course layout can not be blamed. I guess all you can say is that it was an act of God."

Unlimited Commissioner J. Lee Schoenith predicted that the deaths would not have any great effect on the sport as a whole. All commitments with race sponsors would be honored, he promised. "But it sure isn't going to be the same type of season for the participants," Schoenith admitted. "These three gentlemen were my dearest and deepest friends."

Editorial reaction to the 1966 President's Cup ranged from sympathetic to extremely harsh.

In the words of the Seattle Times writer Bud Livesley, "Three lives are a high price. Too high even for men, who for reasons known only to themselves, pursue speed and chase danger in boats."

Doc Greene of the Detroit News proclaimed that "Death is the risk of those who defy it."

And Mel Crook, the respected Yachting Magazine columnist and a former Unlimited driver, pointed out that the safest boat in the world will eventually reach a speed where it travels unsafely. And for a driver to place his boat in an unsafe attitude, even for the purpose of improving one's order of finish in a race, is to court disaster.

In response to the storm of criticism, Mira Slovak declared, "Sure, we're after speed. But we're not out to commit suicide. We're concerned with safety, too."

Race Chairman Don Dunnington solemnly affirmed that there definitely would be a race in Washington, D.C. the following year. (And so there was, but for Limited boats only. The Unlimiteds would not again race for the President's Cup until 1968.)

On Capitol Hill, congressmen and senators expressed shock about the triple tragedy. President Lyndon B. Johnson called Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson to express his concern. Magnuson said he was terribly shocked, especially since he had known Manchester and Musson personally.

Congressman Brock Adams, a Seattle Democrat, promised to look into the matter of how much control Congress had over races on the Potomac River. The race course, located in the District of Columbia, was governed by Congress. Improved standards were needed, Adams indicated.

In a letter of condolence from President Johnson to Evelyn Manchester, Johnson mentioned that Rex had been decorated for valor in the battle of Iwo Jima as a U.S. Marine in World War II. This was news to Evelyn. Rex, not a man to boast or to draw attention to himself, had never revealed this particular chapter in his life.

As a stunned and decimated Unlimited fraternity started packing to leave town, the realization dawned on some people that the winner of the ill-fated President's Cup was a guy named Rex Manchester. After a career of being "The best of the rest," Rex had finally achieved his ambition, albeit posthumously.

In the words of football legend Bear Bryant, the Unlimited participants "sucked up their guts" and went through the motions of business as usual two weeks later at Detroit, where another tragic day awaited the Thunderboats.

The newly repaired Smirnoff was back and stronger than ever. The race was for the Gold Cup, which driver Chuck Thompson had never won. Champion Chuck dominated Heats 1-B and 2-B and was clearly the class of the field. Thompson had come painfully close to capturing the 1952 and 1956 Gold Cups with Miss Pepsi and the 1964 race with Tahoe Miss. "This time I've got a winner," Chuck confided to his crew.

Thompson and Smirnoff were drawn into Heat 3-A, together with the combination of Slovak and Tahoe Miss, which had scored victories in Heats 1-A and 2-A.

The sport held its collective breath. Chuck was a give-no-quarter-and-ask-for-none kind of driver. And everyone knew that bad blood existed between Thompson and the Tahoe Miss organization, which had discharged Chuck at the end of the 1965 season.

Coming up for the start of Heat 3-A, Thompson and Smirnoff found their way blocked by Red Loomis and Savair's Probe. Chuck had to decelerate momentarily but was back up to speed almost immediately. Smirnoff found an opening and shot forward with Thompson really standing on it.

Then as the field neared the Whittier Hotel in the run down to the Belle Isle Bridge turn, Smirnoff disappeared.

According to Bill Newton, the boat seemed to become airborne momentarily and then smacked down hard on the water, Smirnoff disintegrated and sank immediately. The Allison engine was ripped completely out of the boat.

Chuck suffered a crushed chest, a fractured thigh, and severe leg wounds. Thompson, age 54, passed away shortly after arrival at the hospital. He never regained consciousness. The death count had risen to four.

An Unlimited mainstay since 1949 and the winner of fifteen major races since 1950, Chuck had an intensely loyal fan following, especially in Detroit. He would be sorely missed.

Thompson's wife, Christine, witnessed the fatal crash. Their son, Chuck, Jr., was out of town that weekend, driving in a 280 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane race.

Initial response to the Smirnoff accident was panic. An official of the sponsoring Spirit Of Detroit Association went on local television to announce cancellation of the remaining Gold Cup heats. The race, he said, would be declared "No Contest." There were those who demanded the termination of the entire 1966 season. The sport's critics contended that Chuck Thompson had died for a brand name and that all forms of power boat competition, from outboards to Unlimiteds, should be abolished.

But, in time, cooler heads prevailed.

APBA President Jim Jost stepped in and ordered that the Gold Cup be run to its conclusion, there being no provision in the APBA Gold Cup Rules for a "No Contest" result.

And so the race was completed on the following day, Monday, July 4. Slovak and Tahoe Miss took the honors.

Bill Cantrell, who had suffered burned hands at Tampa and been replaced by Thompson in the Smirnoff cockpit, spoke movingly and forcefully that now was not the time to quit--even after four deaths. "We're now at a pinnacle where the sport is going to go under or up." Cantrell reminded his comrades that Unlimited racing, together with Indianapolis racing, was a professional endeavor. And professionals needed to act accordingly.

The Unlimited people took Cantrell's words to heart. The 1966 season went on as scheduled with a full field of participating boats. The level of competition was respectably high and compared favorably to 1965.

Doc Greene pointed out that "Abolition of the sport would not bring back Thompson and the others, nor their courage, nor their character; but would rather render meaningless the thing for which they died."

All four of the new race sites in 1966 were declared successful. And all four returned in 1967. Washington, D.C., and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, did drop off the 1967 calendar, but returned in 1968.

Tahoe Miss won four races (Detroit, Kelowna, Coeur d'Alene, and Madison) in 1966 and was National High Point Champion.

Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little bought a previously unraced hull from builder Les Staudacher and was ready to go racing again only two weeks after Black Sunday. With Bill Brow at the wheel, Little scored his first-ever career win, the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup, on JuIy 24, followed by a triumph in the San Diego Cup on September 25.

Before season's end, My Gypsy and Miss Lapeer likewise achieved victory, at Seattle and Sacramento respectively.

When Evelyn Manchester, dressed in black, made an unexpected appearance at the Seattle Seafair Regatta drivers' meeting, she received enthusiastic applause and was invited by Cantrell to sit with the drivers.

The Notre Dame and the Miss Bardahl teams did not re-appear in 1966. Both returned, however, in 1967 with new equipment. Owner Ole Bardahl, however, abandoned the cabover concept. He ordered instead a traditional rear cockpit/forward engine hull configuration.

Joe and Lee Schoenith continued on the 1966 tour with the former Gale's Roostertail hull renamed Smirnoff. Their best finish was a second place in the Atomic Cup with Cantrell driving.

The Miss U.S. team threw in the towel after Detroit. The boat suffered extensive damage when it fell into a hole during Heat 1-A of the Gold Cup and was declared unfixable. A new Miss U.S. was ordered for 1967 from Staudacher. In the interim, driver Muncey filled in at three 1966 races as relief pilot of $ Bill.

The speeds attained in 1966 were admittedly down from 1965. But this was due at least in part to the large-scale transition from the 3-mile to the 2 - mile race course. Although a few 3 milers still remained, the preferred course size was now 2 -miles in the interest of improving spectator vantage points. With less distance to accelerate, the boats ran about 5 miles per hour slower lap speeds on a 2 - mile track.

Despite the trauma of Black Sunday, the ensuing years of 1966 through 1975 provided a decade of racing unparalleled in Unlimited history. No apology need be made for the overall quality of competition during those ten pinnacle years. The racing was simply superb.

The sport did experience some additional down days during the 1966 - 75 decade. Bill Brow was lost in 1967, Warner Gardner in 1968, Tommy Fults in 1970, and Skipp Walther in 1974.

But the many great competitive duels that kept fans enthralled from coast- to-coast were downright legendary, and on a par with many of the great races of the past. This was Unlimited Hydroplane racing at its best.

Not until the late 1970s did the sport go into a temporary decline due to the dwindling supply of World War II fighter aircraft engines. The turbine revolution of the 1980s restored the Unlimiteds to prominence, even if it meant taking the thunder out of the Thunderboats.

One long range effect of Black Sunday was the re-enforcement of the prejudice against cabover hulls in the Unlimited Class. Ron Jones kept insisting that the accident that took Ron Musson's life had nothing to do with the fact that the boat was a cabover, but it was associated with a cabover. And that made the concept difficult to sell for many years to come.

Jones produced an outstanding 7-Litre Class cabover, the Record-7, owned by George Babcock, in 1969. Record-7 became the first Limited hydroplane to clear 100 miles per hour in a heat of competition. But even this was insufficient incentive for the Unlimited owners as a whole to invest in forward-cockpit hulls.

Owner Dave Heerensperger did try a Jones' cabover, the Pride of Pay 'n Pak, in 1970. But Heerensperger quickly gave up on the idea and converted his boat to a rear-cockpit configuration for 1971.

Not until 1977, when Bill Muncey introduced the Atlas Van Lines "Blue Blaster," designed by Jim Lucero and Dixon Smith, did the cabover concept gain wide acceptance in the Unlimited ranks.

In the decades following Black Sunday, the 1966 President's Cup has regrettably come to be regarded by some as the bad seed of Thunderboat racing, the cornerstone for everything (real or imagined) that is wrong with the sport.

A generation of editorial writers, many of whom never knew Musson, Manchester, or Wilson, has chosen June 19, 1966, as the day when Unlimited hydroplane racing lost its innocence.

Hardly a year goes by when some enterprising journalist somewhere will "discover" the 1966 President's Cup. He or she will resurrect with great relish the ghosts of Ron, Rex, and Don for yet another superficial "expose" to sell newspapers.

Not all of the after-effects of the 1966 President's Cup were negative. The Unlimited rules were significantly upgraded in the years that followed with a particular emphasis on safety. New requirements were written into the rulebook for adequacy of equipment. In the words of former URC Executive Secretary Phil Cole, as published in the 1966-67 Unlimited Yearbook, "There emerged a better understanding of what can and must be done by the fleet that survived the rigors of 1966 to build a better sport for the future."

Looking at Black Sunday with a 1990s perspective, a modern audience might be critical of a sport that was slow to embrace the concept of an enclosed cockpit.

But as Dixon Smith has stated in a 1996 interview with David Williams, the idea of seating a driver indoors was quite foreign at the time. If such a radical measure had been put to a vote in 1966, it likely would have been voted down, in Smith's opinion. That was because of the belief that a driver, in the event of an accident, had a better chance for survival if he were thrown clear of his boat. For this reason, seat belts were for many years prohibited in the Unlimited hydroplanes.

Obviously, the boats in which Musson, Manchester, Wilson, and Thompson died would no longer be allowed on the race course. But they were the state of the art for their day.

For as long as men race boats, people will continue to speak in whispers about Black Sunday. It was a day too terrible to forget. But there is some consolation in knowing that Ron, Rex, Don, and Chuck died doing what they loved best.

* * *

The 1966 Sacramento Cup official program book was dedicated to the memory of Musson, Manchester, Wilson, Thompson, and also Bill Stead. Editor Phil Cole chose a passage by Jack London as a fitting memorial to those five remarkable men:

" I would rather be ashes than dust!
" I would rather that my spark should burn out a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dryrot.
" I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy permanent planet.
"The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days by trying to prolong them.
" I shall use my time."

Fred Farley. For reprint rights to this article, please contact the author at <fredf@hotmail.com>

This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010.
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Leslie Field, 1999