1966 President's Cup
Potomac River, Washington D.C., June 19, 1966
Musson, Manchester and Wilson Killed in Speedboat Regatta
Two Drivers Die During Last Heat
Musson Killed in ExplosionManchester and Wilson Collide 3 Hours Later
By Steve Cady
Washington, June 19, Three of speedboat racing's most famous drivers were killed on the Potomac River today, the blackest day in unlimited hydroplane competition.
Rex Manchester and Don Wilson died in a collision during the final heat of the President's Cup Regatta. Slightly less than three hours earlier, Wilson had knelt beside Ron Musson in a vain attempt to revive the three-time national class champion whose four-ton Miss Bardahl had blown up in a geyser of spray and smoke.
Wilson and Musson were declared dead on arrival at the George Washington University Hospital, and intensive emergency room treatment for Manchester proved fruitless.
Ironically, Manchester, a Seattle father of seven, was declared the winner of the 35th President's Cup, a victory he had never achieved in life, on the basis of points he had accrued going into the fatal final heat.
Worst Tragedy Ever
No other hydroplane race had ever claimed more lives. In 1951, two drivers were killed in a Seattle regatta. Today's event was not halted after the first fatality, by a new policy adopted recently be drivers' consent.
But the crowd of 30,000 lining the river banks fell somber when Musson's death was announced at about 5:20 p.m., about 40 minutes after the accident, and a yacht from which Secretary of the Navy Paul H. Nitze was watching the race had left the scene.
The first accident occurred only a few feet from the yacht. Miss Bardahl, Musson radical new front-drive racer, was thundering along at 170 miles an hour, just astern and on the inside of Manchester's Notre Dame.
Miss Bardahl apparently took a long horizontal skip into the air, hit the water flat, went up again bow first, then dived into the water nose first. Miss Bardahl was partly screened from shore view by the rooster-tail plume of water thrown by Notre Dame as a sudden, dull booming sound reverberated over the water.
A moment later, there was nothing left of Miss Bardahl except a piece of the boat's tailfin, bobbing.
Lightest Boat in Fleet
Miss Budweiser, owned by Bernie Little of Tampa, Fla., was 9 years old. At 5,500 pounds she was the lightest boat in the fleet and probably the fastest under calm conditions. She had proved that on several occasions in recent years when running under the name of Miss Exide.
But Wilson, 38 years old, had driven her only three times before today and was still a bit unsure of the boat's handling peculiarities.
Notre Dame, owned by Shirley Louise Mendelson, was in her third season. Manchester had driven the boat to a close second in last week's opening regatta in Tampa.
E.M. (Red) Peatross, former American Power Boat Association president, said after the triple disaster: "The boats were all well constructed. The water was reasonably calm and both accidents happened on straightaways, so the course layout can't be blamed. I guess the only thing you can say is that it was an act of God."
One spectator who watched the victims being brought ashore in sea-stretchers had a more violent reaction.
"It's insane," he said, "insane to race that fast and insane to let a race continue after one man is killed."
Heat Ordered Rerun
The boats immediately were red-flared back to the pits and the heat was rerun, then rerun again because of a minor mishap. Manchester, a 38-year-old Seattle man married to the daughter of Ole Bardahl, the owner of Musson's boat, and Wilson, a West Palm Beach, Fla., Ford dealer, moved into the final heat for a showdown duel for the championship. There were three other boats in the final.
Manchester's Notre Dame took the lead at the first turn from Tahoe Miss, and Miss Budweiser roared into second place. Approaching the second, or upper, turn near the end of the backstretch on the first lap, with about 13 miles to go, Wilson moved Miss Budweiser up on the inside.
Suddenly, as the two boats approached the turn, bow to bow, Notre Dame rolled up out of the water on her port sponson and apparently collided with Miss Budweiser. Both boats came apart in a shower of plywood, spray, metal and oil.
Mira Slovak roared past the debris in Tahoe Miss, suddenly spun his boat around and dived into the rolling water. He stayed with the floating bodies of Manchester and Wilson until Coast Guard launches pulled up the crushed drivers.
Musson, also 38, national champion for the last three years in the unlimited hydroplane class, was pronounced dead on arrival at George Washington Hospital at 5:03 p.m., half an hour after the accident. The cause was given as "massive internal injuries."
Continuation of the regatta followed a policy set several years ago at a meeting in Detroit before a Gold cup race. The drivers had voted unanimously (except for two abstentions) that in the event of a fatality, regattas would still be completed. Musson was not one of those who abstained.
Today's fatalities were the first in unlimited hydroplanes since 1962, when Bob Hayward of Canada was killed driving Miss Supertest II in a Silver Cup race at Detroit. The last fatality in the President's Cup regatta was Will Ferytag, who died in 1932.
Miss Bardahl, built last July, was racing in only her second heat. The plywood and mahogany boat, heaviest in the class, was radical in that the driver sat in front the 2,000 horsepower Rolls-Royce engine, instead of behind it.
(Reprinted from the New York Times, June 20, 1966)
History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at email@example.com
© Leslie Field, 2005