1976 APBA Gold Cup
Detroit River, Detroit MI, June 27, 1976
Detroit River's Hidden Terrors Take
by Joe Falls
It looks so innocent from the shore. Blue-gray waters, gently rippling in the afternoon breeze. How could anything be wrong out there? It looks so calm, so peaceful, so placid.
Every year the hydroplane drivers come to our town and they regale us with their stories of the Detroit River. They tell us the rolling waves -- the "holes" in the course -- the hidden terrors along the way. And we sit there and listen because who wouldn't want to be told that their race -- their river -- was the most treacherous of all.
Somehow, there seemed to be honor in it. Maybe it's because we don't have too much around here -- precious little to be proud of when it comes to the wonderful world of sport. And so when they spoke, we listened, eager and anxious to believe them. Our river, to be sure, was the most dangerous of all.
But I'll tell you something. I always thought they were putting us on a little. Maybe telling us some of the things we wanted to hear. Now, an apology is in order to these drivers. Our river must be every bit as treacherous as they've led us to believe.
The conditions seemed ideal for Sunday's running of the Gold Cup. The water did seem calm, peaceful and placid . . . from the shore. Yet, the toll was awesome: one boat sunk, one badly battered, others torn and twisted . . . and driver Howie Benns of Miss Budweiser in the hospital with bruised and fractured legs.
It was a beautiful day with a bright sun bathing the more than 400,000 spectators. Police called it the greatest mob ever to see the boats run. But it was grim almost from the start -- and became almost gruesome by the end of the day with one boat after another falling victim to the waters and Bill Muncey screaming at the officials to stop the race before someone got killed.
A pall was cast over the entire pit area as an ambulance took Benns away to the hospital. Suddenly, it wasn't fun anymore. Tempers grew short and crews scurried around trying to hold their battered boats together. The drivers met as they walked to the pit area, exchanging only glances and shaking their heads. Nothing was said but nothing needed to be said.
It was all happening out there on the calm, peaceful, placid waters of the Detroit River. The rollers were gigantic in the first turn, said Muncey. He went flying over the dashboard himself in his second run on the water. Muncey sat in his trailer with his eyes as large as saucers and his voice booming off the ceiling.
"I don't believe this course . . . I don't believe it," he was saying. "I was making the hottest run I've ever had on this river and I came to a dead halt." Muncey was struck by the rollers in the first turn near the bridge and was sent hurtling out of his cockpit. His boat -- smoking at the start -- came to a screeching halt . . . from 165 mph to zero, with Muncey hanging on for his life.
About an hour later, Billy Schumacher was heading into the very same spot on the course when his boat came up out of the water, turned sideways, and started tearing apart. Schumacher, a cool competitor, leaped into the water. Not to save himself, but to save his boat. He knew the moment they spotted him bobbing in the waves, they'd put the red flares out and the race would be stopped.
Schumacher was unharmed but his boat, Olympia Beer, sank to the bottom as they towed it in. Finally, in a chilling climax to the long day, Miss Budweiser spun out in the same turbulent waters of the first turn and sent Benns flying into the water. Again, the riverfront was gripped with that strange silence that accompanies the red flares and sirens of the rescue boats.
The thing I will remember long after this result is forgotten is Schumacher's wife, Cyndee, who died a little on this day on the river. What an eerie feeling it was to be standing next to her in the pits and watching the horror in her eyes as she heard of her husband's accident. She knew her husband was in the water but that's all she knew. She didn't know how he got there or why. She had that terrible expression that people get when they've just heard some bad news.
In that moment, I understood what a terrible price these people have to pay. They may reap the gold and glory of their profession but there is always that moment of grief inevitably waiting for them.
But when they tell me tales of our river, I shall never question them again.
(Reprinted from the Detroit Free Press, June 28, 1976)
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