1988 Miller High Life Thunderboat Regatta
Mission Bay, San Diego, Calif., September 18, 1988

Oberto Survives San Diego Airshow
by Jon Osterberg

88_san_diego_thumbnail.jpg (2739 bytes)If only the racing in San Diego could match the wonderful facilities and weather.

Have you missed attending Miami's annual non-event because you couldn't afford the air fare? Now there's an alternative: Make reservations for the 1989 Gold Cup on salty Mission Bay. If it goes like this year's San Diego race, you can soak up plenty of sunshine, enjoy perfect lighting for those late-afternoon photos, and wear out three pencils writing "DNS" and "DNF" all day -- just like in Miami!

(What are you doing?" says the NewsJournal's managing editor. "This sounds like an Art Thiel smear story!" Read on, I tell him. I'm not trashing the sport; I'm just frustrated at driving 1,300 miles only to watch a double blowover and a one-boat final.)

In 1986 the Miss Budweiser team arrived in San Diego oozing with confidence. "We ain't afraid of salt," team members said, citing their Miami victory and a secret contraption meant to keep Bud's turbine salt-free.

Many believed them, thinking technology had overcome salt-induced compressor stall. Not so. There have been exceptions, but in 1988 the salt problem still has not been licked, much to the disappointment of turbine fans and the joy of Jim Harvey's Oh Boy! Oberto team.


The Miller High Life Thunderboat Regatta held much promise for competitive racing. Hydro fans had witnessed superb action at earlier stops an the circuit, and when Tom D'Eath scorched around the 2.5-mile course Friday in Miss Budweiser at an all-time high 156.169 mph, hopes soared.

Scott Pierce throttled Mr. Pringle's to a 147.517 qualifying lap Friday. On Saturday, the "new" Circus Circus (John Prevost) and Miller High Life (Chip Hanauer) turned 146.939 and 145.584 respectively. Bud ran a quick 154.242 but compressor stalled after one lap and returned to the pits, a harbinger of things to come.

The announcement that The Vantage Ultra would bypass San Diego to save equipment for the year's final race an Lake Mead tempered some fans' enthusiasm. Also, Ron Snyder and Miss Madison experienced a puzzling vibration that limited its best run to a mediocre 124.844. And the replacement Pocketsavers Plus (Fred Leland's U-100) struggled through several qualifying attempts before rookie Steve David made the grade late Saturday at 113.536.

Other qualifiers in the 11-boat field were: Oh Boy! Oberto (George Woods), 133.929 mph; the Cooper's unsponsored U-3 (Mitch Evans), 133.630; Miss Paddock Pools (Jerry Hopp), 122.200; Miss Stroh Light (Wheeler Baker), 120.289; and U-77 Miss Midmark Dist. (Jack Barrie), 111.125. Barrie trailer-fired a Packard engine Saturday but qualified and raced with a Merlin.


Miller tried to test twice Sunday morning but stalled both times and was towed in. A replay of Hanauer's '87 San Diego victory seemed very unlikely when his boat smoked to a stop three times trying to get on plane for heat 1-A.

Mitch Evans and the U-3 trailed the field by one-quarter lap at the start of the race. Pringle's and Bud led across the line with Pierce holding lane one. To the surprise of some, Pringle's outran Bud through the first turn and carved out a slim lead up the backstretch. Pocketsavers, Mid-Mark, and U-3 trailed.

D'Eath hugged Pierce's roostertail for a lap before Pringle's gradually lengthened its lead and flashed across the finish line to win. Gone was Bud's nine-heat win streak. Pierce looked strong in stretching his driver's high-point margin aver D'Eath by 100 points.

Heat 1-A order of finish: Pringle's 124.905, Budweiser 121.143, Pocketsavers 112.5649 U-3 109.607, Mid-mark 96.547, Miller DNS.

The usually reliable Paddock Pools failed to start heat 1-B. Even more surprising, Snyder brought Madison to the line early and had to back off. Oberto jumped to the lead ahead of Stroh and Circus, which was late and far behind.

Madison gained on Oberto in the first turn and moved alongside as they shot up the backstretch. Woods, an the inside, held a slight lead until the middle of the chute, where Snyder surged ahead. Meanwhile, in lane three, Circus was screaming up the backstretch at breakneck speed, closing on both leaders.

Suddenly, Circus caught a gust of wind and lifted off, The boat flipped backward, completed a full revolution and, as the sponsons rose for yet another go-round, the stern slammed hard on the water. Circus crumpled like a 'V" an impact and landed right-side up. About one second after Circus launched, Madison blew aver. Much like Budweiser a year earlier, it leaned a bit inside, completed three-fourths of a revolution, struck the water on its sponson tips, and landed upside down minus part of its left sponson. For a few horrifying moments, Circus and Madison had been airborne simultaneously.

Approximately 30 seconds after impact, Prevost opened Circus' canopy, much to the relief on onlookers. Soon the transom sank underwater, but except for a strained neck, Prevost was unscathed. Remarkably, Snyder also was unharmed, but spectators feared the worst when they saw no movement on or near his boat. Within three minutes of impact, a rescue crew popped Madison's underside hatch and eventually freed Snyder, who sat upright -- unassisted -- on the hull's bottom.

Both drivers were taken to UCSD Medical Center for examination, then released. They returned to the pits, where Snyder relived unlimited racing's first "synchronized blowovers."

"The boat gave no indication. It went like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "I had the presence of mind to relax, lean against the headrest, and wait for the impact. It didn't come down that hard. I don't have an ache or a pain.

"I did something dumb after it landed, though," he added. "Water filled the cockpit instantly, and I wanted out. I undid my restraints before opening the hatch. Once the belts were off, I dropped to the canopy -- away from the hatch. I couldn't get out by myself."

Both boats were towed to the pits, and officials waved the field back out. Stroh approached the start early, cut inside the course and shut down. Oberto breezed to an uneventful win over Paddock Pools.

Heat 1-B order of finish: Oberto 110.296, Paddock Pools 103.480, Stroh DNS, Circus DNS, Madison DNS.

The next heat brought only Pocketsavers, Oberto, and Stroh to the line. Circus did not start, and Miller conked in the south turn after the one-minute gun had fired, Pocketsavers held a big lead at the start and ran a 121-mph lap. Stroh died on the first backstretch. Oberto chased Pocketsavers, which stalled as it completed lap two. Woods passed David entering the backstretch of lap three and coasted home to 400 points. David's mount sputtered and died but eventually restarted to finish.

Heat 2-A order of finish: Oberto 112.251, Pocketsavers 68.998, Stroh DNF, Miller DNS, U-3 DNS.

Mid-Mark never left the pits to start heat 2-B. Like Miller in its first heat, Pringle's smoked to a stop three or four times trying to get on plane. That left another two-boat "race." Budweiser breezed far ahead of Paddock Pools for nearly five laps, then stalled a few hundred yards from the finish with a salted engine. D'Eath managed to coast across the line -- literally -- and collected 400 points, thus reclaiming the driver's high-point lead by 52 points. Black smoke belched from Bud indicating 'something wrong in the engine housing' (apologies to Jim Hendrick), but the damage, if any, was minimal.

Heat 2-B order of finish: Budweiser 124.501, Paddock 104.708, Pringle's DNS, Mid-mark DNS.


Remarkably, because of attrition, Mitch Evans qualified for the final heat with only 169 total points. His opportunity vanished as the one-minute gun fired while the U-3 floated in front of the pits. Joining Evans as a spectator was Steve David, whose crew changed Pocketsavers' gearbox two minutes too late.

Pierce tried desperately to get Pringle's an a plane, but again it smoked to a stop every time salt water sprayed aver the cowl. Hanauer fared no better; Miller (the alternate) started but died on the backstretch less than a minute before the start. Although Bud was up and running, its turbine sputtered almost from the instant it entered the course.

D'Eath hit the line first an the outside with Woods inside. Hopp trailed. Bud opened a decisive lead but stalled exiting the second turn, then gained momentum again entering lap two. D'Eath led Woods by more than a roostertail entering the second turn when Bud again stalled, then died at the exit pin with a "cooked nozzle." Oberto took over and waltzed home, its Merlin blaring magnificently across the bay. Standing on the disabled Bud, D'Eath applauded as Woods roared by to take his second victory of the year -- both coming an salt water.

Hopp cruised along in second until the final turn of the race where Paddock slowed, belched black smoke, and blew its engine in a ball of flame.

Final heat order of finish: Oberto 117.4l2, Paddock DNF.. Bud DNF, Miller (alternate) DNS, Pringle's DNS, U-3 DNS. Pocketsavers DNS.

The Oberto team celebrated, jubilant over the fact Woods won despite running the same engine all day and having no nitrous in the final. "If you guys go turbine next year," someone told Woods, "you'll have to keep those Merlins as 'designated hitters' for salt water." Woods smiled.

The San Diego race concluded with three winners: Woods, Prevost, and Snyder. Woods won the race; Prevost and Snyder beat death. Since Dean Chenoweth's fatal blowover aboard Budweiser in 1982, six drivers have survived eight flips: Steve Reynolds (1986 and 1987), Jim Kropfeld (twice in 1987), and Scott Pierce, Tom D'Eath, John Prevost, and Ron Snyder (1988).

Emotions ran high at the sight of Prevost and Snyder in the pits, smiling and mingling with friends mere hours after their accident. You can thank Jeff Neff (former "bubble" Bud crew chief) and enclosed cockpits.

"That's it," said one observer, still shaken by the Circus-Madison accidents.

"I don't want to see any more proof that those canopies work."

(Reprinted with permission from the Unlimited NewsJournal, October 1988)

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