Twenty Safety Improvements 1966-1986


35th Presidents Cup -- June 19, 1966


"The remainder of the fleet, augmented by the arrival of California based Miss Dixi-Cola, trekked to Washington for the 35th running of the prestigious President's Cup, a two day race.

After the first day, Bill Sterett (Miss Chrysler Crew), Ron Musson (Miss Bardahl), and Rex Manchester (Notre Dame) were the ones to beat. After the second day, only Sterett remained alive."

--APBA Unlimited Hydroplane Yearbook 1966-7

 

Amidst all of the hoopla and fanfare surrounding the beginning of the 1986 Unlimited season, and in between the big dollar turbines and the F-16 fighter canopies an anniversary has come to pass. This anniversary shall not be marked with special commemoratives or festivities, nor shall the television carry any specials about that ill-fated Sunday in June. Instead the families, friends and fans of the fallen shall silently remember the tragedy, that single day of racing in which Ron Musson, Rex Manchester and Don Wilson all perished.

"Black Sunday" as it has come to be known hit the sport so suddenly and unexpectedly that it has taken the sport years to fully recover, if indeed that is possible after a tragedy of such magnitude. Perhaps the only consolation is the fact that it came when the sport was at one of its strongest point in history.

Seventeen boats had showed up for the 1966 season opener in Tampa, Florida with some of the all-time great names and legends in the sport present. Among them were the Miss U.S.(who won in Tampa), Notre Dame, Miss Budweiser, Miss Lapeer and Tahoe Miss. Drivers included Bill Muncey, Mira Slovak, Bill Sterett, Warner Gardner, Jim McCormick and Bob Fendler. None of them could have possibly foreseen the events of one week later.

The brand new cabover Miss Bardahl won heat 1-C of the Presidents Cup and was drawn into heat 2-B for the second go around. The boat came up out of the water, slammed down hard on her nose and disintegrated. Going into the final heft both Notre Dame and Budweiser crossed the starting line together. The yearbook tells the final, tragic story.

"It was apparent from the shore that Wilson throttled back to enter the corner. Manchester charged deeper into the turn, hoping to keep up power and come out first.

Suddenly, Notre Dame skittered, first on one sponson, then on another, then bounced into the air in a left turn attitude and came down-just as Miss Budweiser reached the same spot.

The two boats crashed, disintegrated and unlimited racing had itself two more immortals"

In reverting to completed heats, Rex Manchester would win his only Unlimited race, posthumously.

Until 1966 the sport had a relatively clean slate for motor racing of any kind. Prior fatalities were few and far between. In 1951 Orth Mathiot and Thompson Whittaker crashed in the first race ever held on Lake Washington. The duo driving Quicksilver went against the norm of the day and were seat belted in, they didn't have a chance. After that inaugural Seattle race drivers wore no safety belts, the idea was to be thrown clear. The remainder of the fifties saw no more fatal accidents.

The only other fatality before Black Sunday occurred in 1961. Bob Hayward, driving the Miss Supertest II perished in a Silver Cup accident. Then the bottom fell out. June 1966 and the sport suffered its most dramatic and major setback. One afternoon had produced as many fatalities as had occurred in the previous fifteen years. A dark cloud had been cast over the entire sport.

The cloud would not soon lift. Still in shock from the Presidents Cup, Chuck Thompson was killed just fourteen days later in the Gold Cup on the Detroit River. Not surprisingly the remainder of the '66 season saw much slower speeds with the balance of the fleet thankful their men and equipment had survived.

But the cloud remained, barely one minute into the 1967 season Bill Brows' Miss Budweiser became airborne on the backstretch in heat 1-A of the Tampa Suncoast Cup. He was pulled from the water and was in the emergency room of St. Joseph's Hospital in eight minutes. The effort was to no avail.

The sport reeled in shock, in the short span of nine races there had been five deaths. No one was quite sure why. The drivers were all the best, not rookies with inexperience but seasoned pros with many victories to their credit. The equipment was all state of the art for 1966-7. The only radical boat involved was the cabover Miss Bardahl of Ron Musson. This hull was actually a forerunner of boats to come with its forward cockpit, wide transom and overall low profile. The events of 1966-7 put an end to experimentation. The cabover cockpit would not resurface until the seventies with the auto powered Pay n Pak and Atlas Van Lines.

In retrospect, what seems strange, even without the benefit of a twenty year vantage point is seemingly how little was actually done to protect the drivers and push for more and better safety rules in the years following 1966. There were attempts to make the sport safer but they primarily came from the designers. The new boat designs tried to smooth out the ride, thus translating to a safer boat. However, true innovation or drastic design changes never came out of the late sixties and for all that took place it is really tough to wonder why not. Ultimately seven drivers would perish in the sixties with six of those occurring in the years 1966-7-8. The chief cause of the accidents is still debatable but it appears to have been a case of just too much horsepower for the design of the boats. Pushing the boat past its designed in limits. How could any body pass any rules or regulations at that time to eliminate an all out effort to win?

The seventies came and produced outstanding technological advancements. The horizontal stabilizer first appeared on the 1973 Pay 'n Pak as did honeycomb aluminum construction. Turbocharging and the cabover cockpit (as well as a wing) were all put together in George Simon's Miss U. S. As new and innovative as the new boats were they still contained one major flaw, the driver was surrounded by a thin sheet of fiberglass and held in place by a tight fitting seat. This'-method was not too far advanced from the boats of the fifties and still in use by some teams today.

What would truly bring the sport into the eighties and push safety to the top was the last thing anybody wished to seeanother round of shocking, traumatic accidents in a short period of time. The scenario went like this:

During the 1982 season some of the most negative press the sport has ever seen appeared. Steve Rudman of the Seattle P-I hit hard with nothing at all good to say. He characterized drivers as walking corpses and hydroplanes were coffins sporting wings and sponsons. The article was accompanied by a cartoon of a race course with boats driving around a skull. Attitudes within the sport changed too as Dave Heerensperger and his Pay N Pak team threw in the towel and called it quits. Bernie Little took a completely different view of qualifying records.

Suddenly, dramatically it was safety not sheer speed, records or race victories that were of paramount importance, almost to the exclusion of all else.

Teams began re-thinking designs, The Squire Shop experimented with parachutes and in 1983 true advancement began with the Atlas Van Lines. The cockpit of the boat was beefed up to become structural. Honeycomb aluminum made it the strongest part of the boat. Then driver Hanauer was seat belted in with an Indy car type system. Seat belts had not been used since the fifties. Technology, new theories and studying the videotapes of the blowovers now indicated that the cockpit was the safest place to be if the boat crashed. In 1984 many of the boats followed the innovations of the Atlas team, among them were the Lite All Star, Executone, Tosti Asti and Squire Shop.

But ultimately it would be the Miss Budweiser team, the team who over the years had seen more disasters as well as championships, who would field the first boat with a fully enclosed cockpit. Yet questions still abounded, like would Jim Kropfeld be able to release the latches in an emergency situation? and how would conventional hand signals be communicated if the boat went dead in the water? The first test did in fact produce the first test. An explosion blew a large section of deck off before the boat could go fifty feet. Kropfeld seemed to fumble with the latches but still managed to exit in good time.

At the first race the boat qualified for at Syracuse, New York the safety aspect would be put to a big test. Coming out of turn one on the first lap of. the final heat Steve Reynolds in Miss 7-Eleven unintentionally cut off the "Bubble Bud" and the spray brought the boat up out of the water to a frighteningly bad attitude and took quite a bath from the U-711. Once the Budweiser had settled back down in the water Kropfeld not only finished the heat, but won the race. Without the bubble Kropfeld may not have been conscious to drive, much less win.

Bringing the sport to 1986. Three boats this year, two Miss Budweisers and Miss 7-Eleven sport fully enclosed cockpits with seatbelts and an oxygen supply. Drivers Kropfeld, Reynolds and Pierce have the safest rides in the history of the sport.

While it has seemingly taken accidents of tremendous magnitude to-push the sport into a safety conscious attitude, it should be stated that no motor sports, no matter how safe it may seem, be it boats, cars or airplanes shall ever be rendered completely free of accidents or fatalities. Making the sport as safe as possible should continue to be the number one goal, not just something that has to be thought about after an accident.

The events of twenty years ago are still forever etched into the minds of the people that witnessed them and were affected by them. The anniversary of June 19, 1966 should be noted, remembered and foremost further advancements in safety should not stagnate, so as to make sure that history, in that form, will never repeat itself.

---Brian Anderson