Bill Stead [Pt. 1]
The decade of the 1950s is considered by many hydroplane historians to be the Golden Age of Unlimited racing's piston era. The competition was keen. The East-West rivalry was at its peak. The Ted Jones-designed hulls defined the state-of-the-art. And the participants were larger than life.
This was the era of the millionaire sportsman variety of owner. Money was no object. And commercial sponsorships, while tolerated, were frowned upon.
One of the 1950s most respected competitors was Bill Stead, the Nevada cattle rancher and World War II flying ace, who won nine races and the 1959 National Championship for Bill Waggoner’s Maverick team. And in the years following his retirement from competition, Stead served the Unlimited sport in various capacities until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1966.
It took a while for Bill to hit his stride as an Unlimited jockey. But from 1957 onward, no one could take the soft-spoken Stead for granted on the race course.
Bill acquired his first hydroplane in 1951. This was the Fury, which had started life as Miss Golden Gate and had finished second in the 1938 APBA Gold Cup at Detroit with Dan Arena driving. A non-prop-riding three-pointer, the boat was well past its prime when Stead bought it. Quite frankly, Fury wasn’t furious and never started in a heat of competition.
It caught fire in a test run at the 1951 Lake Tahoe Yacht Club Championship Regatta and capsized at the 1952 LTYC gathering. Stead suffered serious injuries in the latter mishap. This included driving a shoulder blade through a lung.
Not to be undone by one major setback, Stead purchased Morlan Visel’s Hurricane IV in 1953. The prop-riding three-pointer had been built in 1948.
Stead’s first appearance in competition with the “IV” was the 1953 LTYC Championship free-for-all, where he finished third behind Stan Dollar in Short Snorter and Max Collins in Fleur du Lac. Later that summer, Stead (co-driving with Visel) finished second to Dollar and Short Snorter in the Mapes Trophy at the Mile High Regatta, also on Lake Tahoe.
Stead attended the 1954 Gold Cup in Seattle but fell short of the 85 mile an hour minimum qualifying speed by one mile an hour. Hurricane IV was the oldest boat there. Never the best cornering craft, Hurricane IV was clearly not in the same league as such contemporary competitors as Slo-mo-shun IV, Slo-mo-shun V, Gale IV, Gale V, Miss U.S., Miss Cadillac, Wha Hoppen Too, or even Dora My Sweetie, a step hydroplane.
To owner Stead, the handwriting was clearly on the wall. Hurricane IV was obsolete. He did send her to one last closed-course event, the 1954 Mile High Regatta.
The “IV” finished an overall second in the Mapes Trophy behind Jack Regas and the Allison-powered Scooter, a remodeled former pleasure boat.
Stead had the satisfaction of winning his first heat as an Unlimited driver when he finished first in Heat Three of the Mapes Trophy, ahead of Regas in Scooter and Jay Murphy in Breathless.
Throughout its career, Hurricane IV had steadily improved as a straightaway runner. The boat was now retired from competition, but Stead wanted to see what it could do in a try over the measured mile. He sent the “IV” to Salton Sea, California, in November of 1954 for that purpose.
Stead had a very special ace up his sleeve at Salton Sea. This was in the form of a “hopped-up” Avia Union Allison engine, prepared by Howard Gidovlenko, who had built Allisons for the Slo-Mo team.
Hurricane IV and Bill Stead powered their way into the history books with a two-way average speed of 163.136 miles per hour. At the time, only two other Unlimited hydroplanes had gone faster. These were Slo-mo-shun IV, which did 178.497 at Seattle in 1952 with Stan Sayres driving, and Such Crust V, which did 164.290 at Windsor, Ontario, in 1953 with Bill Cantrell at the wheel.
The Salton Sea performance solidified Hurricane IV’s reputation as one of the fastest boats of her day. At a time in history when straightaway records carried as much prestige as closed course victories, this was a major accolade.
For the next three decades, Hurricane IV gathered dust in a barn at the 160-acre Stead cattle ranch near Reno until her acquisition by the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum in Seattle.
In the middle-1950s, a widely circulated press account mentioned Stead as the possible driver for a hydroplane called Zephyr-Fury (no connection to Stead’s Fury), co-owned by Gidovlenko and Indy Car driver Ray Crawford. But this proved false. Bill never drove the boat.
Inactive in 1955, Stead answered the call from Texas oil tycoon W. T. Waggoner to take over the wheel of Maverick the following year.
Maverick was the former Rebel Suh, which had sunk in the 1955 Seattle Gold Cup with Russ Schleeh driving. Designed by Ted Jones and built by Les Staudacher, Maverick was teamed with Waggoner’ Shanty I, driven by Schleeh.
Stead’s first appearance in the Maverick cockpit was at the 1956 Seattle Seafair Regatta on Lake Washington. He failed to qualify due to mechanical difficulties but did manage to squeeze out a single lap of 114 miles per our on the 3.75-mile course. This compared favorably to Shanty I, the fastest qualifier, which posted a 3-lap average of 115 miles per hour.
Stead and Maverick spent most of 1956 in the shadow of Shanty I, which went on to capture the National High Point Championship. Stead nevertheless managed to finish fourth in the Gold Cup at Detroit and fifth at the President’s Cup in Washington, D.C.
The top teams of 1956 included Jack Regas in Hawaii Kai III, Joe Taggart in Slo-mo-shun IV, Chuck Thompson in Miss Pepsi, Fred Alter in Miss U.S. 1, Don Wilson in Miss U.S. II, Mira Slovak in Miss Wahoo, Bill Cantrell in Gale V, Lee Schoenith in Gale VI, and Bill Muncey in Miss Thriftway.
Muncey and Stead had a great rapport between them. They were two of the most educated men ever to pilot an Unlimited hydroplane. Muncey had two Master’s Degrees; Stead attended three universities and continued to enroll in post-graduate classes throughout his adult life.
In 1957, it was Maverick—not Shanty I—that garnered most of the glory in the Waggoner camp. Shanty I was rebuilt during the off-season but was hindered—not helped—by the modifications. The balance was wrong. Shanty I driver Schleeh had power he couldn’t use in 1957 because the boat rode so erratically.
Of the two Waggoner boats, Maverick was clearly faster and rode better.
Stead scored his first victory as an Unlimited driver at the 1957 season-opener on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington. Maverick won all three heats of the Apple Cup, which was run over the Gold Cup distance of 90 miles. Slovak and Miss Wahoo placed second.
The Apple Cup win was more or less a fluke in that both Hawaii Kai III and Miss Thriftway ran faster and were distinctly ahead of Maverick in Heat Two, until forced out by mechanical difficulties. The Kai went on to be 1957 National Champion and the Thriftway claimed the Gold Cup (at Seattle).
The next stop on the tour at Lake Tahoe was something less than an artistic success for the Waggoner team with neither Shanty I nor Maverick finishing a heat. Miss Thriftway likewise had an off-day and nullified a victory by jumping the gun in the
Final Heat and allowing Miss Wahoo to win.
Heading into the Gold Cup, Stead and Maverick were highly regarded, their non-performance at Lake Tahoe notwithstanding. They had after all gone the 90-mile distance twice—at Detroit in 1956 and at Chelan in 1957. The boat was also getting faster and ended up with the Gold Cup Fastest Qualifier trophy with a 3-lap/9-mile average of 117.054.
On Gold Cup race day, Miss Thriftway wasn’t the fastest boat but was the most reliable Both Hawaii Kai III and Miss Wahoo posted faster heat speeds than Miss Thriftway, but neither the Kai nor the Wahoo was able to complete the 90-mile distance.
Maverick ran a faster heat in Heat 1-C than Thriftway and managed to finish all three heats but was slowed by mechanical difficulties in Heat 2-B and dropped from contention.
At day’s end, Stead and Maverick were third in points. Shanty I, in her highest finish of the year, took second.
Moving on to the Silver Cup at Detroit, Maverick turned the fastest heat of the race in Heat 1-A and decisively beat Miss Thriftway, 108.303 miles per hour to 104.193. Stead unfortunately was unable to capitalize on this fine performance when his boat conked out in Heat 2-B and didn’t make the cut for the Final Heat.
It was at the Silver Cup that the Edgar Kaiser-owned Hawaii Kai III finally got it all together and scored the first of her five consecutive wins in late-season. 1957. From then on, Regas and the Kai could seemingly do no wrong. They rewrote the record book en route to victory in the Silver Cup, the President’s Cup, the Rogers Memorial, the Indiana Governor’ Cup, and the Sahara Cup, while the rest of the field wallowed in their wake.
Shanty I was destroyed in a test run at Washington, D.C., and Russ Schleeh was injured. Miss Thriftway and Bill Muncey likewise crashed a week later in Heat Two at Madison, Indiana, after setting a world 15-mile heat record of 112.312 in Heat One.
Maverick likewise had a troubled late-season. Stead didn’t make the Final Heat of the President’s Cup or the Sahara Cup and was an undistinguished fourth in the Rogers Memorial.
The 1957 campaign was clearly not a vintage year for the Bill Waggoner team. Maverick placed fifth in National High Points, behind Hawaii Kai III, Wildroot Charlie, Miss Wahoo, and Miss Thriftway.
For 1958, the Waggoner crewmembers concentrated their efforts on Maverick and never again brought more than one boat to a race.
The off-season saw the retirement at least temporarily of the Hawaii Kai III and Miss Wahoo teams. A new Miss
Thriftway was in the works as was a new Miss Bardahl and a new Gale V.
Maverick switched yacht clubs in 1958. Owner Waggoner had a falling out with the Seattle Yacht Club over possession and display of the Harms worth International Trophy, won in 1956 by Shanty I. Waggoner then transferred his affiliation to the Lake Mead Yacht Club of Las Vegas. This meant that if Maverick were to win the Gold Cup, the race would be run not on Lake Washington but on Lake Mead. This was a major blow to the Seattle Unlimited hydroplane fleet, which had dominated the racing action so completely in 1956 and 1957.
When Bill Stead settled into the Maverick cockpit at the Apple Cup, he found some additional much-needed miles per hour. The crew, headed by crew chief Ricky Iglesias and lead engine mechanic Bill Newman, had put together an aux-stage Allison that was quite literally the equivalent of a Rolls-Royce Merlin, according to Ron Jones, Sr.
Thanks to Waggoner’s millions, the crew had the luxury of testing every single day if need be to fine-tune their Allison engine program.
The 1958 season was the first full year of the new APBA Unlimited Racing Commission, which was to govern the sport for decades to come. Most races that year consisted of two 15-mile preliminary heats and a 30-mile winner-take-all Final Heat. The Gold Cup continued its “total points” format with three heats of 30 miles each.
The new Miss Bardahl from Seattle won the 1958 lid-lifter at Lake Chelan with Norm Evans driving. The Detroit-based Miss U.S. 1 was a close second in the Final Heat with Fred Alter in the cockpit, followed by a distant-running Miss Spokane with rookie Dallas Sartz.
[Reprinted from Thunderboat, January/February 2009]