Don Wilson Remembered
Red-haired Don Wilson was a boyhood hero of mine. This was back in the 1950s and '60s when the Seattle-Detroit rivalry was at its peak. Even though I lived in Seattle and Wilson for the most part represented Detroit, I respected him enormously as a competitor and as a person.
He was very accessible to his fans--and he had many. He would talk to anyone, regardless of their station in life. I was "nobody" in the '50s and early '60s, but Don would talk "man to man" with me and treat me as an equal.
When Wilson was badly burned in the 1960 Seattle Seafair Regatta while driving George Simon's Miss U.S. I, I sent him a get-well card, which he graciously acknowledged. That meant a lot to me.
I felt a deep personal sense of loss when Donnie was fatally injured on "Black Sunday," June 19, 1966, in Washington, D.C., while driving Miss Budweiser.
A graduate of the tough Mid-West Limited Inboard wars, Don Wilson was a major player in those halcyon days of the 1950s. He won a lot of trophies in the 135 Cubic Inch Class, driving Who Dat.
Wilson came from a boat racing family. His older brother, Stuart Wilson, also drove hydroplanes. In one race, Don had the unnerving experience of being run over by a boat driven by his brother. Fortunately, neither Wilson was seriously injured in that encounter.
Don and fellow Detroiter Bill Muncey were college roommates at Rollins College in Florida. The two would often lay awake nights, talking about race boats.
One of Wilson's earliest hydroplane memories was watching the 1938 APBA Gold Cup in Detroit at age 9. He remembered watching a boat named Excuse Me, an early three-point creation, owned by Horace Dodge, Jr., of the Dodge automotive family.
Excuse Me was wallowing along in last-place and quite literally started coming unstuck. The seat broke. And the driver and riding mechanic threw it out and continued in the race. Then, on the next lap, Excuse Me ran over the discarded seat and sank to the bottom of the river.
Young Donnie had a good laugh over that incident, little realizing that 17 years later he would make his Unlimited driving debut in Dora My Sweetie--also owned by Dodge--in the 1955 Silver Cup at Detroit.
Wilson and his friend Muncey were a couple of Unlimited Class wannabees in the 1950s. Bill had a brief experience with Albin Fallon's Miss Great Lakes in 1950 and then landed the seat in Dodge's Dora in 1955. But that assignment didn't last long. In mid-season, Muncey was tapped by Ted Jones to take over the seat in Miss Thriftway. And a racing legend was born.
When Bill departed the Dodge team, Don Wilson was first in line as his successor. Dora My Sweetie was a step hydroplane, built by Les Staudacher. (Dodge never liked the three-point design.) The boat had won the 1954 Silver Cup with Jack Bartlow in the cockpit.
Wilson posted three third-place heat finishes with Dora My Sweetie in the 1955 Silver Cup and took fourth-place overall. Interestingly enough, Muncey took fifth in that race with Miss Thriftway, after making a very bad start in the Final Heat.
Don scored his first Unlimited victory in the rain-shortened 1956 Maple Leaf Trophy at Windsor, Ontario. The race didn't count for National High Points. But Wilson was now recognized as a competitive force in Unlimited racing. George Simon was quick to sign Wilson as driver of his new Miss U.S. II.
Of the five Detroit teams in attendance at the 1956 Seattle Seafair Regatta, Wilson and Miss U.S. II made the strongest impression. He took second and first in the preliminary heats before conking out in the finale. In winning Heat 2-A, Miss U.S. II became the first non-Seattle craft to finish first on Lake Washington since Miss Pepsi in 1952.
Don went on to capture the 1956 Silver Cup a few weeks later with Miss U.S. II. But Wilson was becoming disenchanted with the hull, which rode very erratically. After a disappointing performance at the Gold Cup in Detroit, Don refused to continue driving it and relinquished the wheel to J.J. "Doc" Terry for the President's Cup.
Wilson didn't see much Unlimited action for the next couple of years. His lone appearance in competition in 1957 was a second-place finish in the Sahara Cup on Lake Mead with the Lauterbach-designed Miss U.S. IV.
The “IV” was one of two new hulls built that year for the Simon team. The other was the second-edition Miss U.S. I, which was a copy of the original Miss U.S. I, built in 1953. The crew was said to prefer Miss U.S. I and only ran Miss U.S. IV a couple of times in order to appease Henry Lauterbach.
Fred Alter was the Miss U.S.I's driver throughout 1957 and much of 1958. Alter won the 1958 International Cup at Elizabeth City, North Carolina, but was fired after hitting a buoy and jumping the gun in the Silver Cup. Don Wilson replaced him, starting with the President's Cup in Washington, D.C.
It was a case of the right man being in the right place at the right time. Miss U.S. I was an acknowledged fast-runner but had difficulty finishing three heats in one day.
The recently crowned Gold Cup champion Hawaii Kai III had just retired. Simon arranged to borrow the Kai's Rolls-Royce Merlin engine inventory for the balance of the season and hired Hawaii Kai crew member George McKernan to maintain it.
After so much disappointment in the recent past, Miss U.S. I came alive with Wilson in the cockpit and won three of the last four races of the season: the President's Cup, the Indiana Governor's Cup at Madison, and the Sahara Cup.
The Wilson-Simon-McKernan combination came within six points of claiming the National High Point title in 1958. They thoroughly outclassed the National Championship combination of Mira Slovak and Miss Bardahl at Washington, D.C., Madison, and Las Vegas.
Some might argue that the Miss U.S. I's success was due partly to the absence of Hawaii Kai III and Miss Thriftway (which had been wrecked at the Gold Cup), and because Maverick withdrew from the Eastern tour.
Still, Miss U.S. I's consistency was exemplary nonetheless. With Wilson driving, she completed nine out of ten heats and finished first six times.
Don stayed with the Simon team for another six years. But these were a mixed blessing. Miss U.S. I was the fastest Gold Cup qualifier in 1959, 1960, and 1961. During those three years, Wilson was always "in the hunt." But no race victories were recorded. He did finish second in the 1959 Silver Cup, the 1959 President's Cup, the 1961 Gold Cup, and the 1961 President's Cup.
There were also a couple of "down" days. He was thrown out of the boat at Washington, D.C., in 1959 and suffered a concussion. He was also burned at Seattle in 1960 after winning the first two heats.
Don never won a Gold Cup race. He came heartbreakingly close in 1961 on Reno, Nevada's Pyramid Lake.
Wilson and Miss U.S. I finished first in Heats One and Three but had a DNF (Did Not Finish) in Heat Two. The heats consisted of ten laps around a 3-mile course.
Don was leading on the fifth lap of Heat Two when Russ Schleeh flipped the Miss Reno. According to Unlimited rules, the heat had to be stopped and re-run.
Miss U.S. I was only 200 yards from the finish line of lap-five when the heat was stopped. If Wilson had crossed the line, the half-way point of the ten-lap heat would have been reached and the heat would have been declared completed. This would have entitled Wilson to 400 points and certain overall victory.
In the re-run of Heat Two, Miss U.S. I conked out.
First-place in the 1961 Gold Cup ultimately went to Bill Muncey and Miss Century 21, which accumulated 900 points for three second-place heat finishes. This compared to 800 points for Don Wilson and Miss U.S. I.
The Gold Cup would go back to Seattle--not to Detroit--for 1962.
Crew chief Roy Duby took over the cockpit of Miss U.S. I for an assault on the world mile straightaway record in early 1962. Duby was able to pull a record 200.419 miles per hour out of the Dan Arena-designed craft. But the boat was ruined as a closed course competitor.
In 1962, Miss U.S. I was a shell of her former competitive self. The combination had been lost. The newly crowned straightaway champion was nothing more than an average boat.
Recognizing that Miss U.S. I had seen her better days, George Simon borrowed the retired "Pink Lady" Hawaii Kai III and renamed her Miss U.S. 5 for Wilson to drive in 1963.
Don and the "new" Miss U.S. 5 finished second in the first heat of the season at Guntersville, Alabama. Then, in Heat Two, the “5” was "watered down" by Warner Gardner and Notre Dame (which was about to be lapped) at the entrance to a turn and went dead in the water. Wilson was infuriated by Gardner's maneuver. After being towed back to the pits, he and the Notre Dame driver almost came to blows.
More bad luck followed at the Gold Cup a few weeks later. While contending for high position in Heat One, the starboard sponson of Miss U.S. 5 exploded. Wilson was uninjured but the bedraggled former "Pink Lady's" racing days were over.
The Simon crew members folded their tent and called it quits for the season to await delivery of a new boat in 1964.
But Don's 1963 campaign wasn't over yet.
His good friend Ron Musson fractured some ribs in a testing accident with Miss Bardahl at Madison, Indiana. With three races left to run and the National Championship hanging in the balance, "The Green Dragon" needed a top-notch replacement driver in a hurry. Bill Muncey let it be known that he was available--the Miss Thriftway having just been retired--but Don Wilson got the job.
The previous winter, Don had piloted the Little Miss Bardahl 7-Litre hydroplane for Musson at the Orange Bowl Regatta.
The 1962-65 Miss Bardahl Unlimited hydroplane was the epitome of the all-conquering Ted Jones design of the 1960s. And Wilson did not disappoint. He finished third at Madison and won the Harrah's Tahoe Trophy at Stateline, Nevada.
Miss Bardahl crew chief Leo Vanden Berg was especially grateful for this opportunity to work with Don. According to Vanden Berg, Wilson was an excellent communicator with the crew. Don could diagnose a mechanical problem better than Musson could.
Wilson's participation in the Miss Bardahl's 1963 National Championship effort must be applauded. The team couldn't have done it without him.
Back with the Simon team in 1964, a new Miss U.S. 5 awaited him. Built by Les Staudacher, the craft was reportedly a line-for-line hull copy of Hawaii Kai III. But that's where the similarity ended. Constructed of magnesium and quite a bit lighter than the Kai, Miss U.S. 5 was a problem boat from Day One.
The handling characteristics were terrible. The boat was so erratic that Don refused to drive it at Seattle. Even some fine-tuning by Ron Jones failed to significantly improve the ride. It was almost a replay of the Miss U.S. II situation of 1956.
Miss U.S. 5 finished 14th in National High Points in 1964 and could finish no higher than 6th in any of the five races that she attended. After a zero result at Lake Tahoe when the crew dropped an engine on the boat, Don Wilson threw in the towel. His nine-year association with George Simon was over.
Wilson was "between rides" in 1965-66. He attended the 1965 Gold Cup in Seattle, letting it be known that he was "available." During this time, Unlimited Commissioner J. Lee Schoenith appointed the Palm Beach, Florida, resident as his Southern representative. Don assisted in the establishment of a new race for 1966--the Tampa Suncoast Cup--on Tampa Bay.
On Suncoast Cup race day, Wilson was serving as a course judge on a committee boat, when an urgent call was received from Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little. Miss Bud driver Bill Brow had fractured his shoulder in one of the preliminary heats and wasn't able to continue. Could Don step in as relief driver? Yes, he could.
Miss Budweiser was the former Miss Exide, the first boat to qualify for the Gold Cup at over 120 miles per hour (in 1965). Wilson hadn't driven in competition in almost two years. But it all came back to him very quickly. He piloted the Bud to first-place in Heat Two and third in the Heat Three for an overall fourth in the final standings.
Brow wouldn't be available for another couple of weeks. Don was retained by the Miss Budweiser team to continue in his role as relief driver at the ill-fated President's Cup, the following weekend.
In Heat 1-C of the President's Cup, Wilson finished second to Musson and the radical new cabover Miss Bardahl. Don then took first in Heat 2-A, after a battle royal with Bill Sterett in the automotive-powered Miss Chrysler Crew.
Then tragedy struck--the first of many dreadful shocks that the Unlimited contingent would experience in 1966. Ron Musson was fatally injured when Miss Bardahl lost a propeller and crashed, while competing in Heat 2-B.
Wilson was devastated. He threw himself down and pounded the pavement in helpless rage. He and Musson had raced Limiteds together in the 1950s. Don vowed "to win the race for Ron."
Despite the emotion of the moment, all of the drivers voted to continue the race, a decision that would later be criticized.
After two sets of preliminary heats, Miss Budweiser had 700 points for a second-place and a first-place finish. Notre Dame and Rex Manchester had 800 points for two first places. But Manchester's lead in total elapsed time was only two seconds.
Rex had two options. He could finish first in the Final Heat and win the race outright. Or he could finish second to Wilson and tie Miss Budweiser on points. The winner would then be determined on the basis of total elapsed time. Notre Dame would have to finish within two seconds of Miss Budweiser in order to claim the President's Cup.
As the field came around for the start of the Final Heat, Miss Budweiser and Notre Dame--a couple of Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered boats--occupied lanes one and two respectively.
Wilson and Manchester crossed the starting line together and stayed together through the first turn. Miss Budweiser thundered down the backstretch in first-place with Notre Dame close behind. Manchester found some extra fire in the engine room and pulled alongside Wilson as the two neared the National Airport turn.
Miss Budweiser was running rock steady, but Notre Dame was starting to get out of attitude. Manchester, nevertheless, kept going at top speed. Budweiser backed off slightly to set up for the turn, but Notre Dame kept the power on in the hope of coming out of the turn first. Notre Dame became airborne, bounced on the left sponson, then on the right sponson, and then hooked uncontrollably into lane-one, just as Miss Budweiser reached the same spot.
A photographer from LIFE Magazine captured the moment of impact: an explosion of water and boat pieces with the lifeless body of Don Wilson hurtling through the air. Miss Budweiser's bow had speared the underside of Notre Dame. When the spray subsided, nothing remained of the two boats. Both had already sunk to the bottom of the Potomac River.
The other drivers swerved frantically to avoid the scene of the crash. Mira Slovak, driver of Tahoe Miss, dove into the water and held Wilson's face out of the water until the arrival of a Coast Guard patrol boat. Skin divers freed Manchester from the Notre Dame wreckage almost immediately.
Wilson, age 37, was already dead from a ruptured heart. Manchester, 39, had a broken neck and a nearly severed left leg. He lived for less than an hour and never regained consciousness.
The impact of this second tragedy--occurring as it did only three hours after the first--hit everyone hard. According to Hot Boat Magazine writer Eileen Crimmin, the pit area became "a scene of mass shock, aimless wandering, and thorough confusion."
Wilson left behind a wife (Sandy) and a pre-school age son and daughter.
Radio commentator Jim Hendrick refused to announce the fatality, knowing that Don's elderly father was listening to the broadcast in Dearborn, Michigan. Hendrick did so over the violent objections of his producer who wanted an "exclusive." That morning, Don had asked Jim to wish the older Wilson a happy Father's Day.
Past-APBA President E.M. "Red" Peatross told The New York Times, "The boats were well designed and constructed. The water was reasonably calm. Both accidents occurred on the straightaway, so the course layout cannot be blamed. I guess all you can say is that it was an act of God."
Commissioner Lee Schoenith predicted that the sport would go on and that all commitments to race sponsors would be honored. "But it sure isn't going to be the same type of season for the participants," Schoenith admitted. "These three gentlemen were my dearest and deepest friends."
For as long as men race boats, people will speak in whispers of June 19, 1966, when three of racing's finest were lost. It was a day too terrible to forget. But there is some consolation knowing that Ron, Rex, and Don died doing what they loved best.
In assessing the career of Don Wilson, most historians tend to rate him high. And I agree. Over a period of eleven years, he won six races with three different teams. And he was pretty good about finishing in the top three (seventeen times). Moreover, he accomplished this during some of the most competitive seasons in the sport's history. Clearly, Wilson was one of the better of the best.
I'm glad that I knew him. Thanks, Donnie, for the memories and the friendship.