Gene Whipp Remembered
Beyond a doubt, one of the fastest disappearing acts in Unlimited hydroplane history was Gene Whipp of Dayton, Ohio.
Gene was a mid-season replacement as driver of Bob Fendler's Lincoln Thrift’s 7-1/4% Special (U-29) in 1973. His debut race was the President's Cup in Washington, D.C., which he won in spectacular fashion.
No other rookie driver had been able to win his first-ever Unlimited race in almost two decades.
Whipp then retired undefeated with a perfect record. In the years that followed, many owners tried to lure Gene out of retirement, but he rejected all offers.
The Gene Whipp story neither begins nor ends with the 1973 President's Cup. Whipp arrived on the Unlimited scene with a distinguished record in the smaller inboard classes on the always-challenging Mid-West Limited circuit. Following his one-time-only Thunderboat appearance, Gene achieved considerable fame as one of the sport's hardest working officials.
He raced inboards from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. The first boat that he ever drove in competition was a tiny 48 Cubic Inch Class rig, powered by a Crosley engine.
At his first race, Whipp was advised to imitate one of the veteran drivers who had quite a reputation. "Just do whatever he does and you'll be okay," Gene was told.
So, during the warm-up period for Heat One, Whipp followed the veteran around the race course as the field lined up for the start. Lo and behold, the entire field jumped the gun, including the veteran who was supposed to be so great!
"The hell with that," Gene spat. "From now on, I'm driving my own race!" And he did.
One of Whipp's earliest accomplishments was winning the prestigious Calvert Trophy at the 1960 Marine Derby Regatta in Louisville with the 225 Class Ballyhoo at age 18. Some of racing's greatest names are engraved on the Calvert Trophy. These include Bill Cantrell, Marion Cooper, Buddy Byers, Bill Sterett, Dean Chenoweth, and Jim Kropfeld.
Gene was the 280 Class National High Point Champion in 1969 with Shamrock. He came up a winner three times at the Inboard Nationals--in 1968 with Viking Miss in the 225 Class and in 1971 and 1972 with Heavy Hauler in the 7-Litre Class.
When hired by Fendler for the Lincoln Thrift assignment in 1973, Whipp certainly had the credentials.
Truth to tell, the Lincoln was no great shakes as a competitor. At a time when most of the top teams used the more-powerful supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin, Lincoln Thrift used a turbocharged Allison.
The U-29 was also a terribly ill-handling boat. But that didn't prevent Gene from quite literally "flying" Lincoln Thrift as if there was no tomorrow.
Whipp averaged 106.341 miles per hour for the 6-lap/15-mile distance in the President's Cup Final Heat, compared to 102.272 for Dean Chenoweth in Miss Budweiser. Then came Bill Muncey in Atlas Van Lines, Mickey Remund in Pay 'n Pak, Jim McCormick in Red Man, and Charlie Dunn in Miss Madison.
Sporting his trademark beard and wearing his Heavy Hauler driving suit, Gene arrived at the trophy presentation ceremony, still not believing his good fortune: "What am I doing here?"
His victory certainly made a shamble of oddsmakers' predictions. The 1973 President's Cup was one of only five wins by Allison-powered boats in the entire decade of the 1970s. The others were by Miss Madison in 1971 (twice) and by Miss U.S. in 1975 and 1976. Merlin-powered boats won all the rest.
The Lincoln Thrift victory was also the first by a modern cabover hull in the Unlimited Class. Not until the late 1970s would forward-cockpit hulls gain wide acceptance. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, following the crash of the ill-fated Miss Bardahl of 1966, cabovers were very much frowned upon.
Following his retirement from competition, Whipp began a new career as an Unlimited Referee. In 1974, he promoted a new Unlimited race in his hometown of Dayton on Eastwood Lake.
Gene's skill as an administrator was evident in the successful series of Dayton races, between 1974 and 1977. His hand was everywhere. One would swear there were at least a dozen Gene Whipps running around, doing everything from refereeing the race to solving a logistics problem in the pits to picking up the garbage.
In 1979, Whipp also organized a new race in El Dorado, Kansas.
One of Gene's best friends in racing was Gold Cup winner Jim McCormick of Owensboro, Kentucky. McCormick suffered a severe leg injury when he was pitched out of the Red Man during a test run at Miami Marine Stadium in 1974.
Whipp accompanied Jim to the hospital. As a favor to McCormick, Gene qualified Red Man for the Champion Spark Plug Regatta and recommended that their mutual friend George "Skipp" Walther, who had no previous Unlimited experience, be brought in to drive in the race. It was a decision both Gene and Jim would regret.
On Miami race day morning, Walther was in the middle of his driver qualification run when Red Man lost its rudder and spun violently. Skipp was fatally injured.
Following and as a result of the Walther tragedy, Gene never again set foot in another Unlimited hydroplane, at the request of his wife Chris.
In later years, Whipp turned his attention to Offshore power boat racing. As Offshore Commissioner in the 1990s, he rescued the APBA Offshore division from the brink of extinction and returned it to prominence. One important idea of his was to move the races--wherever possible--closer to shore for the purpose of improving spectator vantage points.
As an outgrowth of his interest in Offshore, Gene bought a marina in Florida and operated it under the business name of Gulfwind. He had previously owned two Carlin Audio stores in Dayton and one in Cincinnati.
Whipp founded the Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix races in Sarasota, which raised millions of dollars for charities such as the Special Olympics. As a result, there is a facility in Venice, Florida, named The Gene Whipp Sports Center for Special Athletes.
The racing world lost Gene Whipp in 2000 after a four-month battle with cancer. He was survived by his wife and their daughters Wendy and Deena. It should be noted that the athletic complex was named for Gene prior to his death.