Laird Pierce Remembered
As Told To Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
The late Laird Pierce participated in Unlimited hydroplane racing between 1966 and 1970 with Miss Dixi Cola and two boats named Parco’s O-Ring Miss. Laird had previously raced a 266 Cubic Inch Class hydro named Miss Parco. The Parco name was derived from Pierce’s Plastic And Rubber Products Company of Ontario, California. Laird’s son, Scott Pierce, had a long and successful Unlimited driving career, starting in 1981.
Let’s start with the story of Miss Parco.
The boat was designed by Chuck Hickling, and built by Bob Patterson in 1960-61. The boat was very fast and competitive from the start. My father was the driver. In 1963, my Dad was going for the kilo record at Lake Havasu, Arizona. He was traveling approximately 140 miles per hour when the boat flipped.
A fisherman in a small outboard-powered boat had crossed the course and left a sizable wake that my father hit. My Grandfather was flying his T-28 War Bird above the course at the time, and he saw the boat come out onto the course. My grandfather dove his plane down to intercept the fisherman, but was too late. My father remembered seeing my Grandfather diving while he entered the trap and thought the old guy was going to chase him.
My father never saw the fisherman or the wake. The boat went 30 feet straight up and at the top of the arc my father fell out of the boat. He hit the water flat on his back. This accident disabled my Dad for the rest of his short life. He did drive the boat in 1964, and won the Nationals in Morgan City, Louisiana. He drove very sporadically from then on and in truth had no business being in a boat. Physically, he really was a wreck.
In 1965, Randy Meyer drove Miss Parco and won many races. In 1966, Wayne Thompson won the Nationals in Seattle, Washington. From 1966 until 1971, the 266 ran a limited schedule as my Dad was very involved with his Unlimited team. I remember Fred Alter driving the 266 during this time.
In 1971. I started driving Miss Parco in all of the APBA Region-12 races, and we managed to win quite a few races. My father died in 1972, and the boat was left to myself and to my brother Craig. The problem we had was we didn't have any money to run the boat. I was 16 and my brother was 14. A couple of good friends of my Dad put some money in the bank for us to race the boat, as the thought was that is what my Dad would have wanted.
By now Miss Parco was a tired old horse, but with Craig building the engines, and me driving, we managed to win a lot of races in California and Arizona.
Now here comes the saddest part of the story. By 1978, the boat had seen its better days, and I decided to strip the hardware and junk the boat. The stripped hull was abandoned in an orange grove in Ontario, California. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of Miss Parco. I would give almost anything to have it back to restore. I did ask Bob Patterson for the plans so I could build a replica. But he said he didn't have them.
The short-lived Miss Dixi Cola was a Les Staudacher "lemon" but did manage to finish second in the 1966 Gold Cup with Fred Alter driving.
The crew of the Dixi Cola installed a horizontal wing in late-season 1966 and attached it to the tailfin with struts to the deck. It didn't work very well but I believe this was the first Unlimited to try this. (This was seven years before the concept was popularized by the "Winged Wonder" Pay 'n Pak.) I don't know who came up with the idea. But whoever it was certainly was ahead of their time.
As far as the first Parco’s O-Ring Miss is concerned, this is what I know. It was another Hickling/Patterson hull. The only thing wrong with it was that my Dad listened to everyone on what to do to the boat. And he authorized all the changes at once.
Chuck Hickling, Ed Karelsen, Bob Patterson, and the crew were all involved. It is my belief if just one person would have been in charge and allowed the authority to work the boat out, it would have run just fine. It was just a case of too many chiefs.
My father’s great flaw in life was that he trusted and liked everybody. While this would be a noble way to live one’s life, in reality what it meant was that my father was taken advantage of throughout his life.
This leads me to Earl Noyes. Earl was a vice-president at Parco and worked for my Dad. All of the vice-presidents at Parco were buddies of my Dad from his childhood. I am pretty sure none of them graduated high school, much less college. At this time Parco had over a thousand employees.
When my Dad bought the Blue Chip from the Gordon brothers and renamed it Miss Dixi Cola, his buddy Earl thought it would be neat to own a race boat. Earl put a few thousand dollars toward the purchase and my Dad made him a partner. That was the only time Earl invested in the race team.
When Dad had Patterson build his new boat, that was only Dad’s money. As a matter of fact, Bob was quite hesitant to build the boat, and his shop wasn't big enough. My Dad bought the shop that Bob is still in today, to remove the objection. After trying for more than two years to get the original boat to work, my Dad gave up.
How he came to order the Karelsen hull--the second Parco’s O-Ring Miss--is quite funny. Karelsen had come to the shop in California to make yet another change to the boat. Ed worked on the sponsons and, for some reason, decided to try the wet sponson route. The boat had always had dry sponsons. Well, they took the boat to Lake Elsinore to test, and my father was driving it.
They put him in the water and he was trying to start the Rolls-Royce Merlin. The engine was coughing and spitting, I think he had it flooded. He stopped the start sequence for a moment and then hit the switch again. He thought he had flooded the engine, so he had his foot to the floor, and when he hit the switch the second time it started, at basically full throttle.
Remember Ed had the sponsons wet, so the boat dove for the bottom of the lake. The next thing we saw was my Dad floating to the surface where the boat had once been. He was so mad that he swam to shore, walked up the beach to his car, without saying a word to anyone. I have to tell you, I was only 13 at the time, but I don't think I ever have laughed so hard. Of course, that was after he left.
The next day, he ordered the new Karelson. My Dad was so disgusted with the Patterson hull that he literally gave the boat to Bob. I think a couple of thousand dollars changed hands, but my Dad paid Bob $30,000 to build the hull, and financed the shop for Bob. A couple of years ago, I called Bob with the intention of acquiring the boat and restoring it back to Parco’s O-Ring Miss. Bob gave me a price of $225,000. Go figure. Needless to say, Bob still has the boat.
I will deal at some length about the 1970 Parco’s O-Ring Miss, which came about as a result of my father’s team not being able to make the Patterson hull competitive.
My father had a burning desire to win races at the Unlimited level, and he put his best effort forward for 1970. Ed Karelsen built the boat in his shop in Seattle. At that time, we lived in California, and Ed didn't want to live in Los Angeles to construct the boat in our shop.
Karelsen’s other boats of the time--Miss Bardahl, Miss Budweiser, and Notre Dame--were all constructed in their respective Seattle shops. It is true that my Dad's boat was not as wide in the tunnel as her sister ships.
The story I was always told is Ed built it as wide as he could to get the completed boat through his shop door. If this were true, than I have to say Ed is pretty smart. Most people would not think that far ahead. As far as this being the reason for the boat not being a success, I say hogwash.
The boat was completed on time and delivered to our shop in LA for installation of the hardware and systems. My dad determined to hire the best people he could to insure the team’s success. He hired Jerry Zuvich as the crew chief. Then he hired Jack Cochrane, a respected crew chief, to handle the Merlins. The team also had Gary Crawford, Roger D'Eath, and myself--a 15-year-old at the time.
The boat was transported to San Diego for testing prior to the season starting. The testing went well, and everybody thought we had a winner. I must say at this point there were no vibration complaints from the driver, Billy Schumacher.
The boat was transported east to start the season. At Washington, D.C., the boat was doing well in the race until Billy got in trouble in the first turn, while racing for the lead.
I wasn't driving the boat, and I can't tell you what the circumstances were. But I can tell you truthfully that whatever happened scared Billy to death. The best thing that could have happened for the team after that race was for Billy to resign. But he didn't. And he never drove the boat hard from that day forward.
The season quickly went downhill after the D.C. incident. The crew started fighting. Some were loyal to Billy, while others wanted him gone. Roger O-Ring was lobbying my Dad to drive the boat. And poor Ed Karelsen was caught in the middle of it all.
I do not believe the lack of performance had anything to do with Ed. Once again, my father’s inability to make the hard decisions cost him his dream of winning Unlimited races.
If my Dad’s team had been in the hands of, let’s say, Bernie Little, the team would have won a lot of races. In 1970, there was not a team that had better equipment than my father. (He had bought the entire Merlin engine inventory of Miss Bardahl at the end of 1969.) He just had the wrong mix of people, again.
The 1970 season broke my Dad’s heart. He had some serious business issues to contend with, and I had just finished my karting career and was ready to start driving the Miss Parco. In 1971, my father sold Parco to a German concern. Parco is still operating today.
My father died in June of 1972 at the age of 41. He saw me race the Limited about six or seven times before his death. My regret has always been that my father was not here to enjoy the success I was able to enjoy in my career.
Imagine the joy he would have had when I won my first Unlimited race at Miami in 1985 with Executone. I assure you, I had tears in my eyes when I took the checkered flag.
He would have been over the moon in 1991 when we won the National Championship with Miss Budweiser. But he wasn't.
My father was a good man, most likely too good for his own good. There is no doubt that I have been more cantankerous in my life, due to my witnessing how my father was taken advantage of. I am just grateful that the Pierce name finally made its way to success in the Unlimited Class.
Even after all these years, I still miss my Dad.