Mike Thomas Remembered
One of the most promising rookie drivers in Unlimited hydroplane history was a man who was taken from us much too quickly.
Mike Thomas of Harvey Cedars, New Jersey, demonstrated a lot of talent during the summer of 1967 as pilot of Bernie Little's Miss Budweiser, prior to his death in a non-racing accident in the fall of that year.
An immediate fan favorite, Thomas won the British Columbia Cup at Kelowna, B.C., and appeared on the threshold of a long and successful Unlimited career.
For a man who wasn’t around for very long, the friendly fun-loving bachelor certainly made a positive impression.
He started racing boats in the 1950s and won many races in the 266, 280, and 7-Litre Limited classes with boats such as Apache and Little Apache.
Mike set a 266 Cubic Inch Class straightaway record in 1963 at 138 miles per hour with Apache and raised this the following year to 144 with Miss Washington, D.C.
In addition to racing on the American Power Boat Association circuit, he also competed in Europe.
Just a few days prior to his being offered the Miss Budweiser assignment, Thomas won the 1967 President's Cup on the Potomac River with his 7-Litre Class Miss Dodge Rebellion. (This was one of the rare occasions when the historic President's Cup was contested by Limited--rather than Unlimited--hydros.)
Mike averaged 75.681 in the President's Cup race, compared to 75.150 for second-place Bill Heath and Long Gone. Then came Gene Burgin in His Lordship, Skeeter Johnson in Wa Wa Too, Dean Chenoweth in Sayonara, and Dick Sooy in Double Eagle.
Thomas joined the Budweiser team at a particularly difficult time. Bill Brow had been fatally injured at a race in Tampa, Florida, and the boat had been destroyed. Co-owners Little and Tom Friedkin brought out a back-up hull for Mike to drive.
The replacement Miss Budweiser was a 5-year-old Les Staudacher creation, which had never been more than an average boat as Notre Dame. Bernie Little had acquired it as a display vehicle.
Originally powered by an Allison engine, Miss Budweiser crew chief George McKernan refitted it with a Rolls-Royce Merlin.
Thomas made the transition to the Unlimiteds with ease. Mike passed his Thunderboat driver’s test at Madison, Indiana, and finished first in his very first heat of competition with Miss Budweiser.
Despite having missed the first two races of the season, Thomas guided the "Beer Wagon" to fifth-place in a field of 23 boats in the 1967 National High Point Standings. The team also took fourth in the Gold Cup at Seattle and second in the Sacramento Cup.
But it was in the British Columbia Cup on Okanagan Lake where Mike Thomas made his claim to fame.
Going into the Final Heat at Kelowna, Miss Budweiser had 625 accumulated points to Miss Bardahl’s 700. The Bardahl and driver Billy Schumacher had so far dominated the 1967 season. They had four victories in the first five races and had all but clinched the National Championship.
Because of the Bud's status as a back-up hull, already scheduled for replacement at the end of the year, Mike's team was not highly regarded at Kelowna.
But when the starting gun fired for the Final Heat, Miss Budweiser came alive. She ran head-to-head with Miss Bardahl for five heart-pounding laps. Thomas and Schumacher were driving the race of their lives, while the crowd roared its approval. This was what Unlimited racing is all about. The duel foreshadowed the many great Pay ‘n Pak/Miss Budweiser duels of the 1970s.
On the backstretch of lap-six, Mike pulled to a clear lead. Billy’s Rolls engine started popping. Miss Bardahl began losing speed, one mile from the finish line. And Miss Budweiser was on her way to the bank.
The Bernie Little team had rebounded from their Tampa tragedy and had done so in championship fashion. Their winning performance on Okanogan Lake would long be remembered as one of the classic duels in hydroplane history.
Unlimited drivers seldom win in their first season. In the ten years prior to Thomas winning at Kelowna, it had only happened three times: Jim Ranger in 1966 with My Gypsy, Ron Musson in 1959 with Hawaii Kai III, and Art Asbury in 1957 with Miss Supertest II.
Miss Bardahl pilot Schumacher was especially impressed with Mike's performance in the British Columbia Cup and offered Thomas his heartiest congratulations.
Mike was involved in another classic duel later in the season on Sacramento's Lake Folsom.
In Heat 2-B of the Sacramento Cup, Thomas in Miss Budweiser and Mira Slovak in Miss Chrysler Crew see-sawed back and forth for the lead around the 2-1/2-mile course. So intense was their concentration that Mike and Mira both miscounted their laps and ran one more time around the buoys.
This was in the days before radio communication with drivers. Bernie Little shouted, "They're still racing!"
Thomas, who had been slightly ahead at the end of lap-seven, returned to the pits, thinking that Miss Budweiser had won--only to be told that Miss Chrysler Crew, the leader after lap-six, was the victor.
The 1967 season demonstrated the Miss Budweiser owner's ability to recognize talent in a driver who had never before competed at the Unlimited level. In addition to Mike Thomas, Little made the correct choice with Howie Benns in 1974 and with Jim Kropfeld in 1982.
Looking ahead to 1968, the Budweiser team's hopes were high. Thomas, collaborating with owners Little and Friedkin and crew chief McKernan, held meetings with Seattle builder Ed Karelsen to design a new state-of-the-art boat. It was to be Thomas' choice and the biggest Budweiser push yet toward a national crown.
But this was not to be.
When Mike wasn't racing boats, he was a partner with his father in a construction firm. Shortly after the end of the 1967 season, Thomas was fatally injured when his bulldozer turned over while he was attempting to drive onto a flatbed truck.
For the man who drove like there was no tomorrow, there would be no tomorrow.
The Karelsen hull that Thomas had helped plan went on to be one of the all-time great Unlimited hydroplanes, winning eleven races and three National Championships with Bill Sterett, Sr., and Dean Chenoweth as drivers.
The APBA Unlimited Racing Commission honored Mike's memory by instituting a new perpetual award to be presented annually to the outstanding rookie driver. This was the Mike Thomas Memorial Trophy. The first recipient was Tommy "Tucker" Fults, pilot of My Gypsy, in 1968.