Ole Bardahl

Ole Bardahl Interview [1980]

Ole Bardahl first became involved in unlimited hydroplane racing in 1957 when he agreed to sponsor Norm Christensen's Tempest as the first Miss Bardahl. The following year Mr. Bardahl decided to become further involved with the sport by purchasing a new hull from Ted Jones. The initial year brought a National High Point Championship to the Bardahl Corporation as well as three victories on the circuit.

In the eleven years that followed Mr. Bardahl compiled a record that was unequaled in the annals of motorboat racing at the time he retired. After his initial year, Ole Bardahl captured an additional five national high point championships and won an additional 24 victories including five gold cups. In 1969, which was the last year that the Miss Bardahl ran, the Bardahl corporation's victory total of 27 marked them as the then most successful team in the entire history of speedboat racing. Mr Bardahl's record of six national high point championships has only been equalled by one other owner, Bernie Little. During his career Ole Bardahl owned four boats, which made their debuts in the years 1958, 1962, 1966, and 1967 respectively.

It was truly a privilege for NewsJournal reporters Bill 0sborne and David Greene to be granted an interview with Mr. Bardahl at the Bardahl corporation's Seattle headquarters on December 11, 1980. The following is the text of that interview.

Your first experience with unlimited racing was in the 1957 Apple Cup. What attracted the Bardahl corporation to unlimited hydroplane racing?

We used all of our racing activities as a high-test laboratory for the automotive products with which we were involved. In a motor car the parts just don't get the strain that they do in racing. So our racing activities provided a good laboratory for our products.

How did you pick the people on your team particularly Norm Evans as driver and Del Gould as crew chief?

At the time there was not too much of a choice since very few drivers on the West Coast had much Unlimited racing experience. Norm Evans had driven the Miss Seattle before we hired him, As you know he was driving when he won our first victory at Lake Chelan in 1958, so he did well for us. I always picked qualified mechanics to work for me.

Although hardly a week old the new Miss Bardahl ran a steady race to win it's first regatta. What were your thoughts after having this early success?

We started in fresh with a brand new engine. It was a rush because we didn't have a chance to try out. So we were rather surprised to win.

On the eastern circuit in 1958 Miss Bardahl appeared to drop off the pace. Was there any particular problem with the boat?

Yes. We lost our best propeller and we couldn't run as well.

After a grueling campaign you won your first National High Point Championship. What was your reaction to your first unlimited racing season?

We had pretty good equipment then. And if you don't have good equipment you might as well stay home. Even then you have a tough time to win. So we were pleased.

In preparation for the 1959 season quite a few changes were made: a) a Rolls Merlin engine replaced an Allison, b) George McKernan was hired as crew chief, and c) Jack Regas was hired as driver. Could you give us the background of these changes?

The Rolls Merlin is a much more powerful engine than the Allison. We felt that we needed this additional power to be competitive in 1959. George came highly recommended to me. Jack Regas was well known, as the driver of Edgar Kaisers' boat the Hawaii Kai before it was retired.

After these changes, were you pleased by the boat's performance in the first three races of the year under Jack Regas?

Yes. There was some improvement. Regas got hurt pretty bad at Couer d' Alene. He hit a wake and it put him in the hospital. I never did find out what happened over there. Regas, of course, passed out. I asked the turn judges what happened but they couldn't tell me anything.

After missing the Gold Cup, could you give us the background of your decision to return to racing in the 1959 Silver Cup?

After Couer d' Alene I had no driver and the boat was pretty well damaged. But then I was able to hire Bill Brow and we went racing again.

Although such proven winners as Russ Schleeh and Bill Stead were available, why did you settle on rookie Jim McGuire as your driver in 1960?

Well, Stead wasn't available. At the time he was doing something else so we decided to hire Jim McGuire, he had a good record in small boats.

How did Bill Brow come to drive the Miss Bardahl in the 1960 Seafair Trophy?

He was after me for a long time. McGuire decided to return to Canada. Bill Brow was a good driver and very competitive.

In 1960 the Gold Cup at Las Vegas was cancelled and caused quite a bit of controversy. Could you give us your comments?

That thing was really a joke. I asked the committee whether they had the money to run the race and they said yes. The reason the race was called off was because they didn't have the money to run the race on Monday after it had been postponed Saturday and Sunday.

There has always been a controversy as to whether a team should shoot for qualifying records. Could you comment on the Bardahl team strategy?

That was one thing I really didn't believe in. I remember a time at the 1964 Detroit Gold Cup when the Miss Exide qualified at 119 m.p.h. and Musson wanted to go out and beat him. He wanted 120. He said to Leo, "Drop the boat in the water". I said, "No way, you wait until race day". And we won the race on that day at about 105 or 106 m.p.h.

There were reports prior to the 1961 season that you were contemplating quiting racing. Were these reports true and if so what caused you to consider retirement?

No. You hear all these rumors. It wasn't true. Sometimes you can be misquoted in the papers. They write something down after you say it and when it comes out, it really isn't true.

After missing the 1961 Diamond Cup, you raced at Seattle with a new driver, Ron Musson. How did you come to hire him?

I saw Musson,while he was, racing the DuPont boat, Nitrogen. He did a good job. The first year he raced for me he was just my driver and then I made him our PR man for Bardahl Mfg. Corp. and the rest of the record speaks for itself.

What led to the dramatic improvement in Miss Bardahl's performance in the 1961 Seafair Trophy?

We made quite a number of changes including the angle of attack. Of course, the propeller makes quite a hit of difference also.

Could you comment on the Donogh plan under which you won the 1961 Seafair World Championship? What were your impressions?

It was a pretty good idea, but it didn't last long. I liked the idea better than the conventional format. When you race with the slower boats the competition isn't so good. I liked racing with the fast boats.

Was there any team strategy among the Seattle boats in approaching the 1961 Gold Cup at Reno?

There was no team strategy. You want to be first because that is where the money is. Every man was for himself. You want to win even if it's your best friend that you're running against.

At the end of the year of 1961, the Miss Bardahl had won two of five races, completed ten of twelve heats and defeated the Miss Century 21 in four out of five major confrontations. What was your reaction to the 1961 season in comparison to the previous two? Why did you decide on a new boat for 1962?

We kept changing the boat as we went along and it got better. I only kept the boat four years because I don't think a boat is safe after that since the bouncing in rough water can really shake a boat up. And of course you can only change so much on a boat. Pretty soon it is time to try a new boat.

How did you meet Leo Van Den Berg and how did he come to be named crew chief for the 1962 season?

He was with the crew on the previous boat that we ran in 1961. He worked on engines. He was hired by one of my previous crew chiefs. I always let my crew chief hire his men because if something went wrong, I couldn't blame him for the men I hired. My crew chief was in charge. I hired Leo as crew chief because he was a good conscientious fellow and used a lot of common sense. He was patient and didn't rush things. Generally a boat conks out when small things go wrong.

After the new Miss Bardahl made a back in the pack showing in the 1962 Diamond Cup was there any thought given to running the old boat in the Gold Cup to enhance your chances of winning?

No. That was the reason we built a new boat. We thought it would be an improvement. If we had run the old boat, it would have been a step backward.

On the Eastern Circuit, Miss Bardahl started to come on defeating the Gale V and showing an ability to run with Miss Century 21. What changes brought about this improvement?

It was just plain propellers. Some are good and some aren't worth a damn. We try to have them made all the same, but they don't turn out that way. Propellers have a hell of a lot to do with performance.

At the opening race of the 1963 season in Guntersville, Alabama, the Miss Bardahl showed remarkable improvement in winning all three heats. What changes brought about these improvements and did you feel that you could defeat the Miss Thriftway in the upcoming Gold Cup at Detroit?

We did a lot of testing during the winter and we made a number of adjustments. Sometimes changes can make a great deal of difference in the boat's riding characteristics. Sometimes our testing didn't do us much good and then all of a sudden we would find the combination. We were confident that we could defeat the Miss Thriftway at Detroit. I wasn't afraid of Muncey.

Ron Musson drove the Miss Bardahl in the first four races of 1963 while Don Wilson had the cockpit for the last three due to Musson's flip at Madison. How would you compare them as drivers?

Ronnie was the best driver. Don Wilson was an excellent driver but he wasn't familiar with our boat. He was driving what for him at the time was a brand new boat and it took him a while to get used to it. It is kind of hard to compare them because of this factor.

When changes were made in the boat, what was the decision making process? Did Leo (Van Den Berg), your crew chief, come to you with the changes to get your approval or was there some other method?

Leo would come to me with the changes and I would say, "Now why do you want to make the changes and so on." And then we would get down with the pencil and see what we could do. And then we would make a decision. It might not work, you know -- it's just an idea, but you have to try it. That is how you make progress.

At New Town, North Dakota in 1964, Miss Bardahl won her second consecutive race setting a world 15 mile heat record and a 45 mile race record. Were there any speed increasing adjustments made to the boat?

We didn't make any adjustments, but the water was just right. With racing, sometimes you get water that is just right - not too flat and not too rough - and you can set records. It might not last. The guy in the next heat might not have the same good water. We were just lucky there, we got the best water conditions.

Miss Exide nosed out the Miss Bardahl in the final heat to win the 1964 Diamond Cup by using nitrous oxide. When was the decision made to install nitrous in the Miss Bardahl ?

Quite a few boats used it before us. Nitrous is very hard on valves. It isn't too bad though if you use it reasonably.

When did it become apparent that the new cabover would not be able to run in 1965?

We had some problems with the gear box. We went to several outfits and we finally got it licked, but it was too late to start the season.

After this what problems did you encounter in preparing the old Miss Bardahl for the 1965 season?

We were working around the clock. Any time you work around the clock, it's no good because the guys get tired. I don't mind if they work overtime a couple of hours, but anything past that, it is no good because they make mistakes. It makes for problems and no one likes to work under such pressure, but that happens in all phases of racing.

Both in the 1964 and 1965 Lake Tahoe races, the Miss Bardahl appeared to have the field under its thumb. Did the Bardahl racing team have any particular secret for dealing with the altitude at Lake Tahoe?

We had some ideas with the carburetors. Whoever worked with the crew chief on the carburetors did a darn good job. It has got to be just so.

In an incredible performance Miss Bardahl set world lap, heat, and race records to win at San Diego in 1965. The boat showed itself to be four to six miles per hour faster than the other boats of history by the indicators of heat and race speed. What caused the Miss Bardahl to run better in relation to the field than at any other time in her history?

We finally got our propellers sorted out and came up with a real good one. We had about four propellers and we tried all of them. On race day we came up with one that could really do the job for us.

Did the boat's remarkable performance give you any second thoughts about retiring it for the 1966 season?

We were thinking about it at one time. Then Musson, Manchester, and Wilson got killed back in Washington, D.C. and I decided to stay out of racing for a year. Besides two boats aren't doing you any good in competition. The only advantage is if you break one you have a standby. At Indianapolis it may make sense because there is more at stake, but in the Unlimiteds you're better off with one boat. The expense is just too much because you have to have another crew and driver.

When the new boat first tested, were there any particular problems with it? How were these problems resolved?

We tested it out here and Ron said he liked it. He couldn't find anything wrong with it — it was just fine. He was very much sold on it. He said that if we were ever to build another boat we should stay with the cabover.

How did Billy Schumacher get involved with testing the new cabover?

I got Schumacher through Ronnie Musson. He was trying to break Schumacher in. Ron had raced with Schumacher in the small boats and Schumacher was a darn good driver.

Before her tragic accident the cabover Miss Bardahl showed an ability to run with two of the leading unlimiteds of 1965 — Notre Dame and Miss Budweiser (Miss Exide). Based on this beginning, did you feel that the boat could have been developed to the point where it would dominate the field if it would have been able to continue on the circuit?

Yes, I had pretty good feedback from the crew and driver, everyone felt the boat was fast and would be most competitive.

Was there any thought given to running the previous Miss Bardahl for the balance of the 1966 season?

No. Under the circumstances we did not want to race.

Why was Ed Karelson selected as designer and builder of the 1967 Miss Bardahl ?

Karelson is a damn good builder. I had him build the boat here so I could see what he was doing. It is better than having your boat built in some far away place where you can't keep an eye on what is going on.

After Leo Van Den Berg retired as crew chief, a youthful Jerry Zuvich was named crew chief. He along with Dave Smith, John Koenig, Roger Krouse, and Gary Crawford comprised the teeny-bopper crew. Did you have any second thoughts in entrusting your destiny to such a young crew?

No. Zuvich had worked for me many years before he became crew chief. The Smith boys had also worked for me a number of years on the boats. The did very well. I liked all of them; they took a great interest in their work. Jerry is tops and all the others were fine mechanics.

The new Miss Bardahl won her first race at Tampa. Were you satisfied with her performance or did you anticipate further refinements?

I wasn't quite satisfied because we had some trouble with the propeller. The salt water is different to run in than fresh water with regard to propellers and Tampa was salt water. We wanted to try out some of the other propellers at the next race.

In the final race of 1967 the last Miss Bardahl broke the 15 mile record on a 21 mile course by turning 107 M.P.H. The previous record was 106 M.P.H. which had been made by the third Miss Bardahl at Guntersville in 1963. Did you feel at the time that the last or fifth Miss Bardahl was the faster boat?

The yellow boat was the faster because of the improvements we incorporated into it. If we would have had these improvements on the Green Dragon (third Miss Bardahl), I think they would have been about equal. You see, I had the Green Dragon for about three years and we made many changes. But when you get a new boat you make further changes in the hope of getting better.

The 1967 Miss Bardahl was designed with a lower profile and a full afterplane non-trip area to facilitate superior turning, yet such boats as Miss Chrysler Crew and Miss Budweiser were able to run with her. Was the boat slower on the straightaway? Seemingly the boat should have been in a position to dominate the fleet.

Well, if you can turn real well you don't need as much in the straightaway. That was our strategy with the boat — to turn well. We did pretty good that year.

Prior to the start of the 1968 season Miss Bardahl sported a new tail fin. Was there any particular reason for this change?

There again we were trying to improve the boat. Actually we were experimenting with wings on the boat over the winter of 1967-68. But I wasn't too sure it would work. So I never got around to going that far.

Miss Eagle Electric which was seeded about fifth in the 1968 Dixie Cup at Guntersville surprised everyone by winning. How did you view the boat as competition for the High Point Title?

I figured this way. Maybe he just got a live propeller. If I lose this one, I will win the next race. Competition didn't bother me because I figured that we would always do well. But if we lost we had to figure out why we lost and maybe improve. A lot of guys lose and they just go to the next race and don't do anything about it. You have to make changes.

In 1968 you had success but you also had some engine failures. Was there any particular problem with the engines in 1968 or was the competition just stronger?

The competition got stronger. I figured we had to do something to give us more horsepower. And sometimes when you pick up horsepower, something else is affected. We also had some trouble with the camshaft. We used some Bardahl 2 and we had no more trouble with the camshaft.

At the end of the 1968 season it was rumored that the Bardahl Team would either retire or run a new boat in 1969. Why did you decide to retire your 1967-68 National Champion after only two years of competition?

At the time both myself and Lee Schoenith were talking about running a turbine powered boat. A man called from California and tried to sell me three turbine engines for $70,000 each. After that I changed my mind. This was a fabulously high price for an engine. It was so expensive that I dropped the idea.

It was also rumored that you would build a new auto powered boat for 1969. Would you comment?

We did have some meetings with the Ford people in Detroit. I didn't think the auto engines had enough power. You got to have that power. I figured I would stay with what I had unless I could get more power.

When and how did it become apparent that you would not participate on the full circuit in 1969? What prompted you to participate in the last two races of 1969?

We were having internal changes in our marketing organization at that time and our new group was not interested in racing. However, we decided to race the final two races more for sentimental reasons than anything else. Billy was unavailable so Fred Alter took over.

Ultimately why did you decide to get out of boat racing?

The reason I quit boat racing is that over the years it began to cost more and more to participate. It got too expensive. For instance the first gear box I bought cost $3500 and the last one cost $9000. Also the engines just kept going up in price. The last ones cost about eight or nine thousand dollars to build up. Everything went up. It just got too expensive.

In closing I would like to get your comments on a number of individuals who were very instrumental in the Bardahl success story:

1. Leo Van Den Berg

Leo was a darn good employee and took a lot of pride in his work. I got nothing but praise for him.

2. Ron Musson

Same thing with Ron. He did a wonderful job. He could tell you what was wrong with the boat when he came in. He would watch the instruments as much as he could and then tell you what the boat was doing. A lot of drivers can't tell you anything. The only one that can tell you how the boat feels is the driver. He is in the boat and if he doesn't tell you anything, you just don't know. You can watch the boat from the shore, but the driver is the only one that can really tell you what is going on.

3. Jerry Zuvich

Jerry is a very good mechanic. He is very conscious of what he is doing. He is just as good as any crew chief I know of. I think he is going to do very well for Squire.

4. Billy Schumacher

Billy is a darn good driver. I never had any problem with him. Billy is kind of hot tempered and a lot of people don't like him because they think that he has snubbed them or something like that. But that's just his way. He is thinking about driving the boat. He is not very communicative then and doesn't like to answer a lot of questions. But I just want to say that both Ronnie and Billy were just as good as Muncey ever was.

In the last five full years that you were in Unlimited Racing you won fully half of the races you participated in. How would you analyze the great success that you had in the sport?

You pick the best driver, crew chief, and crew, then you have to give the driver and the crew the money to work with. If they needed something I would say, "Go out and get it, but take care of it. Don't go out and break it. Don't just drop it." If you want to win you have to go first class. You got to give the driver and the mechanics something to work with. And they have to know how to use it!

(Reprinted from the Unlimited NewsJournal, February and March 1982)