Phil Cole

Phil Cole Remembered

By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian

Phil Cole
Phil Cole

In the half-century that I've been following the sport of Unlimited hydroplane racing, I've been privileged to know and work with some truly fascinating individuals. One of these is Philip Samuel Cole, Jr., the man instrumental in my being appointed Unlimited Historian in 1973.

Mr. Cole passed away on August 1, 2006, in Georgetown, Texas. He was 77.

Phil served as Executive Secretary of the Unlimited Racing Commission from 1967 to 1974 for Commissioners J. Lee Schoenith and George "Buddy" Byers. But his involvement with the sport began long before that.

Cole worked for many years on his hometown Madison (Indiana) Regatta committee. He played a major part in the establishment of the Miss Madison, the world's only community-owned Unlimited hydroplane team.

During his years with the URC, Phil defined the role of PR person for the Unlimiteds. Cole was in effect a Co-Comissioner and in fact ran the sport on a day-to-day basis for seven years.

Phil was an absolute genius in his ability to round up enough boats to meet the demands of race sponsors. But Cole insisted that this was a fairly easy task. "All I did was send out tow money in advance. I caught hell for that, but none of the teams to whom I sent money ever failed to show up."

He was a past-master in recruiting--and retaining--commercial sponsorships. Phil is the one who brought Atlas Van Lines, Inc., into the fold in 1967.

In Cole's words, "When you sign a sponsor, that's only the first step."

Phil had some very definite opinions as to why sponsorships sometimes fall by the wayside.

"When I worked for a sponsor, I kept track of everything--the number of TV impressions, the number of column inches in the newspapers. Bill Muncey was very good at this. It's important for the sponsor to always know just exactly what he is getting for his investment.

"Over the years, many sponsorships have been lost because of the lack of follow-up. You don't just paint the sponsor's name on the boat and forget about him."

Phil Cole was born on August 21, 1928, in the Ohio River town of Madison, where he spent most of the first 32 years of his life.

Madison was hit hard by the Great Depression. "In those days, there were no jobs, no money, and no hope." The town nevertheless managed to stage a series of regattas, sanctioned by the now-defunct Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association between 1929 and 1936.

The premier racing category of the MVPBA was the 725 Cubic Inch Class, the forerunner of the modern Unlimited Class.

"The pits were at the foot of Poplar and Broadway. I remember seeing Bill Cantrell's Big Shot, a 725 Class hydroplane, powered by a Hispano-Suiza engine. Bill and I talked. I was only 7 years old and he didn't know who I was. But that was the start of my interest in boat racing."

The great and devastating Ohio River flood of 1937 and the onset of World War II and gasoline rationing brought down the curtain on organized racing in Madison for many years to come.

Phil graduated from Madison High School in 1946 and embarked on a career in journalism and in broadcasting.

He went to work for The Madison Courier, helped to organize radio station WORX in Madison, and became well known for his announcing of hundreds of regional prep basketball games.

"My mentor in the newspaper business was The Madison Courier publisher Don Wallis, one of my very best friends until the day he died. In 1958, the movie Some Came Running was filmed on location in Madison. The producer Sol Siegel invited Don and me to visit MGM in Hollywood where the 'in-studio' scenes were shot. We had a great time."

One day in the fall of 1949, Cole decided to go fishing. He walked down to the riverfront and found a boat race for Limited inboards and outboards in progress. His childhood interest in the sport quickly re-awakened.

The 1950 Madison Regatta was the first to be sanctioned by the American Power Boat Association and also the first to be attended by a modern Unlimited hydroplane (Andy Marcy's My Darling).

The man who was scheduled to announce the race over the public-address system didn't show up. Phil was asked to pinch-hit. He did and that was the start of a new career for Cole. For the next quarter century, the name Phil Cole became synonymous with "The Voice of Unlimited Racing." He was to boat racing what Sid Collins was to the Indianapolis 500.

Phil promoted the sport in the words of his newspaper column Dust From The Cole Bin. His lively style of writing conveyed his own enthusiasm for racing. This writer has spent many happy hours in the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library, perusing The Madison Courier microfilms of those Dust From The Cole Bin columns. They are still enjoyable even after all these years.

Throughout his long career, Cole quite literally worked at every level of the sport at one time or another except driver. Phil did make one official appearance in an Unlimited hydroplane cockpit. That's when he served as the riding mechanic with Frank "Bud" Saile in the Miss Wayne during qualification for the 1956 Gold Cup in Detroit.

Cole discovered that he much preferred shore duty. In summing up his experience with Miss Wayne, "It scared me to death."

Phil worked tirelessly on behalf of the Madison Regatta in the 1950s under Race Chairman Birl Hill. Up until 1953, all of the Unlimited races run at Madison consisted of only one heat and were really just free-for-alls for classes 7-Litre and above. Never more than one or two Unlimiteds ever showed up. Nothing counted for APBA National High Points.

Cole was anxious to see Madison advance to the next level with a full-fledged Unlimited race with High Points at stake. For that to happen, a race had to be scheduled for a minimum of two heats with at least four boats making a legal start.

That was easier said than done. In the 1950s, there was no Unlimited circuit per se, because the sport was very regional. About the only time that all of the top Unlimiteds were ever in the same pit area with each other was at the Gold Cup.

The "big city" races, such as Seattle or Detroit or Washington, D.C., were generally well attended. But it was pretty much "catch as catch can" where the smaller communities were concerned. Lots of these had trouble attracting boats during the 1950s. (These included: Elizabeth City, North Carolina; New Martinsville, West Virginia; and Polson, Montana.)

"All we in Madison could do was try to make friends with the owners and try to persuade them to enter our race."

Phil was determined that Madison, Indiana, would not "die on the vine" as so many other race sites had. By hook or by crook, he was going to recruit a representative field of Unlimiteds for a race that counted for National High Points. And he succeeded! How he went about this was quintessential Phil Cole.

As race day neared for the 1954 Madison Regatta, two teams--the Miss Cadillac and the Dora My Sweetie, both from Detroit--signified their intentions to attend. But the crews let it be known that they were coming to town primarily for a fun weekend and to put on an exhibition. They didn't want to have to go all out and really race anybody.

Cole and his friend Bill Cantrell cooked up a scheme. Cantrell agreed to bring the nationally ranked team of Gale IV and Gale V, which he and Lee Schoenith drove, to Madison. But it was important that the Miss Cadillac and Dora My Sweetie teams not know about it.

So, Cantrell stored the two Gales at Soupy Ciconett's boat shop in Louisville for a few days. Only at the last moment did the "IV and the "V" pull into the pits at Madison.

Seeing the Gale IV and the Gale V arrive on the scene almost gave Miss Cadillac owner Bud Saile cardiac arrest. ("If I had known they were going to be here, I wouldn't have come!")

But now it was too late for Miss Cadillac and Dora My Sweetie to gracefully withdraw. They had to put on a real race.

That's how Madison, Indiana, hosted its first-ever National High Points event, which was won by "co-conspirator" Cantrell in Gale IV. Madison has staged a High Points race for Unlimited hydroplanes every year since for the last 53 years. (Only Detroit and Seattle have hosted more Points races than Madison.)

But the regatta fell on hard times in the late 1950s. Due to a combination of circumstances, there almost was no race in 1960. Times were changing and the regatta organization had to change with the times or die. Many Madisonians believed that the race was (in the words of past-Regatta President Lyman Armstrong) "a dead duck."

About six weeks prior to the 1960 Indiana Governor's Cup, Phil Cole and a group of civic leaders formed the "Dead Duck Club." Almost overnight, the regatta had a new lease on life. The "Dead Duck Club" members regrouped and retrenched and secured a bank loan to put the organization back on a firm financial footing.

"A lot of the old-timers went their separate ways in 1960," Phil recalled. "People like Birl Hill, who put a lot of himself into the regatta for many years, resisted the changes. I know that Birl was very bitter about what happened. But the restructuring was necessary for the regatta to survive."

And it did! The 1960 Indiana Governor's Cup race proved to be one of the more successful in regatta history. Bill Muncey and Miss Thriftway won it by a narrow margin over Bill Brow in Miss Bardahl and Ron Musson in Nitrogen Too. From then on, the race would be run more as a business and less as a hobby. And Phil Cole was a major player in bringing that about.

Not too long after the 1960 Madison Regatta, Cole re-located to Washington, D.C., to join the staff of U.S. Congressman Earl Wilson (R-IN). Phil lived there for four years but remained a Madisonian at heart.

In those days, most of the active Unlimited hydroplanes headquartered in either Detroit or Seattle with a few out of southern California. It was Cole's fondest wish that one of the so-called "Thunderboats" would someday call Madison home. He didn't have long to wait.

Between 1958 and 1960, industrialist Samuel F. DuPont of Wilmington, Delaware, campaigned a couple of Unlimiteds named Nitrogen and Nitrogen Too. Madison had always been a favorite stop on the tour for DuPont. When Sam retired from racing in the fall of 1960, his good friend Phil Cole hinted that, by donating one of the boats to the City of Madison, he (DuPont) would qualify for a sizeable tax deduction.

Phil's legendary powers of persuasion worked. In December 1960, the Ohio River town of 13,000 found itself to be the proud owner of a "Floating Chamber of Commerce." The former Nitrogen, an Allison-powered hydroplane built in 1957 by Les Staudacher, became the original Miss Madison.

Graham Heath was named crew chief for the 1961 season. When time permitted, Cole helped out as a member of the mechanical crew. Marion Cooper of Louisville was the driver. Other team members included Neal Cahall and Dick Cox, for whom Cooper had frequently driven in the 225 and 266 Inboard classes. Then there were Bob Humphrey, Ben Schnabel, Don Smith, Bob Neal, and Don Tuite.

The first race for the fledgling Miss Madison team was the 1961 Detroit Memorial Regatta, where they finished an overall fifth. Phil remembered how rough the race course was that day. "The holes in the Detroit River were so deep that, when a boat would fall into one of them, it would literally drop out of sight." Fortunately, Cooper had been racing on that river since the 1930s and was able to keep the Miss M together for all three heats.

Later in the season, the team scored a hard fought victory in the second-division Seattle Trophy Race at the Seafair World's Championship Regatta on Lake Washington.

The operating budget for the Miss Madison that year was minuscule. The volunteer crew had only one stock Allison engine, which had to last the entire season. The team couldn't afford any souvenir booster buttons, which the big-budget teams handed out in quantity. So the inimitable Cole had some Miss Madison decals printed up. The decals read, "Stick on any Miss Bardahl button."

In 1963, Phil was instrumental in acquiring a second hull from his friend DuPont. Cole's original mission was to simply offer Sam $5000 toward the purchase of some Allison engines. Lo and behold, Phil arrived back in Madison not only with the engines but also with the Nitrogen Too and the entire DuPont equipment inventory--a package worth considerably more than the paltry $5000 that changed hands.

For the Miss Madison team, this was the deal of the century and one that served the City of Madison in good stead for many years to come.

The former Nitrogen Too, a 1959 Staudacher creation, made its first appearance in competition as the second Miss Madison at the 1963 Madison Regatta with Buddy Byers as driver. This was the hull that went on to win the APBA Gold Cup on home waters in 1971 with Jim McCormick at the wheel.

By 1964, Phil had had enough of the political scene in Washington, D.C. He went to work for Bill Harrah's Casino in Reno, Nevada. His duties included doing public relations for Harrah's Tahoe Miss Unlimited hydroplane team.

And in 1965, Cole was the driving force behind the Lake Tahoe World Championship Regatta, an event critically acclaimed as being one of the best organized and administered races of its day. The 1965 Lake Tahoe Regatta was the first of its kind to be sanctioned by the Union of International Motorboating (UIM) and became the first in a long line of what came to be known in the trade as "a typical Phil Cole production."

When Phil administered a boat race, his hand was everywhere. Nothing escaped his personal attention. He handled a million details before, during, and after the event. Someone else was always the Race Chairman of record. But Cole was the power behind the throne.

He was the race organizer and promoter, the announcer, the program writer, the press/radio/TV coordinator. One would swear that there were at least a dozen Phil Coles running around, seeing to it that everything that needed doing got done in a timely and professional manner.

Over the next two decades, Cole promoted races from coast to coast: Tampa, Florida; Sacramento, California; Lake-of-the-Ozarks, Missouri; and Houston, Texas.

Phil's promotional efforts on behalf of the sport did not go unnoticed by the Unlimited Racing Commission. As Executive Secretary, Cole blazed new trails. He instituted such things as the annual URC Awards Banquet, the Hydro Hotline, press mailings to 800 media outlets, an Unlimited Yearbook, a much-improved version of the annual URC press kit, the Miss Budweiser Souvenir Book, the Pay 'n Pak Racing News, and the first national pit pass for Unlimited personnel and media representatives.

Phil's voice was heard as co-announcer with Jim Hendrick on the Powerboat Racing Network, which started in 1972 and provided live Final Heat radio coverage of every Unlimited race. Cole and Hendrick had a great "chemistry" and brought out the best in each other. They really made those legendary Pay 'n Pak/Miss Budweiser duels of 1973 and 1974 come alive.

Phil and Jim could also do a knockout nightclub routine. One of this writer's fondest hydroplane memories occurred at the 1974 Owensboro Regatta in Owensboro, Kentucky. That's the year when the race was blown out and had to be rescheduled for Monday. The Awards Banquet had already been set for Sunday evening. But there were no awards to present other than the fastest qualifier trophy. Stepping into the breach were Cole, Hendrick, and driver Tom Sheehy who did some side-splitting comedy routines that brought down the house. An event that would otherwise have been a fiasco turned into a triumph, and a good time was had by all.

Phil experienced many happy days during his tenure in boat racing. But there were down days as well. And the downest of days was June 19, 1966, at the President's Cup Regatta in Washington, D.C. The race that came to be known as "Black Sunday" claimed the lives of three top drivers in two separate accidents on the Potomac River: Ron Musson of Miss Bardahl, Rex Manchester of Notre Dame, and Don Wilson of Miss Budweiser.

"Those men were like brothers to me," Cole recalled. Musson, in fact, had given Phil a lift from the pit area to the judges' stand on Ron's Honda motorbike on the morning of that tragic day.

Before leaving town, he received a telephone call from President's Cup Race Chairman Don Dunnington, who asked Cole's help in shipping the coffins home.

To his horror, Phil discovered that the race official in charge of preparing the bodies had misidentified all three of them! If not for the alertness of Phil Cole, the three widows (Betty Musson, Evelyn Manchester, and Sandy Wilson) would have received the wrong husband's body for burial.

One of Phil's closest relationships over the years was his association with the late Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little. Cole met Little in 1963 at a race in Guntersville, Alabama.

Bernie was campaigning a boat called Tempo at the time. Tempo's performance at Guntersville was something less than an artistic success. But Phil offered Little encouragement and best wishes, which Bernie appreciated.

In 1968, Phil served as writer and editor for the first in a long line of Miss Budweiser Souvenir Books--popularly known as the "Bernie Books." That first edition featured beautiful graphics and a careful balance of text and photography. Indeed, some of the best work that Cole ever did in racing were some of those early "Bernie Books," which Phil continued doing for several years--even after his departure from the URC in 1974.

Cole faced a new challenge in the late 1970s when he worked for the Dayton-Walther Corporation doing PR for young David "Salt" Walther's Indy car team. The job was a mixed blessing for Phil. He respected Salt's father, George Walther, Jr. But promoting Salt was a press agent's nightmare.

The young Walther had driven in a few Unlimited races but had only once been able to finish three heats in one day. His Indy career was similarly erratic.

"Salt is a perfect example of someone whose father gave him everything he ever wanted for the first thirty years of his life." Cole added, "I spent as much time trying to keep his name out of the newspapers as I did trying to get his name into the newspapers."

The siren call of Unlimited racing beckoned again in the 1980s. Phil's old friend Fred Alter, a former driver, was the new Unlimited Commissioner. Alter offered Cole his old job as Executive Secretary, but Phil declined. Instead, he recommended his oldest son, Sam Cole, for the position. Sam accepted and served in that capacity from 1981 to 1983.

[Editor's note: Sam Cole now occupies the position of Chairman of the American Boat Racing Association.]

Phil did lend a hand in 1982 when Alter asked him to bail out a new committee in Houston, Texas, that needed help. In no time at all, Phil had things well in hand and the Houston race on Clear Lake was a glittering success in 1982, 1983, and 1984.

Houston proved to be Phil Cole's final port of call in boat racing. For nine years, he promoted the Great American Race, a cross-country exhibition of antique automobiles. It was another success story for Phil until a stroke, suffered in 1993, necessitated his retirement from active promoting.

Until his death, Phil worked as a full-time free-lance author. He published several books on a variety of subjects, including cooking and steam boating. He did a weekly nostalgia column for The Madison Courier and authored a novel.

A lifelong student of local history, Cole once wrote a wonderful series of articles for the Courier on the career of Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale" and the greatest soprano of her time, who performed in Madison in the 1850s.

This writer had the opportunity to work closely with Phil during 1973 and 1974 when we both toiled for the URC. We kept in touch over the years. He was an enormously talented man. Of all the Executive Secretaries with whom I've worked, Phil Cole is the one who needed my help as Historian the least. His knowledge of the sport was extensive. And I salute him.