As The Turbine Turns [1958 Season]

The 1997 Thunder Tour will represent the fortieth full unlimited hydroplane racing season run under the jurisdiction and sanction of the Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association (nee Unlimited Racing Commission). The URC was voted into existence in June, 1957, at a time when the APBA rule book contained less than one page of provisions for the unlimited class. By the time the 1958 season rolled around, led by first chairman George Trimper of Buffalo, N.Y. (who also served as APBA president), more than 13 pages of rules had evolved and the sport was well on its way . . .

That first season, 1958, included 13 races, on a dozen different race dates (the President's Cup and Rogers Memorial were still run the same day on the Potomac River), but only eight of these could be considered full-fledged events in terms of the number of competitors. Plus, in those days, there still remained a distinct east-west nature to the season. The Apple Cup in Chelan, Wash., was the season opener, but there were two more races in the east and south before the inaugural Diamond Cup took place on Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho. Then the schedule swung back to the midwest, again, before coming out to Seattle in early August for the Gold Cup. Then back to the east, and midwest, before finally coming back west for the old Sahara Trophy on Lake Mead south of Las Vegas, Nev.

Highlight of that first year? Doubtless, the "un- retirement" of the Hawaii Kai III and Jack Regas' stirring drive to the Gold Cup crown in Seattle -- simultaneously ending Bill Muncey's bid to tie a Gold Cup record by winning three in a row aboard the Miss Thriftway.

But, in a sign of things to come, George Simon brought his Miss U.S. 1 from Detroit to Chelan for the season opener and appeared in an amazing total of 12 races (missing only the Buffalo Launch Club regatta. Once he had installed Don Wilson in the cockpit, Simon and the U.S. closed out with victories in Washington, D.C., Madison and Las Vegas . . . but was still nipped by SIX points at season's end by Mira Slovak in the Miss Bardahl for national high-point honors -- history's all-time closest title chase. Norm Evans won the Apple Cup in the Bardahl before being fired. Slovak took over at Coeur d'Alene, experienced all sorts of problems, but he and the crew got things solved to run first, second or third in seven of the eight remaining races -- failing to finish only the Gold Cup. In those days, high points were only awarded for a boat's overall finish in a race (400, 300, 225, 169, etc.) and not for each heat run.

Maverick and Bill Stead finished third in the points, and might have finished higher save for missing three late-season races due to a damaged boat.

Thriftway finished a distant 11th, its season curtailed, of course, when Muncey and the boat torpedoed a Coast Guard patrol boat after losing a rudder at the start of Heat 2A in the Gold Cup on Lake Washington. One thing, that not everyone recalls: had the Coast Guard boat not been in the way, the Thriftway might well have plowed into the crowded spectator log boom at 100 mph-plus.

Another coast-to-coast campaigner in 1958 was the Buffalo-based Wildroot Charlie (nee Gale IV), which was at 10 of the 13 races and finished fourth overall in the points with Bob Schroeder driving. Yes, the top four teams came out of, respectively, Seattle, Detroit, Las Vegas and Buffalo in those days when the unlimiteds were campaigned from cities all over the map. The season, however, marked the first year that Detroit-based boats were finally outnumbered by western boats at the Gold Cup.

Altogether, there were some 35 boats capable of competing that year and 28 of them did show up in at least one regatta. There were approximately 40 drivers with some experience in the big boats, headed by the veterans Bill Cantrell and Danny Foster. Amazingly, though, out of the huge boat fleet, only four of the hulls were more than five years old.

1958, in a good many ways, was a turning point, as well as a halcyon year, for the unlimiteds.

(Reprinted from the UHRA Thunder Letter, Volume 3, Number 164 December 6, 1996)