One Race Wonders

One Race Wonders

By Craig Fjarlie

When Ryan Mallow started a heat at Qatar, he joined the category of drivers who have competed in an unlimited hydroplane race. Most drivers go on to compete in many races, some continue on for 20 years or more. A few, however, race in only one event and for a variety of reasons never do so again. Right now, Mallow is in that category.

The popular music business is replete with artists who have one hit and fail to crack the charts a second time. They are called “one hit wonders.” To borrow a term from the music industry, there are a few boat racers who are “one race wonders.”

The most celebrated one race wonder is Gene Whipp. In 1973 he drove Bob Fendler’s Lincoln Thrift 7-1/4% Special to first place in the President’s Cup. Following the race, Whipp evaluated the situation. He concluded he would be urged to push the boat beyond its limits and eventually would have an accident. He turned in his resignation and never participated in another unlimited race. He did help the team with testing, and later worked with Jim McCormick’s Red Man team. Whipp raced offshore boats into the late 1980s, and briefly served as an unlimited referee, but declined numerous offers to race in the unlimited class.

One of the earliest and most tragic one race wonders was Orth Mathiot. The 1951 Gold Cup on Lake Washington was his first unlimited race. In the final heat, Quicksilver crashed. Mathiot and riding mechanic Thompson Whitaker were killed.

On more than one occasion, in the years following World War II, limited inboard class boats participated in unlimited races, in order to fill the field. Most of the limited boats were scored in their regular class, but a few stepped up and took unlimited numbers. At the 1951 President’s Cup, the 7-litre boat Chesapeake Cat took the number G-32 and driver Bob Dawson raced in the unlimited class.

There were a number of other one race wonders in the 1950s. George Zigas drove Thunderbolt in the 1952 Silver Cup. Lake Tahoe became an inadvertent hot bed of one race wonders. Richard Davis drove Honey Moon at the 1953 Sky High Trophy race. Fred Schmidt drove Breathless in the ’55 Lake Tahoe Yacht Club race, and Floyd Ciochon drove it at the Mapes Trophy race. At the same event, Kenny St. Oegger drove the U-9 Hawaii Kai. In early 1956, St. Oegger was attempting to set a mile straightaway record in Hawaii. At high speed (some reports say 195 mph) the boat suddenly turned sideways, rolled, and crashed. St. Oegger was badly injured but survived, although he never raced in the unlimited class again.

Lin Ivey, a veteran of outboard racing, was tabbed to drive Miss Seattle in the 1956 Seafair race. It was the first race for the boat after flipping the year before. Ivey did a credible job, but it was his only appearance in an unlimited race. In the same event, Bill Tonkin drove the brand new Tempest. That was the only appearance of the boat in 1956, and Tonkin’s only race in the unlimited class. Boat racing runs deep in the Tonkin family; his nephew, Mark, raced outboards in the 1990s.

At Buffalo in 1956, a 7-litre hydroplane was invited to fill the field so the race would count for points. Let’s Face It! took the number U-72. Drivers John Bridges and Ron Webber took turns in the cockpit.

A unique boat appeared at the 1957 Gold Cup. Miss U, with Del Fanning in the cockpit, failed to qualify. It was the boat’s only attempt to race, but Fanning had another opportunity. In 1960 he was tabbed to drive Miss Tool Crib. The former Miss U.S. II was unable to qualify at Chelan and Coeur d’Alene, but Fanning made the field at Seattle and finished ninth. As an interesting aside, Fanning is a distant relative of current unlimited driver J. Michael Kelly. Fanning’s son Tommy took up outboard racing and encouraged his uncle - Kelly’s paternal grandfather - to start racing. The rest, as they say, is history.

The 1950s produced one more one race wonder. At St. Clair in 1959, Bill Matthews drove Miss Ricochet.

A famous racing name became a one race wonder in 1963. Eddie Sachs, a veteran of the Indy 500 auto race, drove Such Crust IV at Madison. Sachs was in line to continue driving unlimiteds, but his life was cut short when he was killed the following year at Indianapolis. In 1969, Ed Morgan drove Miss Owensboro at Owensboro.

Australian drivers are in the one race wonders category. They were veterans of Australian racing, but circumstances there are slightly different than they are in the U.S. Australian courses are usually smaller and races include a variety of smaller boats. Solo came to Tri-Cities and Seattle in 1974. Bob Saniga started one heat of the Gold Cup at Sand Point, but was unable to finish.

Veteran Tom Sheehy, driver of Sunny Jim, was injured in the final heat at Tri-Cities in 1976. Tunnel outboard veteran Johnnie Sanders, a friend of Billy Schumacher, took over the cockpit duties at Seattle.

Rod Zapf made a few laps in Brian Keogh’s U-70 at Dayton in 1977. Zapf tried several times to qualify and race in the unlimited class, that was the only time he made a legal start.

Australian Bill Baberton had better luck than Saniga when Miss Bayswater Bulk raced in the 1983 World Championship in Houston. He finished his heats, although he was far off the pace of the top U.S. boats. Tunnel outboard drivers Jimbo McConnell and Renato Molinari both drove tunnel boats at Houston that year. McConnell was in the cockpit of USA Racing Team (the former Aronow Unlimited) and Molinari sat behind the wheel of Louie’s on the Lake.

Pierre LaVigne, a veteran of smaller classes, made his only competitive start in an unlimited race aboard Miss Detroit in 1989 at Detroit.

Only one driver joined the one race wonders club during the 1990s. Lindsey Emmons drove Miss Bayfair in the consolation heat at San Diego in 1995.

Since 1950, a surprising number of drivers have had only one shot at racing in the unlimited class. For a myriad of reasons, their opportunities came and went quickly. Will Ryan Mallow remain in the one race wonders club, or will he have additional offers to drive the world’s fastest boats? He has one thing still in his favor that other members of the one race wonders club no longer have: Time. Even if he has to wait a year or two, he eventually may have the chance to become a regular driver in the unlimited category. In the mean time, someone else may become the newest one race wonder.

[Reprinted from Unlimited NewsJournal, February 2012]