Bill Sterett Remembered
The Gold Cup has always been regarded as the Holy Grail of Unlimited hydroplane racing. It's the one trophy above all others that every competitor wants to win at least once.
When Bill Sterett of Owensboro, Kentucky, won it in 1969 with Miss Budweiser, he retired. Standing at the very top of the Thunderboat world, he had no worlds left to conquer.
The story begins when Sterett was attending a Limited hydroplane race and learned that the 7-Litre Class winner was available for sale. Sterett wrote the owner a check and towed the boat home from the race site.
When Bill pulled into his driveway, his wife called out, "What in the world is that crazy thing?" So, Sterett named his new acquisition Miss Crazy Thing.
Bill quickly established himself as a competitive presence on the tough Mid-West Limited inboard circuit. By 1965, he was the 7-Litre Class National and High Point Champion.
That same year, at the Unlimited race in Detroit, Bill talked his way into test driving Jack Schafer's Such Crust IV, a huge elephantine craft, powered by twin Allison aircraft engines. The test run was a fiasco. The big lumbering Crust was too poorly designed to reach competitive speeds.
"Shucks!" spat Sterett. "I can build a boat in my backyard that can go faster than that!"
For the record, Bill did just that. The following winter, he and brother-in-law Jim Hay constructed an Unlimited hydroplane of their own, the Miss Chrysler Crew, in Sterett's own shop. An enlarged hull duplicate of Miss Crazy Thing, from a Henry Lauterbach design, the craft was powered by a pair of 426 cubic inch supercharged Chrysler hemispherical engines.
Miss Chrysler Crew was the first serious attempt at automotive power in the Unlimited Class and the only one to ever win a race.
Bill and Jim had their hands full ironing out the "bugs" of newness. They finished only 13 out of 21 heats started during their first season but took third-place at the 1966 Sacramento Cup on Lake Folsom.
In 1967, at Detroit, Bill Sterett and Miss Chrysler Crew earned their place in the history books. Just two years after the Such Crust IV debacle, Sterett won the UIM World Championship Race and proved the viability of automotive power against the traditional Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin.
Braving extremely rough water, the burr-headed Kentucky Colonel really had 'em buffaloed that memorable day in the Motor City. It's been said that Sterett was the only driver with the guts to drive that fast under those conditions.
Bill was eager to add the 1967 Gold Cup (at Seattle) to his trophy shelf but was medically sidelined after an accident with his Limited hydroplane at Guntersville, Alabama. He had to relinquish the C-Crew's wheel to another driver (Mira Slovak) for the remainder of the season.
Prior to 1968, the Chrysler Corporation changed promotional direction. Sponsoring Miss Chrysler Crew had been a very expensive proposition. The equipment inventory had included six hemi engines: two in the boat, two in the trailer, and two at the factory. After each race, they would rotate. And it nearly bankrupted the corporation's marine division!
Sterett found himself without a sponsor and retired his craft from racing. But Bill's driving talents had not gone unnoticed by Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little who promptly recruited Bill as helmsman for the "Beer Wagon."
A Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered hull, Miss Budweiser was designed by Ed Karelsen as a virtual clone of Karelsen's 1967 National Champion Miss Bardahl.
Miss Budweiser had "new-boatitis" in 1968, just as Miss Chrysler Crew had had in 1966. But, by the end of the year, "Super Bud" had come into her own. Sterett scored an impressive victory with her in the season-concluding Arizona Governor's Cup on Lake Carl Pleasant, trouncing National Champions Miss Bardahl and Billy Schumacher in the process.
Then came the historic 1969 Thunderboat campaign. Driver Sterett handed owner Little his first National High Point Championship. Bill won four out of seven races: the Dixie Cup in Guntersville, the Kentucky Governor's Cup (a hometown event that he helped to promote) in Owensboro, the Seafair Trophy in Seattle, and the big one--the APBA Gold Cup--on the last day of the season on San Diego's Mission Bay.
After less than five years, Bill Sterett unquestionably ruled the Unlimited roost. But there would be no encore for the new champion due to the press of business from his Owensboro-based contracting firm.
In the years that followed, Sterett, although retired, never strayed far from the roar of the Thunderboats. He reactivated the former Miss Chrysler Crew (renamed Miss Owensboro) and re-powered it with a single Allison engine, borrowed from My Gypsy, that his sons--Terry and Bill, Jr.--drove.
Billy and Terry never achieved the level of success in the sport as their father. But they were always "in the hunt" and were named Co-Rookies-of-the-Year in 1970.
Bill served as Unlimited Drivers' Representative for a time but only once stepped back into the competitive arena. As a relief driver for Pride of Pay ‘n Pak, he drove in one heat at Madison, Indiana, in 1972 and finished in his familiar first-place.
On a human-interest level, the 1972 Madison race is the only time in post-World War II Unlimited history that a father and son ever drove against each other in a heat of competition. Terry Sterett, piloting Miss Budweiser, battled head-to-head with his Dad for several laps before Bill pulled away for the win.
After a decade of hydroplane action, the Steretts--all three of them--waved goodbye to Unlimited racing after 1972. They never competed again but rather returned to the family business in Owensboro that occupied them for the rest of their lives.
For many years, the Sterett Crane Service assisted the "Thunder on The Ohio" committee at Evansville, Indiana, in the launching and retrieving of the Unlimiteds.
An associate once described Bill Sterett as someone who regarded second-place as an insult. "He could be at times charming, irascible, polite, cantankerous, diplomatic, and painfully blunt. His background? A self-made man. His reputation? 24-Karat solid in his home state and with his friends in racing. Not a man to make friends easily, he keeps them a long time. But if he sheds one, it sticks."