Chuck Hickling

The Chuck Hickling Story

Chuck Hickling
Chuck Hickling

For sheer longevity, it would be difficult indeed for any boat racer to match the incredible career of Charles "Chuck" Hickling, which spanned from the late 1920s to the late 1980s. The man quite literally did it all--as an owner, driver, designer, and builder of everything from tiny outboards to Limited inboards to Unlimited hydroplanes.

He was a superb "wood butcher." When a boat would suffer hull damage and be in need of a quick repair job, the word would go forth, "Get Hickling!"

Few race drivers before or since have ever been able to communicate with crew members as effectively as Chuck. That's because few drivers have ever had the wealth of mechanical knowledge that Hickling had stored up in that prematurely bald head of his. When it came to hydroplane set-up, Chuck's input was universally regarded as gospel.

A shipwright by profession, Hickling at one time worked for the Boeing Company, where so many hydroplane notables were employed at one time or another.

In 1983, Chuck was inducted into the Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame. Between 1997 and 2002, the Seattle Outboard Association conducted the annual Chuck Hickling Memorial Regatta at Eatonville, Washington, in his honor.

A long-time resident of Bellevue, Washington, Chuck began his career racing outboards in the years between the World Wars. His wife Mel Hickling recalled that, during their courtship days, many of their so- called "dates" were to local outboard regattas where Chuck would race his boat.

Throughout their 50-plus years of marriage, Mel played an active role in her husband's racing career. She was usually the bookkeeper for the team and would handle all of the APBA paper work.

The outboard race on Seattle's Green Lake was a popular haven for outboard racing in the 1930s. Chuck Hickling competed in the tragic 1936 Green Lake Regatta where fellow racer Adolph Spreckels lost control of his boat, ran up on shore, and fatally injured a spectator.

By the 1950s, Chuck had graduated to the inboard ranks and made his presence felt in the old 135 Cubic Inch (now the 2.5-Litre Modified) Class.

The first Unlimited hydroplane regatta on Seattle's Lake Washington took place in 1951. Co-sponsored by the Seattle Yacht Club and Greater Seattle, Inc. (now Seafair, Inc.), two races were run on consecutive weekends: the APBA Gold Cup on Saturday, August 4, and the Seafair Trophy on Sunday, August 12. Both races were won by the new Stan Sayres-owned Slo-mo-shun V, driven by Lou Fageol in the Gold Cup and by designer Ted Jones in the Seafair Trophy.

Eleven Unlimiteds participated in the Gold Cup event. But only Slo-mo-shun IV and Slo-mo-shun V were available to compete for the Seafair Trophy. In order for the race to count for APBA records, the committee invited a trio of local Limited boats to "fill out" the field. Chuck Hickling entered his 135 Class Snapper and finished an overall third on a 5-nautical mile course.

This was Chuck's first appearance on the same race course with Unlimited hydroplanes--the Thunderboats of the racing world. It would not be his last.

In 1957, Hickling was selected as a co-driver (with Al Benson) of Miss Seattle, the former Slo-mo-shun V, now owned by a syndicate of Seattle sportsmen who called themselves Roostertails, Inc. Chuck qualified as an Unlimited driver at the 1957 Apple Cup on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington.

Hickling drove Miss Seattle during 1957 and '58. In truth, the old Slo-Mo V had seen her better days by the time Chuck had the opportunity to drive her. He nevertheless preferred Miss Seattle to her younger sister ship Miss Pay ‘n Save, which Hickling reluctantly drove in 1959.

From Day One, Miss Pay ‘n Save was a problem boat and wanted to take a nose dive at high speeds. She had already put former driver Benson in the hospital. And she did the same thing to Chuck at the 1959 Diamond Cup on Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Bob Carver, the noted photographer, predicted that the rough-riding Miss Pay ‘n Save would someday nose in and disintegrate. And that's exactly what happened in 1962 when driver Dallas Sartz crashed her to the bottom of Lake Washington as Miss Seattle Too,

Hickling piloted Miss Pay ‘n Save in three races before giving up on it. Ironically, it was with Miss Pay ‘n Save that Chuck scored his one and only victory in a major Unlimited race. This was the 1959 Apple Cup, which had to be shortened to two heats on account of high winds.

Hickling won both of his 15-mile preliminary heats for a total of 800 points. Second and third-place that day went to Jack Regas in Miss Bardahl and Bill Muncey in Miss Thriftway, both of whom had 700 points for a first and a second-place heat finish.

In late-season 1959, Chuck made a one-time relief-driving appearance at the Reno Regatta with the community-owned Miss Spokane, whose driver Norm Evans had been hired to pilot for Sam DuPont's Nitrogen team. Hickling made a start with Miss Spokane in Heat One but failed to finish.

Starting in 1960, Chuck affiliated with owner Peter Woeck's Miss Burien racing team. The boat, which was renamed Tempest in 1961, was designed and built by Ted Jones and was everything that Miss Pay ‘n Save was not.

Hickling spent many happy years at the wheel of this smooth-riding dependable craft. The only thing she lacked was power. Throughout her career, Miss Burien/Tempest ran a substantially stock Allison engine. One can only speculate on how she might have performed with the more powerful--but also more temperamental--Rolls-Royce Merlin. Chuck nevertheless guided her to second-place in both the 1960 and 1963 Diamond Cup races.

The Miss Burien team attended the infamous 1960 Las Vegas Gold Cup at Lake Mead, which was declared "No Contest" after the completion of only one preliminary heat. The official reason for the cancellation of the remaining heats was high winds--even though a window of opportunity was available in the early morning of the following day, according to the local weather service.

Years later, in an interview with this writer, Chuck scoffed at the "official reason" for not completing the race. According to Hickling, considerable doubt existed as to whether or not the announced prize money package in fact existed.

After 35 years in the sport, Hickling considered retirement in 1964. But he "unretired" rather quickly when Bernie Little persuaded him to take the wheel of Miss Budweiser for Heat Two of the Seafair Regatta after Bob Schroeder was injured in Heat One.

Chuck ended up finishing the season with the Anheuser-Busch- sponsored "Beer Wagon" and placed second to Ron Musson and Miss Bardahl at the Harrah's Tahoe Regatta.

This particular Miss Budweiser was the former second Maverick. She was fast but somewhat erratic. Original driver Bill Stead had spun her out no fewer than six times during her National Championship year of 1959.

At the 1964 San Diego Cup on Mission Bay, Miss Budweiser sheared off a sponson and was virtually destroyed. Owner Little chose not to rebuild it and re-activated his former flagship, the four-seater Tempo, which assumed the Miss Budweiser identity for 1965.

The four-seater was basically a pleasure boat that just happened to meet the minimum requirements for the APBA Unlimited Class. She was never regarded as a serious contender. Hickling drove her in eight races in 1965. He finished fourth in the Bonneville Regatta at Ogden, Utah, and won the consolation race for the Horace E. Dodge Memorial Trophy at the Spirit Of Detroit Regatta.

Chuck once told a humorous story on what it was like to work for Bernie Little in the 1960s. It went something like this: "Bernie liked to see his crew people actively working on the boat. During race week, he would always stop by the pits at 10 O'clock and again at 4 O'clock to check on us.

"A lot of times, there wouldn't be anything that really needed doing. So, every day at a quarter to ten and again at a quarter to four, we would all climb up on the boat, start scrambling around, and act like we were really doing something. Bernie would walk by, nod approvingly, and go on his way."

Hickling had fond memories of his crew chief on Miss Budweiser, Bill Newman. A master of the Allison engine, Newman loved to "psyche" the other teams. When all would be in readiness, Bill would confidently polish and re-polish the engine as if nothing else in the world mattered. The message was loud and clear. Although the race had not yet begun, the Miss Budweiser was ready to take on all comers.

By the end of 1965, the four-seater was quite literally coming apart internally. Originally planned as a pleasure craft, it had not been intended for a lot of hard competitive running. Chuck persuaded owner Little to retire it. Hickling did run the four-seater for Bernie one last time in the 1966 Tampa Suncoast Cup as Miss Busch Bavarian, since Tampa was the Little team's "hometown" race site.

This left Chuck temporarily without a "ride." But in late-season 1966, he replaced his friend Bill Muncey at the wheel of Bill Schuyler's $ Bill and went on to take second-place in the San Diego Cup with a victory in Heat One.

Hickling had known Bill and Genetta Schuyler since the 1930s. He had built several outboard boats for the Schuylers during that time frame.

Chuck had many friends in racing. Muncey was perhaps the closest. Over the years, Hickling drove a number of Bill's Limited boats. Toward the end of Muncey's life, Bill returned the compliment by qualifying Chuck's Tempus for the 1981 Seattle Gold Cup. Whenever Muncey wanted to get away from the wife and kids for a few hours, he would hop on over to Hickling's house and "talk boats" with his friend.

Bill Muncey met his death at Acapulco, Mexico, on October 18, 1981, driving the Atlas Van Lines "Blue Blaster." A memorial service was held at the Stan Sayres Pits in Seattle, where Chuck Hickling delivered the eulogy.

Chuck raced boats professionally for the last time in 1967. He succeeded Mira Slovak as pilot of the National Champion casino- sponsored Harrah’s Club, owned by Bill Harrah. It was a troubled campaign. In five races entered, Harrah’s Club only qualified for one Final Heat--a second-place finish at Madison, Indiana.

Hickling never came closer to meeting his Maker, while driving a race boat, than he did at the 1967 Seattle Gold Cup with Harrah’s Club. It happened right at the start of Heat 1-A.

During the 5-minute warm-up period, Bob Gilliam was sitting dead in the water on the start/finish line, frantically trying to get Hilton Hy-Per-Lube started. The engine kicked over just moments before the 1- minute gun. Gilliam made a beeline for the north turn, trying to catch up with the rest of the field. In so doing, he left a side-ways trough at right angles to the race course.

Less than a minute later, the field thundered by the official barge with Notre Dame and driver Jack Regas in the lead. Notre Dame fell into the trough that Gilliam had left. One sponson ripped off and Notre Dame ricocheted directly in front of Harrah’s Club. Harrah’s Club ran over Notre Dame and dove to the bottom of the lake. Fortunately, neither Regas nor Hickling was seriously injured.

Notre Dame was totaled; Harrah’s Club was through for the season. But the culprit, Hilton Hy-Per-Lube, emerged unscathed.

Unable to avoid impact, Chuck--in the split second before the crash-- managed to yank the steering wheel just enough so as not to run over the cockpit of Notre Dame. Regas later commented, "If he hadn't done that, he would have ruined my whole day."

Hickling recovered quickly from his injuries but didn't drive in competition again for five years. In the meantime, he continued to lend a hand where it was needed in the sport that he loved. But he was now strictly a hobbyist.

Over the years, he maintained a close association with the Notre Dame camp. When their boat suffered hull damage at Seattle in 1968, Chuck was called in to effect the repairs. In 1973, when driver Ron Larsen wasn't available, Hickling test drove their boat on Lake Washington during the off-season.

Around 1970, Chuck began construction of an Unlimited hydroplane of his own. Since the 1930s, he had built many outboard and Limited inboard hulls and had designed one Unlimited--the original Parco’s O-Ring Miss--for Laird Pierce in 1967. But this was the first U-boat that he both designed AND built. He accomplished this in his private workshop in the Enatai neighborhood of Bellevue, near Lake Washington's East Channel.

The boat wasn't finished until 1978. Hickling named it Tempus (U-17). The 17 came from Chuck's home address of 17 Enatai Drive.

Hickling re-qualified as an Unlimited driver in 1972 with The Smoother Mover, a perennial tail-ender, owned by Bob Murphy. It was at the wheel of this craft (renamed Ms. Greenfield Galleries) that Chuck finished fifth the in the UIM World Championship Race at Seattle with a victory in Heat Two.

In 1975, Hickling gained the distinction of being the first in a long line of drivers of an Oh Boy! Oberto hydroplane. The Oberto meat products firm chose the Murphy team for their initial venture into hydro sponsorship.

Chuck retired again after 1975 and spent the next three years slowly and meticulously completing the long-awaited Tempus project. His friend Dave Culley of the Miss Budweiser team helped in the preparation of the Rolls-Royce Merlin "Dash-7" engine.

Tempus was finally christened at the 1978 Seattle Seafair Regatta with Mel Hickling doing the honors. There were many favorable comments about the boat's impeccable hull craftsmanship. Tempus handled well out on the race course with Chuck at the wheel.

But the design, in truth, was obsolete. The last rear-cockpit/forward-engine hull to be built in the Unlimited Class, she was clearly a generation behind Bill Muncey's cabover Atlas Van Lines, which ruled the Unlimited roost in the late '70s.

The 1979 season proved to be Hickling's swan song as a driver. That year, at age 65, he piloted Tempus to fifth-place in the Tri-Cities Columbia Cup and sixth-place in the Seafair Regatta. After fifty years as a high-speed hydroplane jockey, it was the end of an era.

Chuck was one of the oldest men ever to compete in an Unlimited race. As far as is known, only Walt Kade (who was 68 when he last raced in 1972) was older than Hickling.

For 1980, Chuck installed young Bob Maschmedt in the Tempus cockpit. In later years, Jack Schafer, Jr., Scott Pierce, and Mark Evans drove for the Hickling team.

Chuck would frequently grumble at the increasing commercialization of the Unlimited sport. For his own boat, he never sought sponsorship dollars.

But when his good friend Bernie Little tore up his boat at Seattle in 1980 and needed a back-up hull in a hurry, Hickling came to his rescue. The two made a quick deal, shook hands, and Chuck's Tempus became the "new" Miss Budweiser for the next three races. With Maschmedt driving, she finished fourth at Seattle, third at Ogallala, Nebraska, and fifth at Ogden.

In the ensuing years, Hickling continued to campaign Tempus, primarily at races close to home. The team's best finish was a fourth- place in the 1982 Columbia Cup with Schafer driving. The boat's fastest competition lap in that race was 110.542 miles per hour on the 2.5-mile course. This compared to the fastest lap of the day by Chip Hanauer in the Merlin-powered Atlas Van Lines at 123.853.

It was at the 1982 Columbia Cup that Miss Budweiser pilot Dean Chenoweth suffered fatal injuries in a "blow-over" accident while attempting qualification. Following the announcement of Chenoweth's death, Tempus and Jack Schafer made a special exhibition run on the Columbia River, displaying an American flag in Dean's honor.

Chuck was very upset with driver Scott Pierce at the 1983 Emerald Cup in Seattle. Hickling had instructed Pierce to take it easy during qualification in order to be placed in the "slow" flight against boats of comparable speed. Instead, Scott poured on the coal and qualified Tempus for the "fast" flight against all of the "hotdogs." Needless to say, on race day, the Hickling team got trounced, although they did end up with an overall fifth-place.

In 1985, Chuck sold Tempus to Ed Cooper, Sr., and Ed Cooper, Jr., of Madison and Evansville, Indiana. The Coopers raced it for two years with Schafer and Mitch Evans as drivers.

In 1999, the 1978 Tempus hull was used in the filming of the Madison movie, which has a hydroplane racing theme. Painted red, it is supposed to represent the Miss Budweiser.

Chuck Hickling's last hurrah as a boat racer occurred between 1985 and 1988 with a radical new Tempus (U-17). This was a "tunnel" hull with sponsons running the entire length. An avowed experiment, Chuck wanted to see if the "tunnel" concept was viable in the Unlimited Class. It wasn't.

Hickling entered the second Tempus in ten races. But she scored points in only two of them. Her fastest heat (at San Diego in 1986) was only 99.593. The Merlin-powered boat did not corner well and, according to pilot Schafer, was a "scary" craft to drive.

In addition to Schafer, Dave Culley, Mark Evans, Bob Maschmedt, and Chuck Hickling all tested the low-profile/cabover/pickle-fork/5- pointer at one time or another.

As an experimental craft, she served her purpose well.

By the late 1980s, turbine-powered boats were all the rage. To change over from a piston program would have been costly. So, Chuck decided to call it a career.

Hickling died of cancer on December 11, 1993, at age 79. Although best known for his years as an Unlimited participant, he never forgot his roots in the smaller Limited categories. In his will, Chuck left $5000 to be divided equally between the Seattle Outboard Association (SOA) and the Seattle Inboard Racing Association (SIRA).

Chuck and Mel Hickling are no longer with us. But they are remembered as one of racing's most popular couples. People still tell stories about them. One of these has to do with a vacation trip that they took years ago to Hawaii.

Mel was looking forward to getting away from boat racing for awhile and just relaxing in the Honolulu sun. But things didn't work out that way.

During a stroll along the waterfront, they came across one of Chuck's Limited boats tied to a dock. A local resident owned it and was trying in vain to get the thing to run. The fellow was obviously very frustrated.

He said, "Some guy named Hickling built this boat. But I don't know what to do with it" Chuck replied, "I'm Hickling. And I can tell just by looking at it that you've got it set up all wrong."

The result: Chuck spent his whole vacation working on the guy's boat. Poor Mel ended up playing "tourist" all by her lonesome.

* * *

Chuck Hickling's Unlimited Hydroplane Box Score (1957-1979)

Total Races Driven: 53

Boats Driven In Competition: 10

(1) Miss Seattle (U-37) - 1957-58
(2) Miss Pay ‘n Save (U-47) - 1959
(3) Miss Spokane (U-25) - 1959
(4) Tempest (U-4)/Miss Burien (U-4)/Miss Michelob (U-11) - 1960-61-62- 63-64
(5) Miss Budweiser (U-12) - 1964
(6) Miss Budweiser (U-13)/Miss Busch Bavarian (U-13) - 1965-66
(7) $ Bill (U-21) - 1966
(8) Harrah’s Club (U-1) - 1967
(9) The Smoother Mover (U-4)/Bob Murphy's Marine (U-4)/Ms. Greenfield Galleries (U-4)/Oh Boy! Oberto (U-4) - 1972-73-75
(10) Tempus (U-17) - 1978-79

Top-3 Finishes: 7

1st Place: 1

(1) 1959 - Apple Cup - Chelan, WA - Miss Pay ‘n Save (U-47)

2nd Place: 5

(1) 1960 - Diamond Cup - Coeur d'Alene, ID - Miss Burien (U-4)
(2) 1963 - Diamond Cup - Coeur d'Alene, ID - Tempest (U-4)
(3) 1964 - Harrah's Tahoe Trophy - Stateline, NV - Miss Budweiser (U- 12)
(4) 1966 - San Diego Cup - San Diego, CA - $ Bill (U-21)
(5) 1967 - Indiana Governor's Cup - Madison, IN - Harrah’s Club (U-1)

3rd Place: 1

(1) 1960 - Apple Cup - Chelan, WA - Miss Burien (U-4)

NOTE: Craig Fjarlie, outboard racer and columnist for the Unlimited NewsJournal, contributed to this article.