Graham Heath

A Tribute to Graham Heath

By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian

Graham Heath, 1963
Graham Heath, 1963

Graham Heath of Madison, Indiana, has been a motor racing enthusiast all his life. From an early age, fast boats and fast cars have had a special place in his heart. As a youngster, growing up on a farm about twelve miles north of Madison, Graham was fascinated by the exploits of such premier car racers as Gus Schrader, Emory Collins, and Wilbur Shaw.

As a young man, Heath became involved in Model T Ford competition. He spent a lot of time hanging around local race tracks, where he met his lifelong friend, the late Bill Cantrell, who was making quite a name for himself at that time as driver for the Southern Star racing team.

After returning from military service in World War II, Graham gravitated to the boats. He worked on and drove Neal Cahall's Geronimo on the Mid-West Limited inboard circuit. During this time, Heath became acquainted with racing great Ron Musson.

"He and I were great buddies," Graham recalls. When Musson started driving Unlimited hydroplanes in the late 1950s, Heath joined him as a crew member. At the 1959 Madison Regatta, Graham and Ron scored a victory in the Indiana Governor's Cup with Joe Mascari's Hawaii Kai III.

In 1960, Musson drove for the Samuel F. DuPont team, which campaigned a pair of fast boats, the Nitrogen and the Nitrogen Too. Heath helped out on Nitrogen Too, which won the Silver Cup at Detroit with Ron driving. By now, Graham was thoroughly enchanted by the mighty Unlimiteds, the Thunderboats of the racing world.

The bug bit him. More than anything else, he wanted to work on an Unlimited full time. And in 1961, he got his wish. DuPont had retired from the sport but had a special fondness for Madison. He decided to make an outright gift of his older boat, Nitrogen, to the city. And a racing legend was born.

Nitrogen became the first Miss Madison. Marion Cooper was the driver, and Graham Heath was the crew chief. The Miss Madison organization in those days included the likes of Cahall, Dick Cox, and Phil Cole, Jr. Assisting on the day- to-day operation of the boat, Graham recalls, were "Bobby Humphrey, my right-hand man; Ben Schnabel, who did the hull work; Don Smith, Bob Neal, and Don Tuite."

Heath and company took a fifth-place in their first race with Miss Madison at the 1961 Detroit Memorial Regatta. Then, they headed west to participate in the World's Championship Seafair Regatta, where they won the second-division Seattle Trophy Race on Lake Washington. Graham remembers that race vividly.

"All we had was one stock Allison engine, an old tool box, an old junk blower, one gasket, one fuel pump, and some odds and ends. I had maybe forty dollars in my pocket. As I look back on it, we had to have been fools.

"We had all kinds of troubles that day," he continued. "The exhaust pipe broke off, the fire was going down into the deck of the boat, and a bolt broke in the propeller strut. It seemed like everything was happening. But Bill Cantrell and the Gale V crew, whose boat was out of the race, pitched in and helped and we won the first-place trophy. It was great."

Unbelievably, the Miss Madison made it through the entire 1961 campaign with a single Allison engine and an all-volunteer crew. Like the rest of his co-workers, Graham had to work a regular job to make a living and raise a family. But he still achieved competitive results out on the race course--even without an equipment van full of extra engines and an acre of spart parts.

The first Miss Madison came to a sorry conclusion in trials for the Gold Cup at Detroit in 1963. The boat was completely destroyed and new pilot Morlan Visel was seriously injured. In Heath's words, "All hell broke loose" as the Miss Madison approached the Whittier Hotel on the front straightaway of the 3- mile course. "I don't think that I've ever seen water go so high."

Graham's good friends George McKernan and George Davis helped him recover the demolished craft from the watery depths of the Detroit River. The next day, while sifting through the wreckage, Heath discovered the cause of the accident. "A four- by-four with a bunch of pennants nailed to it had gone through that boat. I found it lodged in the left side. That was the end of the first Miss Madison."

Not to worry, the City of Madison was not about to lose its floating Chamber of Commerce for very long. The Ohio River townspeople had another hull, the Nitrogen Too, which had likewise been acquired from Sam DuPont. Losing the first boat and seeing Visel injured took an emotional toll on Graham.

"Ordinary people would have given up," he admits. "But not racing people. Racing people have got determination, adrenaline, and the drive. They come back. I don't know how to describe it."

So, Heath set his sorrow aside and plunged into preparing the second Miss Madison for competition. The nationally ranked 7-Litre pilot, George "Buddy" Byers, occupied the driver's seat from 1963 to 1965.

Graham had the highest respect for Buddy's cockpit prowess and considered him one of the all-time greats. "He drove and he drove hard. You could never tell what he was going to do. And he loved to psych the other drivers. The first time in the boat, he handled it like a veteran."

Byers and Miss Madison finished second to Musson and Miss Bardahl in the 1964 National High Point standings on the strength of being both fast and consistent. Miss Madison captured the 1965 Dixie Cup at Guntersville, Alabama, her first major victory. And Heath was honored by the Unlimited Racing Commission as the original winner of the Crew Chief of the Year award for 1965.

The 1960s were pinnacle years for Thunderboat racing. Even the necessary introduction of big-money sponsorship did not interfere with good old-fashioned sporting comradeship. "We had a good time in those days. Everybody helped everybody. They were good people, fun people. The work was hard. It wasn't easy work. But the people made it worth while."

Two of Graham's favorite people of that period were Jim and Yvonne Ranger of Detroit. At the 1965 season finale in San Diego, Heath was thrashing repairs to an engine the night before the race. While the Miss Madison team burned the midnight oil, the Rangers' limousine pulled into the pit area and provided coffee and sandwiches for an appreciative Graham and his bedraggled crew.

On race day, Miss Madison finished an overall second in the San Diego Cup with victories in two preliminary heats. And Heath had a couple of friends for life in Jim and Yvonne. For 1966, the Rangers hired Graham to start a new team from the ground up. The boat was the My Gypsy, one of the most popular Unlimited hydroplanes of her day. Heath, eager for a new challenge, jumped at the opportunity and made the most of it with the help of people like Bob Espland, Leo Mucutza, and Hap Dexter.

The My Gypsy years, between 1966 and 1968, were happy years for Graham. Under his direction, the team entered 28 races and placed in the top three at 13 of them. My Gypsy also took second, fourth, and second in National High Points.

But there were down days. 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: Rex Manchester of Notre Dame, Don Wilson of Miss Budweiser, and Heath's good friend Musson of Miss Bardahl.

"I've been in racing where bad things occurred," Graham acknowledged. "But that was the worst blow to me that's ever happened." Afterwards, he did a lot of soul searching. "I thought to myself, 'We've got to be crazy. Sane people don't do this!' But there's just something about racing. It's in your blood."

That evening, Heath went to owner/driver Jim Ranger and asked, "Boss, do you still want to race?" Ranger said yes. And so they did.

At the next stop on the 1966 tour, in Detroit, Ranger, a rookie, drove like a champion and outran the veteran Fred Alter and Miss Dixi Cola in one heat of the Gold Cup. And later in the season, My Gypsy won the Seafair Trophy in Seattle. Graham recalls that day with particular pride.

"That morning, Jim was nervous. He wasn't laughing or being his usual self. I told him to go out and talk to people and get his mind off things. But Jim was a racer that day. I was sure that he was going to blow the Allison engine. But he didn't. Then, at the trophy presentation, he started laughing. That was the first time that Jim had laughed all day."

Heading into the 1968 campaign, Heath received a phone call from Boss Ranger, who said, "I've got a boy out here (in California) who would like to drive the boat. He's a drag racer and his name is Tommy Fults." This was the start of what amounted to a father-and-son relationship between Graham Heath and the colorful Tommy "Tucker" Fults, one of the gutsiest--and most personable--men ever to jockey an Unlimited hydroplane.

Fults was lacking in experience around a closed course. So, Graham arranged for "Wild Bill" Cantrell to give Tommy some driving lessons on the Detroit River. "The first day, Bill more or less led him around. It was the same the next day with Cantrell showing him the ropes. Then, on the third day, Tommy got the hang of it real fast and was outrunning Bill. He was doing some serious racing with Cantrell. Bill was a veteran and knew all the angles. And he taught those angles to Tommy."

Fults was a speedster and loved to go fast. But it sometimes took a stern taskmaster to keep Tommy in line. At the 1968 Madison Regatta, Heath gave Fults a monumental bawling-out after Tommy had fractured a rib during a misadventure with a motorcycle. Graham told Fults, "These people have spent a lot of money to get you where you're at. If you ever get on another motorcycle, your driving days for the Gypsy are over."

Tommy got the message, loud and clear, and toed the mark from then on. He went on to claim Rookie of the Year honors in the Unlimited Class with a victory in the San Diego Cup as his highlight. In that race, Heath counseled Fults to "not go out and chase Billy Schumacher and the Miss Bardahl in the Final Heat," this being in the days when races were scored by total points.

"Just stay where you can see him. Don't let him lap you, but don't run with him." Tommy followed Graham's advice to the letter and won the cup.

After the retirement of Jim and Yvonne Ranger from racing, Heath moved home to Madison from Detroit. In the years that followed, Graham helped a number of Unlimited teams, including the Miss Owensboro and the Mister Farbricator, and even sponsored Brian Keogh's boat as the C&H Machine Special, named after the shop that Heath and Cantrell had co-founded.

Between 1979 and 1983, Graham and Bill brought the former My Gypsy out a few times to fill out the field. "We were just going to have some fun with her. We didn't see ourselves as being competitive with the modern boats. But we ended up doing rather well. That's because we kept finishing and finishing."

Although obsolete, the old Gypsy was still one of the most reliable Unlimiteds of all time. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. For 1983, Heath and Cantrell built up some extra-powerful aux-stage Allison engines for their aging juggernaut. "We thought we had better get it pickleforked after what happened to Chuck Thompson at Detroit in 1966, when his boat flew to pieces. That was a big mistake. When Jon Staudacher put it together, it was nothing but styrofoam and wasn't fastened to anything. At 70 miles an hour, it came apart."

The end of the trail came at Detroit when the forward section of the hull disintegrated. Driver Jon Peddie fortunately suffered only minor injuries. But the last of the old-style Mid-West river boats was history.

Graham returned the shattered My Gypsy remains to Madison and then retired from racing. Heath recognized that turbine engines were the future of the sport. To change over to the new turbine technology would require an enormous outlay of cash. So, Graham decided to call it a career.

But Heath isn't ready for the old-folks' home yet. "I started out in cars," he said with a gleam in his eye. "So, I went back to cars. I bought a midget, and I've been running it ever since...and having a good time."

And while his days of active boat racing are a memory, Graham still keeps his hand in things Unlimited. He still offers his expertise to the Cooper's Express team of Ed Cooper, Sr., and Ed Cooper, Jr., from Madison and Evansville, Indiana. When the Cooper boat won the Columbia Cup at the Tri-Cities, Washington, in 1989, Ed, Jr., was the first to pay credit where credit was due. At the awards' banquet, Cooper reserved his highest praise for his two mentors, Bill Cantrell and Graham Heath:

"They taught me everything that I know. I couldn't have done it without them." After a long and successful career, it is safe to say that, as long as there are race boats, a part of Graham Heath will always be out there — RACING!