Jim Lucero

The Jim Lucero Story

Jim Lucero
Jim Lucero

Of all the Crew Chiefs in the Unlimited Class since World War II, one name stands out above all the rest in terms of total victories: Jim Lucero. Between 1971 and 1998, the Seattle, Washington, resident accounted for no fewer than 69 first-place trophies with such teams as Pay ‘n Pak, Atlas Van Lines, Miller American, Winston Eagle, Smokin’ Joe’s, Close Call, and Wildfire.

In addition to his 69 victories, Lucero’s boats finished second 48 times and third 15 times. That’s a total of 132 podium finishes in 235 races as a Crew Chief.

A Crew Chief is defined as an individual who regularly works on the boat and has charge of those who also work on the boat. Crew Chiefs, over the years, have had varying degrees of authority, depending upon their relationship to their owner and driver, yet are considered Crew Chiefs if they fit the above description.

For the sake of comparison, the Crew Chiefs that stand closest to Lucero in total victories are Ron Brown, who won 56 races between 1976 and 1997 with the Miss U.S. and Miss Budweiser teams, and Mark Smith, who won 33 races between 1998 and 2004 with Miss Budweiser.

Lucero’s first contact with the world of Unlimited hydroplanes occurred in 1965. That was the year that Jim signed on as an engine parts washer for Shirley Mendelson McDonald’s Notre Dame. He remained with Notre Dame through the 1967 racing season.

In 1968, Lucero accepted his first Crew Chief assignment. The boat was the Smirnoff, owned by Joe and Lee Schoenith’s Gale Enterprises team of Detroit, Michigan.

The radical bat-winged Smirnoff pioneered the “picklefork” configuration in Unlimited racing. With the bow dropped back and the sponsons protruding, there was less chance of the boat nosing in and flipping over than in the old-style shovel-nosed hull design.

In retrospect, Smirnoff was probably a little too heavy for her own good. But Lucero was nevertheless able to make a contender out of her by season’s end. With Dean Chenoweth driving, the craft finished third in the APBA Gold Cup at Detroit and fourth in the San Diego Cup and the Arizona Governor’s Cup in Phoenix.

The most positive thing to come out of the Smirnoff experience was the opportunity for Jim to work with designer Dick Brantsner. While Brantsner didn’t remain in the sport for very long, his influence on Lucero was significant. Jim greatly appreciated the astute and orderly manner in which Dick went about solving problems of design. The two remained close friends for many years.

When the Heublein’s Corporation dropped its sponsorship of the Smirnoff hydroplane after 1968, Lucero transferred to the Bob Fendler organization, which was then sponsored by Atlas Van Lines, Inc. This was the start of a long and successful collaboration between Jim and Atlas that was to last intermittently for fifteen years.

Lucero worked as a crew member on Fendler’s Atlas Van Lines U-19 during 1969. But Jim had larger fish to fry.

His association with Brantsner had sparked an interest in hydroplane design. So, for 1970, while attending UCLA, Lucero designed Fendler’s Atlas Van Lines U-29.

The U-29 represented a significant departure from the tried and true in Unlimited racing. It was a cabover, a boat with the driver sitting ahead of--rather than behind--the engine well.

The modern cabover concept had been formulated in the early 1960s by Ron Jones, Sr., who hailed the design as the future of boat racing. Indeed, Jones had achieved great success with such champion cabover creations as the 225 Cubic Inch Class Tiger Too and the 7-Litre Class Record-7.

But the idea was slow to catch on in the Unlimited ranks. Some unfortunate accidents had occurred which had nothing to do with the fact that the boats involved were cabovers. But they were associated with cabovers, and that made the concept difficult to sell.

Lucero, however, agreed with Jones that the cabover was the way to go. So, in collaboration with builder Fred Wickens, Jim went ahead with plans for Fendler’s cabover U-29. The finished boat, however, proved a mixed blessing.

A decision had been made to power the hull with a pair of 426 cubic inch supercharged Chrysler hemi automotive engines. The hemis simply lacked the horsepower to be competitive with the traditional Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines. Moreover, the boat could likely have benefited from the advanced propeller technology that is commonplace today but was unavailable in 1970.

At this point, Lucero left Fendler to accept an offer from Seattleite Dave Heerensperger’s Pay ‘n Pak team. But the U-29 story did not end with Jim’s departure from the organization. Later re-powered with a turbocharged Allison and renamed Lincoln Thrift’s 7-1/4% Special, the U-29 finally realized Lucero’s dream of designing the first modern cabover to win a race in the Unlimited Class. This was at the 1973 President’s Cup at Washington, D.C., with Gene Whipp driving.

Some may have viewed Jim’s shift from Fendler to Heerensperger in mid-season 1970 as capricious. In the long run, though, switching over to Pay ‘n Pak was a shrewd career move. It was with Heerensperger that Lucero first achieved racing’s big time.

Jim’s first major assignment with his new employer was to revamp an automotive-powered cabover hull, the Jones-designed Pride of Pay ‘n Pak, and try to make a winner out of her. In accordance with Heerensperger’s wishes, Lucero moved the cockpit from fore to aft. He then replaced the twin Chryslers with a single Rolls-Royce Merlin.

It took Lucero and driver Billy Schumacher a few races to get Pride of Pay ‘n Pak sorted out. The boat lost her rudder and Schumacher sustained injury at the 1971 season-opener in Miami, Florida. And the Pak was trounced at Madison, Indiana, by the Gold Cup-winning Miss Madison.

But during the western half of the 1971 tour, Pride of Pay ‘n Pak came alive. Although not significantly faster on the straightaways than the traditional post-1950 vintage Unlimiteds, she could corner better and faster than any boat in the world and could run qualifying laps in the 120 mile an hour range almost effortlessly.

Pride of Pay ‘n Pak entered the winner’s circle for the first time at Seattle, her homeport. The team of Heerensperger, Lucero, and Schumacher claimed the coveted Seafair Trophy and emerged as the class of a twelve-boat field. It was a radiant moment for Jim, his first victory as a Crew Chief after six years in the sport. It would not be his last.

For 1972, owner Heerensperger set a goal of a 125 mile per hour lap speed for the team. Pride of Pay ‘n Pak exceeded that goal and almost reached an unheard of 126 miles per hour in trials at Seattle with Billy Sterett, Jr., driving.

Heerensperger then sold the boat to Bernie Little and decided to experiment with a new hull, which became known as the “Winged Wonder” Pay ‘n Pak of 1973.

The new Pak was designed and built by Ron Jones and featured a prominent horizontal stabilizer wing. Crew Chief Lucero provided the futuristic craft with powerful Rolls engines and some fine-tuning on the sponsons.

The result: a National High Point Championship for Pay ‘n Pak in 1973 with Mickey Remund as driver. The team won four races, including the World’s Championship Seafair Trophy, and raised the world lap speed record to 126.760 on a 3-mile course at Seattle.

It was the same story in 1974, another National Championship for the “Winged Wonder.” Pilot George Henley powered his way into the winner’s circle at seven out of eleven events during the season. This was the year when Heerensperger, Lucero, and Henley won their first Gold Cup, in a particularly memorable contest on Seattle’s Lake Washington at Sand Point.

All day long, the Pak battled side by side with Howie Benns and the Miss Budweiser. They shared the same roostertail, on extremely rough water, in perhaps the greatest single performance in Pay ‘n Pak team history.

The 1975 campaign was something else. For a while, it appeared as though the opposition had caught up with the defending National Champion.

The Billy Schumacher-chauffeured Weisfield’s dominated the first three races and seemed a sure bet for High Point honors. At Owensboro, Kentucky, Pay ‘n Pak swapped ends, caved in a sponson, and had to withdraw from the race, while Weisfield’s went on to take the checkered flag. All hope of retaining the National title appeared lost.

But despite a formidable points deficit, Pay ‘n Pak bounced back in championship fashion to turn the tide on Weisfield’s. The Pak had been rebuilt during the 1974-75 off-season. It was fast on the straightaways but had trouble in the turns. Lucero put the boat back in its 1974 configuration and, immediately, Pay ‘n Pak was its old competitive self again.

Henley and the Pak thundered to victory in five of the last six races of 1975 to claim a third straight Martini & Rossi National High Point Trophy at season’s end.

Never before or since has one boat’s momentum been so effectively halted by the performance of another boat.

Having done everything that he had set out to accomplish and more, Heerensperger decided to rest on his laurels. In January of 1976, he accepted an offer from Bill Muncey and sold the entire Pay ‘n Pak team equipment inventory for a figure in the six digits. The package comprised three hulls, including an unraced cabover craft, designed by Lucero.

Jim, at first, was not involved--and did not want to be involved--in the new Muncey ownership. But Bill, who had not won a race since 1972, was smart enough to realize that he needed Lucero to help get his career back on track. So, Muncey hired Jim as his Crew Chief and started a new racing team under the aegis of Atlas Van Lines. Lucero was given complete authority to run the team from top to bottom. Jim’s word was law.

The sport held its collective breath.

The burning question: could two such strong-minded personalities as Muncey and Lucero actually work together on a day-to-day basis without driving each other crazy? Well, they could. And they did.

In fact, they became the best of friends. Both were totally dedicated to winning races and understood each other perfectly.

The team of Jim and Bill didn’t always see eye to eye with the Unlimited officialdom. But no one can deny the Lucero/Muncey combination’s competitive excellence.

During his four years as lead wrench for Atlas Van Lines, Lucero achieved the pinnacle of his career. Between 1976 and 1979, Jim and Bill won twenty-four out of thirty-four races entered, including three Gold Cups (1977-78-79). They won three National Championships (1976-1978-1979). And they raised the world lap speed record to 128.023 in 1976, to 129.310 in 1977, to 132.353 in 1978, and to 133.929 in 1979.

In 1976, they brought out the “Winged Wonder” with pleasing results. (This craft was sold in 1978 to the Miss Madison organization.) Then, in 1977, Lucero unveiled the cabover hull that he and Norm Berg had put together two years earlier for Dave Heerensperger. This incredible craft became the famed Atlas Van Lines “Blue Blaster.”

In addition to winning two dozen races, the “Blue Blaster” established the cabover design as the state of the art in Thunderboat racing. The old-style rear-cockpit hulls were now unquestionably obsolete.

Granted, Jim Lucero did not invent the modern Unlimited cabover. That distinction belongs to Ron Jones. But Lucero is the one popularized the concept by making it work in the acid test of competition.

Stan Hanauer and Jim Lucero

Always on the lookout for a new challenge, Jim decided after 1979 that the time was right to explore the possibility of turbine power in the Unlimiteds. His former boss Heerensperger was likewise thinking along the same lines. So, the two got back together for a brief period between 1980 and 1982.

Heerensperger and Lucero unfortunately did not achieve the level of success with Lycoming turbines that they had enjoyed with their Rolls-Royce Merlin program.

In addition to being Crew Chief and co-designer (with Dixon Smith) for Pay ‘n Pak, Jim retained secondary ties to Atlas Van Lines and also to The Squire Shop. As a result, Lucero was thought by some to be spreading himself too thin. The new turbine Pay ‘n Pak wasn’t ready until half-way through the 1980 season.

The Pak’s first appearance (at the Tri-Cities, Washington) proved disastrous. Rookie driver John Walters (who had worked for Lucero with Atlas Van Lines) flipped the boat in trials on the Columbia River and delayed the team’s competition debut until the following year.

Walters steered the turbine Pak to some high finishes in 1981, which included a second-place performance in the Champion Spark Plug Regatta at Miami and a second in the Gold Cup at Seattle. The team finally achieved victory in 1982 at “Thunder in The Park” at Romulus, New York.

In the long history of Unlimited hydroplane competition, this was a famous first--the first victory by a non-internal combustion-powered craft.

The turbine was the power source of today, Lucero pointed out. In contrast, the Allison, the Rolls-Royce Merlin, and the Rolls-Royce Griffon had ceased production almost forty years earlier.

Her triumph at Romulus notwithstanding, Pay ‘n Pak unfortunately did not have much of an opportunity to build upon this accomplishment. A few weeks later, Walters was seriously injured and the boat was badly damaged in an accident at the Emerald Cup on Lake Washington.

A disheartened Heerensperger announced his retirement--this time for good--and the Pay ‘n Pak name vanished forever from the Unlimited arena.

Returning full-time to Atlas Van Lines, which was now owned by Fran Muncey (Bill’s widow), Lucero was anxious to continue his experimentation with turbine power. To date, the concept had proved only sporadically competitive.

At Evansville, Indiana, in 1984, Jim and co-designer Dixon Smith debuted their new Atlas Van Lines turbine entry, which caught the racing world by surprise.

On the very first time around the buoys in qualification, the new Atlas set a world lap speed record of 140.818 on the 2-mile course. This was faster even than the existing 2.5-mile world record of 140.801.

No doubt about it. Lucero had come up with another winner--the first truly competitive turbine hydroplane that could run with any piston-powered boat in the world. Unlimited racing would never be the same. The “thunder” would soon be going out of the Thunderboats.

The “bugs” of newness plagued the team throughout 1984. But when the boat was running right, no one could touch her. The “Awesome Atlas” scored decisive victories in the Indiana Governor’s Cup at Madison and in the Gold Cup at the Tri-Cities with Chip Hanauer driving.

The 1985 season was another Lucero success story. With the boat renamed Miller American (Atlas Van Lines having dropped out of the sport), the Muncey team would not be denied. En route to the National Championship, they won five races: Detroit, Evansville, the Tri-Cities, Seattle, and Oklahoma City.

Moreover, pilot Hanauer posted an incredible 153.061 miles per hour on a 2.5-mile course in qualifying on the Columbia River.

Lucero had now been in the sport for twenty years. A lap of 153 in 1965 would have been dismissed as science fiction. Indeed, in that earlier era, it was unusual for an Unlimited hydroplane to do 153 miles per hour on a straightaway, let alone around a closed course. Now, in 1985, Jim Lucero had turned science fiction into science fact.

All good things must come to an end. And the end of Jim’s association with Fran Muncey came a few weeks prior to the start of the 1986 season. He and Fran had an unexplained parting of the ways. After ten years, Lucero never worked for the Muncey organization again. Fran continued in racing for another three seasons. But she generally did not achieve the performance level that she enjoyed during the Lucero years.

As for Jim, in August of 1986, he found employment with Steve Woomer’s Competition Specialties team of Auburn, Washington, where he would spend most of the rest of his Unlimited career.

The first few years with Competition Specialties were difficult ones. Lucero watched in horror as popular driver Steve Reynolds suffered critical injuries when the Woomer-owned Cellular One crashed at Madison, Indiana, in 1987. And Jim experienced disappointment when an interesting new design--the Winston Eagle “Lobster Boat”, which featured a much narrower transom than usual--failed as a competitor in 1990.

Things started to look up in 1991. Woomer had purchased the equipment inventory of Bill Bennett’s Miss Circus Circus. This included a hull that Lucero had originally designed for Fran Muncey. With Mark Tate as driver, this particular craft won three races, including the Gold Cup at Detroit, and placed second in 1991 National High Points under the banner of Winston Eagle.

Lucero went on to many more pleasant years with Competition Specialties. The 1994 campaign was particularly noteworthy. Tate piloted Smokin’ Joe’s to a five-heat grand slam at the Gold Cup in Detroit and came within 46 points of the National Championship claimed by Miss Budweiser--10,908 points to 10,862 for the season.

Following the unexpected death of Steve Woomer in early 1998, Lucero decided to call it a career. He already had ten Gold Cups and eight National Championships on the shelf.

When Kim Gregory purchased the Competition Specialties racing team inventory from Woomer’s estate, Jim helped in the transition to the new ownership. He recorded his last victory as a crew chief at the 1998 Honolulu, Hawaii, race. The boat, renamed Wildfire, took first-place on Pearl Harbor with Mark Weber in the cockpit.

A member of the Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame, Lucero still works for Woomer’s company and occasionally consults for various Unlimited teams.

The history of Unlimited racing can be roughly divided into two eras: the piston and the turbine. Jim Lucero is one of the few Crew Chiefs to be successful with both technologies. As such, he is worthy of the highest praise.