Russ Schleeh

Russ Schleeh: The Shanty Man [1996]

Russ Schleeh

Whatever it was, the photograph on the wall in Dan Gurney's office showed it to be a smoking heap of tangled metal on the bed of a desert. "Is that a Flying Wing?" I ventured, and Dan, America's finest race car driver and a hero of mine since my childhood, chuckled. "Yeah, that thing was flown by a friend of mine, Colonel Russ Schleeh..."

I didn't hear the rest of his comment, but his expression was verging on the comical as I interrupted. "Russ Schleeh? The Plumber? He used to race unlimited hydroplanes!"

If Dan thought I'd gone loco he was polite enough not to say so outright, but you could see him struggling with the non-sequitur of a guy who reported on Grand Prix motor racing knowing anything about hydroplane racing, especially from way back in the sport's golden era.

Russ Schleeh. I'd missed meeting him by a day, Dan said, but five years later, when David Williams suggested that maybe I should write something for Hydro Legends and the idea took firm root as I flew home from my annual 'hydro fix' trip to Seattle and mulled possibilities over, that was the name that immediately sprang to mind. I would call The Plumber.

Russ Schleeh was a grand choice, for few men have succeeded in capturing the High Points Championship in their first season of unlimiteds, and fewer still have graduated to the most graceful echelon of boat racing without ever having raced anything smaller. Better still, this year marks the 40th anniversary of that High Points triumph.

Schleeh's background was flying. He was based at Wright Field where he had command of bomber test and development, and his principal work was concentrated on those peculiar Northrop 'Flying Wings', which were developed by the innovative and far-sighted 'Jack' Northrop whose dream was an airplane that had neither fuselage nor empennage but was pure wing to cut down weight and drag. The things looked like boomerangs, and probably handled that way, too, though not all of them would come back. It was a perilous occupation, and if you wanted evidence there was Harry Crosby, who was paid $15,000 danger money to fly the prototype Flying Wing MX-334 in 1944, and was then killed in a subsequent maiden test of its successor, the XP-79. In June of 1948 Glenn Edwards and his crew were killed when their YB-49, which had been developed from the XB-35, crashed over Mojave Desert. Shortly afterwards Muroc Dry Lake, once famous as a drag race venue and then as America's centre of flight development, was renamed Edwards Air Force Base in his honour.

In March 1950, while Stan Sayres and Ted Jones were preparing to set the hydroplane world on its ear with Slo-Mo-Shun IV (which would later play a key role in his boat racing career), Schleeh had a very lucky escape. He had assumed command of the flying wing programme from Major Bob Cardenas after Edwards' demise, and very nearly suffered the same fate when the last remaining prototype YB-49 suffered nose landing gear shimmy during a high-speed taxi test, and crashed. He suffered a broken back, and reports spoke of him still being able to drag his co-pilot clear of the burning wreckage. Schleeh, of whom the legendary Chuck Yeager once said: "Russ was a good pilot and a great guy," recalls things a mite differently, and with what appears to be characteristic modesty.

"The airplane had a very long nose wheel strut and it was a flexible thing. What happened was we had a test at a forward cg limit. I did that twice. The first time it shimmied so bad that I could hardly hold my hand on the wheel, much less anything else, so they grounded the airplane and Northrop inspected it and found several things wrong, and they said that won't happen again, it's all corrected. So I had one last test to do at this forward cg, on the lake bed. I went out and did it and everything worked well on the acceleration part, and we measured the nosewheel take-off speed at the forward cg, and then I pulled the throttles back and it had accelerated on up beyond 110 mph, something like that, and as the nosewheel settled back on to the lake bed it started to shimmy and there was no way I could stop it. And then the drag link broke and the nosewheel retracted, and the nose of the Flying Wing went into the lake bed and it started to go over on its back. Instead it broke in half - thank God for small favours! - and it went about 75 feet and stopped. I ended up with a broken back, the most seriously injured. My co-pilot got out of his own free will actually, and I crawled out with my own free will. The engineer had a broken wrist. Apart from that, everyone was in pretty good shape!"

It was cutting edge stuff, and no coincidence that Northrop's far-sighted ideas eventually had their successful expression in Northrop's B-2 'Stealth' bomber of the Eighties.

The first boat Schleeh drove and then raced was Ted Jones' Rebel, Suh - one of Jones' so-called 'spite' boats built in the wake of his fall-out with Sayres - which in later life would stop visiting the bottom of lakes and rivers and start winning seriously in the hands of Schleeh's team-mate Bill Stead. Schleeh first got involved with hydroplanes by pure chance, and planes were the reason.

"I was up at Wright Field and spending some time doing test work at Boeing, and I saw Slo Mo IV going up and down the lake. I had never seen that sort of boat before, and boy, he was really rolling! I thought it would be fun to drive one of those things. So when I landed I happened to mention it to the crew chief of the aeroplane, which was a B-47, and he said: 'Well, I'm the crew chief on that thing, I'll get you a ride!' That was Morey Laing."

Only a couple of years later that would be the very boat Schleeh would vanquish as he sped to victory in the 1956 Seafair...

"Anyway, time passed and I forgot about it, but I was up at Boeing on another occasion and as I was coming out the door Morey was coming in. We shook hands and he said: 'Say, I got it all set up.' I said: 'What's all set up?' He said: 'Your ride in a hydroplane!' That's the way it started. I went out for a ride in the Slo Mo with Mike Welsch.

"Morey had this arrangement with Ted Jones, who was kind enough to let me try another boat, the Rebel, Suh, so I went out on Lake Washington and drove it! This was about two weeks before the Gold Cup race in Seattle in August and I just went out and drove it and had a lot of fun. Ted told me: 'The only thing you need to worry about is don't go too slow because the water pick-ups won't circulate the water and you'll damage the engine. But outside of that you can go as fast as you want.' I said: 'You mean there's no problem?' And he said: 'No, just go as fast as you want.' So I went out and fiddled around for a little bit, and got familiar with it and got to feeling comfortable, and I kept going faster and faster and finally I had the thing floored and I sort of left it that way for 10 minutes and had a lot of fun!"

Schleeh loved the sensation immediately. "Because you're so close to the water you realise you're going pretty fast, whereas in an airplane you don't realise it. And the other thing is that you're kind of short of controls at times. When the boat's out of the water you have no control! But outside of that, it was sort of like dirt track racing, sliding in the turns. That's what we did in those days; nowadays they go round on the fin. A different story!"

His path to Shanty I proved disarmingly simple. "Shortly after I drove the Rebel with Ted Jones there, he said: 'Why don't you run it in a race a couple of weeks from now?' I said: 'Fine!' And I didn't even know which way they went! So I entered the race" - he was classified eighth in the Gold Cup - "and had a lot of fun, enjoyed it. The boat sunk on the third lap or so, and that was the end of that. Then I went to Japan and while I was out there I got a letter from William T. Waggoner. He was going to build a new boat and he'd been talking to Ted Jones, and Ted recommended me as a driver and he wondered if I'd be interested. If I was, when I got back to the States why didn't I come see him? So I did. And it sounded pretty good to me and we had an agreement and I drove the boat. I had a lot of fun."

In 1956 his pukka unlimited career - his boat racing career - could not have got off to a better start when he took Shanty I (which was named after Waggoner's nickname for his wife) to victory in his first race with it, the Mapes Mile-High Gold Cup at Tahoe City. Then he went on to triumph at Seattle's Seafair Trophy and in the illustrious Harmsworth Trophy on the Detroit River after a battle with Canada's Miss Supertest II. He was also third in the Gold Cup, the Rogers Memorial and the Sahara Cup. In the latter he won the first two heats but had supercharger trouble when leading the final. That race marked the first victory for the legendary combination of Jack Regas and Hawaii Kai III. The extraordinary year culminated in the National High Points Championship, at his first attempt! Clearly, this test pilot also had the Right Stuff when it came to driving boats fast.

"I'm bragging a little bit," he says today with laughter in his voice, "but I was very successful and very lucky. Every race I did I either won or I was ahead at the time when the engine broke. So I thought that was all right. Then the following year I had a lot of trouble."

In 1957 he drove Shanty I again, but his best placing was second to Bill Muncey in the Gold Cup. Muncey had to finish ahead of him in the final to clinch the Old Urn and did so, when they were second and third respectively to Bill Stead in Maverick, but in those days the Cup was presented on accumulation of points and with bonuses Muncey had more than sufficient. Schleeh was third in the season-opening Apple Cup, hooking out of a good initial position in avoidance of the Kai when it broke down right in front of him. There was an eighth in the Silver Cup and 10th in the Mapes Cup, before his heat results were sufficient to merit fourth in the President's Cup on the Potomac River. Schleeh was not afloat for the final, though, after a shunt had wrecked Shanty I.

"That was the end of the Shanty, and it wasn't even in the race. What happened was I was practising starts after the heats, at 160 mph, and a sponson came off. The boat cartwheeled and dumped me out, and was destroyed." He was an unhappy eighth in the High Points, and the real glory days were over. He spent the next two years in the shadows, a victim of his own enthusiasm for new ventures.

"I got hold of some people down at Convair, who built the Sea Dart, and they thought sure, we can build a boat that will be superb, and superior to the present boats. Be no problem. So we built the boat and it didn't work." This was the ill-starred Shanty 2, which had no sponsons as such and drew criticism from Ted Jones when he first saw it. He offered the opinion it would roll at the first corner it was shown at high speed, and he was right. It did.

"It was an all-metal boat, a single-point suspension, plus the propeller; actually, a sort of two-point suspension, I suppose. But it didn't work. I tested it and though it didn't roll with me, Howard Gidovlenko was driving it on Lake Mead after I sort of gave up on it. It rolled with him and that was the end of it. It's still around; somebody has it in Idaho, or somewhere..."

In the meantime Bill Stead, 'The Reno Cowboy', was busy winning races in 1958 with Rebel, Suh, now rechristened Maverick and gorgeously decked out in Waggoner's familiar gold, red and white colours, and then the High Points Championship with its immediate successor in 1959. Via Morey Laing, Schleeh came back again with sporadic rides in the Thriftway, Too in 1960, alternating with Brien Wygle, and in Nitrogen Too, swapping with Ron Musson, Norm Evans and Ray Crawford. When Stead retired from competition and moved to team management, Schleeh took over the second Maverick in 1961 when it was renamed Miss Reno, with Charles Mapes owning the team and Newt Crumley sponsoring it. His best results that year were third at Seafair, which was the World Championship round, and eighth in the Gold Cup.

For 1962 there was another change of scene with the original Tahoe Miss, and he regained his old form with second in the opening Diamond Cup, third in the Spirit of Detroit Trophy, fourth in the Governor's Cup, second in the President's Cup and fifth in the Tahoe Trophy to finish runner-up to Muncey and Miss Thriftway in the High Points. In his final season in 1963, in the second Miss Exide U-101.5, his best was third at Seafair before he hung up his helmet.

When Russ Schleeh won hydro races, he would frequently be seen waving a plumber's friend, a sink plunger, in triumph in the cockpit. It was the legacy of a disparaging remark made by 'Wild' Bill Cantrell.

"My very first race, in the Rebel, Suh, I went out to qualify and I looked at the way they were running the boats and I thought 'Gee, I think I can do it a better way.' So I did it my own way, and made very wide, very fast turns, and Cantrell saw that and he sort of thought I was kind of a plumber, the way I drove the boat. As it turned out I had a plumber's friend and I put it in the boat just in case we were successful, and this was the first race in 1956. After the race was over and I'd won it, I went around with the plumber's friend around in the air, kind of shaking it around to show how good a plumber I was! We had a lot of fun with that plumber's helper."

Schleeh has no hesitation nominating Shanty I as his favourite boat. (It was Jones' favourite too, of all his many unlimiteds). "It was the best handling boat of the bunch. A low drag boat and a very fast boat, that handled very well."

At the end of 1956 he launched an attempt on the propeller-driven water speed record still held at that time by Slo-Mo IV at 178.497 mph, and he still believes to this day that Shanty I was capable of setting a new mark beyond the seemingly everlasting 200.419 mph that Roy Duby would subsequently achieve almost six years later. "Well, I was doing 190, still accelerating, doing very well, and the engine blew up and that was the end of that. That would have been above 200 because it was still accelerating very fast. That was a good boat, it stayed down well, it was aerodynamically and hydrodynamically pretty well balanced and it handled very well. Course, you know, when you get up to places where it's never been before you don't know what's going to happen, but it seemed to have good tendencies all the way through the speed range."

His best memory of his racing career remains that first race with Shanty, "when Slo Mo IV used to make the start under the bridge and nobody could keep up with Joe Taggart, but I managed to beat him to the line." Time and again Taggart won through with his trick of starting wide and cutting across, until he tried and failed against Schleeh in the final heat. "We hit that turn going pretty fast," the laconic Californian recalls with understatement. As Taggart got washed down by Shanty's roostertail, Schleeh roared home to a memorable win by half a lap and won the Seafair on superior elapsed time. It was a fine victory.

The worst memory? "Oh, when the Shanty wouldn't handle. What happened is a propeller broke in one race and shook the bottom loose and tore the strut out. And when they repaired it, instead of repairing it with a straight bottom it had a bow in it and that caused the boat to mishandle terribly, you could hardly drive it. And that was really a frustrating period until we found out what it was. They put a couple of shingles in the bottom, just kept it so it was straight towards the trailing edge, and that's when it was going so well in Washington D.C. and I was doing the starts at 160 rather than at 150. It was just beautiful, but then the sponson just came off!"

He concurs with the view that Ron Musson was the greatest driver of his era. "All of the guys were very competitive. Lots of fun. We all sort of started together, kind of, though I guess Muncey had a little head start. He drove smaller boats and worked up to it. Slovak actually had the same boat that I had; the Wahoo became my Exide. He was a character! Musson and I were good friends; Ronnie was a very good driver and had a lot of experience. Yes, I agree; I think he and Muncey were tops. But actually they were all pretty good." That was a very competitive era, when many drivers won races.

In the end Schleeh stopped racing in 1963, "because I was too far from the water, too far from a sponsor, and I didn't have time to practice and devote the time that was necessary to be competitive. And it got more competitive as time went on. I was in the Air Force, and I had another job that I had to do."

Colonel Russ Schleeh is now happily retired in Irvine, down in California, and still likes to go fishing, play tennis and just enjoy life. He still goes hunting once or twice a year with friends such as Yeager, or rides motorcycles with Gurney. In his autobiography Yeager tells amusing anecdotes about their days as pilots and hunting buddies, while Schleeh himself jokes that he and Dan are now "fierce dartboard rivals".

Talk to him for long and the word fun arises more than any other in his conversation. He remembers his days in the unlimited fraternity fondly, and well he might. Forty years ago this season, this was the man to beat.

[This article first appeared in Hydro Legends in 1996]