Thursday, April 26, 2012

Swapping Paint: Other Memorable Sponsorship Shifts Through the Years

As I'm sure anyone reading this has heard, USA Racing Partners has announced their return to Unlimited racing for the 2012 season,  This is, of course, welcome news for anyone involved in the sport, as the Gregory family has consistently been on of the most competitive and respected teams since they joined the Unlimiteds in 1998.  After a three year hiatus, the Gregory family is returning largely thanks to the support of Degree Men, who chose to transfer their sponsorship support from Schumacher Racing to USA Racing Partners for the upcoming season.  While this will no doubt be a point of confusion for more casual followers of the sport (as well as a possible point of rivalry between the two camps) having the Gregories back in the Unlimited pits is no doubt a welcome site.  For this post, I've decided to look at some other shifts of sponsors throughout the years.  These shifts have taken multiple forms, and have had a duration as short as one heat and as long as two decades.  I don't intend this to be a comprehensive list of every change of sponsors in Unlimited Hydroplane history, but instead a look at a handful of these shifts that have stuck out to me.

As the 1950's progressed and corporate sponsorship became more of the norm in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, a Washington based oil company decided to jump into the sport.  Ole Bardahl, who had already sponsored a number of successful Indycar teams, decided to sponsor Norm Christiansen's Tempest entry for 1957.  The Christiansen entry was driven by Norm Evans and only entered three western races on the season, including the Seattle Gold Cup where it finished twelfth.  Despite these modest beginnings, Ole Bardahl decided to drastically increase his involvement in the sport for 1958.  Ole Bardahl started his own team and ordered a hull from Ted Jones' boat shop.  The new Miss Bardahl, which would hold the distinction of being the first boat built by Ron Jones, would win three races in 1958 en route to winning the High Point championship on the year.  One of the most successful dynasties in Unlimited history was launched.  The Ole Bardahl owned Miss Bardahl entry would go on to win six High Point championships and five Gold Cups in the twelve years that Ole Bardahl was involved as an owner.

As the Miss Bardahl dynasty was drawing to a close, Atlas Van Lines was beginning to dip its toes in the water as an Unlimited Hydroplane sponsor.  Largely due to the efforts of O.H. Frisbie, Norman Manson's U-22 entry (the former Maverick hull) would wear the Atlas Van Lanes colors for the 1967 season.  The Atlas board was pleased with the positive press that came with its support but looking for a stronger team to back, Frisbie and Atlas Van Lines chose to shift their support to Bob Fendler's team, but once again the team only had modest success, its peak being two second place finishes over three years of competition.  After four years, two teams, and no first place finishes, Atlas Van Lines was once again looking for another team to back when a bit of fate happened.  Stephen Garey's "Bill Muncey: Boat Racing Legend" tells the story of O.H. Frisbie looking out the window of his Detroit apartment when he heard and saw a boat testing on the Detroit River.  The boat was Lee Schoenith's Gale Enterprises boat, who was without a sponsor for the upcoming 1971 season.  After a meeting between Schoenith, Frisbie, and driver Bill Muncey, a sponsorship deal was struck and the Atlas Van Lines colors were on its third team in five years.  The new sponsorship paid almost immediate dividends, as Atlas Van Lines got its long awaited victory in the second race of the season in Washington, DC.  Muncey followed that with a victory in Owensboro, then in 1972 the Gale/Atlas Van Lines team had what was arguably the most successful season in Unlimited Hydroplane history, winning six of seven races on the season and finishing second in the one race they didn't win.  Atlas Van Lines would make one more sponsorship shift, following Bill Muncey when he started his own team in 1976.  The relationship would continue after Muncey's death in 1981 when Fran Muncey continued the team until Atlas made the decision to end its sponsorship in 1984.  After coming to Bill Muncey looking for a win, Atlas Van Lines left the sport with six High Point Championships and as one of the most recognizable sponsors in the sport of Unlimited racing.

While the Atlas Van Lines-Bill Muncey relationship was probably the longest and most fruitful arrangement that came from a sponsorship shift, what was probably the shortest shift happened at the 1988 Gold Cup in Evansville.  In Heat 3B, the Miss Budweiser flipped and was unable to compete in the Final.  The Gold Cup was a Budweiser sponsored event that year, there was a desire to have a Budweiser boat on the water for the Final.  Rich Sutphen, owner of the unsponsored Sutphen Spirit (the former Pay N Pak turbine hull) volunteered to carry the Budweiser name.  Officially racing as "Sutphen-Miss Budweiser" and with some hastily applied Budweiser decals, the team did its new sponsor proud, as Mike Hanson drove the boat to a second place finish in the Gold Cup.  The arrangement became a footnote in history but was thrown back into the limelight after the 2009 Evansville race.  When Ellstrom racing chose to "rent" the U-17 Our Gang Racing boat after their own boat flipped in the first heat, the 1988 arrangement between Sutphen and the Budweiser team was incorrectly pointed to by many sources as another example of a team using another boat already in competition after the race had already began when, in fact, the Sutphen-Miss Budweiser was merely a way to ensure that there would be a Budweiser-sponsored boat on the water for the Final Heat of the Budweiser APBA Gold Cup.

Speaking of Ellstrom Racing, they were involved in their own sponsorship shift in the 1990's.  In 1994, Ellstrom Manufacturing made the decision to sponsor one of the strangest boats to ever roll into the Unlimited pits.  The Glen Davis owned entry was an odd "four point" design that was driven by Ken Dryden that raced as Miss E-Lam Plus.  The boat failed to qualify at Tri-Cities, then in Seattle the boat was involved in one of the scariest accidents in Unlimited history as the boat got loose, went into the air higher than anyone could remember in any of the blowover accidents through the years, then slammed back into the water rightside up.  The project was abandoned and the boat was taken to the junkyard.

Undeterred, Ellstrom Manufacturing decided to start its own team in 1995.  Still racing as Miss E-Lam Plus, the Ellstrom family was not only the owner of their sponsored boat but the team took a rare step for a new team and built their own boat.  The team was exclusively a west coast entry for the first few years, but after winning at Tri-Cities in 2000, the team made the decision to build a new boat in 2001 (winning two more races along the way) then raced the full schedule starting in 2002. 

2006 saw yet another "sponsor becomes owner" arrangement, and this time it was a curious case of history repeating itself.  In 2005, Ted Porter lent his support of to Chad Sanderson's small scale entry on the season.  The next year, Porter followed the precedent set by Ole Bardahl nearly a half century before and went from sponsoring a small team to starting his own team on a large scale, buying both of the hulls of the recently retired Miss Budweiser team.  Much like Ole Bardahl, the team found immediate success, winning the championship on the first season.

Degree Men is only in its second full season of being an Unlimited sponsor, but ironically its first go round in the sport resulted in a sponsorship shift.  The 2010 San Diego race was put together thanks to a last minute arrangement and the support of the Air National Guard and Degree Men.  As part of the deal, there were to be boats wearing the Air Guard and Degree Men colors on the water.  The choice was made for the Ted Porter owned U-7 boat to race as the Air Guard and the Billy Schumacher owned U-37 entry to be the Degree Men.  The only catch was that both of these boats already had sponsors on the season.  Therefore, their sponsors went to other boats for the San Diego race.  Therefore, the U-7's sponsor of Graham Trucking went to its teammate on the U-5, who raced as the Graham Trucking presents for San Diego.  Meanwhile the U-37's sponsor of Peters & May was transferred to Ken Muskatel's U-25  for the race.  Ironically, both of these boats would wind up being sponsored by their "one race" arrangements in 2010 for the whole of 2011.  Graham Trucking's sponsorship was shifted to the U-5 for 2011 as teammate U-7 was sponsored by Valken, and after J.W. Myers and Scott Raney left the U-37 team and bought Ken Muskatel's boat, the Peters & May sponsorship backed the new U-11 team. 

So as can be seen, the shift of Degree Men to another team is nothing new in Unlimited racing.  There has been at least one in every decade since the 1950's.  One I left off was the Oh Boy! Oberto, who sponsored a number of different teams from the 1970's to the 1990's and then sponsored the Miss Madison team starting in 2000 after a hiatus from the sport.  Sponsors are always looking to get the most "bang for their buck" so to speak, so if they feel that can come from supporting another team then naturally they will look to support that team.  So while the Degree Men shift will be a point of confusion and controversy for some, it should not be forgotten that the sport is better because of support of such sponsors.  Here's to hoping that Degree Men's support will continue for years to come.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The "Winged Wonder" flies again

News has broken recently that Ken Muskatel has purchased the former Pay N Pak "Winged Wonder" hydroplane with the intention of restoring it for the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum.  This is, no doubt, a fitting home for one of the most successful and innovative boats in the history of the sport.   In fact, with its record of four championships and twenty two race wins, the 1973-25 hull holds the distinction of being the most successful piston powered boat in the history of Unlimited Hydroplane racing.

On a more personal level, however, this boat holds the distinction of one of the first hydroplanes I have a personal recollection of.  To give away my age, I don't remember the boat's glory days of the 1970's because I hadn't been born.  As many readers of this blog will know, I grew up in Madison and make no secret of the fact that I am a fan of the Miss Madison team.  Because of this, the old Pay N Pak boat is effectively the first boat I was able to get up close and personal with, as it was the Miss Madison boat during the time I was growing up.  Therefore this post is going to be part history of the hull and part personal recollection with my main focus being on the boat's later years.

The story of the Winged Wonder began its life on the draftboards of master boatbuilder Ron Jones.  The number of innovations involved with this boat are numerous.  Although there had been a couple of Unlimited Hydroplanes that had sported the pickle fork design  since the 1960's, this boat represented the first true breakthrough for the design that would soon become the norm in hydroplane racing.  Seemingly overnight, the spoon nosed design was obsolete. It was also the first boat to use aluminum honeycomb as a primary building material, which made the boat much lighter than its competitors.  Most apparent, however, was its use of a horizontal stabilizer which immediately set the boat apart from everything else in the pits and gave the boat a decided advantage, especially in the turns.  Perhaps never before or never since has a boat represented such a separation from what was the conventional accepted design in the Unlimited class at the time, and went on to be an unheralded success.

This success came almost immediately.  When a new boat is built any team can expect a period of time to "work out the bugs" so to speak and hold judgment on the boat's success until the hull is dialed in.  As a sign of things to come, however, the "Winged Wonder" bucked this trend and won its very first race out of the box.  With Mickey Remund at the wheel the Pay N Pak won all three heats at the 1973 season opener in Miami, but then would face stiff competition the rest of the season from Dean Chenoweth and the Miss Budweiser.  At the end of the season, the Pay N Pak would win four races and edge the Miss Budweiser by less than 300 points to win the championship.

  In 1974, the Pay N Pak took five of eight races with George Henley at the wheel and ended the season with a considerable lead over second place Miss Budweiser in the High Points.  Things didn't come as easy in 1975.  Jim McCormick was named the new driver of the Pay N Pak, but after he struggled in the season's first two races owner Dave Heerensperger coaxed former driver George Henley out of retirement to take over driving duties.
George Henley in the cockpit of the Pay N Pak

 The bad luck didn't stop there, however, as the boat turned over at Owensboro and the boat didn't score any points.  Four races into the season, the Pay N Pak found itself with no race wins and was well behind the Miss Budweiser and Weisfield's in the High Point standings.  The season would turn after crew chief Jim Lucero returned the boat to the setup used in previous seasons and the team returned to its winning ways.  Winning five of the season's final six races of the season with victories in Madison, Dayton, the Gold Cup in Tri-Cities, Seattle, and San Diego, the Pay N Pak completed one of the most dramatic comebacks in Unlimited Hydroplane history and captured the championship.
A Pennzoil print ad that ran in the mid-1970's featuring the Pay N Pak

1976 would bring more changes as Bill Muncey bought out Dave Heerensperger's team and the Winged Wonder got a new paint job and a new home.  Now racing as the Atlas Van Lines, the boat picked up where it left off and won five of nine races on the year, including a string of four straight first place finishes, on its way to the High Point championship.  After four years of racing, the Winged Wonder's spot in history had been solidified.  Its twenty one first place trophies made the boat the winningest hull in the history of the sport at that point.  It was also the only hull to win four consecutive High Point championships up to that point.  Although that feat would later be eclipsed by the T-3 then the T-5 and T-6 Miss Budweiser hulls, it should be noted that these hulls always won their titles in a "tandem" with the other hulls on the team whereas the Winged Wonder won all of its titles on its own.  In only four seasons, the 1973-25 had made its mark on the sport for years to come.

In 1977, a new Jim Lucero designed hull became the primary hull for Bill Muncey's racing team and the Winged Wonder found itself on the sidelines for the majority of the season.  The boat's only appearances for that season came in the Washington races, wearing the old Pay N Pak colors.  With inexperienced driver Ron Armstrong at the wheel and working with a limited crew, the Pay N Pak's appearance at the Gold Cup in Tri-Cities and the Seafair trophy in Seattle were expected to be little more than a cameo for the Winged Wonder.  In Heat 1A of the Gold Cup, however, the old Winged Wonder hull showed it was still a force, winning the heat going away.  Then in Heat 2-C the Pay N Pak once again found itself going head to head with the Miss Budweiser for three laps until it's day ended with a violent hook that damaged the hull's left sponson.  The following week at Seattle, Armstrong and the Pay N Pak won Heat 2A but then failed to finish the Final Heat on a day that was overshadowed by a tragic accident in Heat 1A involving the Squire Shop that ended the life of Jerry Bangs.

1978 saw another change of address for the Winged Wonder.  The Miss Madison team was in desperate need of upgrading their equipment so the decision was made to acquire the 1973-25.  The Miss Madison's previous hull, known as the Miss Madison III or 1972-06, was only a year older than the Winged Wonder but might as well have been built in a different era.  The third Miss Madison boat was never the same after an accident saw the boat sink to the bottom of the Detroit River of the 1972 Gold Cup.  The team spent the rest of the season in the garage repairing the badly damaged hull, then the next season the Winged Wonder debuted and the Miss Madison team found itself racing with a suddenly obsolete hull.  Indeed, the Miss Madison III would turn out to be the last hull to be built with the old spoon nosed design built for racing in the Unlimited class (although a few other spoon nosed replicas of hydroplanes have been built for the intention of vintage exhibitions).  Although I have never seen anything official in terms of the sale price, multiple sources have claimed that Bill Muncey effectively donated the boat to the Miss Madison team and sold the boat for $1.  No doubt this was an act of goodwill on the part of Muncey but it would be hard to claim that Muncey would miss the old hull.  In a bit of irony, the Miss Madison team was buying the hull that had made its previous hull obsolete, but that boat had itself been rendered obsolete by Bill Muncey's cabover "Blue Blaster" hydroplane, so once again the Miss Madison team would find itself racing with a boat that was certainly an upgrade over its previous hull but still dated in terms of Unlimited racing.  A new team also brought the most dramatic changes to the boat in its history, as the hull was refitted to be powered by an Allison powered engine as opposed to the Rolls Royce Merlin engine which the boat had been powered by up to that point.  With its new less powerful engine and the fact that the boat was now becoming dated as more and more cabovers were showing up in the pits, it is sometimes easy to forget about the old Winged Wonder's time with the Miss Madison team.  As is often the case in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, however, the hull had a long career long after it was at the front of the pack.  It should not be forgotten that of the sixteen years that the 1973-25 boat was in the pits and racing, for eleven of those years the boat was carrying the Seal of the City of Madison, Indiana.

1978 will always be remembered as a season in which Bill Muncey dominated the field in a fully dialed in Atlas Van Lines hydroplane.  The tone was set in the season's first race when the Atlas Van Lines was not only the winner but also the only starter of the Final Heat.  Muncey would win six of the season's seven races, his only loss coming due to a blown engine in the Final Heat at Tri-Cities.  So despite being overshadowed on that season the Miss Madison still turned in a decent season, with a second place in the Gold Cup in Owensboro with Madison native Jon Peddie at the wheel and a second place in Tri-Cities with Milner Irvin at the wheel en route to a fourth place finish in the High Point standings.

1979 saw the Miss Madison team race a partial schedule, not making any appearances after finishing sixth at the Gold Cup race in Madison.  In 1980 the team once again raced a full national schedule and,  after struggling through the season's eastern tour, turned heads with a string of four straight podium finishes that was highlighted by a second place finish in the only Unlimited race to take place in Ogallala, Nebraska.  1981 was another banner year for the Winged Wonder and the Miss Madison.  Despite no wins and only one second place finish in Evansville, the Miss Madison was a consistent finisher all season long, finishing on the podium in  seven of nine races and finishing second in the High Point standings.  In 1982 Tom Sheehy took over driving duties after Milner Irvin left racing for a year but the team continued its consistent ways, finishing second in Romulus, New York (ironically finishing behind the Pay N Pak, which was back in the sport after a hiatus and in the process becoming the first team to win with turbine power) and in Madison (the team's highest finish in its hometown race since that fateful day in 1971) en route to a fourth place High Point finish.

Ten years after its debut, the Winged Wonder had gone from the undisputed leader of the pack to a consistent if not spectacular racer on the Unlimited tour.  By 1983 it was no secret that the best days were well behind the hull, but the boat was still making its mark as a solid performer for the Miss Madison team.  In an era when the shelf life for many hydroplanes didn't exceed more than six or seven years, the Winged Wonder was finishing on the podium years after its initial construction.  As if to show the boat wasn't completely obsolete, the Winged Wonder scored what was undoubtedly its most unlikely and arguably its most memorable victory in the 1983 season opener at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.  At the Final Heat, Jim Kropfeld in the Miss Budweiser and Chip Hanauer in the Atlas Van Lines were so preoccupied with one another that the Bud blew its engine and the Atlas got off to an awful start.  Ron Snyder, driving the Miss Madison (sponsored by Rich Plan) wired a perfect start and led the race from the onset.  The Atlas Van Lines gave chase but succumbed to a blown engine of its own, giving the Rich Plan a clear path to victory.  A decade after its debut, the Winged Wonder had scored its twenty third and most unlikely victory.  It was also a race that solidified Ron Snyder's well earned reputation as a driver who was able to get the most out of underpowered equipment.  As for the rest of 1983, the Rich Plan finished second in Detroit and finished an overall fourth in the High Point standings.

1984 saw another name change as the Miss Madison team secured the sponsorship of American Speedy Printing for the duration of the season.  The season started well for the team with a third place finish in Miami and a third in Syracuse and the season ended well with a second place finish at the World Championship race in Houston.  The rest of the season, however, was an exercise in frustration that saw the team finish no higher than fifth and included a four race stretch where the boat failed to score point in three races and could only muster a twelfth place finish in the other race.  As a result of the dramatic mid-season swoon, the team finished seventh in the High Points and, for the only time in its history, found itself looking up in the standings at another Madison based boat.  Jim Sedam's U-22 finished fourth in the High Points in its debut season.  In 1985 the Miss Madison opened the season with back to back runner up finishes at Miami and Syracuse and closed the season with a third place in San Diego but was befelled by another midseason swoon (although not as dramatic as the season before) that relegated the team to a sixth place finish in the High Points, although it did earn the distinction of driver Andy Coker capturing the Rookie of the Year honors for that season.  Miss Madison opened 1986 with another second place finish, and continue the season as a consistent performer.  Driver Ron Snyder returned, but then was involved in an accident that saw him being thrown from the boat in Evansville.  Despite the accident, Snyder and the Miss Madison closed the season out with a third place finish at the season finale in Las Vegas and finished the season fourth in the High Points.

Holset returned as sponsor for 1987 and the Winged Wonder continued its consistent ways.  It was also about this time that I, as a resident of Madison, became aware of the hydroplanes.  As I am sure is the case with many hydroplane fans, I inherited much of my fandom from my dad.  At least once a year we would stop by the Miss Madison shop, where the crew has always welcomed visitors even to this day.  Because of this, the 1973-25/Winged Wonder/Miss Madison IV was the first boat that I ever saw up close, even sitting in the cockpit at one point.  The Holset Miss Madison turned in another solid season, although it scored only one podium finish, a third place in the Madison race that was cut short by the horrific accident involving the Cellular One that ended the driving career of Steve Reynolds. It was also announced during the season that the Miss Madison team would be debuting a new hull for 1988, so the 1987 season was meant to be something of a "farewell tour" for the historic craft.  For the final race of the year, the team even entered the hull as the "Holset Mrs. Madison" to signify that this would be the final race for the hull.  The Mrs. Madison finished fourth at the season finale in Las Vegas and its consistent performance throughout the season meant the team would finish third in the overall High Point standings.
The Race that was supposed to be the Winged Wonder's "farewell" race.  Note that the boat is referred to as the Holset Mrs. Madison

Despite having what was supposed to be its "farewell" race at the season finale in 1987, construction delays to the new boat meant that the Winged Wonder would be pulled out of the garage for one final curtain call.  Once again Ron Snyder and the team got more than seemingly possible out of the now ancient hull by scoring a surprise second place finish in Miami.  After a fourth place finish in Detroit, the boat failed to make the cut for the Final Heat for the remainder of the Eastern tour.  The 1973-25, once the most advanced boat in hydroplane racing, now looked more like a museum piece.  The boat was the last conventional hull to race in the Unlimited class, and was one of the last boats to not have a canopy.  Despite the boat being terribly antiquated in comparison to its competitors in 1988, designer Ron Jones and others who had been involved in the Winged Wonder throughout the years had to take pride in the fact that many of the innovations that this boat represented, including the horizontal stabilizer and the pickle fork design, had now become commonplace in the sport.  The old hull had its last race at the 1988 Syracuse race, where the team failed to score any points.  Despite its underwhelming finale, the boat no doubt had made its mark on hydroplane racing as a whole.  After all, at the time of its retirement the boat still held the record for most race victories by a hull (that record would later be broken by the T-3 Miss Budweiser).  The new Miss Madison hull was ready in time for the Tri-Cities race and at long last, the Winged Wonder was retired.

Over the next few years the 1973-25 would largely do display work around Madison, then sometime in the early 1990's the boat was sold to Dave Bartush who was at the time building up a collection of hydroplanes and keeping them in a warehouse in Detroit.  It sat in the warehouse for the better part of twenty years, still in the Miss Madison colors.  Then earlier this year new begin to leak that Bartush was looking to sell off some of his collection, which is where the Ken Muskatel and the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum comes in.  With that the Winged Wonder now awaits restoration into its original form.  Although I have to admit I'll be kind of sad to see the Miss Madison paint come off the hull it's fitting that the boat will wear the colors that it made such a huge splash and broke so many records in the early 1970's.  Also, since H.A.R.M. makes a concerted effort to keep all of its boats in racing condition, the possibility of seeing the Pay N Pak "Winged Wonder" on the water again is certainly exciting.  So while the boat won its championships and made its history years before, for a generation of fans around Madison this was the first hull that many of us saw and will always hold a place in our hearts.

All images taken from the web.  Thanks to Leslie Field's website, Jim Sharkey's "Hydro's Who's Who," and Fred Farley's articles on Ron Jones and Jim Lucero for the information that was used in this post.