Thursday, January 24, 2013

Dynasties of the Sport: Miss Budweiser, 1969-1971

When a beer distributor out of Florida named Bernie Little brought a small time operation onto the circuit in 1963, few took notice.  This continued the following year even after the team secured the instantly recognizable sponsorship of Budweiser.  Continuing as a mid-tier team for the next couple of years, the team suffered through the lowest of lows in 1966, suffering through the loss of their driver Don Wilson on Black Sunday but would rebound to win the team’s first two races in Tri-Cities and San Diego with Bill Brow at the wheel. 1967 and 1968 would see the Miss Budweiser win the Kelowna race en route to a fourth place finish in the High Point standings both seasons.  Despite winning four races over the previous three seasons, few could expect the emergence of this team over the next three years.

  The Miss Budweiser team entered a 1969 season that appeared to be wide open after the Miss Bardahl team scaled back their operation to a couple west coast races.  The Miss Budweiser, sporting a hull that was built in 1968 and continued to grow stronger as the crew continued to dial the boat in throughout the season, suddenly emerged as the team to beat in 1969.  Also returning from 1968 was driver Bill Sterret.  The team would double its win total of the previous four years in one season, winning four of seven races including the Seafair Trophy and the Gold Cup at San Diego en route to a championship.  

Driver Bill Sterret departed the team after the 1969 season and owner Bernie Little handed the ride to Dean Chenoweth, who as was the runner up the Miss Budweiser the previous season.  Even with the new driver the team’s winning ways continued, with four wins in eight races, including an Indiana Governor’s Cup and a repeat win at the San Diego Gold Cup for another High Point title.  It appeared to the team’s winning ways would continue in 1971, as the Miss Budweiser won the season opener in Miami and the Dodge Cup in Detroit.  The Miss Budweiser, however, would be shut out of the winner’s circle for the rest of the season and would momentarily lose the High Point lead to a Miss Madison team that had suddenly   come on to win the Gold Cup in Madison and the Atomic Cup in Tri-Cities.  As the Miss Madison’s Cinderella story turned into a pumpkin in the form of a blown engine in Seattle, the Miss Budweiser would regain the High Point lead but would once again find itself behind a suddenly unbeatable Pride of Pay’n Pak.  Despite being overshadowed by more dramatic performances by its competitors and finding itself finishing behind boats it had easily beaten the previous two years in the latter part of the season, the Miss Budweiser had scored enough points over the course of the season to secure its third straight High Point championship, but its winning ways would be put on hold for a while.  1971 would prove to be a last hurrah for the old style shovel nosed designed hulls and the Miss Budweiser would go winless in 1972.  For much of the rest of the 1970’s, the Miss Budweiser would find itself trailing behind a competitor or two that would have more advanced or innovative equipment.

The Legacy: When a team like the Miss Budweiser has an extended era of dominance as it would from the late 1980's to the early 2000's (more on that later in this series), it's easy for everything that happened before to be overshadowed.  Add to the fact that the turbine Bud years would be directly preceded by the memorable "Griffon Bud" years and even a time in which the team won three straight championships could be lost in the shuffle.  Memories still abound, though.  Many of these are in the person of Dean Chenoweth, who would drive the Miss Budweiser to two titles in the early 1970's then return a decade later to win two more titles.  The 1968 Miss Budweiser would also find its rightful spot in the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum. So despite being viewed as the "forgotten years" by some within the Hydroplane community when it comes to the Miss Budweiser, these years are still remembered as an era of dominance for the Miss Budweiser and a preview of things to come.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dynasties of the Sport: Miss Bardahl, 1963-1968

     For much of the 1960's: three names were on the lips of nearly everyone in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing: The Green Dragon, the Blonde Bombshell, and the Checkerboard Comet.  Unfortunately for its competition, all of these names were used to describe one team: the Miss Bardahl. Ole Bardahl's entry came to define the 1960's much in the way that the Atlas Van Lines and Miss Budweiser entries would be the face of future decades in the sport.  Not only that, the Miss Bardahl left a legacy that 
 After a modest in the beginning in the sport by sponsoring a small time entry in 1957, Ole Bardahl got involved in the sport in a big way by starting his own team in 1958.  With Norm Evans and Mira Slovak splitting driving duties, the team would only win two points races on the year in Buffalo and Chelan, but would perform consistently throughout the year and claim a High Point title in his first year as an owner for Ole Bardahl.  The next couple years would be quiet for the Bardahl team with no major race wins, although they did manage a runner up finish in the 1959 High Points.  Things began to change in 1961 when Ron Musson, who had already earned a reputation as one of the top drivers in the sport during brief stints with the Hawaii Kai III and the Nitrogen Too, was signed on to drive.  The partnership proved immediate dividends as Musson brought home a win in the Seattle World Championship race.  Another victory at the Silver Cup Detroit and two more podium finishes on the year was good enough for the Miss Bardahl to collect another runner up finish in the High Points. 

  In 1962, the team decided to step up its game again and built a new Merlin powered hydro.  After some struggles through the year as they worked on dialing their new boat in, a convincing victory in the season finale on Lake Tahoe was an omen of things to come. 
1960-62 High Point Champion Miss Thriftway does battle with the future 1963-65 Champion Miss Bardahl on the Ohio River at the Indiana Governor's Cup

  With Miss Thriftway running a reduced schedule in 1963, the Bardahl team found itself alone at the top.  The Miss Bardahl scored three race wins on the season, including a Detroit Gold Cup victory that acted as a proverbial “passing of the torch” as the Bardahl’s biggest rival of the previous seasons, the Miss Thriftway, finished sixth. Two other podium finishes gave the Miss Bardahl the 1963 High Point title.  1964 continued the team’s winning ways as the Miss Bardahl captured the Detroit Gold Cup, the Seafair Trophy, and two more races en route to another High Point title.  In 1965, offseason repairs meant that the team was unable to make it to the season opener at Guntersville, Alabama, but victories at four races, including the Gold Cup in Seattle and the UIM World Championship on Lake Tahoe  were enough to put the team over the top for a third straight High Point championship.

                Never one to be settled with his team’s performance, Ole Bardahl pressed the team to come up with a new innovative boat.  The result was a revolutionary new cabover hull.  Although cabovers had been experimented with in the Unlimited class before (most notably the Thriftway Too from 1957-1960) this was the first time a major team had a cabover as its primary hull.  After mechanical issues sidelined the team for the season opener in Tampa, the team, along with the rest of the hydroplane community would experience “Black Sunday” in Washington, DC when the boat was involved in a horrific accident that resulted in the loss of life of Ron Musson.  Although no direct correlation was ever made between the design of the boat and the horrible accident on that fateful day, the loss of one of the most accomplished and respectful drivers in the history of the sport would be enough to delay the wide acceptance of cabover hydroplanes for another decade.  As for the team, they were done for 1966 and their string of High Point Titles would come to an end.
The ill fated cabover Miss Bardahl

                Ole Bardahl and the Miss Bardahl would return for 1967, but nearly everything else was different.  The team, which featured a number of new crew members, would debut a new hull, which was more conventional (for the time) than the previous hull but featured a considerably lower profile than other Unlimited Hydroplanes of the time.  Furthermore Billy Schumacher, who was considered one of the hottest drivers at the time in terms of pure potential but had only had brief stints in the Unlimited Class to that point, was tabbed as driver.  Even the solid green paint scheme, which had become a trademark of the Miss Bardahl team, was exchanged for a new yellow paint scheme, causing the “Green Dragon” team to be renamed the “Blonde Bombshell.” After a trying 1966, the team seemed to pick up where they left off, winning the season opener in Tampa.  Five more wins on the year, including a victory at the Indiana Governor’s Cup (a first for the team) and the Gold Cup in Seattle meant that the team would cruise to a convincing win in the High Point title.  

The “new” Miss Bardahl team would return in 1968 with a striking new checkerboard paint scheme, thus giving birth to the “Checkerboard Comet.”  Although not quite as dominant as in the previous year, the Miss Bardahl still managed four race wins, including repeat victories at the Indiana Governor’s Cup and the Gold Cup (this year in Detroit) were enough to give the team another High Point title. 
Some awesome footage of the 1968 Detroit Gold Cup, which was won by the Miss Bardahl

  Ole Bardahl announced his retirement from the sport, feeling that he had nothing more to accomplish much like Willard Rhodes six years before him.  The team did, however, return for a curtain call in 1969.  With Fred Alter at the wheel, the Miss Bardahl managed a third in Seattle and a sixth in San Diego before calling it a career.  Bardahl remains to this day one of the leading employers in the Seattle area and has an expansive oil additive business, but the name Bardahl would never again be a team's title sponsor save for a one race deal in 2000 when the U-3 would race as the "Bardahl Special" and finish a surprise fifth in San Diego.

The Legacy: The team's dominant performance over a decade that saw rapid growth for the sport meant that the Miss Bardahl is fondly remembered to this day, especially by Baby Boomer fans.  Nearly every RC hydroplane event is all but guaranteed to have at least one entry sporting Miss Bardahl colors.  Nearly every race site is all but guaranteed to have Miss Bardahl t-shirts, posters, and other merchandise for sale.  Also, although Bardahl's direct involvement in the sport hasn't gone far beyond being an alternate sponsor for the U-3 a few years ago over the last decade or so, memories of the Miss Bardahl have abounded along pit row  through the decades.  Some of Fred Leland's early entries wore the number U-40, an obvious tribute to the Miss Bardahl.  Furthermore,the latter part of the previous decade had not one but two paint schemes intended to recall the classic colors of the Miss Bardahl, as the U-48 entry had a dark green paint scheme with black trim and former Bardahl driver Billy Schumacher's U-37 entry wore the checkerboard paint scheme of the same time that he drove the classic hull.  Even to this day memories of the Miss Bardahl are nearly everywhere one looks around the sport, not bad for a team that hasn't entered a race in over four decades.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dynasties of the Sport: Miss Thriftway, 1960-1962

                In the year and a half that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve made a contentious effort to write about items of hydroplane history that might otherwise be overlooked: also rans who always put forth a solid effort, forgotten race sites, common misperceptions within the sport that have sprung up through the years, events that have been largely forgotten due to other contemporary happenings in the sport, the lack of realization of the historical significance of the event, or simply because they have been forgotten due to the turning of time.  My reason for ignoring the more mainstream stories throughout hydroplane history has been simple: so much ink has been spilled over these events throughout the years that it’s all but impossible to write anything new about said events.  After a brief hiatus, I figured I would go a different route.  For the next few weeks I will have a series where I cover the teams that have been dominant within the sport for a period of time.  For a half century now, there has almost always been a team in the pits that could be pointed to as “the team to beat,” although that honor has been passed from team to team over the years.  This, of course, has been the case in almost every sport in the United States, but in the case of hydroplanes sometimes these periods of excellence are followed by the teams quickly falling apart.  The first dynasty in hydroplane's modern era, the Miss Thriftway, certainly followed this model.
   As the 1950’s transitioned into the 1960’s, the focus of Unlimited Hydroplane  racing also transitioned from a once a year battle for the Gold Cup for civic pride surrounded by a number of regional races to a year-long national battle among owners for the High Point title.  Many teams of the “old era” of Hydroplane racing simply fell by the wayside, but one team that had the foresight to change with the times was the 1956 and 1957 Gold Cup winner.  Miss Thriftway and driver Bill Muncey became one of the most recognizable participants in the sport during the 1950’s with some memorable performances in the Gold Cup.  Quite remarkably, however, is that the only wins for the driver and team during that decade came during said Gold Cup races.  The team might have had two of the most memorable Gold Cup wins during this time, but the also experienced some very low lows as well.  The first Miss Thriftway hull which carried Bill Muncey to wins in the 1956 and 1957 Gold Cups as well as a near win in in the 1955 Gold Cup was destroyed at the 1957 Indiana Governor's Cup race when the boat bounced twice and disintegrated, leaving Bill Muncey seriously injured. 
A painting depicting the Miss Thriftway accident at Madison

 The most horrific accident, however, would come in the 1958 Seattle Gold Cup as the Miss Thriftway would lose its rudder, veering off course and crashing into a Coast Guard patrol boat.  Bill Muncey would actually be pronounced dead at the scene, but would be revived and would continue his brilliant career for another two decades.  The team would sit out the rest of the 1958 season.  In 1959 the team would build yet another hull but would go winless on the year although they did come close to winning another Gold Cup.

 With the new decade came a new focus for the team and thus the first modern dynasty in the sport was born.  In 1960 the team won four of ten races entered (including a rare “triple crown” in winning in Detroit, Madison, and Seattle) and finished on the podium three more times en route to the driver and team’s first high point championship. 
Miss Thriftway at Madison.  After suffering a horrific accident on the Ohio River just three years prior, Bill Muncey would go on to win his first Indiana Governor's Cup in 1960

 In 1961 the name of the boat was changed to Miss Century 21 in order to promote the upcoming Seattle World’s Fair but the results stayed the same, with wins in four of six races entered, a Gold Cup, and two other podium finishes for a near-perfect repeat  performance in 1961.  In 1962 the winning continued as Muncey and the Century 21 won the first five races it entered, including the Seattle Gold Cup, the Spirit of Detroit Trophy, the Indiana Governor’s Cup, and the President’s Cup.  Only mechanical issues in the season finale in Lake Tahoe kept the team from having a perfect season.  In three seasons, the team had won every major trophy in the sport multiple times, and along the way Bill Muncey's personable nature would make him the de facto spokesman for the sport with multiple media appearances. As the sport was becoming a truly national tour as opposed to one big race, the Miss Thriftway and Bill Muncey became the sport's first national brand.

  Perhaps thinking they had nothing left to prove, owner Willard Rhodes and the Thriftway team ran a greatly reduced schedule in 1963, only entering three races and, despite a convincing win at the Diamond Cup at Couer d’Alene, Idaho, struggled in its other two races and the team left the sport for good.  The first dynasty of Unlimited Hydroplane racing came to an abrupt end and the most recognizable name in the sport found himself without a ride.  Much of the rest of the 1960's would be a struggle for Muncey until he found a home with the Gale Enterprises team and would continue his consistent winning ways.  The name Miss Thriftway would make an appearance four decades later, as it was the sponsor of a Leland entry at the 2005 Seattle race with Steve Hook at the wheel.  Despite the shot of nostalgia, the boat would fail to live up to its memorable name as the boat would fail to start a heat or score any points on the race.
The 2005 Miss Thriftway Leland entry

The Legacy: These days, most of the memories of the Miss Thriftway are inevitably tied to the persona of Bill Muncey.  That's to be expected since it was the ride in which Muncey enjoyed his first success in the Unlimited Class and in which he would establish himself as the "driver to beat" for years to come.  The boat is also widely popular among R/C hobbyests, as the understated but dignified striped hull has found its way into seemingly every R/C event over the years, sometimes with multiple entries sporting the same Miss Thriftway paint scheme.  All in all, with the growth in the sport's popularity in the 1960's with the clear ties to one of the most legendary figures in the sport, the Miss Thriftway would rightfully earn its spot as a legend within the sport for fans for years to come.