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BLACK SUNDAY:
UNLIMITED HYDROPLANE RACING'S DARKEST DAY - PART I

By Fred Farley - APBA/HYDRO-PROP Unlimited Historian

For most Americans growing up in the middle of the 20th Century, two dates are burned indelibly into the collective consciousness. For the World War II generation, December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, was a defining moment. For the Baby Boomers, it was November 22, 1963, when an assassin's bullet took the life of President John F. Kennedy. Seemingly everyone old enough to remember can recall, with vivid detail, where they were and what they were doing at the exact moment that these tragedies occurred.

For post-war Unlimited hydroplane devotees, a third such date is likewise remembered for all of its gut-wrenching intensity. This was June 19,1966, "Black Sunday," when three of racing's finest were lost in two separate accidents at the President's Cup Regatta in Washington, D.C. Stricken from the list of the living on that fateful day were Ron Musson of MISS BARDAHL, Rex Manchester of NOTRE DAME, and Don Wilson of MISS BUDWEISER.

Musson perished when his radical-designed craft, running in only its second heat of competition, became airborne and crashed to the bottom of the Potomac River, while battling for the lead in Heat 2-B. Manchester and Wilson were killed when their boats collided while contending for first-place in Heat Three.

The loss of Musson, Manchester, and Wilson shook the boat,racing world to its foundation. The impact would have been similar if Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, and Dan Gurney had been lost in a single afternoon. And like their auto racing counterparts, Ron, Rex, and Don were professional athletes, loved and admired by thousands of fans. They were role models for a generation of youngsters.

The people in the sport felt a special kind of grief in the aftermath of Black Sunday. The late Bill Muncey once told an interviewer that, for the rest of his life, not a week would pass when he wouldn't think about his three fallen comrades. (It was Bill who had recommended that Musson be hired to drive for Ole Bardahl in 1961; Wilson had been Muncey's roommate in college.)

In truth, no one who experienced the 1966 President's Cup, in person or in spirit, will ever forget it. June 19 was truly the sport's darkest day. Unlimited hydroplane racing, in its first two decades after World War II, saw six fatalities. (Driver Orth Mathiot; and riding mechanic Thom Whitaker expired when QUICKSILVER crashed at Seattle in 1951; MISS SUPERTEST II pilot Bob Hayward perished at Detroit in 1961.)

That half of the sport's casualties should have occurred within three hours of each other was a cruel twist of fate.

Unlimited or Thunderboat racing had grown out of the ashes of the pre-war Gold Cup and 725 Cubic Inch Classes when the huge supply of World War II fighter plane power sources became available for sale to the general public.

The Packard Rolls-Royce Merlin, the G.M. Allison, and the propriding three-point hull design, developed by Ted Jones, transformed the sport. By the middle 1950s, the Unlimiteds were the showcase of APBA racing. In 1957, the parent American Power Boat Association allowed the Unlimited Class to break away from the administrative restraints of the Inboard Racing Commission and form a separate APBA entity.

The early 1960's witnessed the dawn of professionalism with mandatory cash prizes at every Unlimited event. And, in 1963, the IRS upheld the Unlimited Racing Commission's contention that Thunderboating was a legitimate business expense {within specified guidelines} and thereby tax deductible. This opened the door to big money corporate sponsorship on a scale previously unimagined.

One of the first companies to sponsor an Unlimited hydroplane on a large national scale was Anheuser-Busch, which introduced the MISS BUDWEISER, owned by Bernie Little, in 1964.

The 1965 racing season had been one of the more successful campaigns in history with 23 active boats and nine scheduled races. These included the APBA Gold Cup at Seattle and the UIM World Championship at Lake Tahoe, sanctioned by the Union of International Motorboating.

Musson and the MISS BARDAHL captured the Gold Cup (their third in as many years), the World Championship, and the National High Points crown. Second in 1965 National Points was NOTRE DAME, driven by Manchester, who ironically was Ole Bardahl's son-in-law. Rex won no races in 1965 but always gave the MISS BARDAHL a good battle.

At the last race of the year on San Diego's Mission Bay, Musson and the "Green Dragon" MISS BARDAHL became the first to turn a lap in competition at 117 miles per hour on a 3-mile course. The record provided an upbeat ending to the 1965 season, which had been highly competitive. The outlook for 1966 appeared bright indeed.

The first hint of the dark days to come occurred two months before the start of the season. URC official and former champion driver Bill Stead was fatally injured when his private plane went out of control while practicing an aerobatic maneuver and crashed into Tampa Bay.

Stead, a successful Nevada cattle rancher, had served as Unlimited Drivers' Representative since his retirement from competition in 1959. The man had a lot of class, and his loss was keenly felt by theThunderboat fraternity.

Nevertheless, the sport had a lot going for it at the outset of 1966.Some promising new race sites had been added to the Unlimited schedule;Tampa, Florida; Kelowna, British Columbia; the Tri-Cities, Washington; and Sacramento, California. And the time-honored Washington, D.C., event was back on the calendar after a one-year hiatus.

The season-opening Tampa Suncoast Cup on June 12 attracted eighteen hopefuls. This was the largest first-day field for the Unlimiteds since 1949.

Host owner Bernie Little had acquired, during the 1965-66 off season, the MISS EXIDE from Milo and Glen Stoen. Little had pursuaded the EXIDE mechanical crew, headed by Bernie Van Cleave and George McKernan, to transfer en masse to the MISS BUDWEISER team, together with MISS EXIDE driver Bill Brow. This was the same group of competitive wizards that had won the 1965 Coeur d'Alene Diamond Cup so convincingly. They had also set the current world record of 120.536 for a 3-mile qualification lap atSeattle in 1965.

After three years of also-ran' status in the Unlimited ranks, Little now had an acknowledged front-runner. There could be no doubt that the "new" MISS BUDWEISER - a 1956 Ted Jones creation - would be a factor in the season ahead.

George Simon's MISS U.S. racing team had Bill Muncey, the all-time winningest Thunderboat pilot, at the wheel. Muncey had recently undergone successful surgery for a back ailment that had prevented him from accepting a full-time driving assignment in 1965. Bill had been on the fringes of the sport since being fired off of NOTRE DAME in mid-season 1964. He was anxious to reaffirm his status as the sport's number one driver. Since the retirement of MISS THRIFTWAY in 1963, Muncey's career had not gone well.

Owner Simon had signed Bill to a five-year contract, starting with the last race of 1965. The MISS U.S. team had set a mile straightaway record of 200.419 in 1962 but hadn't won a race since 1958.Rex Manchester, Muncey's replacement in the NOTRE DAME cockpit, was in his seventh season as an Unlimited chauffeur. But he had never won a race. This was a situation that Manchester vowed to rectify in 1966. NOTRE DAME, a 1964 Les Staudacher hull, was fast but had a tendency to ride roughly.

Owner Shirley Mendelson McDonald, whose father (Herb Mendelson) had raced boats quite successfully between 1935 and 1947, had only one victory to her credit after four years in the sport. This was the 1964 Dixie Cup at Guntersville, Alabama, with Muncey driving.

Ron Musson was the defending National Champion and the sport's reigning superstar. Since his 1959 Unlimited Class debut, Musson had achieved winning results, almost from Day One, with the HAWAII KAI III, NITROGEN TOO, and MISS BARDAHL racing teams. His victory total (sixteen wins) was second only to Muncey who, at the time, had nineteen first-place trophies.

But Ron's 1966 chances were uncertain. Gone was the old reliable Green Dragon, designed by Ted Jones, that had served Musson so well since 1962. The new MISS BARDAHL was a cabover creation, from the drawing board of Ron Jones, Ted's son.

The '66 BARDAHL was not the first Unlimited to seat the driver ahead of the engine. (Other forward-cockpit boats included SANT' AMBROGIO and SKIP-A-LONG in 1948, SCOOTER in 1954, and THRIFTWAY TOO in 1957). MISS BARDAHL was patterned after a successful 225 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane, the TIGER TOO, built by Ron Jones in 1961. Unlike previous cabovers, TIGER TOO was wider and flatter and less box-shaped to allow for more effective cornering. But the concept had yet to be proven in the Unlimited Class. And there was a lot of prejudice against cabover hulls at the time. Most people considered them unduly hazardous.

In the words of Bill Muncey, the driver of a forward-cockpit boat was "first to the scene of the accident," although even Muncey later changed his tune. Ron Musson, likewise, had some misgivings about cabovers, as did some members of the MISS BARDAHL mechanical crew. But Musson obviously appreciated what Jones had done with TIGER TOO and was willing to give the new Green Dragon a try.

Musson was also grateful to Ron Jones for the fine work that Jones had done in fine-tuning the sponsons on the 1962 MISS BARDAHL, which had resulted in some additional miles per hour for the boat.

Other new Unlimiteds at the 1966 Tampa race were Bill Sterett's MISS CHRYSLER CREW and Jim Ranger's MY GYPSY. The CHRYSLER CREW was the first serious attempt at twin-automotive power in the Thunderboats and was an enlarged hull duplicate (designed by Henry Lauterbach) of Sterett's 7-Litre Class National Champion MISS CRAZY THING. MY GYPSY was a typical Detroit riverboat from Gale Enterprises, designed by Bill Cantrell, in the tradition of the 1964 MISS SMIRNOFF and the 1965 GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL. Sponsored by the Dodge automotive family, Ranger took his rookie driver's test at Tampa with MY GYPSY and passed it, despite having had no previous experience in race boats.

Brow and MISS BUDWEISER qualified fastest at Tampa with a speed of 106.132; Musson and MISS BARDAHL were next at 103.806 on the 2 1/2 mile course. Tampa Bay was definitely one of the rougher venues in Unlimited history. The chop could be downright ocean-like at times. The fastest lap of the week (by SMIRNOFF in Heat 2-C) was only 108.434.

The 1966 Suncoast Cup almost didn't happen when an early season hurricane ripped through southern Florida and inflicted major damage to the newly constructed pit area. In response, Bernie Little opened his checkbook and recruited every available laborer in Tampa to help clean up the debris so that the race could be run as scheduled.

After three heats of racing, MISS U.S. and NOTRE DAME were tied with 1100 points apiece, based upon two firsts and one second-place finish. Manchester finished ahead of Muncey in the Final Heat of 15 miles, but MISS U.S. won the Suncoast Cup on the basis of a faster total elapsed time for the 45 miles. It was career win number twenty for Bill and another frustrating defeat for Rex.

In winning preliminary Heat I-A over mediocre opposition, Manchester had backed off after the first three laps and cruised to the checkered flag at a leisurely 94.537 miles per hour. Muncey, on the other hand, had kept the pressure on and averaged 100.483 in Heat 1-B. Rex's laid-back performance in 1-A came back to haunt him at the end of the day and ultimately cost Manchester the race.

The Suncoast Cup emerged as something of a destruction derby. The victorious MISS U.S. suffered severe hull and sponson damage and had to cancel plans for the following weekend's President's Cup. The Chuck Thompson chauffeured SMIRNOFF, likewise, had to withdraw from the Potomac River meet on account of hull damage. Bill Brow took a bad bounce in Heat 1-C with MISS BUDWEISER, cracked his shoulder, and had to be replaced by Don Wilson. The red-headed Wilson had last raced in 1964 as pilot of Simon's MISS U.S. 5. Don had won the 1963 Lake Tahoe race as relief driver for Musson in the old MISS BARDAHL

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