17640 East Nine Mile Road
Eastpointe, Michigan 48021
For Info, or to Donate Memorabilia
Email: Info@APBAHistoricalSociety.org

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

By Fred Farley - APBA/HYDRO-PROP Unlimited Historian

The other drivers swerved frantically to avoid the scene of the crash. Mira Slovak dove from the TAHOE MISS into the water and held Wilson's face out of the water until the arrival of a Coast Guard patrol craft. (Nine years earlier, Slovak had likewise gone to the aid of Bill Muncey when MISS THRIFTWAY disintegrated at Madison, Indiana.) Skin divers freed Manchester from the NOTRE DAME wreckage almost immediately.

Wilson, age 37, was already dead from a ruptured heart. Manchester, 39, had a broken neck and a nearly severed left leg. He lived for less than an hour and never regained consciousness.

The impact of this second tragedy--occurring as it did so soon after the first--hit everyone hard. According to HOT BOAT MAGAZINE writer Eileen Crimmin, the pit area became "a scene of mass shock, aimless wandering, and thorough confusion."

This time, no attempt was made to reschedule the race. Referee Newton declared the 1966 President's Cup a contest on the basis of the preliminary action with NOTRE DAME announced as the winner.

But, for a while, Jim Hay, the crew chief of MISS CHRYSLER CREW, wouldn't take "No" for an answer. He demanded that the Final Heat be rerun. Hay and Bill Sterett almost came to blows. But Sterett ultimately prevailed. "We're through for the day!" Bill roared at Jim. "If they rerun the final, we won't be in it! Get that into your head!"

But, for a while, Jim Hay, the crew chief of MISS CHRYSLER CREW, wouldn't take "No" for an answer. He demanded that the Final Heat be rerun. Hay and Bill Sterett almost came to blows. But Sterett ultimately prevailed. "We're through for the day!" Bill roared at Jim. "If they rerun the final, we won't be in it! Get that into your head!"

Fred Alter demonstrated considerable class in the aftermath of Manchester and Wilson's crash. Alter went from one boat camp to another, bedding down the equipment, comforting the bereaved, and being a tower of strength for those whose courage had failed.

A lot of angry words were spoken about the decision to continue after the Musson tragedy. "The race should have been stopped after the first accident," declared Warner Gardner. "None of us wanted to run after Ron's death," affirmed Bob Fendler. And Bob Carver insisted that running the Final Heat was unnecessary, since all of the preliminary heats had been completed, and the race could have legally been declared a contest.

MY GYPSY crew chief Graham Heath, a close friend of Musson, had a difficult time, as did everyone else, in dealing with the loss. "I've been in racing where bad things occurred," Heath acknowledged. "But that was the worst blow to me that's ever happened .Afterwards, Graham did a lot of soul searching. "I thought to myself, 'We've got to be crazy! Sane people don't do this!' But there's just something about racing. It's in your blood."

Radio commentator Jim Hendrick refused to announce the fatality of Don Wilson, knowing that Wilson's elderly father was listening to the broadcast in Dearborn, Michigan. Hendrick did so over the violent objections of his producer, who wanted an "exclusive." That morning, Don had asked Jim to wish the older Wilson a happy Father's Day.

Past-APBA President Red Peatross told THE NEW YORK TIMES, "The boats were well designed and constructed. The water was reasonably calm. Both accidents occurred on the straightaway, so the course layout can not be blamed. I guess all you can say is that it was an act of God."

Unlimited Commissioner J. Lee Schoenith predicted that the deaths would not have any great effect on the sport as a whole. All commitments with race sponsors would be honored, he promised. "But it sure isn't going to be the same type of season for the participants," Schoenith admitted. "These three gentlemen were my dearest and deepest friends."

Editorial reaction to the 1966 President's Cup ranged from sympathetic to extremely harsh.

In the words of THE SEATTLE TIMES writer Bud Livesley, Three lives are a high price. Too high even for men, who for reasons known only to themselves, pursue speed and chase danger in boats."

Doc Greene of THE DETROIT NEWS proclaimed that "Death is the risk of those who defy it."

And Mel Crook, the respected YACHTING MAGAZINE columnist and a former Unlimited driver, pointed out that the safest boat in the world will eventually reach a speed where it travels unsafely. And for a driver to place his boat in an unsafe attitude, even for the purpose of improving one's order of finish in a race, is to court disaster.

In response to the storm of criticism, Mira Slovak declared, "Sure, we're after speed. But we're not out to commit suicide. We're concerned with safety, too."

Race Chairman Don Dunnington solemnly affirmed that there definitely would be a race in Washington, D.C. the following year. (And so there was, but for Limited boats only. The Unlimiteds would not again race for the President's Cup until 1968.)

On Capitol Hill, congressmen and senators expressed shock about the triple tragedy. President Lyndon B. Johnson called Washington Senator Warren G. Magnuson to express his concern. Magnuson said he was terribly shocked, especially since he had known Manchester and Musson personally.

Congressman Brock Adams, a Seattle Democrat, promised to look into the matter of how much control Congress had over races on the Potomac River. The race course, located in the District of Columbia, was governed by Congress. Improved standards were needed, Adams indicated.

In a letter of condolence from President Johnson to Evelyn Manchester, Johnson mentioned that Rex had been decorated for valor in the battle of Iwo Jima as a U.S. Marine in World War II. This was news to Evelyn. Rex, not a man to boast or to draw attention to himself, had never revealed this particular chapter in his life.

As a stunned and decimated Unlimited fraternity started packing to leave town, the realization dawned on some people that the winner of the ill-fated President's Cup was a guy named Rex Manchester. After a career of being "The best of the rest," Rex had finally achieved his ambition, albeit posthumously.

In the words of football legend Bear Bryant, the Unlimited participants "sucked up their guts" and went through the motions of business as usual two weeks later at Detroit, where another tragic day awaited the Thunderboats.

The newly repaired SMIRNOFF was back and stronger than ever. The race was for the Gold Cup, which driver Chuck Thompson had never won. Champion Chuck dominated Heats 1-B and 2-B and was clearly the class of the field. Thompson had come painfully close to capturing the 1952 and 1956 Gold Cups with MISS PEPSI and the 1964 race with TAHOE MISS. "This time I've got a winner," Chuck confided to his crew.

Thompson and SMIRNOFF were drawn into Heat 3-A, together with the combination of Slovak and TAHOE MISS, which had scored victories in Heats 1-A and 2-A.

The sport held its collective breath. Chuck was a give-no-quarter-and-ask-for-none kind of driver. And everyone knew that bad blood existed between Thompson and the TAHOE MISS organization, which had discharged Chuck at the end of the 1965 season.

Coming up for the start of Heat 3-A, Thompson and SMIRNOFF found their way blocked by Red Loomis and SAVAIR'S PROBE. Chuck had to decelerate momentarily but was back up to speed almost immediately. SMIRNOFF found an opening and shot forward with Thompson really standing on it.

Then as the field neared the Whittier Hotel in the run down to the Belle Isle Bridge turn, SMIRNOFF disappeared.

According to Bill Newton, the boat seemed to become airborne momentarily and then smacked down hard on the water, SMIRNOFF disintegrated and sank immediately. The Allison engine was ripped completely out of the boat.

Chuck suffered a crushed chest, a fractured thigh, and severe leg wounds. Thompson, age 54, passed away shortly after arrival at the hospital. He never regained consciousness. The death count had risen to four.

An Unlimited mainstay since 1949 and the winner of fifteen major races since 1950, Chuck had an intensely loyal fan following, especially in Detroit. He would be sorely missed.

Thompson's wife, Christine, witnessed the fatal crash. Their son, Chuck, Jr., was out of town that weekend, driving in a 280 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane race.

Initial response to the SMIRNOFF accident was panic. An official of the sponsoring Spirit Of Detroit Association went on local television to announce cancellation of the remaining Gold Cup heats. The race, he said, would be declared "No Contest." There were those who demanded the termination of the entire 1966 season. The sport's critics contended that Chuck Thompson had died for a brand name and that all forms of power boat competition, from outboards to Unlimiteds, should be abolished.

But, in time, cooler heads prevailed .APBA President Jim Jost stepped in and ordered that the Gold Cup be run to its conclusion, there being no provision in the APBA Gold Cup Rules for a "No Contest" result.

And so the race was completed on the following day, Monday, July 4. Slovak and TAHOE MISS took the honors.

Bill Cantrell, who had suffered burned hands at Tampa and been replaced by Thompson in the SMIRNOFF cockpit, spoke movingly and forcefully that now was not the time to quit--even after four deaths. "We're now at a pinnacle where the sport is going to go under or up." Cantrell reminded his comrades that Unlimited racing, together with Indianapolis racing, was a professional endeavor. And professionals needed to act accordingly.

The Unlimited people took Cantrell's words to heart. The 1966 season went on as scheduled with a full field of participating boats. The level of competition was respectably high and compared favorably to 1965.

Doc Greene pointed out that "Abolition of the sport would not bring back Thompson and the others, nor their courage, nor their character; but would rather render meaningless the thing for which they died."

All four of the new race sites in 1966 were declared successful. And all four returned in 1967. Washington, D.C., and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, did drop off the 1967 calendar, but returned in 1968.

< Back

Non Profit Tax Deductible IRS 501 C-3

A River Info Website - Copyright 1999-2003 River Info™ - All rights reserved - Site terms of use ( )