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

By Fred Farley - APBA/HYDRO-PROP Unlimited Historian

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

By Fred Farley - APBA/HYDRO-PROP Unlimited Historian

TAHOE MISS won four races (Detroit, Kelowna, Coeur d'Alene, and Madison) in 1966 and was National High Point Champion.

MISS BUDWEISER owner Bernie Little bought a previously unraced hull from builder Les Staudacher and was ready to go racing again only two weeks after Black Sunday. With Bill Brow at the wheel, Little scored his first-ever career win, the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup, on JuIy 24, followed by a triumph in the San Diego Cup on September 25.

Before season's end, MY GYPSY and MISS LAPEER likewise achieved victory, at Seattle and Sacramento respectively.

When Evelyn Manchester, dressed in black, made an unexpected appearance at the Seattle Seafair Regatta drivers' meeting, she received enthusiastic applause and was invited by Cantrell to sit with the drivers.

The NOTRE DAME and the MISS BARDAHL teams did not re-appear in 1966. Both returned, however, in 1967 with new equipment. Owner Ole Bardahl, however, abandoned the cabover concept. He ordered instead a traditional rear cockpit/forward engine hull configuration.

Joe and Lee Schoenith continued on the 1966 tour with the former GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL hull renamed SMIRNOFF. Their best finish was a second place in the Atomic Cup with Cantrell driving.

The MISS U.S. team threw in the towel after Detroit. The boat suffered extensive damage when it fell into a hole during Heat I-A of the Gold Cup and was declared unfixable. A new MISS U.S. was ordered for 1967 from Staudacher. In the interim, driver Muncey filled in at three 1966 races as relief pilot of $ BILL.

The speeds attained in 1966 were admittedly down from 1965. But this was due at least in part to the large-scale transition from the 3-mile to the 2 ½- mile race course. Although a few 3 milers still remained, the preferred course size was now 2½-miles in the interest of improving spectator vantage points. With less distance to accelerate, the boats ran about 5 miles per hour slower lap speeds on a 2½-mile track.

Despite the trauma of Black Sunday, the ensuing years of 1966 through 1975 provided a decade of racing unparalleled in Unlimited history. No apology need be made for the overall quality of competition during those ten pinnacle years. The racing was simply superb.

The sport did experience some additional down days during the 1966-1975 decade. Bill Brow was lost in 1967, Warner Gardner in 1968, Tommy Fults in 1970, and Skipp Walther in 1974.

But the many great competitive duels that kept fans enthralled from coast-to-coast were downright legendary, and on a par with many of the great races of the past. This was Unlimited Hydroplane racing at its best.

Not until the late 1970s did the sport go into a temporary decline due to the dwindling supply of World War II fighter aircraft engines. The turbine revolution of the 1980s restored the Unlimiteds to prominence, even if it meant taking the thunder out of the Thunderboats.

One long range effect of Black Sunday was the re-enforcement of the prejudice against cabover hulls in the Unlimited Class. Ron Jones kept insisting that the accident that took Ron Musson's life had nothing to do with the fact that the boat was a cabover, but it was associated with a cabover. And that made the concept difficult to sell for many years to come.

Jones produced an outstanding 7-Litre Class cabover, the RECORD-7, owned by George Babcock, in 1969. RECORD-7 became the first Limited hydroplane to clear 100 miles per hour in a heat of competition. But even this was insufficient incentive for the Unlimited owners as a whole to invest in forward-cockpit hulls.

Owner Dave Heerensperger did try a Jones' cabover, the PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK, in 1970. But Heerensperger quickly gave up on the idea and converted his boat to a rear-cockpit configuration for 1971.

Not until 1977, when Bill Muncey introduced the ATLAS VAN LINES "Blue Blaster," designed by Jim Lucero and Dixon Smith, did the cabover concept gain wide acceptance in the Unlimited ranks.

In the decades following Black Sunday, the 1966 President's Cup has regrettably come to be regarded by some as the bad seed of Thunderboat racing, the cornerstone for everything (real or imagined) that is wrong with the sport.

A generation of editorial writers, many of whom never knew Musson, Manchester, or Wilson, has chosen June 19, 1966, as the day when Unlimited hydroplane racing lost its innocence.

Hardly a year goes by when some enterprising journalist somewhere will "discover" the 1966 President's Cup. He or she will resurrect with great relish the ghosts of Ron, Rex, and Don for yet another superficial "expose" to sell newspapers.

Not all of the after-effects of the 1966 President's Cup were negative. The Unlimited rules were significantly upgraded in the years that followed with a particular emphasis on safety. New requirements were written into the rulebook for adequacy of equipment. In the words of former URC Executive Secretary Phil Cole, as published in the 1966-67 Unlimited Yearbook, "There emerged a better understanding of what can and must be done by the fleet that survived the rigors of 1966 to build a better sport for the future."

Looking at Black Sunday with a 21st Century perspective, a modern audience might be critical of a sport that was slow to embrace the concept of an enclosed cockpit.

But as Dixon Smith has stated in a 1996 interview with David Williams, the idea of seating a driver indoors was quite foreign at the time. If such a radical measure had been put to a vote in 1966, it likely would have been voted down, in Smith's opinion. That was because of the belief that a driver, in the event of an accident, had a better chance for survival if he were thrown clear of his boat. For this reason, seat belts were for many years prohibited in the Unlimited hydroplanes.

Obviously, the boats in which Musson, Manchester, Wilson, and Thompson died would no longer be allowed on the race course. But they were the state of the art for their day.

For as long as men race boats, people will continue to speak in whispers about Black Sunday. It was a day too terrible to forget. But there is some consolation in knowing that Ron, Rex, Don, and Chuck died doing what they loved best.

###

The 1966 Sacramento Cup official program book was dedicated to the memory of Musson, Manchester, Wilson, Thompson, and also Bill Stead. Editor Phil Cole chose a passage by Jack London as a fitting memorial to those five remarkable men:

"I would rather be ashes than dust!"

"I would rather that my spark should burn out a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dryrot."

"I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy permanent planet."

"The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days by trying to prolong them."

"I shall use my time."

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