By Fred Farley  –  H1 Unlimited Historian
 
Unlimited hydroplane racing returns to Folsom Lake this May 31-June 2 as part of “Big Wake Weekend” at Granite Bay in Sacramento, California.
 
The world’s largest and fastest racing boats last appeared on Folsom Lake in 1966 and 1967. The event was known as the Sacramento Cup in those days.
 
The fleet of boats that showed up for those early Folsom Lake races had almost nothing in common with their modern counterparts. All were piston-powered and all but one used government surplus Allison or Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, left over from World War II. (Jet turbine power in race boats was considered to be in the realm of science fiction in the 1960s.)

The pit area at Folsom Lake in 1967 - Courtesy of the Hydroplane & Raceboat Museum.

The hydroplanes themselves were rather narrow and quite box-shaped. The driver sat behind–rather than in front of–the engine in an open cockpit with no seat belt. (In the days before the F-16 safety canopy, it was believed that a driver had a better chance of surviving a serious accident if he were thrown clear of his boat.)

The modern Unlimiteds are wider and flatter and can corner much better and faster than the earlier designs.

The one thing that the boats of 1966 did have in common with those racing in 2013 was tremendous straightaway speed. Then as now, the sight of an Unlimited hydroplane at full throttle and with a roostertail of spray trailing behind it is the most awesome spectacle in all of motor sports.

 Some of the most prominent names in hydroplane history appeared at that 1966 Sacramento race. These included Bill Harrah’s National Champion TAHOE MISS, Bernie Little’s MISS BUDWEISER, Bill Sterett’s MISS CHRYSLER CREW, Jim Ranger’s MY GYPSY, the community-owned MISS MADISON from Indiana, and Jim Herrington’s MISS LAPEER, the eventual winner.

 Veteran Unlimited hydroplane fans, arriving for the first time at Folsom Lake, were surprised to behold a smaller than usual race course: 2-1/2 miles instead of the usual 3 miles.

 During the post-World War II era from 1946 to 1965, virtually every Unlimited venue measured 3 miles or larger. The trend to smaller courses began in 1966. “This was done to improve spectator vantage points,” Sacramento Cup promoter Phil Cole explained. “When the turns are closer together, the spectator can see more of the race.” All of today’s H1 Unlimited race courses are 2 miles or 2-1/2 miles in circumference.

 The 1966 Sacramento Cup saw Herrington’s MISS LAPEER rebound from a distant second-place in Heat One to a couple of solid victories in Heats Two and Three. Piloted by Warner Gardner, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, the Herrington team outscored Ranger in MY GYPSY, 1100 points to 969. This was in the days when a winner was determined on the basis of total points scored in all three heats rather than by a first-place finish in the Final Heat.

 MISS LAPEER turned the fastest competition lap of the day at a speed of 105.820 miles per hour. Built in 1956 by Les Staudacher from a Ted Jones design, MISS LAPEER was one of the oldest boats in the race and had previously campaigned as MISS SPOKANE. The 1966 Sacramento Cup was the boat’s only race victory.

1966 Final Standings:

1. MISS LAPEER, Warner Gardner

2. MY GYPSY, Jim Ranger

3. MISS CHRYSLER CREW, Bill Sterett

4. TAHOE MISS, Mira Slovak

5. SAVAIR’S PROBE, Red Loomis

The 1967 Sacramento Cup saw a point tie at the end of the day between Billy Schumacher in MISS BARDAHL and Mike Thomas in MISS BUDWEISER. Both had two firsts and one second-place heat finish. Schumacher received the victory nod on the basis of faster total elapsed time for all three heats. MISS BARDAHL averaged 100.396 miles per hour to MISS BUDWEISER’s 97.203.

The victory on Folsom Lake was one of six during the 1967 season by pilot Schumacher en route to claiming the National High Point Championship for owner Ole Bardahl. Billy remains active in the sport to this day as co-owner (with wife Jane) of the Seattle-based 37 MISS BEACON PLUMBING.

1967 Final Standings:

1. MISS BARDAHL, Billy Schumacher

2. MISS BUDWEISER, Mike Thomas

3. MISS CHRYSLER CREW, Mira Slovak

4. MISS U.S., Bill Muncey

5. WAYFARERS CLUB LADY, Jim McCormick

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What was the single most exciting heat of competition witnessed at those early Sacramento races?

Those fans lucky enough to have been there in those days of yore seem to be pretty much in agreement. It was preliminary Heat 2-A of the 1967 event. That was when Mira Slovak in MISS CHRYSLER CREW and Mike Thomas in MISS BUDWEISER set Folsom Lake on fire with a side-by-side battle for the lead that left fans speechless.

Lap after lap, Slovak and Thomas shared the same roostertail. First, BUDWEISER had the lead; then CHRYSLER; then BUDWEISER again. Back and forth.

After six legal laps and 15 miles of racing, both drivers had lost count of the number of laps, so great was their concentration on each other. The checkered flag, signifying victory, waved but neither Slovak nor Thomas saw it.

From the pit area, MISS BUDWEISER owner Bernie Little shouted, “They’re still racing!” (This was in the days before drivers could communicate by radio with their crews.)

Thomas, who had a slight lead at the end of lap-seven, returned to the dock, thinking that he had won, only to be told that Slovak, who had led at the end of lap-six, was the victor: 100.297 miles per hour to 100.074.

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Tune in for more of the same competitive action when the Unlimited hydroplanes return for “Big Wake Weekend”!