For this post I’m going to look at the piston powered hydros of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. This period of time saw fewer and fewer teams using piston power until there was only one. Of course, the U-3 owned by Ed Cooper Sr. and Ed Cooper Jr. continued to use Allison power throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, but no other team has shown up in the pits with a piston powered Unlimited Hydroplane in those years. So this is a look at those last other teams to use piston power, beginning with 1987. I chose to begin with 1987 because the previous year could be seen as the end of big budgeted teams using piston powered hydroplanes. 1986 was the year when the Miss Budweiser team began the season with one Lycoming powered hydroplane and one Griffon powered hydroplane but the decision was made mid-season to retire the Griffon Bud. 1987 was also the first year in which every race on the schedule was one by a team using a turbine powered hull. By 1987 the teams using piston powered hydroplanes were almost exclusively small, low budgeted teams using older hulls. This year began a trend of piston teams decreasing in numbers until at the end of the 1993 season there was only one.
Boats/Teams Retired in 1987
U-30 Seaco Aviation Fuels This Merlin powered hull debuted in 1979 as Miss Circus Circus and Steve Reynolds drove the boat to victory at San Diego the same year. The boat later won at Madison and Tri-Cities in 1982 with Tom D’Eath at the wheel. Bob Gilliam purchased the boat in 1985 and the team competed in a handful of races on the West Coast. In 1986 and 1987 the U-30 appeared in only Seattle where it failed to qualify.
Seaco Aviation Fuels. Photo taken from the 1987 Madison Regatta program.
U-9 Miss J & M Café Will Muncey, son of the legendary Bill Muncey, competed in Unlimited Hydroplane racing throughout the 1980’s but struggled to get his boats to reach a competitive or even a qualifying level. Racing with a boat that first ran in 1972 as Sweet Thing, Muncey entered a number of races beginning in 1985 but failed to qualify for any of them. In 1986 and 1987 he only raced in Seattle where he failed to qualify both times and left Unlimited racing, although he continues to compete on the Unlimited Lights circuit.
U-22 Throughout much of the 1980’s, Madison area businessman Jim Sedam campaigned a team that served as Madison’s “other” representative on the Unlimited Hydroplane tour. Madison Hydroplanes, Inc., as the team was officially known, raced with a cabover hull that was built in 1984 and used an Allison engine. Todd Yarling served as the driver throughout almost all of this team’s involvement in the sport. Although Jim Sedam and Todd Yarling never won any races in the 1980’s his team nonetheless turned in some respectable performances, including 1987 when the team finished second at the saltwater races in Miami and San Diego. 1987 would mark the final year of Madison Hydroplanes, Inc., but the boat would run in some races the following season for Jim McCormick and Bob Fendler’s entry.
The U-22, a Madison based team that raced through much of the 1980's. Photo taken from the 1987 Madison Regatta program.
U-15 Pepsi America’s Choice The first entry from Ed Cooper Sr. and Jr. was also the last conventional Unlimited Hydroplane to be built. Constructed one year after the 1977 Atlas Van Lines “Blue Blaster” revolutionized the sport, the 1978 Tempus was an entry from veteran Unlimited driver Chuck Hickling. As the Tempus the team was usually a West Coast entry, often only competing in the two Washington races. Ed Cooper Sr. and Jr., longtime crew members for the Miss Madison as well as Graham Heath’s My Gypsy team, bought the former Tempus hull and entered it into a handful of races in 1986. For 1987 the team was able to race the full season, racing most of the year as Pepsi America’s Choice. Mitch Evans was able to drive the boat to a respectable sixth place finish in the 1987 High Point race while designing and building a new hull for the Coopers. More on that later.
Pepsi America's Choice, the first entry from Ed Cooper Sr. and Ed Cooper Jr.
U-80 Miss Bahia This boat debuted in 1967 as Parco’s O’Ring Miss and was a competitor off and on for twenty years running under a variety of names and going under a number of changes which included adding a horizontal stabilizer and converting the boat to a cabover. Despite these changes the hull was still the old shovel nosed design that was representative of the era in which it was built. In 1986 this team achieved what was quite possibly the most unlikely victory in Unlimited Hydroplane history, when at San Diego Ron Armstrong drove the old heavy boat past the modern turbine powered hydros that were sitting dead in the water due to the saltwater spray. In the next race at Las Vegas, the team turned in another incredible performance when the boat sank into ninety feet of water, but was exhumed by the crew and actually qualified for the Final Heat, where it finished sixth. In 1987 the team entered three races, with its best finish being a fifth place at Las Vegas. That Las Vegas race would prove to be the last for this team and their ancient boat, but they had made their mark on Unlimited history. Their boat would be the last hull with an old style shovel nosed design to race, and win, on the Unlimited circuit.
Miss Bahia, the last shovel-nosed hydro to compete in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing and surprise winner at San Diego in 1986. Photo taken from the 1987 Madison Regatta program.
Boats Retired in 1988
U-6 Holset Miss Madison (1973-25) 1987 also marked the last full season for one of the most successful hulls in Unlimited Hydroplane history. This, of course, was the same hull that had revolutionized the sport in 1973 while racing as Pay N Pak with its horizontal stabilizer and pickle fork design. Miss Madison had campaigned the hull since 1978, winning in Missouri in 1983 and having the honor of being the highest finishing piston powered boat in the National High Point standings in 1986 and 1987. The plan was to retire this hull after the 1987 season, but when the new Miss Madison hull wasn’t ready this hull was forced back into service, in the process becoming the last conventional hull and one of the last open cockpit hulls to compete in Unlimited Hydroplane racing.
U-17 Tempus Chuck Hickling’s final entry into Unlimited Hydroplane racing was also the only Unlimited Hydroplane ever built that was a tunnel boat powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin engine. Tempus continued to be a West Coast only team, scoring a surprising third place at San Diego when all the turbine entries succumbed to the saltwater spray. Tempus only entered the Washington races in 1987 and 1988, failing to score points in any of them and the team was discontinued.
Tempus, the last entry from Chuck Hickling and one of the few Tunnel Unlimited Hydroplanes. Photo taken from the 1987 Madison Regatta program.
U-21 Eliminator This entry from co-owners Mike Bancroft and Doug Munroe driven by Mickey Franklin is one of a handful of hulls in Unlimited Hydroplane history to experiment with automotive power and is one of a handful of hulls in Unlimited Hydroplane history to never score a point. Bancroft and Franklin had found success together in the 7 litre class and, along with co-owner Doug Munroe, opted to jump into the Unlimiteds with a radically designed hull. Unlike most automotive Unlimited Hydroplanes who have used multiple engines, the U-21 used a single blown Chevy engine. The hull was lighter than most Unlimited Hydroplanes but was vastly underpowered. In 1987 the team entered six races, failing to qualify for any of them. In 1988 the Eliminator entered seven more races, failing to qualify for any of them until Seattle, where it wasn’t able to make the start of any heats. After the 1988 Seattle race the project was abandoned and Mickey Franklin, Mike Bancroft, and the U-21 were all done in Unlimited Hydroplane racing.
Eliminator, a hull that never scored a point in Unlimited Competition. Photo taken from the 1987 Madison Regatta program.
U-4 Pocket Saver’s Plus In 1988 Bob Fendler and Jim McCormick bought the Allison powered hull that was previously Jim Sedam’s Madison based entry. The hull made a couple Final Heats but was retired mid-season for another hull. The hull and team, however, had made their mark in history. This was the first Unlimited ride for Steve David.
U-77 Miss Mid-Mark Distributors This experimental hull from Fred Leland had been an exercise in futility since its debut in 1984. It came to two races in 1984, failing to qualify for either of them, and sat out for three years. In 1988 the Merlin powered hull was once again brought out to competition but failed to score points at Tri-Cities or San Diego. In San Diego the hull was finally able to qualify at San Diego and score a fifth place in a preliminary heat. This would prove to be the only heat this hull would ever finish and the boat was retired at the end of the season.
Boats/Teams Retired in 1989
U-146 Miss Easter Seals Bob Fendler returned in 1989 with the hullwas originally campaigned by Fred Leland under a variety of names and numbers but not much success. In 1989 the team did a respectable thing in running the boats under the name of Easter Seals when no sponsors could be secured for a race, but the team was sponsored by a lot of different local sponsors throughout the year, most infamously the Heartbreakers Gentleman’s Club in Houston. Most of the season was a struggle for the team, although Steve David was able to finish fourth in Tri-Cities. The next season the team built a turbine powered hull.
Boats Retired/Converted to Turbine in 1990
U-2 Oh Boy! Oberto Jim Harvey’s entry was an anomaly during this period of time, a piston powered team with a national sponsor. It was also probably the most successful piston hydro of this era. Jim Harvey started his own team in 1987 when he bought the boat from the team for which he previously worked as a Crew Chief, the boat that started in 1982 as Atlas Van Lines and raced in later years as the Squire Shop. The team didn’t get off to a good start when an auto accident on the way to the season opener meant the boat would need to be repaired. They were able to rejoin the tour in Tri-Cities and turned in a respectable if not head turning performance for the rest of the season. The U-2 came on strong in 1988 when it won at Miami in a saltwater race where the top four finishers were piston powered hydros, finished second at Madison, then won in San Diego where it was the only boat to finish the Final Heat. The victory at San Diego would prove to be the last for a boat using a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the engine that dominated Unlimited Hydroplane racing for so many years.
The team would finish third in the 1988 High Point standings. The team had another strong performance in 1989, scoring second place finishes in Miami, Detroit, and the San Diego Gold Cup where George Woods nearly beat a slowed Miss Budweiser on the final lap.
In 1990 the decision was made to attempt an odd “hybrid” setup, using piston power at the saltwater races but turbine power for the freshwater races. Instead the hull raced the first few races with Merlin power before being permanently converted to turbine power in Madison. The boat is the last to race with Merlin power.
Jim Harvey's Merlin powered Oh Boy! Oberto. Photo taken from the 1989 Madison Regatta program
U-6 Miss Madison The fifth Miss Madison hull debuted in 1988 and went on to break about every qualifying record for piston powered hydroplanes in 1989. I’ve said about everything I could about this hull in my previous article on the Miss Madison V, so check that article out for a more comprehensive review of this hull’s history. This Allison powered hull was converted to turbine power after the 1990 season. The 1988 Miss Madison is the last piston powered hydro other than Cooper’s Express hulls to be built.
U-5 Frank Kenney Toyota/Volvo/ U-85 Miss Northwest Frank Kenney was a well-known sponsor in Unlimited Hydroplane racing throughout the 1980’s, serving as Miss Madison’s West Coast sponsor for many years. In 1986 the Kenney team became owners of their own team after purchasing the 1980 Budweiser hull. The team which used Griffon power was an exclusively West Coast entry for their involvement in the sport which ended in 1988. In 1989 Dave Culley raced the boat as Miss Northwest but the boat was only able to finish one heat, a third place in San Diego. In 1990 the boat again appeared in only one race at Hawaii and once again was only able to score a fifth place finish, but at least it was the final so the Miss Northwest officially finished fifth in the race. This was the year where the Hawaii race counted towards the point standings of the following year, so this long running hull officially scored its last points in a year where the hull never touched the water.
The former Griffon Bud raced in later years as The Frank Kenney Toyota/Volvo and the Miss Northwest. Photo taken from the 1987 Madison Regatta program.
Boats/Teams Retired in 1991
U-99.9/U-100 Miss Rock Fred Leland campaigned with a number of hulls throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s. These hulls raced under a variety of names and numbers but always used piston power, usually a Packard Rolls Royce Merlin. Leland’s boats were usually campaigned on the West Coast, but never met with much success in those early years. In 1992 the team built its first turbine powered hydroplane that it raced nationally, marking a vast improvement for the program that culminated in the 1996 championship. Fred Leland is a fixture on the Unlimited Hydroplane tour to this day.
Fred Leland's Packard powered Miss Rock. Photo taken from the 1990 Madison Regatta Program
UR-5 Edge Superior Performance The only boat to ever carry the UR (unlimited reciprocating) moniker in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, this boat was originally the Miss Renault that won the 1983 World Championship race at Houston. The powerplant was converted to twin Chevy engines for the short-lived Automotive Thunderboat Association. The UR category was an attempt by the URC to bring more automotive powered Unlimited Hydroplanes in the sport, but that experiment was apparently abandoned after the UR-5 lasted only one year on the circuit. The boat, owned by the Rutt brothers and driven by Larry Lauterbach, raced the whole season in 1991 but was a non-factor in most races, not making any final heats.
U-89 Miss Ginger Honey This oddly named hydro was the last appearance at a race for the 1985 “Bubble Bud.” The team was announced as early as 1988 but didn’t make an appearance until late 1991. The Griffon Powered hull appeared at San Diego and Honolulu and failed to qualify for both races.
Boats Retired in 1992
U-7 Thor Racing For a number of years, Al Thoreson was a regular fixture in the pits. Throughout the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Thor Racing campaigned the former Squire Shop hull that carried Chip Hanauer to his first victory in 1979. For Thor Racing, the hull was almost exclusively driven by Jerry Hopp and raced under a number of different names and sponsors. The boat was one of the slowest boats in the field but did make a Final Heat from time to time, where it always seemed to get lapped. They did make it to the podium twice in 1988, finishing third in Miami and second in San Diego despite not finishing the Final Heat. 1992 was the last year for Thor Racing and for this hull and by that time it was clear that this ancient hull was clearly slower than nearly every other team on the circuit. It also stands as a representative to how much things have changed in the turbine era. Consider that this thirteen year old Allison powered hydro was an ancient tail ender in 1992 but in 2009 the U-7 Graham Trucking won in Qatar with a thirteen year old turbine powered hull and is still one of the top teams with a hull that was built in 1996.
Boats Retired in 1993
U-9 Miss Wellness Plan The last automotive powered Unlimited Hydroplane to make an appearance at a race, this boat was regularly a part of the tour for six years running under a variety of names. The hull debuted in 1988 with a lot of publicity and a bold prediction by Driver Wheeler Baker that the boat could be a strong contender. Despite these claims the U-9 failed to score any points until the last race of the year, when it finished sixth in Las Vegas. Those struggles continued in 1989 when the boat was only able to score points at Miami and Madison. In 1990 the boat only appeared at Miami and San Diego, failing to qualify for either of them. 1991 brought more struggles where it failed to score points in the first two races but then put it together for Madison where they actually made it to the Final Heat and finished sixth. In 1992 the Detroit based team made it to a couple more races but pulled off the tour after failing to start a heat at Madison. In 1993 the team made to only one race: Tri-Cities where it ran as Miss Exide and failed to qualify. Thus marking an end to a hull that started off with so much publicity and promise but was never able to make a splash as a competitor
The Automotive powered U-9. Photo taken from the 1990 Madison Regatta Program.
U-4 Miss Tubs A small team that would have been largely forgotten in Unlimited Hydroplane history except that it’s the answer to a trivia question: Who is the last team other than Cooper’s Express to try to qualify a piston powered Unlimited Hydoplane? The team actually made two goes of it: 1992 in Tr-Cities where it failed to qualify the Former Leland and Easter Seals hull, and in 1993 they attempted to qualify at Tri-Cities and Seattle with a former Lincoln Thrift hull that was nearly twenty years old but failed to qualify again. This marked the end not only for the Miss Tubs but for any other teams who ran with piston power. For the sixteen years that followed, there was only one piston powered boat in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing.
U-3 Cooper’s Express Mitch Evans designed and built an Allison powered hull for Ed Cooper Sr. and Jr. in 1988 and drove it beautifully. In 1989 Mitch Evans was able to score an upset and win at Tri-Cities, the last win for a team using piston power for over a decade.
By 1993 the team was the only piston powered hydro on the national tour. While the U-3 didn’t achieve many competitive results through the 1990’s but was a fan favorite across the country with its status as the “last thunderboat.”
A new boat was built in 1997 that was meant to make the team more competitive, but was a heavy hydroplane that was never able to contend with the turbine powered fleet.
Then in 2002 the team debuted a hull that was very fast and the U-3 was back in business. In 2003 the “Turbinator” won at Evansville, the Gold Cup in Detroit, and San Diego with Mitch Evans at the wheel.
The boat was highly competitive through most of the 2000’s with Jimmy King at the wheel until it left the circuit in 2010 in a still highly controversial move that I won’t begin to try to discuss here (and I ask that you do the same for this post). No matter which side one comes down on this issue, everyone can agree that the Ed Cooper Sr. and Jr. as well as the U-3 team deserves a lot of credit for not only sticking with piston power after everyone else had abandoned it but becoming contenders with it.
When reviewing the piston powered Unlimited Hydroplanes in this period, one thing that stood out to me is how quickly the turbine boats took over Unlimited racing. 1982 was the first win by a turbine powered boat (Pay n Pak at New York). In the decade that followed turbines went from a technological anomaly being used by one team to a few teams racing very fast but very unreliable hydros to clear distinction between the “have” teams who used turbine power and the “have nots” who used piston to the engine that all but a couple of holdouts in the fleet were using. The piston teams of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, especially the U-2, U-3, U-6, and U-7, deserve a lot of credit for making do with what they had. They also marked the end of an era and (in the case of the U-2 and U-6) reflected the changing times as they too switched to turbine power. It seems like every couple years there is talk of another team that is going to compete with aircraft or automotive power but these never come to fruition and the sport remains largely turbines only. What’s even more surprising is that despite the fact that turbines have been the engine of choice for a quarter century and Unlimited Hydroplane racing continues to survive there is still a lot of talk from fans and the media that the Unlimited Hydroplanes should outlaw the turbines to “save” the sport. What this argument ignores (despite the fact that Unlmited Hydroplane racing is doing well and doesn’t need to be saved) is that even in the 1980’s the availability of the aircraft engines that powered the thunderboats of the Golden Era of Unlimited racing were dwindling and there are even fewer of those engines today. There is also the argument that the Unlimiteds should switch to automotive power, which if one looks at the performance (or lack thereof) of the automotive powered hydros from this era those arguments seem to lose merit. I understand that nostalgia is a huge driving factor in Unlimited Hydroplane racing (if it weren’t then I wouldn’t have anything to blog about) but instead of decrying where the sport has gone over the last quarter century I feel it’s best to celebrate the history of the sport and celebrate and enjoy the technological advances the sport has made over the years. Turbine power is where the sport is now, but the teams which made the “last stand” for piston power in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s were also memorable. Some were quite successful and others didn’t even score a point in competition, but together all of them marked the end of an era in Unlimited Hydroplane racing.
I tried to include every boat and team that used piston power from 1987-1992. If I missed one don't hesitate to let me know. All images taken from the web unless otherwise noted. I would like to thank the Jim Sharkey's "Hydros Who's Who" and past Madison Regatta programs for being a fine source of information. All thanks to Tom Ace for his work in uploading YouTube videos from this era. And finally, thanks to you for reading this very long post.