Sunday, August 28, 2011

When Small Towns Go Big Time

The Current H1 North American schedule has three major metropolitan areas, one smaller metropolitan area, and a race to be potentially added next year (Houston) in yet another big city.  A look at the hydroplane race sites of the past shows that a number of other major metropolitan areas (Miami, Dallas, Kansas City, Phoenix, Nashville, Washington, DC etc.) and small cities (Evansville, Norfolk, Las Vegas,  etc.).  Clearly, the major leagues of hydroplane racing is usually at home in major cities.

This isn't always the case, however.  Sometimes, the major leagues of hydroplane racing will hold an event in a town barely big enough to house a sandlot team.  The most obvious example of this is Madison, which has been a regular stop on the Unlimited Hydroplane tour since 1955 and has been hosting continuously major regattas longer than any city with the exception of Detroit.  Despite Madison being the only current small town stop on the H1 Unlimited Air National Guard Series, there are a handfull of other small towns who have hosted Unlimited races through the years.  Despite being small in number, these towns show that nearly any town with an adequate lake or river and the proper organizational skills can host an Unlimited Hydroplane race.  Here is a rundown of those small towns who have had stops on the Unlimited tour.  Starting with the most recent first:

Valleyfield, Quebec (population 39,672) Much in the same way that Madison stakes claim to being the boat racing capital of the Midwest, Valleyfield could be called the boat racing epicenter of Quebec.  The small community on the St. Lawrence River hosts a major regatta that draws a number of classes and thousands of fans every year.  In 2005 the Unlimiteds came for an exhibition and were such a big hit that the decision was made to have a full race there in 2006.  The problem was that once the race took place there it became clear that the site was less than adequate for an Unlimited event.  Although the interest was definitely there, the small (less than two miles long) course was so narrow that it was impossible to even have two Unlimiteds on the straightaway at the same time.  The race was set up so that there was a start/finish line on both the frontstretch and the backstretch, with the two boats on the course at once effectively making time trial runs.  During qualifying, the Ellstrom boat lost a rudder and crashed onto the beach, leading Villwock to go on the air and criticize the Valleyfield site.  Mike Allen would win the race in the II, his only win in his career and the team's only win in a year where they would win the championship, ironically beating the team who would ultimately finish second in the High Point race that year.  Steve David and the Oh Boy! Oberto.  Although the race was a hit with the fans and many people involved with the Unlimiteds liked the match race format, the decision was made by the organizers of the Les Regates de Valleyfield to not have the Unlimiteds back due to safety concerns.

St. Clair, Michigan (population 5,802)  St. Clair perhaps holds the record for longest period of time between Unlimited Hydroplane regattas. The small town north of Detroit hosted a regatta for a number of years during Unlimited racing's golden era of the 1950's.  The race was known as the International Boundry, a nod to the fact that the U.S/Canada border actually ran through the middle of the race course.  The first Unlimited race in St. Clair took place in 1955 and, like many Unlimited races in that era, only a handfull of Unlimited hydroplanes showed up.  The Such Crust III finished first in a field of six hydroplanes.  Gale VI won the 1956 race while Chuck Thompson drove the Short Circut to victoyy in the 1957 race.  Legendary Canadian boat Miss Supertest won the 1958 race in which only five Unlimiteds attended and only two of those five scored points.  The 1959 race was essentially an exhibition raced among  Detroit-based hydroplanes, with Miss Detroit winning the invitational non points event.  The 1960 St. Clair was another exhibition, although two non-Detroit boats also participated (Nitrogen Too, Miss Buffalo) with Gale V taking top honors.  According to Fred Farley, as prize money became an expectation at Unlimited Hydroplane races, smaller events like St. Clair began to fall by the wayside, and after 1960 the International Boundary Regatta fell by the wayside. 
In the early 2000's, there began to be interest in reviving the St. Clair event, culminating with a 2004 return to the St. Clair River, forty four years after the last event at St. Clair and forty six years after the last point race there.  Unfortunately, the event  was held during a long and heated dispute between race sites, race teams, and Hydro-Prop, resulting in only six boats attending the event.  To make matters worse, the Unlimiteds were forced to concede the track to Oceanliners, which often left a huge wake.  The first two sets of heats went off essentially without incident, but for the third heat the winds picked up, turning the river into an innavigable mess.  Only two boats finished the two heats in which the boats were barely even at planing speed for the entire heat.  After that it was determined unsafe to run a Final and E-Lam Plus was declared the winner based on points.  A victim of weather, Oceanliners, and the bitter dispute that was tearing apart Unlimited Hydroplane racing at the time, the St. Clair race fell by the wayside as sanctioning transferred from Hydro-Prop to the ABRA.  It does hold kind of an odd place in history, however.  With the San Diego event running as an unsanctioned "outlaw" race that year the 2004 St. Clair race holds the distinction of being the last race ever run under the auspices of Hydro-Prop.

The last two heats ever held under the sanctioning of Hydro-Prop

Lake Ozark, Missouri (population 1,586) Easily the smallest and most isolated community to host an Unlimited event in the modern era, the Unlimiteds came to the Lake of the Ozarks in 1983 and 1984.  The event is memorable primarily for its 1983 race, when Ron Snyder drove the Miss Madison (known as the Rich Plan Food Service that year) to an upset victory after the Atlas Van Lines and Miss Budweiser got off to terrible starts when the pre race cat and mouse game took them both out of the running.  It was the first victory for Miss Madison since 1971, the second for popular longtime driver Ron Snyder, and would prove to be one of only two race victories for the Miss Madison team for a twenty nine year stretch between 1972 and 2000.  Jim Kropfield drove to victory in the 1984 Missouri Governor's Cup after perennial rival Chip Hanauer and the Atlas Van Lines was slow at the start.  Not surprisingly, attendance was an issue for both years in the isolated, sparsely populated area around Lake of the Ozarks.  There was also a tremendous inconsistency in scheduling, as the 1983 race was held in May (the first Unlimited event of that year) and the 1984 race was in late September (the second to last event for that year) so that probably had an issue with keeping attendance down as well.  Although it was a great natural venue for Unlimiteds to race on, 1984 would be the last year for this race that was quite literally held in the middle of nowhere.

Ogallala, Nebraska (population 4,930)  The small, out of the way town, best known as the place where cattle coming in from cattle drives was loaded on the Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th century as well as lending its name to the nation's largest underground lake, hosted an Unlimited race in 1980.  I have not been able to find much information on the race, other then the results. Bill Muncey won the race in the Atlas Van Lines and Miss Madison came in second with Miss Budweiser coming in third.  Indicative of the small Unlimited fields of the late 1970's and early 1980's, only eight boats attended the race in Ogallala, with five of those scoring points and three finishing in the Final.

El Dorado, Kansas (population 13,021)  For whatever reason, the Unlimited schedule of 1980 had not one but two races in small towns on the Great Plains.  The El Dorado race was actually held for two years, with very few boats showing up at both races (although once again that's probably more telling of the era of Unlimited racing than it is the actual site, boat numbers were steadily dwindling during this time as Merlin and Allison engines became more and more sparse).  Bill Muncey bested a field of five Unlimiteds in the Atlas Van Lines in 1979, while Dean Chenoweth  was victorious over a field of five in 1980.  Much like the Ogallala event, I haven't been able to find any information on the El Dorado races beyond the results.  If someone has some information on the races and how they came to be please share it.  It seems like it should be less than a coincidence that two small towns on the plains decided to hold Unlimited races at the same time.

Guntersville, Alabama (population 8,197)  The small town in northern Alabama is perhaps the best known of any of the small town race sites in Unlimited Hydroplane history with the obvious exception of Madison.  The Dixie Cup race was held seven times between 1963 and 1969 (not held in 1967 or 1968) and served as the season kickoff each time it was held.  Before an official race was ever run there, however, Lake Guntersville was on the minds of the hydro world.  It was here that in April of 1962 Roy Duby drove the Miss US to the mile straightaway record, becoming the first person to ever go over 200 mph. in such an attempt a and establishing a speed record that would stand until 2000.  In the first Unlimited race in Guntersville, Ron Musson drove the Miss Bardahl to victory.  In 1964 Bill Muncey won in the Notre Dame.  Buddy Byers was officially second in the Miss Madison although he tied the Notre Dame in points and actually finished first in the Final Heat (the tiebreaker in those days was based on elapsed time).  In 1965 Buddy Byers once again finished first in the Final Heat at Guntersville in the Miss Madison and this time he won the overall race as well, the first major race win in Miss Madison history.  After a two year hiatus, the Dixie Cup was back on the schedule in 1968, with Warner Gardner driving the Miss Eagle Electric to victory.  Bill Sterett would  win the 1969 Dixie Cup behind the wheel of the Miss Budweiser, a nice starting point for what would prove to be that team's first of many championship seasons.  No more Unlimited races were held in Guntersville after 1969, although the site would be remembered for years thereafter due to it being the site of Roy Duby and the Miss US's record setting speed run as well as the first race win for the Miss Madison.  I'm not sure what led to the demise of the race here.  From what I have seen the race always drew a good crowd (as well as a lot of media attention) and always had decent purses for that period in time.  perhaps the small northern Alabama town was deemed too isolated to hold an Unlimited event, although this is one race I would like to see restored.  The area is clearly a hotbed for racing (Talladegga Superspeedway isn't far away from here) and it is a nice natural venue.  A possible return to Guntersville was mentioned in passing by Sam Cole a few years ago but nothing more ever came of that.  If Unlimited Hydroplane racing ever returns to the Southeastern United States, I think Miami and Guntersville would be the two natural choices.

New Town, North Dakota (population 1,925) Another race site in a small Plains State town on a reservoir lake, New Town was, like Lake Ozark, another small out of the way resort town that briefly hosted an Unlimited race.   The 1964 Dakota Cup was an exciting daylong duel between the Tahoe Miss and the Miss Bardahl, with Ron Musson able to drive the Miss Bardahl to victory after the Tahoe Miss conked out in the final.  A return event was scheduled for 1965 and eleven Unlimiteds made their way to North Dakota, but rising waters, high winds, and massive amounts of debris meant that none of the boats were able to even able to be put in the water.  As sponsors lost a great amount of money for the no contest race, the Unlimiteds never returned to New Town.

Stateline, Nevada (population 1,215) Another resort town, the small town on Lake Tahoe best known for casinos hosted an Unlimited race for a number of years.  The event was effectively a replacement for the Reno race, as Lake Tahoe proved more apt to hosting an Unlimited race.  Miss Bardahl was able to win the 1962 race, edging the $ Bill in elapsed time.  The 1963 was once again won by Miss Bardahl, but only one heat of competition was completed before the event was forced to shut down due to weather concerns.  Miss Bardahl made it three in a row in 1964, sweeping all three heats.  In 1965 the UIM World Championship race was held on Lake Tahoe and boasted the largest purse in Unlimited racing up until that time.  Once again, the Miss Bardahl was victorious.  The World Championship race would be the last on Lake Tahoe.  It is not clear what led to the demise of the race, although it is not unheard of for races to fall by the wayside after offering a huge purse for an event (Owensboro met a similar fate after hosting the Gold Cup in 1977).  Also, Lake Tahoe's high altitude was hard on the engines of the time, and attrition was always high at the event.  

Chelan, Washington (population 3,890) The small central Washington town at the foot of Lake Chelan held a race with the amusing name of the Apple Cup from 1957-1960.  For all four years the event was the first race of the year and acted as almost a "sending off party" for the Seattle boats before they made the trek east.  A 1983 article on the Apple Cup by Bob Senior described the Chelan of 1957 as a town of 250 people and forty miles away from any other city. Bill Stead in the Maverick was able to win the tumultuous first event that saw many of the top competitors fall by the wayside.  The 1958 event was much more competitive and saw Norm Evans drive the brand new Miss Bardahl to the first of many race victories.  More weather issues plagued the 1959 running and the Final Heat was forced to be cancelled, with Chuck Hickling winning the Apple Cup on the strength of two heat wins.  Bill Muncey won the 1960 race at the wheel of the Miss Thriftway.  After 1960 the Apple Cup was no more, citing crowd control problems and increased expenses.  It should also be mentioned that during the time of the Chelan race there were also Unlimited races on the schedule for Seattle and Coeur D'Alene, Idaho on the schedule so it would be easy for this small town race in the Pacific Northwest to get lost in the shuffle.

Elizabeth City, North Carolina (population 18,683)  The small northeastern North Carolina port town was regular stop for the Unlimiteds during the 1950's.  The race, known as the International Cup, served as the hometown race for longtime hydro personality Henry Lauterbach.  The Gale V won the inagural event in 1954 attended by five boats from Detroit.  Danny Foster won the 1955 race behind the wheel of the Tempo VII 1956 International Cup in the Miss US I.  In 1957 the race was officially an exhibition and actually took place on the same week as the Madison race.  The Miss US IV was the only Unlimited to show up that week and was declared the winner by default.  The last International Cup race was in 1958, with the Miss US taking first in a field of four boats.

New Martinsville, West Virginia (population 5,984) This small, sleepy Ohio River town held a regular race during the early years of Unlimited racing, although it was no more by the time of the formation of the URC in 1957.  Although the New Martinsville race's history was entirely in the unorganized pre-URC days of the Unlimited class, the race was often able to draw the top Unlimiteds of the day from the east as well as one very memorable crossover from the west and hosted some memorable regattas.  The miss Peps V would win the first postwar race in New Martinsville with Danny Foster at the wheel, but for the rest of this race's history the Dossin's entries would see a lot of misfortune on this Ohio River course.  The 1948 Imperial Gold Cup went to a 7 litre boat known as the Tomyann.  A huge field of 86 boats came to race in nine different classes in 1949.  In the Unlimited race the My Sweetie and the Such Crust were tied on points but the victory went to the My Sweetie on average speed by a scant half a mile an hour average.  The 1950 Imperial Gold Cup race saw a spectacular accident, as the Miss Pepsi capsized in a turn while leading the field.  This allowed Chuck Thompson in the Delphine X to take the victoryIn 1951 a field of eight boats that included the Miss Pepsi, Hornet, and Gale I came to New Martinsville but Bill Cantrell was the best of the fleet, winning both heats in My Sweetie.  The Dee Jay V, one of only a handfull of boats built after World War II that was not only a Gold Cup class boat but also employed a riding mechanic, won the 1952 race after mechanical problems struck the Miss Pepsi and the Miss Great Lakes III.  The 1953 race was a classic.  The Slo-Mo-Shun V made the trip east for the race and was heavily favored.  Also there was the Such Crust III, one of the Slo-Mo's biggest rivals from Detroit.  A crowd of 50,000, huge for the standards of 1950's boat racing attended the event in the small West Virginia town that even caught the attention of the New York Times.  The Such Crust III suffered supercharger issues and was a non-factor.  The Slo-Mo-Shun V also didn't finish their only heat.  In the end, veteran Bill Cantrell won the Imerial Gold Cup behind the wheel of the Such Crust V.  Lee Schoenith won the last Imperial Gold Cup in 1954 in the Gale V.  After that year's race it was determined that the course was too narrow for the increasing speed of modern Unlimiteds, and the popular event was abandonned.

As can be seen, in nearly every decade of Unlimited racing there has been at least one small town that got the notion to host an Unlmited Hydroplane race.  And of course, the small town of Madison, Indiana has been a regular stop on the Unlimited schedule since 1954.  What it shows is that the task of a small town hosting an Unlimited Hydroplane regatta, while difficult, can still be done.  Most of the better known limited hydroplane regattas take place in similarly smaller communities so really this is where the grass roots of hydroplane racing lies.  So while hydroplane racing's major leagues is often raced in major cities, every now and then a one horse town will welcome the Unlimiteds and put on a spectacular show.

All population figures are from the most recently available census data and is not necessarily reflective of the size of the community at the time of the race.  My thanks to Leslie Field's Hydroplane History site and to Jim Sharkey's "Hydros Who's Who" for their information that was used in this post.

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