As the San Diego race approaches, it's time once again to look back on a memorable race weekend on Thunder The Bridge. This time, the subject is the 1988 San Diego Bayfair regatta. The race was immediately remembered for one of the most spectacular accidents in Unlimited Hydroplane history, and would be remembered in later years as the end of an era of sorts for Unlimited racing. Although nobody knew it at the time, the 1988 San Diego race would represent the last hurrah for one of the greatest engines in Unlimited Hydroplane history.
Buildup: In a more abstract sense, the story of the San Diego 1988 race begins with the post World War II era of Unlimited racing. As the war ended, the Unlimited class was formed by the APBA to take advantage of the surplus of aircraft engines. At first, most teams opted for the more reliable and widely available Allison engine rather then the more temperamental British built Rolls Royce Merlin. This began to change in the mid-1950's, especially when the Merlin powered Slo-Mo-Shun V dominated the 1954 Gold Cup. By the time the Unlimited Racing Commission was formed in 1957, most of the top teams in the sport were using the Merlin engine. In fact, from 1957 to 1979 every single High Point champion used a Merlin engine.
This began to change in 1980. That year, Miss Budweiser won the championship using the more powerful Rolls Royce Griffon engine. By that point there was a dwindling number of World War II aircraft engines. Although the Merlin powered Atlas Van Lines won the title in 1982 and 1983, the beginning of the end came in 1984 when the same Atlas team introduced a turbine powered hydroplane. The Atlas team won the title in 1985 while the turbine powered Miss Budweiser won the championship in 1986. In 1987, for the first time in Unlimited Hydroplane history, no team using a Merlin or Allison engine was able to win a single race. By 1988 only one team racing full time was using Merlin power.
Surprisingly, that one team went on to have a spectacular season and showed the hydroplane world that the old Merlin engine wasn't quite dead yet. Jim Harvey's Oh Boy! Oberto team was coming off a 1987 season that never really got off the ground. The boat suffered damage in a highway accident on the way to the season opener in Miami, wasn't able to rejoin the tour in Tri-Cities, and was essentially a non factor for the rest of the season. In 1988, the Oh Boy! Oberto not only made it to Miami but was able win the race when the saltwater spray knocked out the turbine competitors. Their solid season continued with podium finishes at Detroit and Madison and the team came in to San Diego in high spirits.
The same could not be said, however, for another team rolling into the pits of San Diego in 1988. Fran Muncey's team opted to campaign two teams in 1988 with mixed results. Chip Hanauer was able to drive the Miller High Life to victory at Detroit and subbed for John Prevost to drive the Miss Circus Circus to victory at the Evansville Gold Cup race, but as the season stretched on a frustration began to mount as neither boat on the team was not able to find victory lane. After the Seattle race, a strange swap was implemented where Chip Hanauer, along with the Miller High Life sponsorship, would go to the U-31 team using the 1987-00 hull while John Prevost and the Circus Circus sponsorshp would join the U-00 team using the 1984-01 hull.
Also coming to San Diego that weekend was another team having an up and down year. The Miss Madison team expected to start the season with a new state of the art hull, so much so that the team entered its boat the final race of 1987 as the "Holset Mrs. Madison." Construction of the new hull took longer than expected, however, and the team was forced to enter their old hull into competition. In Tri-Cities the new boat was finally able to debut and set the hydroplane world on its ear with a solid performance right out of the box, making a strong impression in the preliminary heats and finishing fifth in the Final. In Seattle, however, their luck would change when the hull was quite literally "rear ended" by the Miss Circus Circus after a preliminary heat. The team was coming into San Diego with a promising but still untested Allison powered hydroplane.
The Race: It didn't take long for things to get interesting in San Diego. In Heat 1B, the Oh Boy! Oberto jumped out to an early lead after the Miss Madison had to slow down at the start and the Circus Circus was late to the lane. On the backstretch, the Miss Madison and Circus Circus were closing in on the Oberto when something unbelievable happened. Both the Miss Madison and the Circus Circus caught the same gust of wind and both boats went over. The Circus Circus landed right side up, the Miss Madison landed upside down, and the moment had immediately become a part of Unlimited Hydroplane lore. The "double blowover," as it would come to be known was shown on ESPN numerous times as well as TV stations across the country (this was the pre-You Tube version of going viral). After the second heat of racing in San Diego, Unlimited Hydroplane history had already been made.
The rest of the day was essentially without incident. The plethora of DNS's and DNF's, which had become a regular part of the saltwater races at Miami and San Diego in the early turbine era, was ever present at San Diego on that day. The Miller High Life wasn't able to start either of its preliminary heats. The turbine Pringle's boat won heat 1A but failed to start Heat 2B or the Final. The piston powered U-3 finished fourth in Heat 1A and didn't start Heat 2B, but still made the Final due to the attrition of the day, where it failed to start. Also failing to start the Final was the Pocket Saver's Plus and the Miller High Life, who was the alternate despite not scoring any points on the day. That left Oh Boy! Oberto with 800 points, the Miss Budweiser with 700 points, and the Paddock Pools with a surprising 600 points to start the Final.
It didn't take long for the attrition of the day to continue. The Miss Budweiser had a lead succombed to the salt water in lap two and was left dead in the water. That left George Wood in the Oh Boy! Oberto to win the race essentially unchallenged. The Paddock Pools trailed but blew its engine before the finish, which meant the Final of a crazy day of racing had only one finisher. Despite failing to finish the race, the Paddock Pools officially finished second, which would prove to be the highest finish for Al Thorson's U-7 entry, which was a regular on the tour for a number of years in the 1980's and early 1990's but was a perennial also ran.
Aftermath: The three teams that came into San Diego in three different directions also left the race in different directions. The Miss Madison was forced to lease the U-3 hull for the season ending Las Vegas race, but the team was able to rebound from the new hull's shaky debut with a strong 1989 that saw the U-6 break a number of piston powered speed records and finish third in High Points. The Circus Circus team was also done for 1988. After the season finale in Las Vegas, Fran Muncey would retire as an owner, selling most of her equipment to Circus Circus, who would retain Chip Hanauer as a driver. John Prevost's career was also done after the 1988 San Diego race. The double blowover was also the last ride in the U-6 for longtime Miss Madison driver Ron Snyder, who would appear in a few races in 1989 behind the wheel of the automotive powered U-9 before calling it a career.The Oh Boy! Oberto would finish the 1988 third in High Points and would have another strong season in 1989 despite not winning a race. Much of the concern after the 1988 San Diego race was whether or not a repeat would happen in 1989, when San Diego was slated to host the Gold Cup. Despite the concerns, the 1989 Gold Cup race in San Diego went off without a hitch. There was attrition, but unlike 1988 the 1989 San Diego race had a full field for the Final Heat, where the Miss Budweiser held off a late charge by the Oh Boy! Oberto to win the Gold Cup. A single finisher in a Final Heat, an occasional occurence during Unlimited racing's piston era (most famously in 1978 in Miami where the Atlas Van Lines was not only the only finisher but also the only starter), would never happen again after the 1988 San Diego race.
More famously, however, the 1988 San Diego race would provide another last in Unlimited Hydroplane history. The Rolls Royce Merlin engine, so long dominant in the Unlimited class, would see its last victory on that September day. Jim Harvey's team would use the Merlin engine a couple more years before switching over to turbine power in 1991 and there were no more Unlimiteds using the Merlin engine. Occasionally there is talk of another team that plans to join the tour with a Merlin powered hydroplane (just as there is similar talk of an Allison or automotive powered hydroplane) but twenty years later there has yet to be another Merlin powered hydroplane enter competition.
The 1988 San Diego race was memorable from the moment it happened due to the double blowover. It also represented a historical anomaly that rarely happened with one finisher in the Final Heat as well as the end of an era with the final victory for a Merlin powered hydroplane. So despite being seen as a bit of a dud of a show as it happened (every article I read on the race was extremely negative), the 1988 San Diego race would become memorable for a number of reasons for years to come.
My thanks to Jim Sharkey's Hydro's Who's Who as well as Fred Farley's article titled "Rolls Royce Merlin question" for their information that contributed to this post. Also used was an Unlimited News Journal article covering the 1988 San Diego race taken from Leslie Field's Hydroplane History site.