Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dynasties of the Sport: Miss Bardahl, 1963-1968

     For much of the 1960's: three names were on the lips of nearly everyone in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing: The Green Dragon, the Blonde Bombshell, and the Checkerboard Comet.  Unfortunately for its competition, all of these names were used to describe one team: the Miss Bardahl. Ole Bardahl's entry came to define the 1960's much in the way that the Atlas Van Lines and Miss Budweiser entries would be the face of future decades in the sport.  Not only that, the Miss Bardahl left a legacy that 
 After a modest in the beginning in the sport by sponsoring a small time entry in 1957, Ole Bardahl got involved in the sport in a big way by starting his own team in 1958.  With Norm Evans and Mira Slovak splitting driving duties, the team would only win two points races on the year in Buffalo and Chelan, but would perform consistently throughout the year and claim a High Point title in his first year as an owner for Ole Bardahl.  The next couple years would be quiet for the Bardahl team with no major race wins, although they did manage a runner up finish in the 1959 High Points.  Things began to change in 1961 when Ron Musson, who had already earned a reputation as one of the top drivers in the sport during brief stints with the Hawaii Kai III and the Nitrogen Too, was signed on to drive.  The partnership proved immediate dividends as Musson brought home a win in the Seattle World Championship race.  Another victory at the Silver Cup Detroit and two more podium finishes on the year was good enough for the Miss Bardahl to collect another runner up finish in the High Points. 

  In 1962, the team decided to step up its game again and built a new Merlin powered hydro.  After some struggles through the year as they worked on dialing their new boat in, a convincing victory in the season finale on Lake Tahoe was an omen of things to come. 
1960-62 High Point Champion Miss Thriftway does battle with the future 1963-65 Champion Miss Bardahl on the Ohio River at the Indiana Governor's Cup

  With Miss Thriftway running a reduced schedule in 1963, the Bardahl team found itself alone at the top.  The Miss Bardahl scored three race wins on the season, including a Detroit Gold Cup victory that acted as a proverbial “passing of the torch” as the Bardahl’s biggest rival of the previous seasons, the Miss Thriftway, finished sixth. Two other podium finishes gave the Miss Bardahl the 1963 High Point title.  1964 continued the team’s winning ways as the Miss Bardahl captured the Detroit Gold Cup, the Seafair Trophy, and two more races en route to another High Point title.  In 1965, offseason repairs meant that the team was unable to make it to the season opener at Guntersville, Alabama, but victories at four races, including the Gold Cup in Seattle and the UIM World Championship on Lake Tahoe  were enough to put the team over the top for a third straight High Point championship.

                Never one to be settled with his team’s performance, Ole Bardahl pressed the team to come up with a new innovative boat.  The result was a revolutionary new cabover hull.  Although cabovers had been experimented with in the Unlimited class before (most notably the Thriftway Too from 1957-1960) this was the first time a major team had a cabover as its primary hull.  After mechanical issues sidelined the team for the season opener in Tampa, the team, along with the rest of the hydroplane community would experience “Black Sunday” in Washington, DC when the boat was involved in a horrific accident that resulted in the loss of life of Ron Musson.  Although no direct correlation was ever made between the design of the boat and the horrible accident on that fateful day, the loss of one of the most accomplished and respectful drivers in the history of the sport would be enough to delay the wide acceptance of cabover hydroplanes for another decade.  As for the team, they were done for 1966 and their string of High Point Titles would come to an end.
The ill fated cabover Miss Bardahl

                Ole Bardahl and the Miss Bardahl would return for 1967, but nearly everything else was different.  The team, which featured a number of new crew members, would debut a new hull, which was more conventional (for the time) than the previous hull but featured a considerably lower profile than other Unlimited Hydroplanes of the time.  Furthermore Billy Schumacher, who was considered one of the hottest drivers at the time in terms of pure potential but had only had brief stints in the Unlimited Class to that point, was tabbed as driver.  Even the solid green paint scheme, which had become a trademark of the Miss Bardahl team, was exchanged for a new yellow paint scheme, causing the “Green Dragon” team to be renamed the “Blonde Bombshell.” After a trying 1966, the team seemed to pick up where they left off, winning the season opener in Tampa.  Five more wins on the year, including a victory at the Indiana Governor’s Cup (a first for the team) and the Gold Cup in Seattle meant that the team would cruise to a convincing win in the High Point title.  

The “new” Miss Bardahl team would return in 1968 with a striking new checkerboard paint scheme, thus giving birth to the “Checkerboard Comet.”  Although not quite as dominant as in the previous year, the Miss Bardahl still managed four race wins, including repeat victories at the Indiana Governor’s Cup and the Gold Cup (this year in Detroit) were enough to give the team another High Point title. 
Some awesome footage of the 1968 Detroit Gold Cup, which was won by the Miss Bardahl

  Ole Bardahl announced his retirement from the sport, feeling that he had nothing more to accomplish much like Willard Rhodes six years before him.  The team did, however, return for a curtain call in 1969.  With Fred Alter at the wheel, the Miss Bardahl managed a third in Seattle and a sixth in San Diego before calling it a career.  Bardahl remains to this day one of the leading employers in the Seattle area and has an expansive oil additive business, but the name Bardahl would never again be a team's title sponsor save for a one race deal in 2000 when the U-3 would race as the "Bardahl Special" and finish a surprise fifth in San Diego.

The Legacy: The team's dominant performance over a decade that saw rapid growth for the sport meant that the Miss Bardahl is fondly remembered to this day, especially by Baby Boomer fans.  Nearly every RC hydroplane event is all but guaranteed to have at least one entry sporting Miss Bardahl colors.  Nearly every race site is all but guaranteed to have Miss Bardahl t-shirts, posters, and other merchandise for sale.  Also, although Bardahl's direct involvement in the sport hasn't gone far beyond being an alternate sponsor for the U-3 a few years ago over the last decade or so, memories of the Miss Bardahl have abounded along pit row  through the decades.  Some of Fred Leland's early entries wore the number U-40, an obvious tribute to the Miss Bardahl.  Furthermore,the latter part of the previous decade had not one but two paint schemes intended to recall the classic colors of the Miss Bardahl, as the U-48 entry had a dark green paint scheme with black trim and former Bardahl driver Billy Schumacher's U-37 entry wore the checkerboard paint scheme of the same time that he drove the classic hull.  Even to this day memories of the Miss Bardahl are nearly everywhere one looks around the sport, not bad for a team that hasn't entered a race in over four decades.

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