Crew Chiefs - The Unsung Heros
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
In the high-tech world of Unlimited hydroplane racing, the owners and the drivers receive most of the attention. But without the crew chiefs, they would all be dead in the water.
A crew chief is defined as an individual who regularly works on the boat and has charge of those who also work on the boat. Crew chiefs, over the years, have had varying degrees of authority, depending upon their relationship to their owner and driver, yet are considered crew chiefs if they fit the above description.
In the words of the late driver Jim Kropfield, "I’m just the visual embodiment of their work. Anything that I’ve done on the race course is a direct tribute to the magic that the crew does on the boat. I couldn’t do it without these guys."
In order to field a competitive entry, a crew chief must be more than just a mechanic. He needs the qualities of an engineer, foreman, father confessor, arbitrator, book keeper, travel agent, truck driver, strategist, and overall planner.
It’s the chief’s responsibility to get the boat and equipment van from city to city--on time. It’s his chore to see that the equipment rolls into town bright and sparkling, presenting the best possible image for the sponsor. It’s his duty to see that the boat is ready, from bow to stern. It’s his responsibility to train a race crew so that it functions at peak efficiency and in perfect harmony. Put succinctly, the buck stops with the crew chief.
Over the years, great boats and great crew people have gone hand in hand.
The head honcho for Gar Wood’s MISS AMERICA boats was the remarkable Orlin Johnson, who also served as riding mechanic for the Wood team.
Johnson joined the MISS AMERICA organization in 1919. While many riding mechanics were little more than passengers, it was Orlin’s job to control the huge Packard engines. Sitting on the port side of the boat, Johnson worked the throttles with his right hand, while his left hand firmly grasped a brass handle, fastened to the gunwale. His chin rested upon a padded cushion in front of him.
For over a decade, the team of Gar Wood and Orlin Johnson dominated the sport, defeating the finest boats and drivers that the world could offer.
Two of the top crew chiefs of the 1930s were Anderson “Dick” Bowers of EL LAGARTO and Charlie Grafflin of DELPHINE IV.
Bowers rode with owner/driver George Reis to three consecutive APBA Gold Cup victories in 1933, ‘34, and ‘35.
Grafflin and pilot Bill Horn had a big year in 1932, winning the Gold Cup and the President’s Cup for owner Horace Dodge, Jr.
The modern concept of a crew chief evolved after World War II. The SLO-MO-SHUN team from Seattle was a classic example.
Mike Welsch racked up twelve race victories as lead wrench for SLO-MO-SHUN IV and HAWAII KAI III to be the winningest crew chief of the 1950s. In the last year of his life, Mike was still making his presence felt on the crew of the 1981 National Champion MISS BUDWEISER.
George McKernan likewise started in the sport with the SLO-MO crew and became a crew chief with MISS U.S. I in 1958. Before retiring in 1971, George accumulated a grand total of twenty-one victories--more than anyone else at that time--with MISS U.S. I, MISS EXIDE, and MISS BUDWEISER.
Over the years, a lot of retired drivers have graduated to the rank of crew chief. But a few have managed to hold down both jobs simultaneously.
The most successful of these was Chuck Thompson, who won eleven races as driver and lead mechanic for MISS PEPSI in the early fifties and for his own SHORT CIRCUIT/MISS DETROIT team in the late fifties and early sixties.
Another popular driver/crew chief was Walt Kade, the oldest man ever to pilot an Unlimited hydroplane in competition at age 68 (in 1972). Between 1965 and 1969, Walt headed up the crew for Mike Wolfbauer’s SAVAIR'S MIST and SAVAIR'S PROBE from Detroit and usually drove SAVAIR'S MIST.
A few crew chiefs have become owners of the boats that they have worked upon. In 1987, Jim Harvey purchased from Bob Steil the craft that he had managed as ATLAS VAN LINES in 1982. Under the aegis of OH BOY! OBERTO, Harvey and driver George Woods won a pair of races in 1988. And later, under the sponsorship of T-PLUS, Harvey won two races in 1993 and one in 1995 with driver Steve David.
Al Thoreson, who was crew chief for Bob Gilliam’s FASCINATION and KOLroy in the late fifties, became an owner in 1986. Together with his partner and driver Jerry Hopp, Al has struggled valiantly on a low budget in a sport dominated by millionaire owners and top-dollar corporate sponsorships.
While most crew chiefs are paid for their valuable work, the sport also has a long and honorable tradition of amateur sportsmen. The MISS MADISON team for one has had to make do with volunteer help from the very beginning. Graham Heath headed up the original MISS MADISON crew, starting in 1961. Others who have twisted wrenches on behalf of MISS M include Tony Steinhardt, Dave Stewart, Bob Humprhey, John Humes, and Charlie Grooms.
One of the most successful teams in Unlimited history was the famed MISS BARDAHL from Seattle. Owner Ole Bardahl of course hired some of the sport’s winningest crew chiefs for his organization.
These included Leo VandenBerg, who accounted for twelve race victories and three National High Point Championships, with drivers Ron Musson and Don Wilson. When Leo retired in 1966, his young assistant, Jerry Zuvich, became crew chief and went on to win ten more races and two more High Point titles for MISS BARDAHL with driver Billy Schumacher.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Unlimited sport is not exclusively a masculine pastime. In addition to owning and driving boats, a number of women have served as crew chiefs.
The best known of these is Virginia Mucutza, wife of longtime participant Leo Mucutza. Back in the fifties, Virgie and Leo had their own Unlimited team. They campaigned the former SUCH CRUST II, renamed CRUSTY, and later ran the second GALE V as YELLER JACKET. Leo was the driver, while Virgie headed up the mechanical crew and did most of the Allison engine work.
As a rule, crew chiefs are a close-knit fraternity. They have been known to assist each other in times of emergency.
At the 1989 Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities, Washington, Ron Brown of MISS BUDWEISER loaned some equipment to Ed Cooper, Jr., of COOPER'S EXPRESS. This was to enable Ed’s boat to continue in the race.
Thanks to the help from BUDWEISER’s chief, COOPER'S EXPRESS went on to win the Final Heat and the Columbia Cup.
The crew chief is clearly the man on the hot seat at an Unlimited race. Everybody else’s problems are also his problems.
In 1966, TAHOE MISS crew chief Andy Anderson had a problem that was highly unusual. His driver, Mira Slovak was often called upon to perform in aerial acrobatic shows between heats with his Bucher-Jangman biplane. Anderson would always worry that Mira would be delayed or prevented from returning to the race area in time for the next heat.
So, Anderson took a driving test and qualified as an Unlimited pilot in his own right. This legally entitled him to step in as a relief driver in the event that the unthinkable occurred. Thankfully, it never did, and TAHOE MISS went on to win the National Championship with Mira Slovak not missing a heat.
Chuck Hickling had fond memories of the late Bill Newman, who was Chuck’s crew chief on the MISS BUDWEISER in 1964.
When preparations for a race were complete, Newman would use psychology on the other teams. he would confidently polish and re-polish the Allison engine as if nothing else mattered. The message was loud and clear. Although the starting gun had not yet fired, the race for the MISS BUDWEISER had already begun.
Most crew chiefs work their way up through the ranks with the budget teams before achieving the big time. Jim Harvey for one sharpened his skills with the likes of HILTON HY-PER-LUBE, MISS TIMEX, RED MAN, VALU-MART, and the 225 Cubic Inch Class WHITE LIGHTNING, prior to taking charge of MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS in 1978.
An exception to this rule is Dave Villwock, who advanced to the top spot on the 1989 MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS team with an extensive Limited background but had zero experience in directing an Unlimited. Those who predicted a plethora of "rookie mistakes" on Dave’s part ended up having to eat crow.
During his two seasons with MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS, Villwock and driver Chip Hanauer won nine races, finished second and first in National High Points, and raised the world lap speed record to an “impossible” 168.128 miles per hour on San Diego’s Mission Bay.
The career of the late driving great Bill Muncey parallels that of some of the top crew chiefs in the business. These include the likes of Jack Ramsey (MISS THRIFTWAY), Bud Meldrum (NOTRE DAME), Dave Seefeldt (MISS U.S.), and Jim Kerth (ATLAS VAN LINES).
After relying on mediocre talent in the middle seventies, Muncey became his own owner and turned his career dramatically around. He hired Jim Lucero to head up a new team under the sponsorship of ATLAS VAN LINES.
Lucero, who had won sixteen races and three National Championships for Dave Heerensperger’s PAY ‘n PAK, continued his winning way with ATLAS. Between 1976 and 1979, Jim won twenty-four out of thirty-four races entered and three more season High Point titles to become the winningest crew chief in the piston era of the sport.
After returning to PAY ‘n PAK in 1980, Lucero and co-worker Dixon Smith became the first to win an Unlimited race with turbine power. They did this in 1982 at Romulus, New York, with John Walters as driver.
Bernie Little, Like Bill Muncey, has the uncanny knack for being able to recognize talent for his MISS BUDWEISER organization. Those crew chiefs that have won High Point Championships for the Anheuser-Busch corporate sponsor include George McKernan, Tom Frankhouser, Dave Culley, Jeff Neff, and Ron Brown, who has more turbine victories (56) than anyone else.
Current MISS BUDWEISER crew chief Mark Smith has, since 1998, led the team to 26 victories in 40 starts. Mark has won the National High Point Championship every year and captured the prestigious APBA Gold Cup three times.
In Smith's words, "This team reflects the work ethic of Mr. Little, who demands a lot from us. But that's what it takes to make an operation such as the MISS BUDWEISER run successfully."
It's an all-out effort all of the time. Over the past four decades, BUDWEISER technicians have resurrected damaged boats on Saturday morning and worked all night to have their boat in the line-up on Sunday morning.
Indeed, the old days, when a crew chief’s duties consisted of little more than changing spark plugs on the team’s one and only Allison engine and stocking up on extra starting batteries, are long gone.
When an Unlimited hydroplane takes to the water, remember that it took a lot of teamwork and effort back at the shop to put her out there.
And while the owners and the drivers garner most of the publicity, remember that the success or failure of any racing effort rests largely on the shoulders of one man--the individual who is responsible for bringing all of the many elements of running a race boat into one comprehensive plan of action--the crew chief, the unsung hero of Unlimited racing.