Ron Musson Remembered
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Between 1959 and 1966, Ron Musson left an indelible mark of excellence on the sport of Unlimited hydroplane racing. In 47 races entered, Musson scored 16 victories, finished second nine times, and third six times. He is perhaps best remembered for being the first driver in 30 years to win the Crown Jewel of powerboating, the APBA Gold Cup, three times in succession.
Ron advanced to the Unlimited ranks after an outstanding career in the Limited inboard classes. His tenure with the smaller hydroplanes had resulted in many trophies and championships with such famous craft as CHROMIUM and CHROMATE for owner Frank Hearn.
It was to the surprise of no one that Musson made the transition to racing's big time with ease. In only his second Unlimited Class appearance, Ron claimed his first of many victories. This was the 1959 Indiana Governor's Cup on the Ohio River in Madison with Joe Mascari's "Pink Lady" HAWAII KAI III.
During 1960, Musson divided his time between Mascari's HAWAII KAI III and Samuel F. DuPont's NITROGEN TOO. The KAI was up in years and somewhat past her prime, but Ron still prevailed to power her into the winner's circle at the Reno Regatta on Pyramid Lake.
With NITROGEN TOO, he captured the 0. J. Mulford Silver Cup on the historic Detroit River. This latter triumph was especially satisfying inasmuch as NITROGEN TOO was powered by a substantially stock Allison aircraft engine. But Musson nevertheless defeated the national championship team of Bill Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY, which used the much more powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin.
With the retirement from racing of both the Mascari and the DuPont teams after 1960, Ron was left temporarily without a ride. But not to worry. No driver of Musson's caliber was likely to languish on the sidelines for very long. Pretty soon came the call from Ole Bardahl that was to change Ron's life and put him back where he belonged--at the wheel of a top-notch Thunderboat.
Between 1961 and 1966, the combination of Ron Musson and the "Green Dragon" MISS BARDAHL would go down in history as one of Unlimited racing's "dream teams." This was obvious right from the start.
In his very first appearance with the Bardahl organization, Musson took a boat that hadn't won a race in three years and drove it to an impressive victory in the World's Championship Seafair Trophy on Seattle's Lake Washington. And, later in the season, Ron retained his title in the Silver Cup with MISS BARDAHL.
Beginning in 1962, Musson made his competitive presence felt with a new "Green Dragon," which became his most famous ride. This incredible craft was the epitome of the all-conquering Ted Jones three-point design of the 1950s and early 1960s: rear-cockpit, forward-engine, shovel-nosed bow, box-shaped transom…and plenty of speed.
In partnership with crew chief Leo VandenBerg, Ron captured 11 first place trophies with the 1962-vintage MISS BARDAHL, which would rival the MISS THRIFTWAY as one of the first boats to represent successfully a commercial sponsor on a major scale.
During 1962, Muncey's MISS CENTURY 21 (the renamed MISS THRIFTWAY) was really on a roll. Bill won the first five races and finished first in every heat of those races. Musson and MISS BARDAHL, after some fine-tuning during the season, snapped the MISS CENTURY 21's win streak and claimed victory in the Harrah's Tahoe Trophy at Stateline, Nevada.
The triumph on Lake Tahoe served notice that Ron Musson and MISS BARDAHL would be a team to be reckoned with in 1963. And they were.
For the next three years, Musson and the "Green Dragon" were the undisputed class act of Unlimited racing. Other teams would occasionally win races, but Ron was always a factor and never gave up the lead for very long.
Musson started the 1963 campaign off on the right foot with a victory in the Alabama Governor's Cup at Guntersville. Then he won his first Gold Cup in a stellar performance at Detroit. Ron reeled off three first place heat finishes and one second place to outscore Bill Cantrell and GALE V, 1500 points to 1400. It was a memorable day of racing that saw MISS BARDAHL thoroughly outclass arch-rival MISS THRIFTWAY, which faded to a disappointing sixth.
Then, something happened that wasn't in the script. After a second-place finish at Seattle, Musson sustained minor injuries in a test run at Madison and had to relinquish the MISS BARDAHL's wheel for the last three races of the season to Don Wilson. The boat went on to capture the National High Point Championship, but the driver championship went to Cantrell, who won no races but had finished in second-place five times.
Ron rebounded with a vengeance and would not be denied in 1964. He won the Gold Cup at Detroit, the Dakota Cup at New Town, North Dakota, the Seafair Trophy, and the Harrah's Tahoe Trophy. Musson likewise took second place in the Diamond Cup at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the President's Cup at Washington, D.C., and the San Diego Cup.
For his overall performance throughout 1964, Ron won his first National High Point Driver Championship in the Unlimiteds.
For 1965, Musson planned to drive a radical new MISS BARDAHL. But when the new flagship couldn't be readied in time, the 1962 hull was "unretired," given a quick refurbishing, and sent out for one final date with Thunderboat destiny.
Ron's "tired, weary old hydro" didn't attend the first race of the year at Guntersville and then took a disappointing third at Coeur d'Alene. MISS BARDAHL won the Final Heat, but there were those that wondered if perhaps the boat had seen her better days or if the rest of the field had finally caught up with her.
Then, a month later, at Seattle, Musson and MISS BARDAHL were back in the winner's circle, where they claimed their third and final Gold Cup in a row. This had not happened since George Reis had three consecutive wins in 1933, 1934, and 1935 with EL LAGARTO. Although in her fourth season, the old "Dragon" could still make it to the bank on Monday morning with Ron Musson as driver.
And just to prove that the Gold Cup wasn't a fluke, Ron guided MISS BARDAHL to victory in the Bonneville Regatta at Ogden. Utah, the Lake Tahoe World Championship Regatta, and the San Diego Cup en route to another National High Points crown.
And on the last day of the season, on San Diego's Mission Bay, Musson and MISS BARDAHL became the first team to average a race at 115.056 miles per hour, a heat at 116.079, and a competition lap at 117.870 on a 3-mile course--three long-standing world speed records, all set by a boat considered by many to be "over the hill" just a few months earlier.
Not only did Ron win 11 races in four years with the 1962 MISS BARDAHL, he did so against some of the most formidable opposition in modern memory--Muncey in MISS THRIFTWAY, Bill Brow in MISS EXIDE, Chuck Thompson in TAHOE MISS, Cantrell in MISS SMIRNOFF, and Rex Manchester in NOTRE DAME.
No doubt about it, the sixties were pinnacle years for Unlimited racing. Every victory had to be earned the hard way.
One of the most distinguished careers in motor sports history came to an untimely conclusion on June 19, 1966. The place was Washington D.C. The event was the venerable President's Cup, one of the few trophies consistently to elude Musson's grasp over the years.
Ron was driving a new Merlin-powered cabover creation, the cockpit situated ahead of the engine. This differed from all of Musson's previous Thunderboat rides where the driver sat behind the power plant.
This latest MISS BARDAHL promised to be every bit as competitive as her illustrious predecessors. Ron waxed the field with her in President's Cup Heat 1-C and, in so doing, turned the fastest heat of the entire regatta with a clocking of 101.218 on a 2.5-mile course. This compared to the 95.238 performance of second place Don Wilson in MISS BUDWEISER.
But the new boat's career was fated to end when it had only just begun.
While leading his good friend Manchester in NOTRE DAME during Heat 2-B, Musson lost his propeller. MISS BARDAHL became airborne, took a nose dive, and crashed to the bottom of the Potomac River. Ron was mortally injured. Sadly, Musson was not the only casualty on that fateful June day. Later in the afternoon, Manchester and Wilson were likewise lost on Unlimited hydroplane racing's "Black Sunday."
Although his life ended in that tragic President's Cup so many years ago, Ron Musson is remembered and respected today as one of racing's all-time greats--a quiet, no-nonsense competitor who represented the sport well, both on and off the race course.
In 1993, Ron was the power boating inductee into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. The former resident of Akron, Ohio, and Seattle, Washington, joined fellow boat racers Bill Muncey, Gar Wood, Dean Chenoweth, and Bill Cantrell in that distinguished hall, which has its headquarters in Novi, Michigan.
It is difficult to imagine any driver in any hydroplane category that is more worthy of inclusion in the Motorsports Hall of Fame. In terms of getting the most out of his equipment, they just don't come any better than Ron.