The Notre Dame Story
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Between the years 1935 and 1973, one of APBA racing’s most prestigious teams was the Notre Dame, owned by Detroit industrialist Herb Mendelson and his daughter Shirley Mendelson McDonald.
The elder Mendelson served on Notre Dame University’s Board of Commerce, which advised University officials on business matters. Herb and Shirley asked for and received permission to use the University’s name and insignia on the Mendelson racing boats.
Herb Mendelson passed away in 1951; Mrs. McDonald died in 1993.
Herb Mendelson entered big-time boat racing in 1935 and achieved almost instant success. The first craft to carry the Notre Dame handle into competition scored a victory in the 1935 President’s Cup at Washington D.C., with Clell Perry driving.
Mendelson was already an experienced racer in 1935. Herb had previously campaigned a series of five limited inboard Chriscraft runabouts, all named Madoshumi.
Shirley Mendelson was her father’s constant boat racing companion. Frail health not withstanding, Shirley absorbed race strategy and politics at an early age. She never forgot the thrills and tensions of the sport from the pain of losing to the pride of winning--and particularly the day when her father won the Gold Cup, the APBA’s Crown Jewel, on September 6, 1937.
In all, nine different hulls raced as Notre Dame. Herb campaigned the first three between 1935 and 1947, while Shirley raced the last six between 1962 and 1973.
All of Herb’s boats were step hydroplanes, and each utilized a supercharged 24-cylinder Duesenberg engine, one of the more expensive power plants in racing history, which cost a figure reported to be in the five digits.
The original Notre Dame won a hard-fought victory in the 1937 Gold Cup on home waters at Detroit. Driver Perry and riding mechanic Ernie Herndon traded heat wins with the Italian Count Theo Rossi in Alagi, powered by an Isotta-Fraschini engine.
And just to prove that the Gold Cup performance was anything but a fluke, Mendelson and Perry made it two in a row a few weeks later with a victory in the 1937 President’s Cup.
For 1938, a new Notre Dame was entered but never made it to the starting line. Clell Perry flipped the boat on the day prior to the Gold Cup race and was badly injured. Count Rossi was reported so distraught after the accident that he considered withdrawing from the race, which he ultimately won with Alagi.
The unsuccessful second Notre Dame came back in 1939 for another try after being redesigned by John Hacker and rebuilt by new driver Dan Arena, who had made a tremendous impression the year before as pilot of Miss Golden Gate.
Notre Dame the second managed an overall third in the 1939 Gold Cup behind Guy Simmons in My Sin and Harold Wilson in Miss Canada III. But owner Mendelson was dissatisfied with the hull and ordered a new boat to be designed and built by Arena for 1940. Arena would have preferred a three-point design, as Miss Golden Gate had been, but Mendelson insisted on another step configuration.
Notre Dame the third had a successful debut season, despite not being able to finish at the Gold Cup. Arena steered her to victory in the President’s Cup and set a supercharged Gold Cup Class mile straightaway record of 100.987. The record stood for six years.
Arena and Notre Dame also participated in the 1940 National Sweepstakes Regatta at Red Bank, New Jersey, where Notre Dame recorded a 2 1/2 mile competition lap of 76 mile per hour. This translated to approximately 81 MPH on a standard 3-mile course. This achievement was not exceeded until 1948.
With the advent of World War II and gasoline rationing, APBA boat racing was suspended for the duration. The Notre Dame team did not re-appear until 1947. By then, the Gold Cup Class had changed over to the Unlimited Class. The Allison V-12 was the new engine of choice. But Mendelson and Arena elected to stay with their tried and proven Duesenberg.
At the 1947 Gold Cup on Jamaica Bay, New York, Notre Dame posted the fastest heat (56.842) and the fastest lap (62.645), but experienced mechanical difficulty and didn’t finish the race.
Three weeks later, Notre Dame captured the Silver Cup at Detroit, which consisted of two heats of 45 miles each on a 4 1/2-mile course. With Dan Arena behind the wheel and brother Gene Arena along side as riding mechanic, the Mendelson team ran head-to-head with Harold Wilson in Miss Canada III and beat Wilson over the finish line in Heat One, 73.685 to 73.505.
In Heat Two, Notre Dame ran a steady second behind Guy Lombardo and Miss Great Lakes, which hadn’t finished the first heat. This gave Notre Dame a victory total of 700 points compared to 469 for second-place Miss Canada III.
The final appearance in competition of a Herb Mendelson-owned craft occurred at the 1947 President’s Cup on the Potomac River. Notre Dame finished second but was beaten in all three heats by Danny Foster in Miss Peps V, an Allison-powered three-pointer. The handwriting was clearly on the wall. Notre Dame was obsolete. Three-point hulls with the large World War II fighter plane engines were the future of the sport.
Cut loose by Mendelson, Notre Dame the third passed through many hands. She was renamed Miss Frostie in 1948, Gale I in 1950, and Miss Wayne I in 1953. She recorded her last appearance in competition as Chuck Doran’s Miss Ricochet in 1959 when she finished third at a race in St. Clair, Michigan, with Bill Matthews driving.
By 1962, Shirley Mendelson was ready to enter Unlimited racing. For several seasons she had campaigned a 20-foot Mariner Cyclone named Shu-Shu in the Gentlemen’s Runabout Class. With Don Delano driving, the boat had won the Orlin Johnson Trophy in 1960, 1961, and 1962, and also the Governor’s Trophy at the Salt River Yacht Club in Monroe, Michigan.
Years of world travel, business ventures, and passing interest in other sports had never erased the lure of boat racing. Shirley was now married to Dr. Fraser McDonald, her second husband, who had served as Herb Mendelson’s physician.
Mrs. McDonald was one of the wealthiest women in America. Her total fortune, in 1963, was conservatively estimated at 97 million dollars.
Shirley asked the University of Notre Dame for permission once again to carry its name and seal into competition. Permission was granted, the boat was purchased (from builder Les Staudacher), and the rest is history.
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It would be a pleasure to report that Shirley McDonald’s level of success in Thunderboat racing matched that of her father. Unfortunately, in twelve years of participation, Mrs. McDonald’s team accounted for only two victories. But this was due to no lack of persistence on her part, which earned Shirley the respect of her fellow competitors.
The fortunes of an Unlimited hydroplane team never run smoothly. But for Shirley Mendelson McDonald, the fates seemed to have stacked the deck. One of her boats burned; three were wrecked; one crew chief died during Spring testing; one driver perished in competition; Shirley herself was sidelined by a succession of ailments. It was a rugged journey that many participants would have abandoned. But not Shirley.
She did not complain when her boats lost. Rather, “the woman in coveralls” boosted the entire sport with her enthusiasm.
She acquired her first boat off the assembly line at Staudacher’s Bay City, Michigan plant. Powered by a stock Allison, Notre Dame the fourth raced for two years and finished fourth and fifth in APBA National Points for the years 1962 and 1963 with Warner Gardner driving. Painted white, blue, and gold, with a green shamrock on the tailfin, Shirley McDonald’s craft finished second in the 1962 Spirit of Detroit Trophy and third in the 1963 Alabama Governor’s Cup and the 1963 President’s Cup.
At the 1962 Gold Cup in Seattle, another boat--the Miss Seattle Too--took a bad hop, nosed in, and disintegrated spectacularly at the start of the race. Mrs. McDonald, believing the wrecked boat to be her own, fainted and had to be hospitalized for the day.
In December, 1963, the Notre Dame burned in a post-season test run on Lake Washington and was retired. She returned briefly in 1965 as Shu-Shu and later became a backup hull for Bernie Little’s Miss Budweiser team. As Miss Bud, she won the 1967 British Columbia Cup at Kelowna, B.C., with Mike Thomas driving.
Meanwhile, a fifth Notre Dame was purchased from Staudacher to replace the burned craft. The boat was fast but tended to ride roughly. She nevertheless won the first race in which she was entered. Bill Muncey drove Notre Dame to a stunning upset victory over the defending National Championship team of Ron Musson and Miss Bardahl in the 1964 Dixie Cup at Guntersville, Alabama.
Muncey had been hired following the recent retirment of the Miss Thriftway. Bill was Unlimited racing’s winningest driver. His performance at Guntersville elevated the Notre Dame from also-ran to front-runner status.
Unfortunately for Shirley McDonald, her association with Muncey lasted only half a season. The crew chief, Bud Meldrum, reached an impasse with Bill and fired him without consulting Shirley. Meldrum replaced Muncey at Madison, Indiana, with Rex Manchester who had previously substituted in the Notre Dame at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, when Muncey was ill.
It is interesting to compare the performances of Bill and Rex, both of whom completed nine heats in the same boat during the 1964 season. Muncey’s fastest heat was 107 (at Seattle); Manchester’s fastest was 102 (at Lake Tahoe). Bill had five heats over 100; Rex had one. Muncey won one race; Manchester won none. Letting Muncey get away from her was clearly Shirley McDonald’s biggest mistake in racing.
During the 1964-65 off season, Bill Newman replaced Meldrum as Notre Dame crew chief. Newman had directed the Miss Budweiser operation in 1964 and was highly regarded for his mastery of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Bill, unfortunately, died suddenly during a testing session at the Stan Sayres Pits in Seattle during the Spring of 1965.
After Newman’s death, crew member Jim Kerth was promoted to crew chief, a position he retained with Notre Dame from 1965 through 1968. Rex Manchester continued as driver with the added responsibility of Team Manager.
The Manchester/Kerth combination began taking second and third places with persistent regularity. At the end of 1965, Notre Dame was second to Miss Bardahl in National High Points.
Notre Dame came hearbreakingly close to winning the APBA Gold Cup on Lake Washington. Manchester had a clear lead over Musson and Miss Bardahl in the Final Heat and appeared on the way to the bank. Then another boat, the Miss Exide, caught fire and started burning out of control. The heat was stopped and had to be re-run.
Miss Bardahl got the jump on Notre Dame in the re-start and led all the way to the checkered flag, 110.655 to 107.612. Manchester finished the day with 1400 points to Musson’s 1500.
Rex had the satisfaction of turning the fastest overall average of the race (104.859 to Ron’s 103.133), but the Gold Cup went to Miss Bardahl (for the third year in a row). Manchester ironically was Ole Bardahl’s son-in-law by virtue of his marriage to Ole’s daugher, Evelyn Bardahl Manchester.
Rex and Notre Dame opened the 1966 campaign with a second-place finish in the Tampa Suncoast Cup. The victory went to former Notre Dame pilot Muncey, now driver of George Simon’s Miss U.S. Since his 1964 departure from Notre Dame, Muncey’s career had not gone well. But now Bill was back in his familiar first-place.
Manchester had tied Muncey on points at Tampa. Rex might have won the race had he not slowed way down after establishing a clear lead in Heat One. This being in the days when point ties were broken on the basis of total elapsed time, Manchester’s laid-back performance in section 1-A came back to haunt him at the end of the day.
The following weekend’s President’s Cup Regatta seemed a shoo-in for Shirley McDonald’s team. Two of their toughest competitors--the Smirnoff and the Miss U.S.--were not in attendance due to hull damage suffered at Tampa.
After having been a bridesmaid but never a bride so many times in the recent past, Notre Dame was certainly overdue for a win. Most fans and competitors agreed that, come Sunday, June 19, Shirley Mendelson McDonald would take the President’s Cup trophy home. And so she did, but under well-known tragic circumstances.
On what came to be known as “Black Sunday,” three of racing finest were stricken from the list of the living in two separate accidents on the Potomac River: Ron Musson of Miss Bardahl, Don Wilson of Miss Budweiser, and Rex Manchester of Notre Dame.
Manchester and Wilson were racing side-by-side down the backstretch on the first lap of the Final Heat when Notre Dame got out of attitude, started walking from sponson to sponson, and hooked directly in front of Miss Budweiser.
A photographer from LIFE magazine captured the moment of impact: an explosion of water and boat pieces with the lifeless body of Don Wilson hurtling through the air. Miss Budweiser’s bow had speared the underside of Notre Dame. When the spray subsided, nothing remained of the two boats. Both had already sunk to the bottom of the Potomac.
Past-APBA President Red Peatross told the New York Times, "The boats were well designed and constructed. The water was reasonably calm. Both accidents occurred on the straightaway, so the course layout can not be blamed. I guess all you can say is that it was an act of God ."
On the basis of points accumulated in the preliminary heats, race officials declared the President’s Cup a contest with Notre Dame announced as the winner. After a career of being “the best of the rest,” Rex Manchester had finally achieved his ambition of winning an Unlimited race, albeit posthumously.
For the balance of 1966, the Notre Dame crew remained relatively inactive, spending their time in the shop working on engine build-up and lending assistance to Jim Ranger’s fledgling My Gypsy racing team. At the close of the 1966 season, Shirley McDonald announced plans to campaign another Notre Dame with Jim McCormick as driver.
Of her decision to return to the racing wars in 1967, Shirley declared, "Rex would have wanted me to do it."
Notre Dame the sixth was a Staudacher hull, just as her two immediate predecessors had been. All aluminum, with deep sponsons, high crown deck, and large spoiler, the new boat had the sleek, rugged, sturdy look of a tough competitor. But that’s where any similarity with the 1966 Notre Dame ended.
The 1967 hull was terribly erratic. Unlimited Commissioner J. Lee Schoenith threatened to ban it from competition. Extensive pre-season testing did little to alleviate the extremely unfavorable handling characteristics. Designer/builder Les Satudacher was called in to lend a hand and was quite frankly baffled over the boat’s inability to perform.
By some miracle, McCormick managed to bring her home fourth in a sixteen boat field at the UIM World Championship Race in Detroit.
At the next race, in Madison, Indiana, McCormick was replaced in the Notre Dame cockpit by Jack Regas at the suggestion of Team Manager Mike Welsch. McCormick, at the time, had only one previous season as an Unlimited jockey. It was thought that Regas, being a veteran, could better help the crew in dealing with the boat’s rough riding tendencies.
To McCormick’s credit, he was immediately signed to replace owner Bob Fendler in the cockpit of Wayfarer's Club Lady at Madison. Jim finished fourth in the Indiana Governor’s Cup with Wayfarer and went on to take a respectable third in a field of 22 drivers in the 1967 National High Point Driver standings.
Jack Regas had been one of the top Unlimited pilots of the 1950s.. His championship exploits with Edgar Kaiser’s Hawaii Kai III were legendary. He had been critically injured in a 1959 accident with the Miss Bardahl and hadn’t driven in competition in eight years. Notre Dame was his comeback boat.
Shirley McDonald’s 1967 hull may or may not have been able to develop into a viable contender. The boat was involved in an accident at the start of the 1967 Gold Cup race in Seattle and was destroyed.
Moments before the one-minute gun, prior to Heat 1-A, another boat was late in starting and left a side-ways wake, perpendicular to the race course. Sixty seconds later, the front-running Notre Dame fell into that wake, ripped off a sponson, and ricocheted directly in front of Chuck Hickling, who was driving Harrah's Club.
The two behemoths crashed into each other at terrific speed and sank to the bottom of Lake Washington. Thankfully, both Hickling and Regas escaped serious injury and quickly recovered. Although their boats were less fortunate.
When it was determined that repair of the damaged Notre Dame hull was impossible, the team retired--for the second year in a row--to await delivery of a new boat for 1968.
Notre Dame the seventh was a Jon Staudacher design. Jon, son of Les, had previously assisted his father in the boat building business. But this was Jon’s first solo effort in the Unlimited Class.
The overall configuration followed the low-profile trend and featured a snub-nosed bow. Jack Regas returned as the driver.
Truth to tell, the 1968 Notre Dame wasn’t much of an improvement over her 1967 counterpart. The new boat was fast on the straightaways, but kept wanting to swap ends in the turns. (Jon Staudacher’s next Unlimited, the 1975 Atlas Van Lines, had the same problem.)
As erratic as the 1968 hull was, no on could deny her competitiveness. At each of the first four races of the season, Regas had her in the thick of things and scored at least one heat victory at every event. The boat’s best performance occurred on the Ohio River at Madison, Indiana.
In Heat 2-C at Madison, Regas convincingly beat the National Championship team of Billy Schumacher and the Miss Bardahl. Jack also outran the formidable combination of Bill Sterett and the Miss Budweiser. Notre Dame set a course record of 104.026 for the 15-mile distance that stood for five years. Then, in the Final Heat, Notre Dame led for four laps and was two laps from victory when Miss Bardahl finally passed Notre Dame and went on to claim the Governor’s Cup.
The 1968 Madison Regatta is remembered as the race where Shirley McDonald came the closest to a third career win. None of the drivers that succeeded Regas were able to duplicate Jack’s effort in this regard.
But the boat was still a handful to drive. She spun out twice at Seattle and pitched Regas into the water on the first lap of the Final Heat. Jack suffered a serious back injury and, on the advice of doctors, retired from racing. Were he to re-injure his back, he could have been crippled for life. It was the end of the line for one of racing’s all-time greats.
Substitute driver Leif Borgersen finished the season but achieved mediocre results. Heat speeds were down about 5 miles per hour. Notre Dame was simply not the contender she had been with Regas driving. With Borgersen, she was strictly an also-ran. Although in all fairness to Leif, he was a rookie, and Notre Dame was his first Unlimited assignment.
At the 1968 San Diego Cup, the boat spun out again and sank in Heat 1-A. That brought down the curtain on a most disappointing season for Notre Dame.
Following the 1968 San Diego race, Shirley McDonald retired the boat, closed the shop, and fired the entire crew. She hired some of them back a few months later when she ordered a new hull for 1969. Conspicuously absent from the re-organized Notre Dame team were crew chief Jim Kerth and boat manager Andy Anderson. Both Kerth and Anderson had publicly criticized the team at Seattle and been responsible for an avalanche of negative press.
Notre Dame the eighth was the product of Karelsen Custom Boats of Seattle. Designer/builder Ed Karelsen had been responsible for the 1967 Miss Bardahl and the 1968 Miss Budweiser, which had been highly successful.
The Karelsen Notre Dame was arguably the fastest boat that had ever been built up to that time. In trials for the 1969 San Diego Gold Cup, she turned a 2 1/2-mile lap of 116.883 with Borgersen driving. This translated to approximately 121 on a 3-mile course, a mark that would stand unchallenged until 1971.
The new boat was immediately competitive with the top boats of 1969. She could run quite capably with the likes of Sterett in Miss Budweiser, Muncey in Miss U.S., McCormick in Atlas Van Lines, and Dean Chenoweth in Myr's Special. But Notre Dame had difficulty putting together three good heats in one day.
At two races in particular, pilot Borgersen had no excuse for not winning: the 1969 Tri-Cities Atomic Cup and the 1970 San Diego Gold Cup. At the Tri-Cities, Notre Dame nullified a victory by jumping the gun. At San Diego, Leif clearly had the fastest boat entered. Notre Dame dominated the first two heats and was running head-to-head with Chenoweth and Miss Budweiser in the Final Heat. But then Notre Dame spun out on lap two and had to settle for a distant second.
The 1970 San Diego race was Leif Borgersen’s last appearance with Shirley McDonald’s team. Borgersen at least got more out of the boat that his replacement (Billy Sterett, Jr.) ever did. Leif also kept Notre Dame in the High Points chase all season long. He finished second in 1970 with 6840 points compared to Miss Budweiser’s 7244.
The Karelsen Notre Dame came to grief in Seattle in 1971 when she took a bad bounce and broke in half during the Final Heat of the Seafair Regatta. Billy Sterett suffered a broken nose in the accident, but was otherwise unscathed.
At the last three races of 1971, a boat called Pride of Pay 'n Pak came alive and ran away from the opposition. She was designed by Ron Jones, who had succeeded greatly in the Limited ranks and was now achieving championship results in the Unlimited Class.
The Jones hulls of the early 1970’s were generally wider, flatter, and less box-shaped than their predecessors. They weren’t significantly faster on the staightaways than the traditional post-1950 variety Unlimiteds, but they could corner a lot quicker.
Hoping for a repeat of the Pay 'n Pak success, Shirley McDonald ordered a hull from Jones for 1972.
Despite the many success stories about Jones’s hulls, Notre Dame unfortunately wasn’t one of them.
Notre Dame the ninth, from Day One, handled poorly and defied the efforts of crew chief Bob Espland and drivers Dean Chenoweth and Ron Larsen. Her best finish was a second place to Bill Muncey and Atlas Van Lines in the 1972 Seattle Seafair Regatta with Chenoweth.
The 1973 campaign was almost a total washout for Notre Dame. The boat entered six races and finished only one of them. The lone ray of sunshine was a fifth place performance at the Tri-Cities Gold Cup with Larsen driving. In addition to blowing a lot of engines, the team was having personnel problems. The crew that started the season was quite different from the crew that finished it.
After twelve years and 75 race appearances, Shirley Mendelson McDonald decided to call it a career. Her health problems were increasing and her husband, Dr. McDonald, who had never been a great fan of the sport, urged Shirley to retire. And so she disbanded the Notre Dame team and sold her equipment to Bernie Little.
Her last boat continued on in Unlimited racing until 1982 but was never much of a factor in competition, no matter who was campaigning her. Notre Dame the ninth was variously identified as Miss Cott Beverages, Miss Northwest Tank Service, Miss Technicolor, Miss Valvoline, Bootheads, and Spirit of Dayton-Walther. She was a stand-in Miss Budweiser at a couple of races in 1980. Her most memorable performance was a victory in the consolation Seafair Trophy race at the 1981 Gold Cup Regatta as Captran Resorts with Steve Reynolds driving.
In the 1981 Seafair event, the ex-Notre Dame ran the fastest heat of her career. She beat Milner Irvin and Frank Kenney Toyoto/Volvo in a spectacular duel to the checkered flag in Heat One, 107.433 to 103.836.
Following her retirement from competition, Shirley McDonald never strayed far from the roar of the Thunderboats. At the 1979 christening ceremony in Seattle for the new Miss Circus Circus, Shirley was there to participate in the festivities. In 1983, she was inducted into the Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame.
Not even ill health could quench her enthusiasm for the boats. One time, she even hired an ambulance to transport her from the hospital to the Seafair race pits--so great was her desire to be a part of the sport that she loved.