The Unlimiteds - 1987 in Review
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
In all, 20 Unlimited hydroplanes appeared to do competitive battle in 1987. This compared to 19 in 1986 and 15 in 1985.
As in 1986, Bernie Little's MISS BUDWEISER team was National High Point Champion with Fran Muncey's MILLER AMERICAN a close second. Once again, the championship wasn't decided until the last race of the season in Las Vegas.
Ironically, the BUDWEISER and MILLER teams both started the year with a new boat but concluded the season with their 1986 hull instead.
The new MISS BUDWEISER (Turbine-2) won five of seven races entered in 1987 at Miami, Evansville, Madison, the Tri-Cities, and Seattle with Jim Kropfeld at the wheel and finished first in 14 out of 20 heats entered. This brought owner Little's victory total to an unprecedented 61 since 1966 in the Unlimited Class.
When the new BUD "blew over" while leading in Heat 3-A at San Diego, leaving Kropfeld uninjured, the back-up hull (Turbine-1) was reactivated for Kropfeld to drive at Las Vegas.
The new MILLER AMERICAN appeared at the first six races and demonstrated exceptional speed--including a qualification lap of 150.476 miles per hour on a 2.5-mile course at the Tri-Cities, Washington--but was beached after a second-place finish at Seattle.
The old MILLER, which had debuted in 1984 as the last ATLAS VAN LINES, made history at season's end by winning the APBA Gold Cup at San Diego and the Silver Cup at Las Vegas. Pilot Chip Hanauer raised the world qualification lap record to 155.979 at San Diego. Hanauer also became the only six-time consecutive winning driver in Gold Cup history, which started in 1904.
This also marked the first time that a hull had won the Gold Cup four times, let alone four times in succession.
Heading into San Diego, MILLER AMERICAN underwent modifications that proved beneficial on race day. Ed Karelsen applied rear "shoes" to the underside of the hull, designed to increase lift in the turns. The turbine engines received some much-needed fine-tuning from a Houston, Texas-based engineering firm named Stewart & Stevenson.
The 1987 campaign had its share of memorable moments. This included driver Scott Pierce and owner Bill Wurster winning at Detroit with MR. PRINGLE'S. And this was only the team's third race appearance since converting from Rolls-Royce Merlin to turbine power.
At the start of the Final Heat at Detroit, Kropfeld and MISS BUDWEISER jumped the gun and were penalized an extra lap. Pierce, the legal leader, held off a determined Chip Hanauer in MILLER AMERICAN from start to finish to score a spectacular--and popular--victory.
By far the best Unlimited news of 1987 was the encouraging progress of Competition Specialties team pilot Steve Reynolds, who was critically injured at the Madison Regatta on the Ohio River, driving CELLULAR ONE. Reynolds was a spectator at the San Diego and Las Vegas events in late-season. He appeared in good spirits and had clearly come a long way on the road to recovery. The boat had been rebuilt during the 1986-1987 off-season by Crew Chief Jim Lucero. It entered competition virtually untested. At the early-season races, the boat had a problem with stability.
Despite a strong second-place finish at Evansville, CELLULAR ONE was "floating" much higher than usual. This tendency was to spell disaster for the team a week later at Madison.
After finishing second and first in preliminary heat action, Reynolds was leading down the first backstretch of Heat 3-A, ahead of second-place Jim Kropfeld and MISS BUDWEISER. As he neared the Milton-Madison Bridge, CELLULAR ONE became airborne, blew over backwards in a violent snap roll, and crashed.
The boat--what was left of it--landed upright. Reynolds was found unconscious. The recently-mandated F-16 safety canopy was credited with saving Steve's life
The seriousness of Reynolds' misfortune has been compared to Jack Regas' accident with MISS BARDAHL at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in 1959, and to John Walters' horrendous crash with PAY 'n PAK at Seattle in 1982.
At the last race of the 1987 season, an unprecedented five turbine teams qualified for competition. These were MISS BUDWEISER, MILLER AMERICAN, MR. PRINGLE'S, CELLULAR ONE, and SUTPHEN SPIRIT. This was at a time when the majority of Unlimited hydroplanes still used internal combustion power. But this situation would reverse itself in just a few years.
The new CELLULAR ONE driver, Limited veteran Larry Lauterbach, won his first-ever heat of Unlimited competition at Las Vegas. Lauterbach would remain as Competition Specialties team pilot for the next two years.
SUTPHEN SPIRIT, a former PAY 'n PAK hull, now owned by Grand Prix Class veteran Rich Sutphen, made an encouraging debut in 1987. Pilot Mike Hanson took an overall third in the Silver Cup.
Jim Harvey's Merlin-powered OH BOY! OBERTO almost missed the 1987 season entirely. This was on account of a disastrous truck fire while en route to Miami. Jim was expecting to make his debut as an Unlimited owner after many years as a crew member on such stellar racing craft as THE SQUIRE SHOP, ATLAS VAN LINES, MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS, and MISS BUDWEISER.
His racing team's fortune literally up in smoke, a lesser man would have thrown in the towel. Instead, Harvey and his sponsor, Art Oberto, got back on their feet and back out on the race course. With 1987 "Rookie of the Year" George Woods at the wheel, their boat finished fourth at the Tri-Cities and third at Seattle.
The three Allison-powered boats from southern Indiana--the community-owned HOLSET MISS MADISON, Jim Sedam's HOUSEHOLD FINANCE, and Ed Cooper's PEPSI AMERICA'S CHOICE--had a very successful year. They finished third, fourth, and sixth respectively in National High Points.
MISS M's best finish was a third-place at the hometown Madison Regatta with Ron Snyder driving. The team also took fourth at Miami and Las Vegas.
At the 1987 season finale on Lake Mead, the HOLSET people changed the name of their craft from MISS MADISON to MRS. MADISON, thereby serving notice that the team was "expecting" a new hull for 1988 to be designed and built by Ron Jones, Sr.
The Sedam team retired from racing after the 1987 season. Their boat took runner-up honors at Miami (as PANTRY PRIDE) and later took second-place money at the Gold Cup. Pilot Todd Yarling was voted "Driver of the Year" for 1987 by the Unlimiteds Unanimous fan club of Seattle, based upon Todd's ability to "do the most with the equipment that was available."
The PEPSI AMERICA'S CHOICE team of Ed Cooper, Sr. and Jr., fielded the most consistent entry on the 1987 tour. Drivers Mitch Evans and Jack Schafer, Jr., finished a total of 20 out of 21 heats entered. They took an overall third-place at Miami with Schafer and a fourth at San Diego with Evans. This was with the 1978 Chuck Hickling/TEMPUS hull, the last Unlimited hydroplane to seat its driver behind--not ahead of--the engine well.
At season's end, the Coopers indicated that they--together with their neighbors, the MISS MADISON team--would likewise build a new forward-cockpit (or "cabover") hull for 1988.
The team of Al Thoreson and Jerry Hopp turned in some respectable performances during 1987 with their veteran MISS JACKPOT FOOD MARET/GARRETT TURBO, which finished 19 out of 21 heats entered with Hopp at the wheel. They took an impressive third-place in the Gold Cup with "a good old Allison engine" after a side-by-side battle with Evans in PEPSI AMERICA'S CHOICE.
A number of teams failed to make the competitive grade in 1987. These included Jim Hauenstein's ARCADIAN, a curious contraption with one sponson longer than the other.
It had eight--count 'em, eight!--Mercury V-6 outboard powerheads, mounted inboard, rated at approximately 300 horsepower each, connected to one propeller shaft. The thing must have been an engineering nightmare. Designed by Marcel Belleville, ARCADIAN's best showing was a qualification lap of 110.254 at San Diego, after two years of trying. It never started in a heat of competition.
The 1987 post-season was highlighted by the announcement of the re-election of Donald C. Jones of Seattle as APBA Unlimited Commissioner. Jones survived a challenge from "write-in" candidate Leif Borgersen who actually received more votes than Don. But all of Borgersen's votes were thrown out because Leif had failed to renew his APBA membership.
Jones insisted that, under his administration, "The URC is a non-profit organization currently being run without a deficit."
Another post-season development saw the nomination of both Jim Kropfeld and Chip Hanauer to the prestigious APBA Hall of Champions for the Unlimited category--Kropfeld for winning his third National High Point title since 1984 and Hanauer for claiming his sixth straight Gold Cup crown since 1982.
The Hall of Champions is the American Power Boat Association's highest racing honor.