Welcome Back, Billy Schumacher!
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
After an absence of three decades, William F. Schumacher III--better known as Billy--has returned to Unlimited hydroplane competition as the new owner of Bill Wurster's U-8 racing team.
The announcement of Schumacher's purchase of the U-8 occurred at the 2006 ABRA Convention and Awards Banquet in Indianapolis on March 4.
Under Wurster's ownership, the U-8 finished third in National High Points in 2005 and won two races (Seattle and Nashville) with Jean Theoret driving.
Billy's most recent involvement in the sport was his 1974-75-76 tenure as pilot for Leslie Rosenberg's U-74 racing team. Schumacher won four races for Rosenberg and was National High Point Driver in 1975.
A boat racer since the age of 9, Billy Schumacher is rightly regarded as one of racing's most respected champions, having achieved success in everything from JU Outboards to 7-Litre Inboards to Unlimited hydros.
At the time of his retirement from competition in 1976, Schumacher was second only to Bill Muncey in total wins in the Unlimited Class with seventeen.
Billy is perhaps best remembered for his back-to-back season championships with Ole Bardahl's MISS BARDAHL in 1967 and 1968.
Schumacher joined the Bardahl team at a particularly difficult time. The great Ron Musson had been fatally injured while driving the experimental cabover MISS BARDAHL at the 1966 President's Cup in Washington, D.C. Musson's accident was one of four fatalities that shook the racing world to its foundation during that tragic year.
Billy was Ron's handpicked successor. Schumacher had, in fact, tested the ill-fated cabover hull for Musson when Ron was out of town on a business trip.
The new MISS BARDAHL of 1967 was designed and built by Ed Karelsen of Seattle. Karelsen had been responsible for the short-lived original MISS EXIDE of 1963, which fell apart in its second race. Karelsen had a winning reputation in the Limited ranks and was anxious to vindicate himself in the Unlimited Class.
The 1967 MISS BARDAHL was a low-profile conventional hull with the driver seated behind the engine. The boat nevertheless incorporated some of the characteristics of a cabover hull. This included extra non-trip area to help in cornering.
When Ron Musson died, the team's trademark green color scheme died with him. Painted yellow with black lettering, the former "Green Dragon" was now the "Blonde Bombshell."
Long time MISS BARDAHL crew chief Leo VandenBerg had retired from the team. His young assistant, Jerry Zuvich, was now crew chief. The crew, including driver Schumacher, were all young men in their twenties. The press quickly labeled them the "teenybopper crew."
Schumacher had an excellent competitive record in the smaller classes. He had qualified as an Unlimited driver in 1961. He had handled such perennial tailenders as CUTIE RADIO, MISS TOOL CRIB, and $ BILL and achieved mediocre results.
The 1967 season witnessed one of the great comebacks in racing history. MISS BARDAHL won six out of eight races and finished second once. Schumacher's only "off" day was at Detroit when he was unable to start in Heat 1-C and didn't make the cut for the Final Heat.
The team scored a clear-cut victory in the APBA Gold Cup at Seattle and won the National High Point Championship hands down.
Up until that time, no Unlimited hydroplane had ever won six High Point races in the same season. (HAWAII KAI III in 1957, MAVERICK in 1959, and MISS CENTURY 21 in 1962 had each won five races.)
Schumacher and company turned the fastest heat of the year at 107.784 on a 2-1/2-mile course at San Diego. The team also ran the fastest 2- 1/2-mile competition lap of the year at 110.150 at San Diego.
MISS BARDAHL demonstrated a lot of class at the Tri-Cities (Washington) Atomic Cup. In the Final Heat, the automotive-powered MISS CHRYSLER CREW and driver Bill Sterett were the early leaders. But Schumacher finally overtook Sterett and went on to claim the victory, 104.448 to 102.583.
The single most memorable performance by the MISS BARDAHL in 1967 had to be her second-place finish at Kelowna, B.C. Schumacher and MISS BUDWEISER driver Mike Thomas ran side-by-side for five of the six laps in the British Columbia Cup Final Heat. Thomas won the race but only after a titanic struggle.
The MISS BARDAHL team had rebounded from the ultimate downer. And they had done so in championship fashion. Ron Musson would have been proud.
Another Gold Cup and National Championship followed in 1968 for the Bardahl/Schumacher/Zuvich combination. It was a very competitive season with no one boat winning the majority of races. But in the end, it was still the MISS BARDAHL that prevailed.
The color scheme was changed again, this time to a gaudy combination of yellow and black checkerboards. The new paint scheme was eye- catching to say the least, a masterpiece. The "Blonde Bombshell" was now the "Checkerboard Comet."
As the 1968 season got underway, MISS BARDAHL found herself being seriously challenged by Warner Gardner and MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC. On opening day, at Guntersville, Schumacher and BARDAHL were fairly and squarely beaten by Gardner and the "Screaming Eagle," which won all three heats. Ironically, MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC was the former "also- ran" $ BILL that Schumacher had driven during 1963 and 1964.
In 1968, MISS BARDAHL was strangely inconsistent in regard to her performance in Final Heats. At Guntersville, the Tri-Cities, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., she failed to finish.
Still, when she was running right, MISS BARDAHL was clearly the dominant boat. Only one team, the HARRAH'S CLUB with driver Jim McCormick, was able to defeat the "Checkerboard Comet" three times in heat competition. This happened twice at Seattle and once at Phoenix, Arizona.
Heading into the Gold Cup at Detroit in early September, MISS BARDAHL and MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC had both won three races. BARDAHL had the Wisconsin Cup, the Indiana Governor's Cup, and the Diamond Cup, while EAGLE had the Dixie Cup, the Atomic Cup, and the President's Cup.
The fans looked forward to a classic confrontation between Schumacher and Gardner on the historic Detroit River. But the 1968 Gold Cup emerged as one of the more tragic chapters in Thunderboat history.
MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC, which had finally come alive after so many years of mediocrity, disintegrated on the backstretch of the third lap of the Final Heat. She was leading MISS BARDAHL and challenging MISS BUDWEISER. Then, the EAGLE became airborne and cartwheeled itself to pieces in the vicinity of the Detroit Yacht Club. Warner Gardner suffered fatal injuries.
In the space of three seasons, six of racing's finest had been lost while driving Unlimited hydroplanes: Ron Musson, Rex Manchester, Don Wilson, Chuck Thompson, Bill Brow, and now Gardner. It has been speculated that the many deaths may have been one of the factors that prompted Ole Bardahl to announce his retirement from Unlimited racing a few months later.
But that didn't prevent Billy Schumacher from driving the race of his life and claiming his second--and the team's fifth--Gold Cup on that memorable day in the Motor City.
In the re-run of the Final Heat at Detroit, Schumacher and MISS BARDAHL staged one of the most electrifying duels in boat racing history. The challenger was Bill Sterett and the new MISS BUDWEISER, another Karelsen hull and a virtual clone of the BARDAHL.
Viewers of ABC-TV's "Wide World Of Sports" watched in disbelief as Schumacher and Sterett battled for the lead. They went all out, running deck-to-deck and only a few inches apart on the always- formidable Detroit River. Lap after lap, the incredible competition continued. First it was BARDAHL in the lead, then BUDWEISER, and then BARDAHL again, back and forth.
One slip on the part of either driver and the result most certainly would have been catastrophic for both men. They were that close.
Even after 38 years, a videotape replay of the race can be unnerving. The sight of MISS BARDAHL and MISS BUDWEISER literally sharing the same roostertail is downright chilling, this being in the days before safety canopies and reinforced cockpits.
Be that as it may, it was a day of triumph for MISS BARDAHL and a day of frustration for MISS BUDWEISER, which faded from contention with a mechanical problem late in the race. The Karelsen MISS BARDAHL had scored its tenth victory in two years. The 1968 Gold Cup was the 27th and final win for Ole Bardahl who would very soon be calling it a career.
MISS BARDAHL concluded 1968 with a total of 9300 points, compared to 6988 for MY GYPSY, 6600 for MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC, and 6551 for MISS BUDWEISER. In all, a memorable campaign.
"Billy the Schu" decided to sit out the 1969 season. He was back in 1970 with PARCO'S O-RING MISS, owned by Laird Pierce. Plagued with handling problems, the PARCO was supposed to be another BARDAHL but ended up being nothing of the sort. It finished second in the races at Washington, D.C., and Detroit but its record was otherwise undistinguished.
Schumacher landed a top-notch ride in 1971 when he joined forces with owner Dave Heerensperger and the PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK. Designed by Ron Jones, the PAK took a few races to be sorted out. Billy was pitched out of the boat at the season-opener in Miami and experienced mechanical difficulty at Detroit and the Tri-Cities.
The tide turned at Seattle when Billy and the PRIDE turned the first- ever qualification lap of 121 miles per hour on a 3-mile course. From then on, there was no stopping the Heerensperger team. They scored decisive wins at the last three races of the season at Seattle, Dexter (Oregon), and Lake Dallas (Texas).
Schumacher's triumph, unfortunately, was short-lived. Midway through the 1972 campaign, Billy parted company with PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK. There were differences of opinion on set-up between Schumacher and crew chief Jim Lucero.
The end came at Madison when Billy refused to drive because--in his view--the debris-filled Ohio River, which had flooded its banks, made competition hazardous to participants beyond the usual hazards of competition. ("I'm not about to go leap-frogging over logs!")
Prior to accepting his final Unlimited Class assignment, Schumacher returned to his first love--outboard racing. In 1973, Billy participated in the Seafair 225 for Outboard Performance Craft, which consisted of 75 laps around the 3-mile Unlimited course on Lake Washington.
Schumacher's National Championship year of 1975 with WEISFIELD'S (U- 74) and owner Leslie Rosenberg witnessed some of the finest competition of the Piston Era. On any given race day, five teams arguably had a shot at winning: WEISFIELD'S, PAY 'n PAK, MISS BUDWEISER, MISS U.S., and LINCOLN THRIFT. Billy won the Champion Spark Plug Regatta at Miami and the Kentucky Governor's Cup at Owensboro.
On the last day of his career as a driver, Billy Schumacher went out a winner. He piloted the U-74, sponsored by OLYMPIA BEER, to victory in the 1976 Jack-In-The-Box Thunderboats Regatta on San Diego's Mission Bay. It was the perfect ending for one of racing's all-time greats.
Schumacher used "a little even-the-score strategy" at the start of the winner-take-all Final Heat at San Diego.
Billy trailed ATLAS VAN LINES, driven by Bill Muncey, through the Final Heat but officially was a lap ahead of Muncey who was penalized a lap for crossing the starting line too soon.
"I got him wet two or three times before the one-minute gun and it seemed to upset him enough that he went across the line early," Schumacher said. "I think he lost his concentration.
"I believe in evening the score," Schumacher added. "I was chopped off royally in the Second Heat, and it upset me tremendously. I decided then that, in the Final Heat, I would even the score. There was nothing illegal about it. I just outmaneuvered him."
Over the past thirty years, Billy has concentrated on business interests. But he has never strayed far from the sport that he loves. In association with the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum of Seattle, Schumacher has several times taken the wheel of the restored 1958 MISS BARDAHL in Vintage hydroplane exhibitions.
Now 63 years of age (but with a physique that would be the envy of a man half his age), "Billy the Schu" is ready for a new challenge--as the owner of a modern Unlimited hydroplane team on the 2006 ABRA circuit.
Welcome back, Billy Schumacher!
BILLY SCHUMACHER RACE WINS - UNLIMITED CLASS
(1) 1967 - Suncoast Cup; Tampa, FL; Tampa Bay U-40 MISS BADAHL
(2) 1967 - Indiana Governor's Cup; Madison, IN; Ohio River U-40 MISS BARDAHL
(3) 1967 - Atomic Cup; Tri-Cities, WA; Columbia River U-40 MISS BARDAHL
(4) 1967 - APBA Gold Cup; Seattle, WA; Lake Washington U-40 MISS BARDAHL
(5) 1967 - Sacramento Cup; Sacramento, CA; Lake Folsom U-40 MISS BARDAHL
(6) 1967 - San Diego Cup; San Diego, CA; Mission Bay U-40 MISS BARDAHL
(7) 1968 - Wisconsin Cup; Madison, WI; Lake Monona U-1 MISS BARDAHL
(8) 1968 - Indiana Governor's Cup; Madison, IN; Ohio River U-1 MISS BARDAHL
(9) 1968 - Diamond Cup; Coeur d'Alene, ID; Lake Coeur d'Alene U-1 MISS BARDAHL
(10) 1968 - APBA Gold Cup; Detroit, MI; Detroit River U-1 MISS BARDAHL
(11) 1971 - Seafair Trophy; Seattle, WA; Lake Washington U-25 PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK
(12) 1971 - Emerald Cup; Dexter, OR; Dexter Reservoir U-25 PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK
(13) 1971 - Atlas Van Lines Trophy; Lake Dallas, TX; Lake Dallas U-25 PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK
(14) 1975 - Champion Spark Plug Regatta; Miami, FL; Biscayne Bay U-74 WEISFIELD'S
(15) 1975 - Kentucky Governor's Cup; Owensboro, KY; Ohio River U-74 WEISFIELD'S
(16) 1976 - President's Cup; Washington, D.C.; Potomac River U-74 OLYMPIA BEER
(17) 1976 - Jack-In-The-Box Thunderboats Regatta; San Diego, CA; Mission Bay U-74 OLYMPIA BEER