Thunder And The Glory - An Era When The Hydros Reigned Supreme
In the '60s, Seattle was in love with roostertails; then a series of deaths helped cool the ardor.
By Bill Kossen
On the 'darkest day in boat racing,' drivers Ron Musson, Don Wilson and Rex Manchester all lost their lives in the President's Cup Race onthe Potomac River in Washington, D.C., 25 years ago.
Betty Bostick sifts through the pile of black-and-white photos and yellowed newspaper clippings, uncovering memories of the Golden Age of hydroplane racing.
Here are pictures of Seattle's legendary Ron Musson in 1965 proudly holding the Gold Cup - the sport's most coveted trophy. Posing with U.S. Sens. Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson. Roaring across the water in the Miss Bardahl.
Betty was Ron's wife back then. They had moved here from Akron, Ohio, in 1962 and quickly became the toast of a town that was captivated by the thunderboats.
"When we came out here, we were shocked that they had all this publicity, all the time," Bostick said during an interview at her Mercer Island home. "We were just sort of in awe about the whole thing."
This weekend's Seafair race may seem like a big deal, with thousands flocking to Lake Washington to watch the boats kick up their roostertails. But those who have followed the sport for years say the attention it gets pales compared to the excitement that surrounded the Stan Sayres hydroplane pits in the 1960s.
Names like Musson, Muncey and Manchester were as big as Maris, Mantle and Mays. The local news media covered a hydroplane race as if it were the World Series. Kids dragged homemade wooden models of their favorite boats behind their bicycles and swapped souvenir hydroplane pins and other memorabilia.
It was Seattle's only major-league sport, and a local boat's victory in a big race - often over one from Detroit - was cause for a major celebration.
"In those days, if you drove unlimited hydros you had the keys to the town," said former driver Leif Borgersen of Issaquah.
It was a glorious time for hydroplane racing.
And also its deadliest.
Seven drivers were killed in the 1960s. By comparison, three were fatally injured in the 1970s and two in the 1980s.
No one has died racing an unlimited hydroplane since 1982.
Usually, the fatal accidents were isolated incidents.
But on Father's Day 25 years ago, Musson and two other drivers - Rex Manchester of Seattle in the Notre Dame and Detroit's Don Wilson in the Miss Budweiser - died competing in the President's Cup on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.
Seattle was stunned. The sport jolted.
"It was the darkest day in boat racing," Manchester's widow, Evelyn, said recently.
"It won't be the same" a headline in The Seattle Times proclaimed the day after the tragedy.
Two weeks later, Chuck Thompson was killed during the Gold Cup race in Detroit. Despite talk of canceling the Seafair race in Seattle that August because of the carnage on the water, it was held as scheduled.
But the headline was right. Seattle's love affair with thunderboating never seemed as passionate as it was before that deadly summer.
"They didn't have the big professional sports then, and when summer came around, boy, boat racing was it. And this was the capital of the world for that. Today, you have too many other things you can do," said Kurt Manchester, 36, a stepson of the late Rex Manchester.
The Sonics arrived in 1967; major-league baseball came to town in 1969, (as the Pilots for one year; the Mariners began in 1977), and pro football was on the horizon.
The most recent two drivers to die were among the best the sport has seen. Bill Muncey, the all-time leader in victories with 62, was killed in 1981 when his boat flipped during a race in Mexico.
The brash Muncey was a superstar for more than three decades, winning in such boats as the locally owned Miss Thriftway and the Detroit-based Atlas Van Lines.
Dean Chenoweth died when the Miss Budweiser he was
driving flipped during the 1982 Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities. He
finished with 25 victories, the third-highest total.
Last weekend, the safety canopy - which comes from an F-16 fighter plane - probably saved the life of driver Mike Hanson, who flipped the Kellogg's Frosted Flakes boat during the Columbia Cup regatta in the Tri-Cities. The boat was damaged extensively, but Hanson escaped serious injury.
"The accident . . . probably would have been fatal 25 years ago," said hydroplane historian Fred Farley, who witnessed the crash.
"But thanks to the advances in safety equipment, drivers are able to almost literally walk away," from such accidents, he said.
But can the sport, in which the fastest boats streak up to 200 mph, be death-proof?
"It's probably impossible to say that," said Ron Brown, 41, crew chief of the Miss Budweiser, one of the most successful boat names in the history of the sport. "But we're as close to that goal as possible."
Seattle comedian John Kiester, 35, an avid hydroplane fan and host of KING-TV's "Almost Live," wrote a humorous article on hydroplane racing for this year's Seafair Magazine. He turned serious, however, when asked of his reaction to hearing of the deaths of Musson, Manchester and other racers of the era.
"It was very sad," he said. "It was just the weirdest thing that people were dying like that. It was like `Now, who am I going to root for?' "
In 1966, many were rooting for the handsome duo from Seattle, Musson and Manchester. They were best friends and ranked as the top two drivers in the sport that season.
The trip to Washington, D.C., was a tuneup for the Gold Cup in Detroit two weeks later.
Musson was racing in a preliminary heat - hydro regattas have several heats to weed out the slower boats before the final heat - when the Miss Bardahl inexplicably went airborne, came down nose first and exploded.
Musson was hospitalized in critical condition. Race officials and drivers met, and decided to continue the regatta, a decision later criticized by many.
Rex Manchester got to a telephone and called his wife at their home in northwest Seattle, telling her with a voice shaking with emotion that Musson was seriously hurt.
Rex Manchester was about ready to begin his own final race.
"He said, `Get up to Betty's house.' Those were his last words. He had no idea Ron would die," recalled Evelyn Manchester, who is president of Bardahl Manufacturing Corp. in Seattle, where sons Eric and Kurt are vice presidents.
Evelyn Manchester went to the nearby Musson home and called race officials in Washington, D.C., to check on Musson's status. She was told he had died.
Not long after that call, the phone rang and it was Evelyn Manchester's father - the late Ole Bardahl - telling her that Rex Manchester and Wilson had been killed when their boats collided.
"All he said was `They're gone. They're all gone,' " Manchester said.
"The story goes that (Rex) actually went out to win the race for Ronnie. Tears were coming out of his eyes," said Eric Manchester. "They should have called that race. But who knows."
Bostick said her memory of that day is hazy.
"I was really in shock," she said. "I'm not really clear about all that went on. It was really pretty bad."
Rex Manchester had never officially won a hydroplane race, although he often was close. But after his accident, the President's Cup was called off and officials tallied the points earned by the drivers in preliminary heats.
The winner - for the only time in his life - was Manchester.
Evelyn Manchester never remarried, explaining that her marriage to Rex was "a hard act to follow." The support of friends in racing, including Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little, helped her recover from the loss, she said.
Musson's widow married Wally Bostick 18 years ago. He is an insurance agent and former tennis star at the University of Washington.
A hydro widow who not only remarried, but married another driver is Susi Borgersen of Issaquah. Her first husband, Tommy Fults, was killed when his boat flipped in 1970 during a test run in San Diego. A few years later, she married Leif Borgersen.
"My family was concerned that I would put myself in danger of losing someone I loved, but I never worried about it. Leif was a different individual," she said. "I didn't have the feeling that something bad would happen."
Tragedy struck her life again in 1982, however, when Chenoweth died. The Borgersens and Chenoweth were close friends.
"That was pretty hard on us. But all of them were. In this sport, there seems to be too many" people who have died, she said. "It gets to the point where you don't want to know these people."
Normally upbeat, Leif Borgersen became melancholy when discussing the racers who have not survived. Some, such as Muncey, were childhood heroes who became friends.
"It was a neat era," he said. "Unfortunately, the sport has taken a very, very high toll of great people."
Leif Borgersen, a sales representative for an engine-parts manufacturer, doesn't pay much attention to the hydroplane scene anymore. It's a young man's sport, he said. He jokes that he now concentrates on his "abnormal job" - racing 2,600-horsepower boats still being his idea of normalcy.
For him and others associated with the glory days of hydro racing, the past is difficult to leave behind.
The city won't let them.
Evelyn Manchester said some store clerks have recognized the name on her charge card and asked if she was related to the late Rex Manchester.
Bostick said she can still cause a stir at parties when it's revealed she was married to Musson.
Leif Borgersen said he has found an edge in business because some potential clients still remember his heroics on the water - he was hydroplane racing's rookie of the year in 1969.
Much of the thunder has been taken out of the sport, a result of the phasing out of the classic boats' World War II fighter-plane engines, made by Rolls-Royce and Allison. The modern turbines are quieter.
But not quiet enough for Bostick, who lives across from the Lake Washington race course.
"When I hear the boats now - I still can hear them from my house - I get kind of antsy and funny. It does something to me. It just brings back all of it," Bostick said.
She and Evelyn Manchester drifted apart over the years, but will remain linked by what happened 25 years ago. They both said they have no regrets marrying into a dangerous sport.
"It was a really exciting life," Bostick said.
The Roll Call
Fourteen people have died in unlimited-hydroplane racing accidents since 1951, when the sport first came to Lake Washington:
1951: Orth Mathiot, driver, and Thom Whittaker, riding mechanic, were killed when the Quicksilver, from Portland, sank during the Gold Cup on Lake Washington.
1961: Bob Hayward of Ontario, Canada, was killed when the Supertest rolled over during the Silver Cup in Detroit.
1967: Bill Brow of Burien, driving the Miss Budweiser, was killed in the Suncoast Regatta in Tampa, Fla.
1968: Col. Warner Gardner of Detroit was killed in Miss Eagle Electric in Detroit's Gold Cup.
1970: Tommy Fults of Walnut Creek, Calif., was killed in San Diego while taking Pay 'N Pak's Li'l Buzzard on a test run.
1977: Jerry Bangs of Seattle was killed when thrown out of The Squire Shop in Seattle's Seafair race.
1981: Bill Muncey of La Mesa, Calif., was killed while driving the Atlas Van Lines in the final heat's opening lap in the world championships in Acapulco, Mexico.
1982: Dean Chenoweth of Florida, driving the Miss Budweiser, died when his boat flipped at the Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities.