By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Seattle, Washington-based boat builder Ed Karelsen began his racing career with Outboard hydroplanes. The majority of Karelsen hulls are of the “clamp-on” variety. But Ed is best known for his Inboard creations, specifically three Unlimited hydroplanes that have gained mythic stature over the years: the MISS BARDAHL of 1967, the MISS BUDWEISER of 1968, and the NOTRE DAME of 1969.
In the words of Ron Jones, Sr., Karelsen’s friendly rival in the boat building business, “Ed is a good craftsman, a good thinker, and his boats have longevity, good looks, and great handling.”
The list of Karelsen National Champion hulls in the Limited Inboard category includes the likes of SHAZAM, CALYPSO TOO, CHAMPAGNE LADY, MADAME BLUE, MR. BUD, JUST E NUFF, HEART BREAKER, and LAST BLAST II.
Ed was the first to try “rear shoes” on a hydroplane. These were, in effect, transom-mounted mini-sponsons, designed to increase lift in the turns. In 1987, Karelsen was called in to apply “shoes” to the Jim Lucero-designed MILLER AMERICAN, which went on to win the APBA Gold Cup that year with Chip Hanauer driving.
By the 1990s, Ed was retired from active boat building. Brian Reynolds persuaded him to “unretire” long enough to produce the blueprints for an Unlimited Light hydroplane, the MISS SEAFIRST BANK, constructed by Nate Brown. The boat was a contender right out of the box and won the UL races at Seattle and Kelowna, British Columbia, in 1996.
Ed Karelsen’s initial venture into the Unlimited ranks proved disastrous. He built the 1963 MISS EXIDE from a Ted Jones design. While battling for the lead at the Coeur d’Alene Diamond Cup with Mira Slovak at the wheel, the boat literally fell apart in only its second race. Jones had previously disavowed the project when he learned that Ed was going to put it together with a staple gun.
MISS EXIDE nevertheless left behind the germ of an idea. Most of Ed’s future Unlimiteds utilized the EXIDE’s flatter than usual hull profile.
Anxious to vindicate himself in the Unlimited Class, Karelsen accepted the challenge of designing and building a new MISS BARDAHL for owner Ole Bardahl to replace the cabover MISS BARDAHL that had crashed at the 1966 President’s Cup, killing driver Ron Musson.
The Karelsen 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.
The 1967 season witnessed one of the great comebacks in racing history by the MISS BARDAHL team. With Billy Schumacher driving, the boat won six out of eight races and finished second once. “Billy the Schu” scored a clear-cut victory in the 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 MISS BARDAHL turned the fastest heat of the year at 107.784 on a 2.5-mile course at San Diego. The team also ran the fastest 2.5-mile competition lap of the year at 110.150 at San Diego.
Another Gold Cup and National Championship followed in 1968. It was a very competitive season with no one team winning the majority of races. But in the end, it was still MISS BARDAHL that prevailed.
Ole Bardahl retired as a full-time Unlimited participant after 1968 and ran a reduced schedule in 1969. MISS BARDAHL competed as MISS BUDWEISER II and MISS U.S. in 1970. Her career ended in 1971 when she crashed to the bottom of the Ohio River at Madison, Indiana, as HALLMARK HOMES with Leif Borgersen as driver.
The Karelsen MISS BUDWEISER, a virtual clone of the MISS BARDAHL, proved to be the Bernie Little team's first superstar. It raced for five years, won eleven races (including two Gold Cups), and captured three straight National Championships in 1969-70-71. Drivers Bill Sterett, Sr., Terry Sterett, Dean Chenoweth, and Tommy Fults all saw competitive action behind her wheel at one time or another.
Retired by the Little team after 1972, the 1968 "Beer Wagon" appeared briefly in 1974 as George Walther's COUNTRY BOY and in 1975 as Jerry Kalen's MISS VERNORS. It now does display duty in its MISS BUDWEISER colors at the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum in Kent, Washington.
Karelsen hulls with the wider and flatter than usual profiles were the dominant force in Unlimited racing in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Karelsen-crafted 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 2.5-mile lap of 116.883 with Leif Borgersen in the cockpit. 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 Bill Sterett, Sr., in MISS BUDWEISER, Bill Muncey in MISS U.S., Jim 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. This was at a time when a race winner was determined by total points rather than by the order of finish in the Final Heat. At two races in particular, pilot Borgersen had no excuse for not winning. These were the 1969 Tri-Cities Atomic Cup and the 1970 San Diego Gold Cup. At the Tri-Cities, Washington, NOTRE DAME nullified a victory by jumping the gun. At San Diego, Leif clearly had the fastest boat entered and dominated the first two heats. NOTRE DAME was running head-to-head with Chenoweth and MISS BUDWEISER in the Final Heat. But then Borgersen spun out on lap-two and had to settle for a distant second.
The Karelsen NOTRE DAME came to grief at Seattle in 1971 when she took a bad bounce and broke in half during the Final Heat of the Seafair Regatta. New driver Billy Sterett, Jr., suffered a broken nose in the accident, but was otherwise unscathed.
By the late 1960s, Ed Karelsen was really on a roll. He had turned out some truly outstanding Unlimited hulls. Unfortunately, his PARCO’S O-RING MISS of 1970 wasn’t one of them.
On paper at least, this should have been a great boat. In addition to Karelsen's participation, Billy Schumacher (late of MISS BARDAHL) was hired as the driver. The PARCO also benefited from the recently disbanded MISS BARDAHL team's Rolls-Royce Merlin engine inventory as well as several former MISS BARDAHL crew members.
PARCO'S O-RING MISS performed adequately at Washington, D.C., and actually turned the fastest heat of the President's Cup. But it was all down hill from there. The boat, owned by Laird Pierce, vibrated so badly--and the ride was so rough--that Schumacher would return to the dock with no feeling in his legs and would have to be helped out of the cockpit.
Various explanations have been put forth as to why the 1970 PARCO was such a disappointment. The story that is heard most often has to do with the boat being built narrow because the shop in which it was built was rather small. But Scott Pierce, son of Laird Pierce, rejects this idea. . According to Scott, “The boat was transported to San Diego for testing prior to the season starting. The testing went well, and everybody thought we had a winner. I must say at this point there were no vibration complaints from the driver, Billy Schumacher.
“The boat was transported east to start the season. At Washington, D.C., the boat was doing well in the race until Billy got in trouble in the first turn, while racing for the lead. I wasn't driving the boat, and I can't tell you what the circumstances were. But I can tell you truthfully that whatever happened scared Billy to death. The best thing that could have happened for the team after that race was for Billy to resign. But he didn't. And he never drove the boat hard from that day forward.
“The crew started fighting. Some were loyal to Billy, while others wanted him gone. And poor Ed Karelsen was caught in the middle of it all. I do not believe the lack of performance had anything to do with Ed. My father’s inability to make the hard decisions cost him his dream of winning Unlimited races.
“If my Dad’s team had been in the hands of, let’s say, Bernie Little, the team would have won a lot of races. In 1970, there was not a team that had better equipment than my father.”
Sold to Jim McCormick, the PARCO was renamed MISS TIMEX II but failed to make much of an impression. It was demoted to display duty after 1972.
In 1971, Don Kelson built a line-for-line hull duplicate of Ed’s 1967 MISS BARDAHL in three weeks for the HALLMARK HOMES team as a mid-season replacement for the boat that had crashed at Madison.
Over the next few years, it turned in some respectable performances. These included a third-place at Seattle in 1972 as MISS VAN’S P-X with Borgersen driving and a third at Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1973 as RED MAN with McCormick at the wheel. But by the end of 1973, the hull was literally coming apart and had to be retired. This was blamed on the hurried-up construction process.
Besides, by 1973, the Ron Jones hulls had come into their own and were breaking speed records all over the country. The old-style rear-cockpit/forward-engine designs were obsolete.
The Karelsen glory days in the Thunderboat sport were over. Not for over a decade would Ed take on another Unlimited project.
In 1982, he built a Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered cabover hull for Fred Leland. It debuted that year as OH BOY! OBERTO with Scott Pierce as driver.
In the years that followed, it was known variously as AMERICAN SPEEDY PRINTING, KISW MISS ROCK, MISS HOUSTON, COORS LIGHT SILVER BULLET, POCKET SAVERS PLUS, PIETRO’S PIZZA, and MISS TUBS, among other aliases.
In addition to Pierce, Leland, George Johnson, John Prevost, Mitch Evans, Mike Hanson, Jack Barrie, Steve David, and Andy Coker all saw action behind her wheel at one time or another.
But the 1982 Karelsen Unlimited was never more than an average boat and never finished in the top-three at any of the races that it entered. It may or may not have been able to overcome its mediocrity. But the onset of the turbine revolution, which began in 1984, rendered that question moot. By the end of the decade, it was an unredeemable also-ran.
Karelsen’s MISS MERCRUISER was an avowed experiment, concocted by Ed and his friend John Prevost, to see if a lightweight 28-foot single-Chevy automotive-powered craft could be a viable Unlimited. It couldn't. The craft showed up for two races in 1986 but could only run laps in the 80 to 90 mile an hour range.
It was a beautiful boat, painted jet black. But looks can be deceiving.
At the Gold Cup in Detroit, Jerry Hopp and Todd Yarling both took it out and tried to get it up to speed but were unable to do so. When MISS MERCRUISER failed to make it as an Unlimited, there was talk of registering it in the Grand Prix Class. But this plan was abandoned.
It was essentially a boat without a class: not enough horsepower to be an Unlimited and too heavy to be competitive as a Grand Prix.
Karelsen was briefly involved in another Prevost experiment that included automotive power. This was a 34-foot monstrosity that Ed designed and Mike Hanson built. It was intended to carry not one but four automotive engines. But it was never put in the water in that configuration, on account of Prevost’s retirement from racing.
Mike Jones eventually acquired the hull and in 1994 re-powered it with a Lycoming turbine. He registered it as INTERNATIONAL NEWS (and other aliases). But the less said about its racing career the better.
Ed Karelsen’s contribution to Unlimited racing now belongs to history. Granted, he turned out more failures than successes in that category. But the incredible competitiveness of his “big three”--the MISS BARDAHL, the MISS BUDWEISER, and the NOTRE DAME--and his introduction of the ”rear shoes” concept have rightly earned Ed an honored place in the pantheon of Thunderboat designers and builders.