Murto: Safety evident in boat crash

During Sunday’s Seafair Cup Unlimited Hydroplane race in Seattle, the Spirit of Qatar drifted into the rooster tail of another competitor, flew into the air, and slammed back into the water upside down.

Much to the relief of all who witnessed the spectacular crash, driver Kip Brown emerged from Lake Washington unscathed. It was a testament to the safety of these 3,000-pound monsters that glide and skim over the water at speeds sometimes exceeding 200 mph.

But like any form of motorsport, Unlimited Hydroplane racing didn’t always benefit from the safety it now enjoys with advanced construction and high-tech materials. In fact the sport’s darkest day was June 19, 1966, in our own backyard.

Unlimited Hydroplane racing enjoyed a relatively safe period when they came to Washington, D.C., for the 1966 running of the President’s Cup Regatta in the Potomac River. There hadn’t been a fatality in the sport since 1962, and only two since the sport reemerged after WWII, powered by the abundance of Rolls Royce and Allison aircraft engines formerly used in fighter planes.

A large crowd of spectators lined the river near National Airport to witness the “Thunderboats,” which, along with a field of Limited Hydroplanes that raced against themselves, provided a day of high-horsepower entertainment on the water. But the entertainment proved tragic during the second Unlimited heat race.

Ron Musson, 37, was a three-time and defending national champion. Driving the radically new Miss Bardahl, which sat the driver in front of the engine, in only its second heat, Musson was the sport’s biggest star.

Nobody knew at the time what exactly happened, but later it was determined that as Bardahl rounded the corner near National Airport and headed down the straight in front of the a large crowd and the judges’ stand, one of the blades on the three-blade propeller broke off, perhaps after hitting a log or other debris. This caused the shaft to be out of balance, which then pounded a hole in the boat’s hull. Water filled the hole and lifted the rear of the boat. As the nose dug into the water, the boat disintegrated in front of the crowd and the judges.

Musson was found floating in the water face first and pronounced dead upon arrival at a nearby hospital.

Rex Manchester was behind the controls of Miss Notre Dame in the next heat race. The 39-year-old racer was always competitive, but had never won a regatta, something he vowed to change in the ’66 season. He and Don Wilson driving Miss Budweiser had a spirited battle for the lead as they entered the corner at the end of the backstretch after the first lap on the 2.5-mile course.

Wilson backed Budweiser down to enter the corner in the inside lane. Manchester kept his foot in it, hoping to emerge with the lead on the front stretch. But the Notre Dame boat bounced from side to side, caught air and flew into the path of Miss Budweiser. As Budweiser pierced the bottom of Notre Dame, both boats disintegrated, killing both drivers. The remainder of the day’s races were canceled.

Within three hours, three of the biggest stars in Unlimited Hydroplane racing were lost. It was as if Richard Petty, David Pearson and Junior Johnson had all lost their lives in a single NASCAR race.

President Lyndon Johnson sent his condolences. Members of Congress called for an end to the race, which, being held on the Potomac in the District of Columbia, was under Congressional control. The water that day was calm, so the course was not found to be at fault. Ironically, Manchester was posthumously awarded his first win, based on points accrued in the previous heats.

The race returned the following year, but for Limited Hydroplanes only. The Unlimiteds came back in 1968, and the President’s Cup continued through 1977. In the late ’70s the sport declined as the WWII engines became scarce, but was rejuvenated by ’80s turbine power. Safety also moved forward with better construction, better materials, and the use of enclosed canopies for driver protection.

I was only 6 year old as I sat along the Potomac River and watched Miss Bardahl disintegrate in front of me. I had no way of knowing that I was witness to the darkest day in the sport’s history.

Last weekend the Spirit of Qatar flipped in the Seattle water and Kip Brown emerged unscathed. Give thanks for the level of safety we have in all forms of racing today.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.