After 15 honest years of handling lesser brutes, in 1973 Tom D'Eath, a 29-year-old Michigan boat driver, got his first try in an unlimited hydroplane. When he moved up into the biggest class of them all, D'Eath joined an elite group of boat owners, drivers and mechanics of assorted genius and curious disposition.
In the Kentucky Derby a jockey named Shoemaker once stood in his stirrups too soon, costing his irate backers a bundle. At the Masters a golfer named de Vicenzo once signed an incorrect scorecard, thereby losing a chance at a green blazer and a bundle. In 1908 a base runner named Merkle blew a pennant by failing to touch a bag, and in 1929 a California football player named Riegels lost the Rose Bowl by running the wrong way. Such freakish turns of fate, occasional in other sports, are commonplace in unlimited hydroplaning. Scantily defined, an unlimited hydroplaner is a mystical mix of optimist and masochist. To survive he must believe in winning while reveling in the fact that at any moment, for one unforeseen reason or a hundred others, he may end up with egg on his face.
Two years ago, when Tom D'Eath joined the unlimiteds, or "thunderboats" as they are also called, he brought with him the sort of track record and bloodlines that horse fanciers respect. He had won three national titles in the 2�-liter class and held the straightaway record in that category. His father was a thunder-boat hero of the Guy Lombardo era; his brother has a winning record in three limited classes. As might be expected, in his rookie season D'Eath finished in the ruck driving Miss U.S., an old boat owned by George Simon, a Detroit tool manufacturer. Despite his bloodlines and competence, last year in a spiffy new Miss U.S. furnished by Simon, D'Eath did even worse. He got into the water by the one-minute warning gun for only 10 of the 34 heats run that year, and on four of those 10 occasions never made it across the starting line. In one race Miss U.S. began handling like a berserk hay wagon, in another her throttle cable froze and in another her battery failed—such are the ills that these boats are heir to. Midway in the season in her opening heat for the Gold Cup, the classic contest of unlimited hydroplane racing, by the luck of it poor Miss U.S. came up against the hottest boats in the fleet: Pay 'n Pak, the 1973 champion; Miss Budweiser, the 1973 runner-up;
Atlas Van Lines
, driven by Bill Muncey, the biggest winner of all; and an experimental turbine-powered boat called U-95. D'Eath led for two laps, or until U-95 blew up and sank, stopping the action. In the rerun of the aborted heat D'Eath was again in the lead when his gear box disintegrated, blowing hot metal through a fuel cell and burning Miss U.S. to the waterline.
Any thoroughbred horse that performs as badly as Miss U.S. did last year runs the risk of being shipped to a meat-packer, but thunderboating is a different kind of sentimental game. And to judge by the record, George Simon, owner of Miss U.S., is the gamest kind of sentimentalist. He has owned unlimited hydros for 20 years. Back in 1962 Roy Duby piloted one of his hulls to and fro over a straight mile at an average speed of 200.419 mph to set a world propellered-craft record that still stands. His boats have won almost every unlimited honor, but never the cherished Gold Cup or the annual title. Bernie Little, owner of rival Miss Budweiser, says of Simon, "George gets inspired. When he hears his boat firing up, he is ready to bet a bundle on it, and when he is in that kind of inspired condition, the rest of us can pluck him like a chicken."
Be all that as it may, this past winter Simon had Miss U.S. rebuilt. Last week in Miami in the Champion Spark Plug Regatta, the first race of the 1975 season, Miss U.S. went back into action with Tom D'Eath again at the wheel. And how did they do? Worse than ever. On the first turn of the first lap of the first heat Miss U.S.'s ignition failed; her intake took in water. In the second heat, while boiling along at a comfortable 150 mph seconds before the gun, Miss U.S. was washed out by the rooster tail of an overeager rival.
Nobody should consider getting into thunderboating unless he is willing to be unlucky. The anxious mother who does not want her boy to become a driver should take the following precautions: first, never let the kid get his hands on any outboard motor, not even the tiniest Evinrude. One horsepower often leads to another and before you know it the kid has a helmet and life vest. Second, never take a child near Seattle or Detroit in the summer. The unlimited hydro bug is particularly virulent in those areas at that time.
A boy may grow up devoted to stamp collecting and fern pressing, but that does not guarantee that he will not later succumb to a pastime like thunderboating. There is a bit of the motor-mad Toad in many adult males, and no one can be sure when or how the mania will crop out. Consider the case of 39-year-old David Heerensperger. From his teens on, in the process of carving out a living, Heerensperger, present owner of two-time champion Pay 'n Pak, rarely had time for anything more frivolous than high school baseball in Longview, Wash. In 1963, three years after he opened his first electric store, he saw a news item about a sunken hydro, Miss Spokane, that had been salvaged and was going for $5,000. For reasons he does not try to explain, Heerensperger momentarily lost his good business sense and went for it.
For two years he campaigned the boat, renaming it Miss Eagle Electric, after his business. He spent $28,000 and won nary a purse. Realizing that to campaign properly would cost more than his whole business was then worth, Heerensperger got rid of the boat. He swore off even attending races, but the bug still had him. After two years of total abstinence he was back.
Because of all the twists of luck, now and again an upstart driver in a lesser boat outscorches the top dogs, but the life span of such supernovas is usually brief, their exits often made with a loud bang as half a dozen connecting rods burst through the walls of their old and overtaxed engines. The only adequate power plants available today are antique Allison and Rolls-Royce engines made 25 and more years ago for fighter planes. In wartime the engines were designed to cruise at about 2,200 rpm and were red-lined around 3,500. In hydros they are pushed up to 4,500 rpm to turn propellers at better than 13,000. When so pushed the old engines frequently blow. Broken rods and broken hearts are the order of the day. Coming out of a turn when his blower is behind schedule, so to speak, the driver of a modern thunderboat caresses a button on his steering wheel two or three times, adding nitrous oxide, a heady compound better known as laughing gas, to his fuel to effect a faster burn. If he is a pennyweight too heavy on the button, within five seconds it is goodby engine. The old engines, which originally cost around $30,000, could be bought just after World War II for $125. Off the shelf they now go for $5,000 and, race-prepared, for twice that.
The three-point hulls used today are still undergoing change by the tedious process of trial and error. Whatever breakthroughs the future may hold, the hulls forever will be a compromise between what runs well flat-out on a straight and what is necessary to survive in the brawling uncertainties of the turns. Today when boats are hitting 180 mph on straights and lapping at 115, the driver Who does not back off enough and catches a sponson in one of the queer holes that suddenly appear in the troubled water of a turn can easily spin his boat full circle and end up on the obituary page. For all its whims thunderboating is still a percentage game, and the owner or sponsor who is not willing to put $125,000 into it annually is not apt to get anywhere.