Roar to the Shore

Vintage hydro group
to present second annual event

Madison Vintage Thunder
offers free viewing of thunderboats

September 2017 Cover

(September 2017) – Bill Black grew up in the 1950s Seattle, where at that time there wasn’t much in the way of pro sports to follow as a kid. But there was one constant: Hydroplane boat racing.
As a result, the hydroplanes – and specifically the Unlimiteds – became king of spectator sports.
“We didn’t have any pro sports so everyone was into the sport of hydroplane racing,” said Black, 74, now a retired physician living in Henderson, Ark. “I grew up wanting to either drive or ride in one, and I soon learned that the only way I was going to be able to do that was to own one.”
Black’s youthful wish eventually came true upon reaching his 70s as a retiree when he and his wife, Judy, decided to build a vintage Unlimited hydroplane from scratch. That’s right. Not a restoration of an existing vintage race boat, but rather a new replica boat from basic materials of wood and metal.
He chose to replicate the Gale V, which was first constructed in 1954 by famed boat builder Les Staudacher and powered by a World War II-era Allison V-12 engine.
Black had never built a boat before, much less anything else for that matter. He spent his career as an aero-engineer, with 12 years as a U.S. Navy pilot, followed by medical school, then an Air Force flight surgeon and flew B-52s. But in retirement, he had more time on his hands and decided to return to his childhood passion.

• Sept. 23-24 in Madison, Ind.
• Featuring vintage hydroplane exhibitions, antique car displays, kids inflatables, food vendors, free movie night
• Admission: Free. Bring coolers, chairs or blankets
• Information:
(812) 701-1073 or visit www.5tothe5.com

“I took a woodworking class and made a shelf. Then I decided to build a hydroplane race boat,” Black said during a late September telephone interview.
Black brought his Gale V replica to Madison, Ind., last year and drove it in exhibition runs on the Ohio River during the inaugural Madison Vintage Thunder festival. He was joined by Jay Armstrong, who brought his restored vintage Unlimited hydroplane Miss U.S., and by Dick Higgons, who brought his vintage Miss Budweiser boat, which originally raced back in its heyday as Tempus. Experienced former hydroplane race boat driver Jack Schafer Jr. drives the Miss U.S. for Armstrong, while Higgons drives his Miss Budweiser himself.
Black, Armstrong and Higgons plan to return again this year for the second annual Madison Vintage Thunder festival, set for Sept. 23-24 in Madison. The roar of the old Allison V-12 engines harken back memories for many Madison Regatta fans and hydroplane fans everywhere, since today’s Unlimiteds – powered by turbine engines – merely “zing” by with hardly any sound at all by comparison.
These blasts from the past have become a huge draw at many locations around the country where vintage hydroplane events are held. Madison Vintage Thunder, presented by a locally based “5-to-the-5 Hydros” club, will also feature dozens of limited race boats in various classes, according to organizer Dave Johnson of Madison.

Photo courtesy of Ron Harsin

The vintage hydro Xanadu (top), owned by Bob Hampton, runs against Bill Wynn’s Heavy Duty at last year’s inaugural Madison Vintage Thunder festival.

Last year’s event featured 36 boats in all, including the three Unlimiteds, which of course were the stars of the show.
“We anticipate having an even bigger crowd this year, since we learned a lot from last year and made some changes to improve the show,” said Johnson, 59, a race boat owner and driver himself whose day job is with the state road department for the Indiana Department of Transportation.
In fact, Johnson’s boat shop is grand central for area hydroplane racing fans who like to hang out and reminisce about the good ol’ days of hydroplane racing. His shop is full of boat racing memorabilia and photos of boats and drivers, which he has collected since childhood. Over the years, he has either bought or been given all sorts of race memorabilia – uniforms, helmets, stickers, buttons, flags, you name it.
He and his friends spend many hours at the shop on First Street working on their own race boats, each of which will take runs on the river at the September festival. For instance, Johnson’s 6-litre boat, Miss Jean, is named after his wife. Paige Taff owns two boats – the 2-litre Smoke Stack Lightning and the 2-litre Madame G. Taff will drive the Madame G and Nick Lobdell will drive the Smoke Stack Lightning. Rob Holt owns the E-Class 280 boat The Natural High. All of these boats are kept and maintained at Johnson’s shop.

Photo courtesy of Ron Harsin

Festival organizer and vintage hydro boat owner-driver Dave Johnson at last year’s festival.

The event is sanctioned by the American Power Boat Association. The vintage exhibition runs take place on a 11/3-mile course that goes under the Milton-Madison Bridge and back. The group has made a number of retro-style buoys to mark the course and help give it a flavor of nostalgia.
In addition to hydroplanes on the water, the festival will feature antique car club displays, including the 1948 Pat Kennedy Tank Special race car, a Jaguar club, Nash Metropolitan car club and a Mustang club. Also on display will be a 1929 Ahrens-Fox Service Ladder Fire Truck, plus inflatables for kids and music on Saturday evening.
There will also be food vendors and the city of Madison’s showing of the movie “Beauty and the Beast” at dusk Saturday at Madison Bicentennial Park. And the best part is, the festival is free. Spectators are allowed to bring coolers and chairs or blankets and enjoy two days at the river.
The festival is made possible by business sponsorships and a grant from the local tourism board, but donations will be accepted. The festival is the brainchild of the group of vintage hydroplane enthusiasts, who formed the 5-to-the-5 Vintage Hydros club just two years ago with the specific goal of organizing this festival.
They formed a 10-member board of directors and gained nonprofit status through Historic Hoosier Hills Resource, Conservation & Development Agency in Versailles, Ind. The agency serves nine southern Indiana counties, including Jefferson.
This year’s festival also is being dedicated to two iconic hydroplane racing figures of the past: “Wild Bill” Cantrell and Graham Heath, longtime crew member of the Miss Madison. Also, a key to the city will be presented by Madison Mayor Damon Welch to retired boat racing driver and Australian Ken Warby, who holds the world waterspeed record of 317.6 mph, set in 1978 in the “Sprit of Australia,” a boat he built himself.
Johnson estimated bout 300-500 people attended last year’s event. He had lots of people telling him later that they did not know about it and were disappointed they hadn’t come. So this year, the 5-to-th-5’s 10-member board decided to do more to advertise the event.

Photo courtesy of Jay Armstrong

Miss U.S. driver Jack Schafer Jr. of Santa Ana, Calif., prepares for a run in the cockpit of the vintage Unlimited, which was restored by owner Jay Armstrong of Omaha, Neb.

“There’s no way to tell how many boats are coming or how many people will attend,” Johnson said. “But I look for a good crowd.”
A lot goes into the planning. The board has to pay the APBA $10,000 for sanctioning and insurance. The board also must provide judges, referee, dockmaster, risk manager, cranes, and rescue and safety crew. And that’s not to mention the 60 or so volunteers it took to pull off the event last year.
“We could use more volunteers,” Johnson said.
He promotes the family friendly to continue to grow, “but if it continues, at some point we will have to start charging something. The costs are just too great.”
Although the boats are not technically racing, Johnson says these boat drivers are “not just out there driving Miss Daisy. Believe me, they want to put on a show.”
In fact, at last year’s event, Black noted that Higgons in the Miss Bud and Schafer in the Miss U.S. had a pretty competitive run against each other.
“They were definitely racing,” Black said. “I like to run my boat hard, but I have to save my equipment and be safe as a driver.” He has had his boat up to 140 mph but usually runs it around 130 mph on straightaways during exhibitions.
Black was in Seattle as a 12-year-old when he watched the original Gale V win the Gold Cup in 1955. He said local fans were mad that a Detroit-based boat won, but he was excited because “I loved that boat.” But that fall during a test session on the Detroit River, the boat was damaged beyond repair. So the team removed all the hardware and engine and burned the rest.
“As a result, I had no plans to go on to build my replica,” he said.
But he had a solution. Since Staudacher had also built the Tempo VII in the exact same fashion as the Gale V, Black asked a friend to travel to a museum in Canada, where the Tempo VII was kept and measure the dimensions. He gave the information to Ron Jones Sr., who drew up the plans. Black was in business. He later purchased a vintage 1944 Allison V-12 engine in Pittsburgh, Kan., for the boat and had friend Peter Orton help him install the engine.

Photo courtesy of Ron Harsin

The late Graham Heath is pictured beside the memorial to his friend, “Wild Bill” Cantrell on the Madison, Ind., riverfront.

Black said he also received advice and support from Steve Compton, who had just finished restoring the Miss Thriftway replica out in Seattle. “He didn’t even know me, but when I called him and told him who I was and what I was doing, he was more than ready to help. We have become great friends.”
In 2010, Black was ready to launch the boat, so he took it to Detroit and had Schoenith’s widow, Shirley, christen it in the Detroit River. “I asked her if the boat looked close enough to the original,” Black recalled. “She said, ‘No, that IS the boat.’
“That made me feel good.”
Armstrong’s experience was different than Black’s in that he was restoring an original boat rather than building one from scratch. Armstrong, 73, is president of Suburban Air Freight company in Omaha, but his real passion is boat racing.
“I’ve been around the water all my life,” he said. He said he bought his first hydro at age 15 and painted barns to earn enough money to buy an engine for it. So buying a full scale vintage hydro was a dream come true.

Photos courtesy of Chris Denslow

The original Gale V U-55 (top) was national champion in 1954 and 1955, and won the Gold Cup in 1955. Unfortunately, the boat was destroyed in a testing accident later that year. The driver was Lee Schoenith and his father, Joe, owned it. Retired Dr. Bill Black and his wife, Judy, of Henderson, Ark., built a full scale replica of this boat. It is powered by vintage V-12 aircraft engine and driven by Black at exhibition events.

Jay Armstrong of Omaha, Neb., in 2011 purchased the original hull of the Miss U.S. U-36 (middle) from the estate of Tom Mittler and, with the help of others, restored the 1957 boat to running condition by 2012. Armstrong now takes the restored boat to four or five exhibition events a year with Jack Schafer Jr. driving.

The vintage Miss Budweiser U-12 boat (bottom) is actually the original Tempus, raced by Chuck Hickling in the 1970s-80s. In 1985, the father and son team of Ed Cooper Sr. and Jr. started their own team and bought the boat. The Coopers raced it for two years with Jack Schafer and Mitch Evans as drivers. Dick Higgons now owns and drives this vintage boat, which was used in the movie “Madison” painted as Miss Budweiser.

The Miss U.S. was commissioned in 1956 by George Simon of U.S. Equipment Co. of Detroit. Henry Lauterbach built it. But after only three races in 1957 and one race in 1958, it sat in storage for 54 years, mostly at a warehouse by then owner billionaire and collector Tom Mittler of Three Rivers, Mich. After Mittler died in June 2010, Armstrong contacted his widow, Charlotte, who agreed to sell him the Miss U.S. – or what was left of it.
“I went to his warehouse out by the airport to get the boat, and it was like going into a first class museum,” Armstrong recalled. “He had 42 boats in his collection and some exotic race cars.”
The Miss U.S. had been the second boat in a two-boat team, Armstrong explained. “The first boat was the Stardecker. The Miss U.S. was one of only three boats that Lauterbach ever built in his lifetime.”
Armstrong hired Doug Morin of Morin Boats in Bay City Mich., to rebuilt the hull. He hired George Czarnecki, a respected aircraft engine rebuilder with 40 years of experience, to overhaul the engine and driveshaft. The Miss U.S. is one of less than 10 similar operational vintage Unlimited hydroplane boats of this type that survive today.
Armstrong says the goal of restoring these “thunderboats” of yesteryear is to enable young and old to experience the sights, sounds and spectacle that competed back in the day. Like Black, Armstrong has taken his boat to H1 Unlimited race weekends and to vintage hydro exhibitions in Buffalo, N.Y., Detroit, Tavares, Fla., and Madison, Ind. Black also ran in Guntersville, Ala., this year.
Both Arm-strong and Black said their boats attract attention wherever they go – especially during long trips across the country to participate in exhibitions.
“Every fuel stop is a half hour,” Armstrong said, laughing. “People blow their horns or try to slow down and back up to try and take photos or to get a good look at it.”
At one fuel stop, Armstrong recalled a couple who asked to snap a photo of his boat. He replied, “Why don’t I take a photo of you with the boat?”

And another vintage hydroplane fan was born.

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