When the thunderboats return to Lake Coeur d’Alene this summer, a champion of the sport’s piston-powered era will be back on the water, if not actually in the driver’s seat.
Billy Schumacher, of Seattle, won an impressive string of Unlimited Class hydroplane races in the 1960s and ’70s and claimed back-to-back national championships.
Now 70, he’s on the race circuit again as a team owner with wife Jane. Their boat, Miss Beacon Plumbing, is headed to Coeur d’Alene for the long-awaited return of the Diamond Cup races over Labor Day weekend.
It will be something of a homecoming for Schumacher: He’s the reigning Diamond Cup champion.
Growing up on the shore of Lake Washington, he began racing boats at age 9 with the encouragement of his father, a baker. As a teenager, “Billy the Kid” would make his way to the Lake City to watch the boats roar across the lake off Independence Point.
His first Unlimited Class race was the 1961 Diamond Cup, when he was just 18. The rookie was back in ’64 in the $ Bill, a perennial tailender.
But in 1968, the 10th and final year of racing in Coeur d’Alene, Schumacher screamed to a first-place finish in the renowned Miss Bardahl, dubbed the “Checkerboard Comet” for its black-and-yellow paint scheme.
Even after 45 years, Schumacher recalls the win in sharp detail.
“That was an interesting race because in the final heat it actually started to get dark. I think when we came into the pits it was dark,” Schumacher said. “The only thing that enabled us to see was the moon. While I was racing, it was really a pretty sight.”
News accounts attributed the delay to strong winds that Sunday evening. Referees and course judges strained to identify the boats by their silhouettes.
“I got a really good start and on the second turn I turned around to look where everybody was, and I saw all the boats behind me,” Schumacher said. “And because it was dusk, you could see the fire coming out of the exhaust on the boats and you could see the moonlit rooster tails. … I have such a vivid memory of that, that I would like to have somebody actually paint what I have in my mind because it was a gorgeous sight.”
Seven years earlier he piloted a much slower boat on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
“The Cutie Radio would only go about 110 mph, I think,” he recalled. “But everybody had problems and I wound up with a third place. That was the very first Unlimited race I was ever in.”
One of Schumacher’s mentors was Bill Muncey, widely considered the sport’s greatest driver. “Even with that old slow boat, I beat him on the first turn,” he said. “And of course he would just scream right by me.”
The two would have some fun on the lake before the races. “The lake is fabulous. Muncey and I used to go waterskiing on it before the race,” Schumacher said. “I have a lot of good memories of Coeur d’Alene.”
He also remembers the rowdy postrace crowds that gave the event a black eye four years running in the early ’60s. Responding to drunken fights and rioting, police used tear gas and fire hoses to disperse crowds and arrested hundreds.
“I witnessed some of that, where the police were putting smoke bombs into the crowd and all that kind of stuff,” he said.
The race course then was just off Independence Point and Tubbs Hill, and many fans stayed downtown drinking and carousing Saturday night before the final day of racing.
“I think between the young people and too much alcohol, it just got out of hand,” he said. “And Coeur d’Alene wasn’t the only place. That happened at Lake Chelan as well.”
The unrest soured many residents on the races and played into later community votes to ban hydroplane racing within city limits. But ultimately the Diamond Cup’s 10-year run ended because organizers had trouble recruiting volunteers and raising money.
Tragedy and opportunity
Schumacher’s opportunity to race in the Miss Bardahl, a hull well known to Diamond Cup fans, came as a result of the darkest day in hydroplane racing. Three pilots, including Bardahl driver Ronny Musson, of Seattle, died in crashes in Washington, D.C., on June 19, 1966.
It was a blow to team owner Ole Bardahl, a Norwegian immigrant who launched a Seattle-based business empire with his oil additive. Not only had he lost his driver, Musson, but also his son-in-law, Rex Manchester, killed in a collision on the Potomac River an hour later.
Reluctantly, Bardahl decided to commission a new boat, and he tapped Schumacher to drive it.
“Musson had told him that he wanted me as his replacement driver when he retired, and he was actually planning to retire that year (he died),” he said.
Schumacher won 10 races in the Miss Bardahl to claim the national championship in 1967 and ’68. The boat later was sold and renamed for sponsor Hallmark Homes, and at the 1971 Gold Cup in Madison, Ind., it disintegrated and sank in the Ohio River, leaving pilot Leif Borgerson sore but uninjured.
The ’50s and ’60s are regarded as the glory years of hydro racing, but they were also the deadliest. Innovations in hull designs and driver bravado pushed the speeds to new limits. Thirteen drivers and one mechanic were killed from 1951 to 1982, and Schumacher knew many of them. They included Muncey, who died racing in Mexico in 1981.
“I had seen so many horrible accidents in my career, and I came close two or three times – really close,” he said. “I just thought my number might come up pretty soon.”
Schumacher retired after winning his final race in San Diego in 1976 and turned his attention to the family bakery in Seattle. He ended his career with 12 world speed records, 17 Unlimited Class wins and eight national titles in the U.S. and Canada.
Racing on the rebound
In his 30-year break from the sport, he watched racing become faster – powered by jet turbine engines, modern hydroplanes exceed 200 mph on straightaways – as well as safer with enclosed, reinforced cockpits. But hydro racing also has lost some of its luster in recent decades and no longer attracts national television coverage and major corporate sponsors.
But H1 Unlimited, the primary racing circuit, is working to expand in the U.S. and abroad. The schedule now includes a stop in Doha, Qatar, and there’s talk of establishing the sport in China.
“A lot of people say the sport is going downhill and declining and all that. I don’t think so,” Schumacher said. “The crowds are still there. The racing actually I think is more exciting.”
When he was in the cockpit, usually only three or four boats in any given race stood a chance of winning. Overall the field was weaker than today, he said.
“I think we have probably six or eight boats now that are capable of winning at any given time,” he said. “The competition is tremendous and the speeds are tremendous. I actually think we have a better show now than we ever have.”
A week ago in the Tri-Cities, Schumacher’s driver flipped the boat at the Columbia Cup. J. Michael Kelly, of Bonney Lake, Wash., walked away from the crash, and the crew spent long days this past week repairing damage in time for this weekend’s Seafair races on Lake Washington.
On Saturday, Kelly was running strong with a second-place finish in the first heat, behind season leader Steve David in Oh Boy! Oberto.
Coeur d’Alene is the next stop, and Schumacher said he’s eager to get back to where his long association with Unlimited Class racing began. The resurrection of the Diamond Cup is an important step in the sport’s revival, he said.
“I believe they’ll get the crowds out there,” he said. “And once they see what one of these races is all about, I believe they’ll return, and return in bigger numbers. It’ll probably take a year or two to really build it up, but I think it will happen.”