Editor’s note: There are 49 days until the APBA HAPO Gold Cup Heat 1A race takes place on the Columbia River. At the same time, the Tri-City Water Follies’ annual event is celebrating its 50th year of racing unlimited hydroplanes. So the Herald will take a daily look at past storylines leading up to the Gold Cup. These are in no particular order:
In the beginning, 1965-66.
The original five — Keith Bowers, Jack Hamann, Ken Maurer, Mark Pence and Wally Reid — were the guys who had a vision of expanding the old Pasco Water Follies. They imagined turning an event that raced 7-litre boats over at Sacajawea Park in Pasco into a much larger Tri-City Water Follies, with unlimited hydroplanes near Columbia Park in Kennewick.
This was 1965, and the quintet drove all night in an old station wagon to see an unlimited race in Lake Tahoe, taking turns behind the wheel. They wanted to meet the boat owners and drivers, and convince them to let the group put on a race the following year in the Tri-Cities.
Bill Muncey had always liked driving limiteds and outboards at the Pasco Water Follies in the 1950s and ’60s. Of course, he also happened to be one of the best unlimited drivers around.
“He knew (original Tri-Cities race organizer) Jack Hamann and his wife Jean real well,” Reid said in an interview back in 2004. “He was the one who said ‘Why couldn’t you guys put on an unlimited race here?’ We thought that was a good idea.”
But it was not a slam dunk.
The Tri-Cities group had to apply to the American Power Boat Association that offseason in Long Beach, Calif.
“The people in that meeting said they raced on the Detroit River,” said Reid. “They didn’t like it because there was too much debris floating down the river, and they were never gonna race on a river again.”
The deal looked dead until Muncey stepped forward.
“He said it was a great place to race,” Reid said, “and he’d been there many times before. Muncey sold the deal to the fellow racers.”
But things didn’t look good for unlimited hydroplane racing in the weeks leading up to the inaugural Atomic Cup, set for July 24, 1966.
Four drivers had been killed in two different races — three in Washington, D.C., alone — in the weeks leading up to the Tri-Cities race. There was actually some talk around the circuit of just shutting things down.
But it turned out to be just talk.
Despite a sand storm that made the west end turn impossible to see from the east end, the races were held. Just before the final, the wind died down and the sky cleared.
And when Tahoe Miss died on lap four, Bill Brow drove Bernie Little’s new Miss Budweiser boat to victory. It was the very first victory for Little as an owner. He had been struggling on the circuit to win since 1963.
It was a big reason Little always had a soft spot in his heart for the Columbia River course — he always would start race day Sundays by walking down to the dock, scooping up some river water, and kissing it for good luck.
Mira Slovak raced the Tahoe Miss during the 1966 season.
But he also flew stunt planes. During that first race, it’s said he flew his stunt plane underneath the Blue Bridge, thrilling fans and likely scaring the people driving cars over the bridge to death.
“I won’t admit it. Not guilty,” Slovak said in a Herald interview back in 1995.
But then he qualified that statement: “Today we live in a different world. Life has changed. What we did 30 years ago, we cannot do today.”
No one has since flown a plane under the bridge.
And after all the volunteer work, ticket sales, expenses were determined, the Water Follies made a profit of $1,000 that first year.
That gave the group confidence to keep the event going.
For the first three years, the Tri-Cities used green paper pledge cards. Individuals and businesses signed them to pledge money if the races were to finish in the red.
It never happened, and eventually the pledge cards went away.