In 1961, Musson joined oil-additive magnate Ole Bardahl’s team. He drove the Miss Bardahl that year to win his first national title –in a boat that hadn’t won a single race in three years. On August 8, 1965, the Seattle resident became the first driver in 30 years to win the APBA Gold Cup three years in a row. And the very next month, he won his second national championship. Musson’s next win came less than one week later in San Diego, where he broke three long-standing world speed records – all in a boat that many felt was “over the hill.”
For the 1966 President’s Cup, however, Musson would drive a brand new Miss Bardahl, which had a radically different design than his old Green Monster. This new hull design had a rear-mounted engine, which increased visibility by eliminating the driver’s need to peer over a front-mount engine, and it reduced the drag, noise, and fumes; however, it reduced the driver’s ability to discern some of the hull vibrations that let him “feel” how the engine was responding. Compounding the problem of racing such a radically different boat for the very first time was the fact that Musson, a driver known to push his equipment to the limit, also had very little time to practice in it. On that fateful Father’s Day, Musson had just completed his first lap in the second heat and was headed down the straightaway when the Miss Bardahl started “porpoising.” The propellor was self-destructing and Musson, who couldn’t feel what was happening, was still accelerating. When the propellor broke, the boat was going 160 miles per hour, and plunged nose-first into less than eight feet of water. Musson was killed instantly.
Rex Manchester was married to Ole Bardahl’s daughter, Evelyn, who was close friends with Ron’s wife, Betty. The two Seattle couples lived very near each other and spent a lot of time together. While his best friend was twice national champion, after five years of motorboat racing Manchester was still struggling to get his first unlimited hydro win. He was clearly about to win a couple of times when, through no fault of his own, the races had to be restarted, prompting the press to call him “Hard Luck Rex.” As luck would have it, he lost to his best friend on Lake Washington in 1965, giving Ron Musson his third Gold Cup win.
On June 19, 1966, Manchester was finally the odds-on favorite to win the President’s Cup in Washington, D.C. It was Father’s Day and both wives had stayed in Seattle. During the heat, the two friends traded the lead several times on the Potomac. When Ron Musson crashed, Rex immediately phoned Evelyn and told her to go to Betty’s before the tragic news got to her. Little did Evelyn know, it would be the last time she would speak to her own husband. The stunned drivers voted to continue racing, even though some were visibly shaken by the tragedy. Rex was in shock and Don Wilson was seen weeping openly. Within hours of Musson’s crash, the thunderboats piloted by Rex Manchester and Don Wilson collided in the final heat. The Notre Dame, piloted by Manchester, leapt three feet out of the water and into the path of the Miss Budweiser driven by Don Wilson; both men died instantaneously.
In another ironic twist, when the final points were tallied on that tragic day, Rex Manchester had enough points to be declared the winner of the President’s Cup, his one and only unlimited win awarded posthumously.
To quote Mike Fitzsimmons, Seattle motorboat racing enthusiast and the voice of Seafair on television, “The drivers back then were a fraternity. They knew each other for years and loved each other.” The conditions were poor: too much floating debris in the river, a lack of safety patrol boats or a rescue helicopter. The deaths of three popular drivers in one afternoon – later called “Black Sunday” – rocked the world of hydroplane racing and prompted a serious debate about whether to continue the sport. The sport did continue, and in 1993, Ron Musson was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame, showcasing him as one of racing’s all-time greats.
The horrific circumstances of that day resulted in a turning point for the sport—which ultimately lead to safer, faster boats. The Miss Bardahl came to be the “grandmother of modern hydroplane design.” New improvements, such as an enclosed cockpit, have increased the safety for hydroplane drivers. The sport of racing hydroplanes still plays a major part in the Seafair events here in Seattle. The impact was indelible on the Seattle area, and the drivers who lost their lives racing were well loved and still remembered in the area today.