With the arrival in 1984 of not one but three turbine-engine-powered thunderboats, the interest of media and fan alike quickened. Who? Was the first person to think of a turbine? What? Was the year when the first turbine hit the water? When? Did this initiation take place? Where? Was the site of the first turbine's test? Why? Did the sport of hydro racing gravitate toward turbines? Veteran hydro fans may remember the name Jim Herrington. An Irish face, pug nose and all. An Irish personality, a drinking man's drinking man. You get the idea. Herrington was active in the sport during the 1960's and very early 1970's. His Mariner Too and Miss Lapeer hydros won their share of the marbles and were always front runners. Miss Lapeer won the Sacramento Cup in 1966, and Herrington started thinking about a new Miss Lapeer. Loathe to stand still and not make progress, he began an investigation of turbine engines, and decided in 1967 to try to make one go. First he retired the older of his two boats - the Mariner Too. Then, he transported that boat to Les Staudacher's boat shop in Kawkawlin, Michigan. Staudacher, renowned builder that he was, made changes in the Mariner Too, moving the driver's seat forward and making room in the back for 11 feet of engine. The engine dwarfed the boat. More properly, both engines dwarfed the 30-foot long boat. Herrington engaged the services of master mechanic Charles Voelker to put together the power package. After much discussion, Herrington commissioned Voelker and Staudacher to marry two turbine engines. The First was a General Electric J-25 used in a Navy seaplane. This tidy little "hair dryer" was used to produce gas pressure to operate the larger engine. The larger, free turbine, engine was a Westinghouse J-46, also used in Navy aircraft. The two engines took two years to perfect and were installed in the Mariner Too which was taken to Guntersville, Alabama to run on the placid lake there. Tests by driver Fred Alter were far from conclusive but the idea looked good. Herrington next commissioned Staudacher to build a new boat. The result was a new U-99 Miss Lapeer completed in 1971. She had to be 34 feet long to handle 11 feet of engines. The extra length required extra width, 14 feet to be exact. As a result the entire rig weighed 7,250 pounds. A behemoth.
Today's turbine engines are about three to four feet long. The 2,800 pounds worth of engines developed 3,200 horsepower, but in this configuration lay the seeds of the Miss Lapeer's demise. As Staudacher recalls it, the "gas producer engine" was "about 17% shy" of having even pressure to produce a well-balanced machine. "Had we been 17% over, things would have been great, but we weren't, is his recollection. Taken to Detroit for a race in 1971, the Miss lapeer, as owner Herrington put it, "just putt-putted around" and the lack of enough gas pressure caused the engine to overheat and destroy itself. End of Miss Lapeer. End of turbine power for the present. End of Jim Herrington as an unlimited owner. But the idea wouldn't die. Watching Herrington's project from the sidelines was Don Edwards, of Santa Barbara, California. Edwards, a drag boat racer, in 1967 commissioned Rich Hallett to build him a 30 foot boat which was modeled after jet speed record holder Lee Taylor, of Downey, California (later killed in a jet powered boat trying for a water speed record at Lake Tahoe, California). Hallett's product was called Golden Commotion, named after Edward's drag boat of the same name. Edwards worked on it and installations were completed in the garage and driveway of his home. For power, Edwards chose two Allison T-40 turboshaft engines. They were supposed to deliver 5,000 horsepower and 14,000 RPM's. In 1968, all systems installed, Edwards decided on a trailer test. There was a major malfunction of the engines and the whole kit and caboodle exploded and then burned. Scratch another hopeful. About the time Herrington was overloading his Lapeer turbine on the Detroit River, Jim Clapp, Seattle business and investment executive decided he might have a go at a turbine powered boat. He engaged the services of Chuck Lyford, well known flyer soldier of fortune and Dwight Thorn, another aircraft engine bug. Lyford also had connections with hydroplaners and it wasn't long, comparatively speaking, till Ron Jones turned out a beautiful 30 foot long three-tailed speedster called the U-95. No Sponsor. Just a number. U-95.
Click here to hear the U-95 ... Driven by Leif Borgersen, the U-95 was powered by two Lycoming T-53 engines, the sort used in Huey Helicopters. In 1974, the U-95 made its racing debut. Clapp had more success than anyone else, even winning a heat now and then. But, misfortune again struck a turbine pioneer. Clapp contracted a terminal illness and died. There was still no solution, as yet, to the main problems of the turbine engines in boats - heat! Sequestered down in the hull (as opposed to out in the open on airplanes) the turbines simply could not operate effectively when overheated. It was 1980 before another owner took a shot at turbine power. Dave Heeresperger, President, Chairman of the Board and absolutely the ultimate in where the buck stops at Pay 'N Pak stores, had been a force with which to contend for several years, winning Gold Cups, races and National Championships with almost diffident ease. He commissioned crew chief Jim Lucero to build him a new boat - and it, too was to be a turbine with Jim Lucero the crew chief and engine master.
Lucero chose a T-55 Lycoming, grandchild of the T-53. The progeny was more powerful than the antecedent. The T-55 Lycoming developed 2,200 horsepower and weighed about 600 pounds. The two T-53's could develop only 900 horsepower each. The T-55 was also a helicopter engine, and was mounted in Chinook (CH-47) helicopters that whizzed over Vietnam jungles. Lucero and driver John Walters had a hair raising experience the first time at a race. The Pay 'N Pak got airborne and did 2 complete 360 degree flips enroute to an accident. Repaired, the Pay 'N Pak picked up the first turbine-powered hydroplane victory ever in New York in 1982 - and then crashed in August 1982 in a first lap melee at Seattle. Scratch Heerensperger, who left the sport with a blast at everyone. Scratch the turbine. Scratch the Pay 'N Pak. Not quite. Advance the calendar two years. The 1984 Season. Turbines were busting out all over. Steve Woomer, Seattle auto parts dealer, purchased Heerensperger's old boat and a brand new hull that was waiting to make its debut. It, too, used the T- 55 Lycoming engine. Woomer completed installations, testing and Steve Reynolds drove the boat. Lucero, Winner of many national championships and world championships with Pay 'N Pak, and Atlas Van Lines, decided to take the turbine plunge again in 1984.
Again T-55 Lycoming. Again Lucero built the boat. In 1984 driver Chip Hanauer won two races and raised the lap record to almost 146 MPH and in general convinced everyone that when the turbine Atlas finished, it won! But the biggest chunk was bitten out of the turbines by Houstonian R.B. "Bob" Taylor, who won one race as a freshman owner in 1983. Armed with a new sponsor, Lite Beer, from Miller, Taylor commissioned Lucero to build the Lite All Star and adapted a General Electric T-64 (4,000 horsepower) to run his new mount.
Problems. Wouldn't start. Weird installations of various systems. Heat. Unable to start because of required high pressure. There's more, but it's redundant. It took four races into the season before the Lite All Star qualified for a race. It took several changes in personnel to come down with a reliable team. But once the Lite All Star qualified it was steady, and marginally, competitive. Since the year of 1984 turbines have won every race but seven - and the last time a boat won that wasn't turbine-powered was 1989 in Tri-Cities, Washington.