By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
Unlimited hydroplane racing owes a lot to Ron Jones, the Seattle area boat builder, who has revolutionized the sport so dramatically over the years.
If anyone has any doubts about the contribution of Ron Jones, Sr., to big-time boat racing, the outward appearance of the hydroplanes themselves should suffice. The boats of yesteryear were, for the most part, rather narrow, quite box-shaped, and less streamlined. They had forward engines and rear cockpits and rode awfully rough through the turns. Today, thanks to Ron, the boats are generally wider, flatter, have forward-mounted (or cabover) cockpits, and corner a whole lot better.
"I went through fifteen years of rejection on that particular design," Jones recalls. "But the cabover, I feel, is safer. The weight placement is more helpful in getting the boat around the corner."
Ron grew up in a racing-oriented family. His equally renowned father, Ted Jones, designed such famous contenders as SLO-MO-SHUN IV, SHANTY I, MAVERICK, HAWAII KAI III, MISS WAHOO, and MISS THRIFTWAY. The younger Jones started building Limited hydroplanes in 1950 while still in high school.
His first race boat was a 48 Cubic Inch Class rig, which he sold for a few hundred dollars. The 48s were the smallest of the APBA inboard hydro classes.
Ron attempted his first 7-Litre boat in 1956. This was the WHIZSKI, powered by a Packard V-8. WHIZSKI is the craft that owner Wally Pannebaker tried to pass off as an Unlimited by extending the tailfin 4 feet 2 inches in order to meet the minimum Unlimited hull length of 25 feet. Ron had nothing to do with the tailfin extension and didn't want to have anything to do with it. WHIZSKI entered the 1957 Gold Cup at Seattle but couldn't reach the qualification minimum of 95 miles per hour.
Jones made a few starts in the late fifties as a 280 Cubic Inch Class pilot. But he gave that up rather quickly, because "I found that I was a rotten driver."
Ron built his first Unlimited, the MISS BARDAHL, which his dad had designed, in 1958. The boat won its first race, the Lake Chelan Apple Cup, and went on to win the Season High Point Championship with Norm Evans and Mira Slovak as drivers.
Five years later, Ron was called in to perform modifications on another MISS BARDAHL that the elder Jones had designed and built. Ron installed an entirely new set of sponsons and changed the length of the afterplane among other things. In 1963-64-65, the rebuilt boat won three straight Gold Cups and National Championships with Ron Musson driving.
"I like to feel that I was responsible for helping my Dad in that it was basically a good boat, an excellent boat, that needed a little help in the sponson department."
After having worked with the BARDAHL people on two previous hulls, Ron accepted his first major Unlimited Class assignment: the design and construction of a new and innovative MISS BARDAHL for the 1966 campaign.
Jones had built a popular 225 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane, the TIGER TOO, in 1961. The boat was a cabover, and Ron could hardly give it away. But once it entered competition, TIGER TOO was highly successful. Jones was anxious to try the cabover concept on an Unlimited hydroplane.
"We knew that Unlimiteds basically were not as aerodynamically supported as many perhaps thought. They were really kind of careening around on two sponsons, reacting to the water. We attempted to build a boat that would be more aerodynamically supported than previously. That was our first consideration.
"Second, we moved the weight aft in an effort to help the handling and cornering of the boat. We made the transom wide which, today, is very well accepted. At the time, it was not accepted at all. We also did some things in the area of the strut and the sponsons which, perhaps, were ahead of their time.
"All these things put together were in an effort toward making the boat go faster with the same horsepower as before. Or, if the driver didn't care to go faster, he could work the engine--in this instance, a Rolls-Royce Merlin--a lot less and go into the corner much faster. This would increase lap times because of less elapsed time in the turn.
"So, the whole effort of the 1966 Miss Bardahl was to support the boat aerodynamically and, through improved hydrodynamics and weight placement, make it corner and accelerate faster."
Ron's brainchild created quite a sensation when it appeared on the Unlimited scene at Tampa, Florida. Not since Ted Jones introduced THRIFTWAY TOO, which raced between 1957 and 1960, had a Thunderboat cockpit been located ahead of the engine.
After withdrawing from the Tampa event with a gearbox problem, MISS BARDAHL made her competitive debut a week later at the ill-fated 1966 President's Cup in Washington, D.C. Pilot Musson waxed the field in the first heat. In so doing, MISS BARDAHL posted the fastest heat speed of the race and dramatically served notice that she had what it took to be competitive. The much-maligned cabover concept of Ron Jones suddenly had credibility.
Then, disaster struck. While dueling for the lead in Heat Two with Rex Manchester in NOTRE DAME, MISS BARDAHL lost her propeller. The craft became airborne and took a nosedive to the bottom of the Potomac River, shattering the hull and fatally injuring the driver.
Jones was shaken to the core by the tragedy, even though his design and construction could not be faulted. Ron Musson was a close personal friend. And the accident served to perpetuate the now-debunked myth about forward-cockpit hulls being unduly hazardous.
"There were accidents that had nothing to do with the fact that the boats were cabovers," Ron recalls, "but they were associated with cabovers. And, therefore, it was difficult to sell the concept."
Not for four years did Jones attempt another Unlimited. In the mean time, Ron introduced RECORD-7, which dominated the 7-Litre Class in 1969 with his good friend George Babcock driving. RECORD-7 was the first Limited inboard to average better than 100 miles per hour in a heat of competition.
Jones is quick to point out, however, that a lot of factors contributed to RECORD-7's phenomenal success and no one thing was responsible for clearing 100 MPH. Wide afterplanes, pickleforks, and cabovers were all ideas that he had been exploring for over a decade.
"Although we did a lot of new tricks to that boat, including a few that perhaps went unnoticed. And we had a much better shaped deck aerodynamically."
RECORD-7's performance proved to be a wake-up call for the Unlimited fraternity. "Up until that point, we had been successful with a lot of Limited classes. But, for some reason, the Unlimited hydroplane owner is not impressed by the so-called 'little boats.' Yet, RECORD-7 was impressive enough to get their attention."
The first Unlimited boat to follow RECORD-7's lead was the 1970 vintage PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK that Ron built for Seattle's Dave Heerensperger. The PRIDE used a pair of hemispherical engines built up by the highly regarded Keith Black.
"I was 90 percent right with many of the concepts of that boat. It did show some bursts of straightaway speed on occasion. But the boat was a little too heavy for two Chryslers. We didn't have the propeller technology that we have today. I wish that I had had the propeller and gear ratio combinations in 1970 that we are able to enjoy today. We might have been a great deal more successful."
PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK nevertheless emerged, the following year, as an enormously competitive machine. Repowered with a single Rolls-Royce Merlin, prepared by crew chief Jim Lucero, and with the cockpit relocated from forward to aft, she dominated the second half of the 1971 season and handed Ron his first three Unlimited Class victories (at Seattle, Eugene, and Dallas). With Billy Schumacher driving, the PRIDE also became the first boat to qualify at 121 miles per hour around a 3-mile course (on Lake Washington).
Although not significantly faster on the straightaway than the traditional post-1950 Ted Jones-style hulls, PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK could outcorner anything on the water.
By 1974, Ron Jones boats were finally recognized as the state-of-the-art. Between 1971 and 1974, Ron constructed a staggering total of eight Unlimited hulls: the 1971 COUNTRY BOY, the 1972 NOTRE DAME, the 1973 PAY 'n PAK and the U-95 turbine entry, and the 1974 COUNTRY BOY, VALU-MART, MISS U.S., and LINCOLN THRIFT.
By far the most successful of these was the famed "Winged Wonder" PAY 'n PAK, which ranks among the all-time great Thunderboats with 22 race victories. It stands with Ron's other big winner, the 1980 Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered MISS BUDWEISER, which likewise captured 22 first-place trophies.
The 1973 PAY 'n PAK, which became Bill Muncey's ATLAS VAN LINES in 1976, was the first hydroplane of any shape or size to be built of aluminum honeycomb, rather than marine plywood.
"I had originally thought that I would use a honeycomb bottom. But after talking with the people from the Hexcel Company, I was very impressed and decided to use it everywhere in the boat that I possibly could for a weight saving of about a thousand pounds."
In planning the new PAK, Jones wanted very much to build a cabover. But Heerensperger insisted on a rear-cockpit hull and won out. Ron nevertheless utilized many of the cabover hull characteristics while still seating the driver behind the engine.
"But I did insist on the use of a horizontal stabilizer. Heerensperger agreed because it would give him a lot of publicity. And it did. Perhaps, by today's standards, the stabilizer was not everything it could have been. It was, however, a good running start on the widespread use of the concept.
"And in all fairness to Jim Lucero, he certainly added to the boat's ultimate performance by preparing excellent engines, good gearbox/propeller combinations, and probably some fine-tuning on the sponsons."
Perhaps the most eloquent showcase of the talents of Ron Jones occurred at the 1973 World's Championship Race in Seattle. Despite mist and rain, the competition was superb and unforgettable.
The honeycomb PAY 'n PAK and its 1970 predecessor (renamed MISS BUDWEISER) ran side-by-side. Drivers Mickey Remund and Dean Chenoweth shared the same roostertail en route to becoming the first boats in history to average better than 120 miles per hour in a heat of competition. A local newspaper labeled the PAK and the BUD as "the champion fogcutters of the world."
That 1973 campaign was the first season in which hulls designed by Ron won the majority of Unlimited races (eight out of nine). PAY 'n PAK and MISS BUDWEISER both had four wins and finished one-two in National High Points.
In spite of being three years older and a thousand pounds heavier than PAY 'n PAK, MISS BUDWEISER was able to achieve parity with the PAK. This was due to driver Chenoweth consistently securing the inside lane in heat confrontations between the two entries.
The famous PAK/BUD rivalry continued into 1974. PAY 'n PAK won seven races and MISS BUDWEISER won four to sweep the eleven-race campaign.
The 1975 season was another banner year for the Ron Jones hulls. That's when the Billy Schumacher-chauffeured WEISFIELD'S (former VALU-MART) had the defending National Champion PAY 'n PAK on the ropes in the first three races. But PAY 'n PAK driver George Henley overcame an almost insurmountable point lead by winning five of the last six races of the season to retain the championship. Never before or since has the momentum of one boat been so surely halted by the performance of another challenger.
And in 1976, Jones had the satisfaction of seeing his MISS U.S. win the APBA Gold Cup at Detroit for owner George Simon and driver Tom D'Eath. This was the first time that a cabover three-pointer had ever won the sport's most coveted trophy. Since 1976, every Gold Cup winner has steered from the front.
In assessing the total contribution of Ron Jones to Unlimited hydroplane racing, the many race victories, speed records, and forward-thinking innovations speak for themselves. He was the first to install an F-16 safety canopy on an Unlimited, starting with the MISS BUDWEISER and the MISS 7-ELEVEN in 1986.
His main concern has always been the safety factor for the drivers. This concern shows in all of his work, because Ron is more than just a talented boat designer and builder. He's also a good friend.