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Proudest record for Bardahl crew? Reliability.

by Jon Osterberg

In 1965, Miss Bardahl set reams of records:

• Three consecutive APBA Gold Cup victories in 1963-64-65, a trifecta last accomplished in 1935 and not to be matched again until 1979.

• Three consecutive National High Point Championships, 1963-64-65.

• Competition lap, heat, and race records set in the boat’s final race in San Diego, records that stood well into the picklefork era.

Bardahl’s 1965 San Diego race average of 115.064 mph stood for 13 years. Not until Bill Muncey steered his Blue Blaster Atlas Van Lines to a 121.261-mph race average in 1978 was Bardahl’s mark broken.

But ask Miss Bardahl’s crew and they’ll point to another record as their proudest achievement: 57 consecutive heats finished without a mechanical breakdown, breaking the previous mark of 55 set by Miss Thriftway/Century 21 in 1960-62. Bardahl’s 57-heat record still stands to this day for a piston-powered unlimited.

“It says a lot about attention to detail and quality control,” said Dixon Smith, current Miss Bardahl owner and crew member on the boat in its racing days. “Leo was the driving force behind the attitude that made that record happen. Also, our crew worked really hard at developments for reliability, and we routinely checked each other's work. Checking each other's work was the real key to catching mistakes or errors and making sure everything was right before the boat ever left the shop in Ballard. As I’ve told many people, you win races in the winter, if you do the job correctly.”

A few lone voices have questioned Bardahl’s 57-heat mark, citing the 1963 President’s Cup. Ron Musson had been hurt when Bardahl flipped in Madison two weeks earlier, and Don Wilson stepped in for 1963’s final three races. Wilson ran Bardahl hard in heat 1B at Washington, D.C., and finished a close second to Miss Exide. But Wilson later was penalized for a lane violation in the pre-start dash, Bardahl’s points were rescinded, and her second-place finish was changed to “disqualified.”

The Unlimited Racing Commission, hydroplaning’s governing body, ruled that Wilson’s driving error would not count against consecutive heats finished, a mark that measures mechanical reliability.

Hydro historians, and of course the Bardahl team and its fans, endorse the URC’s ruling as sound and sensible logic. A disqualification has no bearing on whether, in full sight of all attendees, a boat completed a heat of racing without failure. It’s a mechanical reality, not subject to a referee’s judgment, or even a driver’s error. A boat either finishes, or it doesn’t.

The last time Musson’s mount failed to finish a heat was July 1963, in the Diamond Cup at Coeur d’Alene.

When her crew hooked Bardahl to the crane and hoisted her out of Mission Bay after winning the San Diego Cup on October 3, 1965, the Green Dragon had started every heat it was assigned to, and finished those 57 consecutive heats of racing without a mechanical failure – a huge point of pride for mechanics Leo Vanden Berg, Jerry Zuvich, Dixon Smith, David Smith, Roger Kruse, and Skip Schott.

As of October 2020, Bardahl’s 57-heats record still tops the reliability list for piston-powered unlimiteds. Amazingly, since its 2007 post-restoration relaunch, Bardahl’s reliability streak has extended to include an additional 152 consecutive exhibition runs of three laps or more. Combined with its 57 heats of racing, that’s an astounding 209 straight runs without a mechanical failure, as of October 2020.

Putting in another "guerrilla" Bardahl Merlin!

Crew Chief Leo Vanden Berg (left) supervises his crew changing an engine between heats.

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