The Tahoe Miss Camp Story (Part I) [1967]
by Eileen Crimmin

The Tahoe Miss Camp Story (Part I)  by Eileen Crimmin

The Harrah's Tahoe Miss Camp Story (Part II) :  We Try for the Mile Record by Mira Slovak

William Fisk "Bill" Harrah

Bill Harrah

No other boat ever entered unlimited racing ranks attended by less publicity and more suspicion than Harrah's Tahoe Miss.

But then, no other boat is owned by as unpublicized and legendary a figure as Bill Harrah. And no other boat hosted its own regatta in its first year of competition, either.

The boat, Harrah and regatta are an inseparable subject. And though Harrah has been called "the invariably, invisible Bill" his regatta and racing camp are a direct extension of his ideas, policies and guidance. This is as true today as it was when the camp began racing, but nobody noticed it then.

Tahoe Miss (1)
The first Tahoe Miss was the former Maverick (2) and Miss Reno. As the U-11 it was driven by Russ Schleeh.

The year was 1962 and the boat was not an original but a used model which once won the Gold Cup as Maverick, raced again as Miss Reno and finally landed under the new paint and lettering of Harrah's Tahoe Miss.

Her team manager was the late Bill Stead. Crewmen were George Goeschl, Bill Newman, Jerry Duty, George Moski and Mike Lindeman. Tahoe Miss raced six races that season, was driven by Russ Schleeh and Chuck Thompson and finished the circuit in sixth or seventh place overall — nobody remembers exactly. Why? Everybody was too busy gossiping about the camp, wondering what "the angle" was, and trying to figure out when the gamblers would take over unlimited racing!

The camp's present prestige makes it laughable to recall the serious and inane imaginings circulated about the team. This year, with Mira Slovak at the wheel, Tahoe Miss won the Gold Cup and National Unlimited High Point Championship. (The boat captured the Cup three years sooner than the seven year average it has taken other camps to win this trophy.)

Meanwhile, owner Bill Harrah staged three spectacular unlimited regattas upon Lake Tahoe. He was named to Hydroplane Hall of Fame and later arranged for an assault upon the world water speed record in which two boats participated, Budweiser and Tahoe Miss.

At no time during the four years of all these, and other, racing activities did "The Gamblers descend upon, rise up, move into or take over unlimited racing!"

Now, all the foregoing is well known. But in 1962 Harrah was type-cast by Gossip. He operated casinos whose major profit derived from gambling.

So, Gossip had a field day with Harrah until the truth filtered out that Harrah was in fact The World's Most Successful Casino Operator in a state where gambling is a legal, licensed business:

that he was sole owner of his clubs and utterly free of criminal influence and pressures;
that he maintained, enlarged and displayed to the public as a business promotion the world's largest collection of antique automobiles (plus a few other unique vehicles):
that he was university educated in mechanical engineering:
that the Sierra Nevada Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association named him "Sportsman of the Year" in 1963:
that his program of recruiting to his business young men and women of good appearance and staunch character is endorsed and welcomed by several colleges:
that... oh, why go on?

Under constant revelation of facts about Harrah's personal conduct and business life what could Gossip do but mount its broom and skin out as Plain Truth took over?

The plain truth began to appear as Tahoe Miss raced the 1962 circuit with determination if not brilliance. She placed second in Diamond Cup at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; third in Spirit of Detroit at Detroit; fourth in Governor's Cup at Madison, Indiana; second in President's Cup at Washington, D.C.; and fourth in her own regatta upon Lake Tahoe.

This regatta offered more truths about Harrah. It was staged with the meticulous attention to detail for which Harrah is famous. Using the same realistic methods of crowd handling which make his clubs financially successful, physically immaculate, genuinely entertaining and professionally considerate, Harrah's Tahoe Championship Regatta committee eclipsed with their initial race the efforts of any other first-race sponsor in more than a decade.

The regatta, won by the late Ron Musson driving Bardahl, was a total success. Following it came the announcement that another would be staged in 1963 and that Harrah had ordered a new boat for his racing team.

All vestiges of suspicion evaporated — sonofagun! this guy was a real sport! The Nevada threesome Tahoe Miss, Harrah and the Tahoe Regatta - were embraced wholeheartedly by unlimited racing.

Tahoe Miss (2)
The second Tahoe Miss was designed by Ted Jones, built by the crew and raced by the late Chuck Thompson. It's shown while competing in the Seafair Regatta over Seattle's Lake Washington. This was the first unlimited to average 110 mph or more in a heat.

The new boat was a Ted Jones design built by the crew in a company shop. Under management of Harry Volpi, the 1963 crew evolved into Bill Newman, Everett Adams and George Goeschl.

Chuck Thompson drove the craft with excellent results for a brand new hull. He placed third overall in Gold Cup and won Seattle's Seafair Race while setting a new 45-mile race record of 109.459 mph. On the rest of the circuit Thompson provided the major thrills with the pitching, banging, full-out performance which was the only way Thompson drove.

"We ran a two-stage Allison," recalls Harry Volpi, "and got good performance from the engine. But overall the hull, a heavy 8,500 lbs., never handled quite in the manner we preferred. Even so, we finished the 1963 season third overall. We felt that was progress."

Meanwhile, the second Harrah regatta topped the first and in Winter 1963-64 a second new boat was ordered.

Tahoe Miss (3)
The present [1967] Tahoe Miss is the third hull bearing the name, was designed and built by Les Staudacher. It was rebuilt and repainted between the 1965-66 season following a fire during the Mission Bay Regatta in San Diego in the final race of the year. 

This was a Les Staudacher designed and built hull. In the cold Nevada winter the crew hardwared it and reshuffled a bit to add Andy Anderson and Herb Witherspoon. Bill Newman moved to the Notre Dame camp.

This boat competed in all seven races of 1964 but — "There's only one way to phrase it," said Volpi. "The boat ran well, but we had lots of bad luck."

Nevertheless, Harrah's Tahoe Miss again placed third overall in National High Point standings. And at the close of 1964 the general appraisal of the Tahoe Miss team settled into one of studied respect.

The team ate together, kept to themselves, dressed in team garb and conducted themselves with the "under orders" aura common to a military unit.

"There's a saying in our organization," volunteered Volpi, "that we ‘Harrah'ize’ a man. There are personnel requirements tailored to suit whichever department or area in which an employee functions. For instance, we have rules about proper personal conduct at all times and a special rule about returning to quarters and being in bed by midnight on pre-race night.

"Other rules apply to keeping work areas organized and spotless — the shop, vans, trucks and so on. We like tools returned to their proper place, not scattered around. And so on."

There is something in all this that reminds one of the esprit of continental auto racing teams. There drivers and crewmen are the elite of speed and as welcome in palaces and priories as they are in pits and pubs.

Perhaps Harrah's own speed background influenced his racing team requirements. He underwrote the 1961 and 1962 Reno Grand Prix; owns two Ferraris for private use; once raced one; and gives garage space to several Rolls Royce limousines.

He's no back-seat passenger, either, but wheels this rolling stock with sufficient skill to keep him alive and currently accident-free at speeds exceeding 100 mph on Reno area highways.

Competent at the helm of any boat, Harrah drove the first Tahoe Miss to 125 mph at least half a dozen times and modestly admits to moderate plane piloting ability "in case of some in-air emergency."

Personally and professionally, Bill Harrah likes speed.

With this sort of nature, the 1964 racing performance of Tahoe Miss must have provided him with immense enjoyment.

Then came the sizzle. In Detroit's Gold Cup Thompson and Tahoe Miss posted three heats wins and one fifth place to gain fourth overall. In Newtown, North Dakota they racked up one heat win and one second place for third overall while posting a fastest lap of 117.391 mph. At Diamond Cup on Lake Coeur d'Alene they managed only one heat win, but what a win! They set a new course record of 114.894 mph for one lap and new course record of 111.801mph for one heat.

It was the first time in unlimited history that the long-sought 110 mph heat average had been gained. That Thompson and Tahoe Miss surpassed it by more than a mile per hour was a triumph.

The speeding duo next won two heats of Seafair for a fourth overall and fastest lap time of 114.890 mph. At Madison they won the Governor's Cup Trophy while recording a fastest lap of 114.894; fastest heat of 108.216 and fastest race of 105.372 mph!

There followed the Washington, D.C., event with the boat posting two heat wins for an overall third plus a fastest lap time of 114.890 mph. At Madison, her home waters, Tahoe Miss did not finish the third annual Tahoe Regatta, but placed second in the only heat she ran.

Expectation was high that the 1965 season would belong to Tahoe Miss. 'A new Crew Chief was named, Everett Adams, seven-year employee of Harrah's Clubs, former Ferrari mechanic, service manager for a Stockton automotive firm, 4 years Air Force experience as a C-124 crew chief and finally, crew member of Tahoe Miss since 1962.

"We sure were green in racing those first years," said Adams, "but we tried gradually to build a good, cohesive team. We operate with five full time crewmen. Winter drills insure that we can change an engine in 22 minutes, change a blower and carburetor in 37 minutes and so on.

"This winter we started building mechanical equipment in December and by May 1st had 13 racing engines completed, 6 gear boxes, 4 turbochargers and 8 auxiliary stage blowers."

Using five men full time it takes a week to modify a turbocharger; three days to build an auxiliary stage blower and seven days to build two engines.

The controversial turbocharger caused much laughter and comment.

Because of its size and position, forward of the carburetor, it's been nicknamed "incinerator" and "trash burner."

Adams explained it as follows: "The mechanism takes exhaust gases, pumps them through a turbine wheel which in turn boosts manifold pressure of the engine. This means you gain horsepower by utilizing exhaust gases to supercharge the engine. The big fireball that scares spectators so much is like a flame-out. Especially going into a turn the carburetor floods out. Then when the engine starts running again properly it fires up all this raw gas and produces this miniature flaming mushroom that makes people think we're afire.

Despite the momentum of their excellent 1964 season, despite gradual seasoning of crew under different regatta, weather and water conditions — despite this, the 1965 season brought the team only bad luck, even though they won the Spirit of Detroit Regatta, the Governor's Cup and finished second overall with an exciting Final Heat win in the Tahoe Regatta.

This event, by the way, was staged under a new format. Harrah opened sponsorship to all interested Lake Tahoe communities, firms or individuals. The name was changed to Lake Tahoe World Championship Regatta and the racing conducted under a three-race format of nine heats in all. It, like its predecessors, was highly successful.

Tahoe Miss (3), 1965 San Diego fire
A tremendous explosion produced a violent fire on the Tahoe Miss during the 1965 Mission Bay cup. Initial flame suppression equipment was only partially effective against the fire. The hull had to be towed, still burning, to the beach where additional fire boats and finally skin divers with extinguishers put out the blaze.

Flushed with enthusiasm from the Final Heat win at Tahoe, the camp entered the last race of 1965 determined to win the Mission Bay Regatta in San Diego. But as the boat rounded the first turn buoy of Heat 2 B a terrific explosion wracked her. The engine well disappeared under a lash of flame. Thompson leaped from the cockpit. Fire-fighting equipment moved in and the race was stopped. When Tahoe Miss finally was returned to her trailer, portions of her tail and deck were deeply charred. She'd sustained the most damaging fire seen in recent years.

Between the 1965-66 season the usual off-season silence enveloped the camp, but when the 1966 circuit opened the following changes were noted. Mira Slovak was at the helm of a carefully rebuilt, refurbished and repainted craft. Everett Adams had been moved to another division of the Harrah organization, and Andy Anderson was named new Crew Chief.

The most startling change, however, came from announcement that the Lake Tahoe Regatta would not be staged. Of many reasons circulated about why the event was cancelled only one was true. When the regatta was opened to community participation, various problems developed that nobody could resolve. The event was dropped.

Never was there any question about Tahoe Miss continuing in competition, so prior to June 12th the team hit the road for Tampa, Florida. In their usual inauspicious racing beginning the camp posted an unfortunate DNF at the Suncoast Regatta.

At the ill-fated President's Cup a week later Tahoe Miss and Slovak ran second in Heat lA, second in Heat 2A entered the Final Heat third in points and were third into the first turn of this tragic Final Heat. In fact, it was Slovak who first reached the Notre Dame-Budweiser wreckage.

This race removed three top boats from competition — Bardahl, Notre Dame and Budweiser — and left Tahoe Miss in an enviable position. Nobody denies that, although many forget that the U.S. camp had a strong contender in Miss U.S. 5 and Bill Muncey; Mariner Too and Warner Gardner were always quick; and Miss Smirnoff and Bill Cantrell were known as being able to outpower the entire field when running well.

The remainder of 1966 belonged to Tahoe Miss. The camp won the Gold Cup in Detroit under tragic circumstances. Their former driver, Chuck Thompson, perished when Miss Smirnoff disintegrated on a straight-a-way. Ironically, Tahoe Miss was one of the three boats participating in that sizzling run for the first turn. Yet, they posted three heat wins in a confused regatta visited by death, cancellation, reinstatement, delay and finally a one-day postponement.

Taho Miss (3), 1966 Diamond cup
Mira Slovak in action during the '66 Diamond cup on Lake Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. It was one of four regattas won by the boat and driver combination. Other victories included the Gold Cup, the British Columbia Cup and the Governor's Cup.

They went on to win the British Columbia Cup in Kelowna, B.C.; placed seventh overall in the Atomic Cup at Pasco, Washington; were second overall at San Diego and fourth overall at Sacramento.

At the finish of the San Diego race Tahoe Miss cinched the National High Point Championship. At Sacramento she closed the season with 8,021 performance points.

If the camp did not actually "sweep" the season, they certainly dominated it. They also withstood, quietly, many thoughtless and deliberate disparagements. One repeated stab has been to insist the camp won its 1966 laurels "by default."

This puzzles driver Mira Slovak who explains, as much for himself as for listeners, "You can lose by default, or win because your competitor has defaulted, but you cannot 'win by default' because default means not to finish something. When we won, we finished.

"When I was asked to drive Tahoe Miss I felt I followed one of the all-time great boat racers, Chuck Thompson. Had not he, Mr. Harrah and all the crew members kept this camp in competition there would be no Tahoe Miss on the water, no Tahoe Miss for me to drive. I cannot feel that we won anything by default."

In agreement with the fiery Slovak, but softly, is crewmen George Goeschl, hull man for Tahoe Miss. Goeschl has been connected with racing since 1947 when he worked with Joe Moore building limited inboards. Over the years he's worked with Bill Stead's Hurricane, the Maverick, Hawaii Kai and other unlimiteds.

He has been a pit chairman and course judge numerous times so views racing with broader perspective. "I don't think any of us received the trophies this year with complete enthusiasm. And the Tahoe Miss camp certainly was denied the sort of wild joy that usually accompanies winning the Gold Cup.

"But when we won our races and collected our trophies we did it with a sense of honest effort fulfilled and a very real, deep pride. I think that's a good enough substitute until the joy and enthusiasm comes back into unlimited racing, don't you?"

Between Oct. 17th and 31st, 1966, the Tahoe Miss Racing Team camped on the beach of Lake Tahoe and tried to set a new world water speed record for propeller driven craft. They used the same mechanical set-up which had put a reading of more than 200 mph on the Tahoe Miss speedometer.

But the attempt was ill-fated from the beginning. When the crew installed this identical equipment the gremlins affecting racing machinery plagued the craft.

In a final spectacular fire that forced Slovak to jump at 125 mph, the team abandoned the powerful turbocharger set-up and returned to the racing combination. At high altitude it wasn't speedy enough to approach, much less surpass, the 200.419 mph record.

But the camp will try again at an unselected future date.

The inevitable question at this point in the camp's history is whether Harrah will order continued competition now that Tahoe Miss has won the major unlimited trophies and titles. If campaigning the boat was what cynics claimed — "only a publicity stunt for the Harrah's Clubs" — then it's surmised the boat and trophies will become -part of the Harrah collection of autos, motorcycles and boats.

But at last report the slim, silver-haired owner who "likes to win and calls us at least once a day when we're not racing and after every heat when we are," will send his green, orange and ivory charger to the starting line of all the races of the 1967 season.

After all, Bill Harrah combines the quality of a good sport with a good businessman. When he has something successful going for him in either category you can bet your piggy bank (and win!) that he'll keep it going!

(Reprinted from Hot Boat, February 1967, pp.28-33, 49)


Hydroplane History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at wildturnip@gmail.com
Leslie Field, 2001