Legendary Racer "Wild Bill" Cantrell, 85, Dead
By Graham Taylor, [Madison, IN] Courier Managing Editor

On a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon in 1965, Bill Cantrell was purring along like a champion during the Indiana Governor's Cup Race for unlimited hydroplanes.

The Ohio River belonged to Cantrell and his Miss Smirnoff on that afternoon -- until "something went wrong with my boat," he told us the next day from his bed in King's Daughters' Hospital. "It just went out of control and aimed itself toward the Kentucky shore where it finally came to a halt. The boat and me were completely beached in the sand."

Bill Cantrell, who was born in 1908 at West Point, Ky., called Louisville his home for a long while. He resided in Detroit for a long while, where he was a member of the Schoenith family's Gale Racing Team. After windup a long career of racing various classes of boats and cars, Cantrell came to Madison to retire.

Cantrell -- he was known throughout his racing career as "Wild Bill" -- died at 8:40 p.m. yesterday at the Charlestown Medical Center following a lengthy battle with cancer.

"We have lost one of the biggest supporters of the city of Madison and boat racing," Cantrell's longtime buddy, Graham Heath, said this morning.

Heath, who joined Cantrell in setting up the C & H Machine Shop on Wilson Avenue when Cantrell elected to make Madison his retirement home, visited The Madison Courier yesterday morning to say Cantrell was "near death."

"I just wanted to let you know because I know you and Bill were friends," Heath said. "It doesn't look good; the doctors say there isn't anything else they can do for him."

Heath said he was going to Charlestown to "bring him back to Madison." He made the trip but was told "the end is near" yesterday afternoon. Heath was at Cantrell's bedside when he died.

Cantrell was one of the early stars in boat racing.

He won the very first Indiana Governor's Cup Race that featured unlimited hydroplanes in 1954. Driving Gale IV, Cantrell won on the Ohio River after capturing the President's Cup on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

The late mayor Charles Vaughn presented the Governor's Cup, saying he hoped it would be "the first of many victories for you at Madison."

Cantrell never was able to win another boat race on the Ohio River. He tried in 1955 and was unsuccessful. He went down in defeat again in 1961, 1963 and 1964 before going through the beaching of Miss Smirnoff in 1965.

He won other races, however. Before coming to Madison for his initial unlimited competition here, Cantrell won the 1949 APBA Gold Cup in My Sweetie, and continue to post victories, claiming the national championship that year. He also won the 1963 national title aboard Miss Smirnoff.

Cantrell was a gifted racer, competing not only on the water but also in auto racing.

He competed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway three times. His best finish was 16th in 1948 after posting the seventh highest qualifying speed. He completed 161 laps in the Indianapolis 500-mile race that year.

In 1949, Cantrell finished 21st and was 27th in 1950 in a race that was halted after 138 laps because of rain. He was unsuccessful in qualification attempts in 1951 and 1952.

After being involved in racing as a driver, Cantrell remained involved in the speed sport.

He teamed up with Heath from 1979 to 1983 to campaign the My Gypsy hydroplane, a boat Cantrell designed and built for owner Jim Ranger while working with the Gale Racing Team in Detroit.

Opening their machine shop in Madison, Cantrell and Heath always shared their facilities with visiting racing teams during the Madison Regatta.

"Try to be good to your fellow man like you want him to be good to you," Cantrell once said when asked about permitting "the enemy" to use the Cantrell and Heath boat shop. "I have always treated people like people."

"We will miss him," Madison's Ed Cooper Sr. said today. "Everyone connected with boat racing will miss him."

Madison Regatta president Dave Taylor, who compiled a long list of Cantrell's accomplishments in 1985 as a writer for The Madison Courier, said Cantrell "was a popular, hard-working figure wherever the smell of grease and sweat mingled, wherever engines thundered."

Cantrell received many awards, the latest being an induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Michigan in 1992. He received the J. Lee Schoenith award from the Unlimited Racing Commission in 1990 and was the recipient of the Herb Mendleson Award from the URC in 1983.

"I fell in love with Madison in the 1950s and decided this is where I am going to call my home when I decide to retire," Cantrell told us during an interview in King's Daughters' Hospital following his 1965 accident. "I've had some good racing here and I've made a world of friends here. My home one of these days will be Madison, after I wind up things in Detroit."

He spent many days in Madison and could call a large number of Madisonians his friends. He missed cele- brating another birthday with his friends by just a few days. He would have been 88 a week from tomorrow.

(reprinted from the Madison Courier, Jan. 23, 1996)

Madison Courier. Used by permission.

See also

Hydroplane History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010.
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