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Original Issue

The hydros rolled snake eyes on a gambling man's lake

A wild windstorm beached the boats at the Lake Tahoe hydroplane championships, but the gamblers on the shore never felt a breeze

The town of Stateline, Nev. on Lake Tahoe is a place of bold contradictions. There the rugged crags of the Sierra Nevada end abruptly at an ultramodern gambling casino, where the doors never close and the wheels never stop. There cattle graze in the yard of a concrete, glass and stainless steel bank that is crammed with ready money. And there, omnipresent but often invisible, is a man who looks like a blue-law bishop and is actually the state's top gambler—Bill Harrah, the lord high commissioner and general Pooh-Bah of everything that goes on at Tahoe's south shore.

"I think," said Bill Harrah week before last, as he surveyed a scene that included, among other items, a group of children playing placidly in the freezing water at the edge of the lake, a gathering of the world's top unlimited hydroplane drivers tuning up their boats, and the usual collection of desperate optimists at the crap and roulette tables—"I think," said Bill Harrah, "that this place is unique. There's no other like it. Not, at least, that I know of."

What gave Harrah's words extra force at that moment was the fact that his lake was serving as the unlikely site for the final regatta of the season's U.S. unlimited hydroplane racing championship, and his own hydro, Tahoe Miss, was a top contender. "Bill isn't like the gamblers who just put the money in their pockets," said one of Harrah's neighbors. "He is trying to help the community and the state when he puts on a regatta like this." Less charitable critics are inclined to see baser motives in Harrah's sporting ventures. "He's embarrassed at being a gambler and wants to create an image as a sportsman," they say. Harrah himself, like most hydro promoters (whose cause was furthered last week by a U.S. tax court decision that hydro racing can be tax deductible), freely admits that he races his boat for publicity reasons. Touring around the nation on the unlimited circuit, Tahoe Miss and her driver, Chuck Thompson, certainly keep the name of Harrah's Tahoe club in the public eye. But Bill's feeling for fast engines has deeper roots. When he isn't busy dreaming up publicity angles for his Tahoe club, Harrah loves to drive his collection of Daimlers, Ferraris and Jaguars at breakneck speeds, and he owns an innocent Chevy II station wagon with a hopped-up engine that will push it well above 100 mph. His own cabin cruiser is not specially powered, but its main cabin is lined with mirrors that give it a certain speedy air, and his wife is a blonde ex-show girl named Sherry, whose three French poodles viewed the regatta from the comfort of a stroller in chic blue monogrammed coats and jeweled collars.

As it turned out, Mrs. Harrah's poodles were disappointed, as was the astonishing horde of hydro fans who came hundreds of miles to see the show. The race, as a race, was a fiasco. Instead of running the scheduled three heats, the committee called off the entire regatta after it had scarcely begun.

On the first day everything was fine. During the practice heats, boat after boat was lowered to flex its muscles on the mirror-smooth lake. Top favorite to win the $25,000 regatta and the overall points championship that went with it was the green and yellow Gold Cup winner Miss Bardahl (SI, July 15), but she was minus her regular driver, Ron Musson. Ron had hurt his chest when his boat flipped in the Governor's Cup race at Madison, Ind., and though he tried to run her at Tahoe, he had to give up. "My ribs hurt," he complained, and Driver Don Wilson took over.

Next to Miss Bardahl in the Tahoe pits was a substitution of another kind, not of drivers but of boats. Miss Exide, one of the nation's top hydros, had blown up at Coeur d'Alene, sending Driver Mira Slovak to the hospital. After this mishap, Exide's owners, Milo and Glen Stoen, had sent Miss Wahoo to run in her place and in her name, but the American Power Boat Association ruled that one boat's accumulated points could not be assumed by another boat. This left the newly christened Miss Exide relatively pointless and out of the running.

When the real racing began next day, six boats headed out to contest the first part of the first heat: Tempo, $ Bill, Fascination I, Miss Madison, Gale V, and Miss Eagle Electric. For 15 miles they roared around like airplanes trying vainly to take off. At the end, Gale V emerged as the winner with a speed of 103.607 mph. Then five more boats went out: Notre Dame, Miss Exide (nee Wahoo), Fascination (not to be confused with Fascination I), Harrah's own Tahoe Miss, and Miss Bardahl. The lake was still quiet when Miss Bardahl returned, the winner at 106.508 mph.

Game called

Heat 2a went off with only a suspected foul, a squabble and a disqualification to mar the surface, then heat 2b got under way. Suddenly the wind roared down the mountain, whipping the lake into a sea. Rescue boats tossed up and down, and instead of keeping her three points balanced on the water as a proper hydro should, Miss Bardahl, well in the lead, began sailing through the air over the whitecaps. The race committee canceled the rest of the regatta forthwith and, under the rules which give the victory to the fastest boat in the last completed heat, declared Miss Bardahl the overall winner and the new hydroplane champion of the U.S.

Plagued with fuel-line trouble. Bill Harrah's Tahoe Miss fared no better than his regatta, but most of his casino and hotel guests were ignorant of these difficulties. Dragging wearily at the handle of a slot machine near the hydro-pit, one gambler displayed a meager handful of silver dollars. "This is all I've got left after working at this thing all night," he said. "I don't have any time to watch boat races."

"Hydros?" asked another gambler in wonderment. "What kind of a game is that?"