Billy Schumacher knew it was time to retire back in 1976. Fourteen of his friends in the sport of hydroplane boat racing had died on the water, so he figured it was only a matter of time before he would meet the same fate.
Now, 46 years after he was the last driver to win a hydroplane race at Folsom Lake, Schumacher returns to the lake today through Sunday as the owner of the U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing jet boat that will race as part of the inaugural BigWake Weekend.
"I'm tickled pink to get the chance to return to Folsom Lake as a boat owner on the same waters where I won in 1967," said Schumacher, 70, a three-time national champion. "I can't think of a better place to start the season in the United States. The weather is great, the water is high, and it's one of the best possible places for spectators to see the entire course.
"A lot of places we race, fans can only see portions of the course. At Folsom Lake, fans should be able to see the entire race. That's exciting."
Schumacher bridges the golden years of the sport old engines from P-51 Mustangs were ripped out of fuselages and bolted into custom-built hulls that powered the boats to top speeds of 160 mph, Schumacher said to today's modern boats that look more like spacecraft than watercraft.
The futuristic hulls are powered by Lycoming T-55 turbines typically found in Chinook helicopters. They're called hydroplanes because at full speed the boats travel on a cushion of air trapped between the bottom of the boat and sponsons mounted on the sides at the front of the boat. The sponsons and the three-bladed propeller are all that touch the water when the boats create 40-foot rooster tails at more than 200 mph on the straightaways.
"We were the gladiators back then," Schumacher said as his Miss Beacon Plumbing boat was being put into the water Wednesday at Folsom Lake. "I stepped away after winning everything there was to win. Fourteen of my good friends died racing boats, and I felt my lifespan would be a lot shorter if I didn't get out."
Crashes were spectacular and often deadly when Schumacher was driving in the 1960s and 1970s. But safety designs have become more advanced, and modern boats feature self-contained driver capsules that are designed to separate from the hull in a crash. If the capsule sinks, drivers have an onboard air supply, and they are protected during the race and in crashes by a clear canopy from an F-16 fighter jet.
Schumacher won the Sacramento Cup in 1967, one of six victories that season en route to winning the National High Point Championship in the Miss Bardahl boat. He also won the series championship in 1968 and 1975.
Over the next four decades, Schumacher concentrated on his hotel business and raced the 1958 version of the Miss Bardahl at vintage hydroplane competitions. He purchased a team in 2006 and finished sixth in points last season. The team's last victory was in 2008.
"We crashed the boat in 2010 in Detroit, and it's taken us a couple of years to get it dialed in," Schumacher said of the multimillion-dollar boat. "But now we have what I think is the top boat and the top driver in J. Michael Kelly. He's driven in a lot of different classes and he's won in them all. I'm at ease, finally, with our boat and our team."
Mark Billingsley covers local motor sports for The Bee. Reach him at email@example.com.