Hydro Heaven: In the 1960s, 70s, Vicksburg was a hub for speedboat racing

Published 9:24 pm Sunday, May 26, 2024

For as long as people have been traveling the Mississippi River, they have raced boats of all sorts on its muddy waters and oxbows.

Mighty steamboats, one-man kayaks, and everything in between have provided not only transportation but thrills and entertainment. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s the preferred vessel was the speedboat, and Vicksburg had some of the best and fastest pilots anywhere.

Men like the Caruthers brothers — Mike and Tom — Dale Hull and Talbert Buford were kings of the river from the River City as they won races and season championships on the Southern speedboat circuit.

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“It was a big to-do. People would be out on the sandbar and boats would be going by,” said Tom Caruthers, who was active in the sport for nearly two decades from the 1960s through the mid-80s. “There were so many people here who were affiliated with outboard racing.”

Tom Caruthers and his brother got into the sport in their teenage years. Their father, Tom Sr., opened Caruthers Marine in 1965 and served as the family’s boat builder and financial backer.

“Dad was the main engineer or pit boss and we were just the jockeys. He made it happen,” Tom Jr. said. “He had motorcycles, Packard cars, he was into everything. Everything that he had, I could open a museum with.”

Tom Sr. was also on the board of directors for the American Outboard Federation, which conducted races on lakes and rivers all across the country.

Some “marathon” races had boaters running on the Mississippi River from one point to another and back over a number of hours or even days. A 1970 race from New Orleans to St. Louis included stops in Vicksburg and other river towns along the 1,068-mile route. Another in the early 1980s ran laps between Vicksburg and Greenville.

While the marathons were popular community events, their long length did not always make for a good spectator sport. The races that organizations like the National Outboard Association and American Outboard Federation specialized in were popular weekend events that were made to enjoy.

A schedule that ran from April to August took racers to about a dozen states each season. It used a heat race format, with drivers competing in several short three-to five-mile races on closed courses on lakes.

“One place, the lake was at the bottom of a hill and they had cut terraces into the hill. It was like a drive-in theater, except you watched the races instead of a movie,” Tom Caruthers Jr. said.

One of the occasional stops on the American Outboard Federation circuit was Eagle Lake, just north of Vicksburg. A race there in early August 1975 called the Vicksburg Southern Championship Boat Races drew more than 100 participants from eight states.

Mike Caruthers won the high point trophy, while fellow Vicksburg residents Hull, Buford and Donald Frank won titles in various classes.

The American Outboard Federation events featured heat races in a number of classes based on boat and engine size. Most of the Vicksburg-based pilots competed in the smaller hydroplane and runabout classes.

Hull and Buford both held several AOF speed records during the mid-1970s. Hull won the AOF’s series points championship in 1973 and ‘74 in the Super Stock Division, which included boats that had minimal modifications to their factory engines.

“There were at least a dozen people here who raced,” Tom Caruthers Jr. said. “It was just like cars. Everybody wants a hot rod or to do something different.”

The runabouts and hydroplanes that the Vicksburg community most often raced were small one-man craft, about 12 or 13 feet long and weighing as little as 350 pounds including the driver. The smaller classes would skim along the water at more than 50 mph during a race, and the bigger-engined ones could go as high as 90 mph.

“You don’t really realize how fast you’re going until you hit something or stop,” Tom Caruthers Jr. said.

Stopping wasn’t always in the pilot’s control. The combination of speed, lightweight boats and water made for a dangerous sport.

At the Eagle Lake event in 1975, Hull was shaken but unhurt in a wreck that destroyed his boat. Several racers were killed at other AOF events. Both Caruthers brothers had bad wrecks that put their racing careers on long hiatuses or ended them altogether.

“In 1976 we were racing in Shreveport and my brother got injured. Another boy died. After the national championships in St. Louis we decided to give it a rest,” Tom Caruthers Jr. said.

Tom did return to the speedboat scene a few years later. He finished third at the AOF nationals in 1981, and won the points championship in the Class C runabout division the following year.

Tom Jr. eventually retired from boat racing, but found other ways to fulfill his need for speed. Instead of water, he raced on land in muscle cars and on dirt bikes.

“When I got out of boat racing I ran motocross. I found out how much dirt hurt worse than water,” he said with a laugh.

Tom Jr. continued to race well into the 2000s. He competed at the 2007 muscle car world finals and still has a race car, although he says he hasn’t raced “in a while.” He said there is still a vibrant boat racing community in Vicksburg as well, although it’s not as visible as it was on the South’s lakes and rivers a half-century ago.

“It’s just like any racing,” Caruthers said. “An adrenaline rush.”


About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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