The Extraordinary Sport that Killed an Extraordinary Man

On the afternoon of June 2nd 1974, my Uncle, Skipp Walther, was killed in an utterly tragic and entirely horrific boat racing accident.


He was at Marine Stadium in Miami, Florida taking the unlimited hydroplane, Red Man, on a practice run when the boat violently overturned- hurling his body into the water. Some race officials claimed that the boat hit a manatee- causing it to tumble. Spectators reported seeing a giant white wall of salt water spray- and then when Biscayne Bay went placid again, they saw a horrifying site: a completely wrecked and overturned hydroplane with debris scattered across the water. Skipp floated face up in a widening blood-red circle.


Four minutes later, an ambulance boat pulled up and pulled Skipp from the water. Twenty-seven minutes after that, Skipp died of a skull fracture, laceration of the brain, and a severed right arm at the elbow.

His wife, Sandy- was two months pregnant at the time of this death- had to be treated for shock after accompanying Skipp to Jackson Memorial Hospital. In the picture, Sandy and Skipp posed for a press photo, moments before his fatal race.




The thing is- Skipp should have never been in that boat to begin with.


First: it was his rookie race driving unlimited hydroplanes. These boats- which fly over water in excess of 200 miles an hour- are absolute fucking devils. Read more about these monsters here. While Skipp had raced smaller hydroplanes before- he had never sat behind the wheel of the big boys.


Second: he was the back-up driver for legendary racer and owner, Jim McCormick. McCormick was hurt in a practice run just a few days before- calling upon his substitute driver, Skipp, to then take his place. Talk about a cruel twist of fate.


Third: that boat wasn’t made for Skipp. Red Man was formerly owned by his father- George (my grandfather) and carried the name Country Boy. My father, Jeff, built that boat. And he built it for Salt- their older brother.


But when Salt was injured in a horrific accident at the Indy 500 (more on that later), George instructed Jeff to sell the boat- sell everything, in fact. George was distraught and mourning his son’s wreck and terrible injuries. He wanted nothing to do with any racing machine of any kind.


So Jeff did sell the boat. And he sold it to Jim McCormick. Who happened to live in Owensboro, Kentucky. Who else lived in Owensboro, Kentucky? Skipp Walther- who was running a Dayton Steel Foundry plant nearby. Somehow, the two got to talking- and before anyone knew it, McCormick convinced Skipp to be his back-up driver.


McCormick knew the Walther family well, and knew Skipp’s racing background. Seven years prior to his death, Skipp was Chief Mechanic for his Father’s Dayton Steel Foundry racing team at the Indy 500. He also had an accomplished racing career himself- including racing a Formula 3 Brabham car on the Sports Car Club of America circuit, winning ten out of ten races. He later hocked everything he owned to buy a snorting, powerful Lola Mark II sports car, racing it in the Can-Am against guys like Bruce McLaren, Denis Hulme and Mark Donohue.


He also was goddamn brilliant. By the time he was nine years old, Skipp could put an Offenhasuer engine together, and then he could time it at age 10. He grew up around engines, race cars, and all things that go fast.


So who better to be a back-up driver than Skipp? But once McCormick was injured- Skipp was then at bat.


My father, Jeff, recalled the chain of events:


“Skipp called me from Miami, Florida. He said, ‘I’m gonna take my driver’s test tomorrow. I’m gonna test the boat. What do you think?’


I said ‘Skippy, please don’t drive that boat.’


And that pissed him off. He asked 'Why not?'


I said: ‘Well, our problem is this. One: Salt is huge. Muscular. You’re a smaller man, you’re not a muscular man. Two: you’ve got a deformed hand and for a steering wheel grip- that’s not gonna be good. And three: you’re highly intelligent, and Salt is ridiculously crazy. I built the boat. I designed the boat. I made the boat run for Salt. The boat is a killer. It will kill you. It will kill somebody. I’m begging you not to drive it.’


And the next day...he was dead.”


Announcements of his death screamed across newspapers all over the country. The caption from the APWire read, “June 2, 1974–DEATH BOAT—The unlimited hydroplane Red Man smokes in the water after an accident Sunday morning that took the life of driver George ‘Skipp’ Walther, 27, of Dayton, Ohio. He was the brother of Indy racer Salt Walther and this was his rookie race.”


Jeff later said, “I finally after about two years went to my Old Man and asked, ‘How the hell do you deal with Skipp getting killed?’ And the Old Man looks at me and says, ‘Oh it’s simple.’


I said, ‘Shit. That’s cold.’


‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s not that.’


He said: ‘Anytime I think about it- I change my mind. I don’t care what I change my mind to. I change it instantaneously. I will not think about it. I can’t do anything about it. So I simply do not think about it.’”


The Walther family was no stranger to tragedy by this time. Choosing to not think about the misfortunes that fell upon them was likely the only way that they were able to persevere in the decades that followed. “If you race, you have to take chances,” Salt said. Racing- like other truly extraordinary endeavors- is inherently dangerous and remarkably challenging.


Legendary race car driver Juan Fangio once said: "To race is to live. But those who died while racing knew- perhaps- how to live more than all others."






Skipp Walther, pictured above.



Sources

Hixson, Katharine, and Jeffrey Walther. “The Start of Walther Racing.” 14 Oct. 2019

McCoy, Hal. “Young Skipp Walther Born Behind the Wheel.” Dayton Daily News, 5 July 1970, p. 18.

Morrow, Ralph. “Skipp Subs on Death Ride.” Dayton Daily News, 3 June 1974, p. 14.

“Safety Options Added for Powerboat Racing.” Associated Press, 27 Apr. 1975, p. 16.