Ex-champion, vintage driver Bill Sterett Jr. killed in hydroplane crash
Monday, June 28, 2004 11:00 AM
OWENSBORO, Ky. — Champion hydroplane driver Bill Sterett Jr. died from injuries he sustained Saturday when a hydroplane he was piloting broke up on the Ohio River near English Park in Owensboro.
Owensboro’s Bill Sterett Jr., driving a replica boat of his father’s Miss Crazy Thing at last summer’s Bob Snelling Vintage Memorial Event at the 2003 Madison Regatta. Sterett, who donated the boat to an Owensboro museum earlier this year, was killed while testing another hydroplane on the Ohio River at Owensboro Saturday. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
Sterett, who lived in Owensboro, had been piloting a hydroplane that belonged to longtime friend Travis Hickman of Woodbury, Tenn., according to Capt. David Oberst, assistant chief of the Owensboro Fire Department. The fire department responded to the accident at 12:08 p.m.
Hickman is the owner of the Petti’s Pet, a 7-litre vintage hydroplane that was built in 1977 by Dick Sooy. It is not known if Sterett was driving the Pet at the time of the crash, but both men and their boats are linked to the Madison Regatta by an appearance in 2003 and a planned appearance this weekend.
Sterett drove a replica of the Miss Crazy Thing that his father, Bill Sterett Sr., drove to two national championships in 1965 and 1966 at the 2003 vintage event in Madison. He later donated the boat the Owensboro’s SpeedZeum earlier this year.
Hickman’s Petti’s Pet, a beautiful mahogony-decked vintage powered by a 427 cubic inch Chevrolet engine, appeared at the 2003 Madison Regatta and was scheduled to make a return engagement this coming weekend.
Several of Sterett’s friends and family members were at the river at the time of the accident and Owensboro’s River of Music Party activities were also taking place on the English Park grounds above where the accident happened.
The hydroplane hit rough water and nose-dived, destroying the boat. Another boater pulled Sterett from the water, Oberst said.
Oberst said one of Sterett's crew members told him the river was choppy and was even worse in the aftermath of a towboat and barge.
Sterett was taken by ambulance to Owensboro Medical Health System's emergency room, where he died, Daviess County Deputy Coroner John Thayer said. The likely cause of death was blunt force trauma, Thayer said.
Sterett’s wife, Janet, was out of town at the time of the crash but returned to Owensboro after being notified of the accident.
Sterett Jr. followed in his legendary father’s footsteps and was himself a champion hydroplane driver.
Bill Sterett Sr. retired from racing full-time in 1969 after winning the Governor's Cup at Owensboro, the American Power Boat Association's Gold Cup at San Diego and the points title. He died in 1992.
Sterett Jr. and brother, Terry, began driving the Miss Owensboro unlimited hydroplane in 1970. Terry Sterett died in 2002.
Sterett Jr.’s biggest victory came in 1972, when he drove the Miss Pay ’N Pak to a win over hydroplane legend Bill Muncey in the Atlas Van Lines for the President’s Cup on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. The loss kept Muncey from sweeping all seven races that year.
News of the accident just down river in Owensboro stunned racers and fans in Evansville, where the 2003 Thunder on the Ohio hydroplane race was being held.
Thunder officials called for a moment of silence during race activities at the Evansville riverfront. The Sterett family remains connected with boat racing in Evansville as two cranes from the family’s business, Sterett Crane and Rigging, were being used in the Thunder pits and Sterett Jr. had been expected to attend a sponsors’ dinner there Saturday night, said Thunder chairman Tom Sawyer.
“The boat racing community is a family, and it’s a tragedy,” Sawyer said. “My cell phone has been ringing nonstop from all over the country. Everybody loved Billy.”
The boat Sterett Jr. drove at Madison last year was placed in Owensboro’s SpeedZeum and Sterett was on hand for the museum’s grand opening in June.
The junior Sterett built the replica as a tribute to his father and donated it to the museum. The Miss Crazy Thing is the hydroplane his father drove to three world championships and a world speed record in the mid-1960s.
Funeral arrangements are pending at Glenn Funeral Home.
Information for this story was also gathered by The Associated Press.