WHEELING - After more than a half-century of making its way around the country, the Miss DeSoto is right back where it belongs - the Ohio Valley, where it once set a world speed record that has never been broken.
George "Buddy" Byers in 1958 pushed the Miss DeSoto to a record-breaking pace of 151.2 mph on the Ohio River at New Martinsville. That performance on a hazy September morning left a lasting impression on a lot of people - and it's why Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta organizer Dr. Dan Joseph and fellow hydroplane enthusiast Dr. David Kappel viewed the chance to purchase the historic craft and bring it home as the opportunity of a lifetime.
Joseph first saw the Miss DeSoto run in New Martinsville at age 7. At that time, of course, he never dreamed he would one day own the boat that captured his imagination and helped lead to his lifelong love affair with hydroplane racing.
MISS DESOTO AT HOME — Local hydroplane raceboat enthusiast Dr. Dan Joseph, left, and Dr. David Kappel, both of Wheeling, pose with their newest acquisition — the Miss DeSoto, which set a world speed record in New Martinsville more than 50 years ago. — Ian Hicks
"This is a world record that has never been broken, and it was set right here in the Ohio Valley. ... Basically, we have the Holy Grail, is what it comes down to," Joseph said.
Joseph and Kappel agreed to purchase the Miss DeSoto after hearing from a mutual friend of its latest owner, Butch Bailey of Tipp City, Ohio, about a week ago. As a youngster, Bailey witnessed the Miss DeSoto's record-breaking New Martinsville run, and spent several years following the boat's tracks to the Chicago area, where he found it in deplorable condition, much of its wooden hull rotted and its dash covered in black mold.
Bailey spent about a decade restoring the boat back to its former appearance, right down to the spark plug decals, and brought it to the Wheeling regatta in 2010, where lingering engine problems dashed his hope of piloting the Miss DeSoto in its triumphant return.
Now in declining health, Bailey decided to sell the boat - and Joseph and Kappel were among the few Bailey trusted who would appreciate its history.
"He wanted to see it in good hands," Joseph said.
Kappel, a retired plastic surgeon, from Wheeling, also has fond memories of the Miss DeSoto.
"I was a teenager when she set the record at New Martinsville," Kappel said. "It's part of the collective consciousness of a lot of folks who grew up during that time."
Work is under way to restore the boat's engine - for good this time, Joseph and Kappel hope - but it will be on display at the Wheeling regatta this weekend.
"We're not sure internally what's wrong in the engine. We hope to find out. ... The question is, can we get it to the point where it's relatively dependable?" Joseph said.
As the more than 40 boat drivers slated to participate in this year's regatta - which, as always, benefits the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center in Wheeling - arrive at Heritage Port throughout the day today, the pits will be open to allow spectators to meet the participants and get an up-close look at the vintage raceboats. Heats will take place from 10 a.m. to roughly 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with noon lunch breaks both days.
There will be live music Saturday evening at Heritage Port, and the Sea Quest Kids program will allow children to learn about boat building and boat safety. The event is presented by lead sponsor WesBanco once again this year.