A Brief History of the President's Cup
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
The President's Cup was contested by Unlimited hydroplanes between 1926 and 1977, with time out for World War II (1941-1945). After 1977, the President's Cup became a Limited event for several years.
A man named William A. Rogers is considered to be the "father" of the President's Cup Regatta. Mr. Rogers convinced his fellow Corinthian Yacht Club members to host the race and persuaded President Calvin Coolidge to sponsor the trophy.
Most of the President's Cup races were contested on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., adjacent to Hains Point, except for a few pre-war races that were run in Annapolis, Maryland.
The first-place trophy was traditionally presented to the winner by the nation's Chief Executive. The President that demonstrated the keenest interest in the race was undoubtedly Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose love for aquatics is well known.
FDR watched the 1938 race from the deck of the Presidential yacht POTOMAC. Mr. Roosevelt was so thrilled by the close finish in the last heat that he sent for the drivers of the first and second-place boats (Theo Rossi of ALAGI and George Seay of MISS MANTEO II) so that he could congratulate them in person for their good sportsmanship and excellent driving.
The original winner of the President's Cup was L. Gordon Hammersley in his $60,000 duraluminum CIGARETTE IV. The winning speed was around 55 miles per hour.
Horace Dodge, Jr., of the Dodge automotive family captured the 1927 President's Cup with MISS SYNDICATE, piloted by his sister, Delphine Dodge Baker. Mrs. Baker was one of the few women to compete at the Gold Cup or Unlimited level and the first to win a major race in the years between the World Wars.
The first multiple winner in President's Cup history was the famed EL LAGARTO, "The Leaping Lizard of Lake George" (New York), which triumphed in 1931, 1933, and 1934 with owner George Reis at the wheel. Reis had a lot of competition in those days from his good friend Bill Horn, pilot of DELPHINE IV, winner of the 1932 President's Cup.
The 1931 race was marred by an accident to John Shibe's MISS PHILADELPHIA, which flipped upside down with Bill Frietag driving. Frietag was knocked unconscious and drowned. This was the President's Cup Regatta's first fatality. Sadly, it would not be the last.
Another prominent multiple winner was Herb Mendelson's NOTRE DAME. Mendelson triumphed in 1935 and 1937 with Clell Perry as driver and in 1940 with Dan Arena in the cockpit. The NOTRE DAME boats used a 24-cylinder Duesenberg engine, reported to cost a figure close to six digits.
The lone Canadian winner of the President's Cup was Harold Wilson in MISS CANADA III in 1939. During the trophy presentation ceremony at the White House, President Roosevelt was told that, according to the by-laws, the cup could not be taken outside of the U.S. to a foreign country. FDR declared, "My dear friend, Canada is not a foreign country. It is a brother country of the United States. Take the trophy home, Mr. Wilson."
All of the President's Cup winners between 1926 and 1940 were step or displacement boats. The first three-point (sponson) craft to achieve victory was Albin Fallon's MISS GREAT LAKES in 1946. MISS GREAT LAKES with Danny Foster driving was also the first winner with a modern power source--a 12-cylinder Allison aircraft engine, which had been salvaged from a World War II P-38 fighter plane. Foster won all three heats of the 1946 race and demonstrated complete superiority over such time-honored pre-war power plants as the Miller and the Hispano-Suiza.
With the 1950s, the President's Cup Regatta became one of the four traditional stops on the APBA Unlimited hydroplane tour, together with Seattle (Washington), Detroit (Michigan), and Madison (Indiana).
A popular post-war winner was Chuck Thompson in the Dossin Brothers MISS PEPSI in 1950, 1951, and 1952. MISS PEPSI, powered by twin Allisons, was the last formidable step hydroplane. Following a brief retirement, Thompson and MISS PEPSI were still competitive when they gave spectacular chase to the 1956 President's Cup winner MISS THRIFTWAY, piloted by Bill Muncey.
During the first quarter century of races for the President's Cup, all of the winners hailed from east of the Mississippi River. The initial West Coast champion was SLO-MO-SHUN V, owned by Stan Sayres of Seattle and driven by Lou Fageol, in 1953. The SLO-MO won a hard-fought victory over the likes of Thompson in SUCH CRUST III, Bill Cantrell in SUCH CRUST V, and Lee Schoenith in GALE II.
The first boat to average better than 100 miles per hour in winning the President's Cup was Edgar Kaiser's "Pink Lady" HAWAII KAI III in 1957. Driver Jack Regas rewrote the record book for the Potomac River race course and posted an average speed of 105.792 for the three-heat (45-mile) distance. The KAI was arguably the greatest race boat of the 1950s and the epitome of the all-conquering Ted Jones design.
Mira Slovak, the 1959 President's Cup champion with Bill Boeing. Jr.'s WAHOO, had a special reason for wanting to win the Washington, D.C., race.
Slovak had made world headlines in 1953 when he escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia by hijacking a commercial airliner during a regularly scheduled flight from Prague to Brno.
Upon arrival in the United States, Mira had difficulty finding employment. As a non-citizen, he could not be issued a radio operator's license, which was necessary to fly a plane. This problem was solved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed an executive order that allowed Slovak to be issued a license.
In the years that followed, Mira had a great desire to win the President's Cup, which was traditionally presented by the nation's Chief Executive. Slovak eventually got his wish when he won the race in 1959 and thus earned the opportunity to thank Eisenhower in person.
One of the most competitive President's Cups of the 1960s was the 1964 classic, which was captured by "Wild Bill" Cantrell in Joe Schoenith's MISS SMIRNOFF. Cantrell, who had won the 1954 race with Schoenith's GALE IV, had his work cut out for him in 1964. He had to defeat one of the most formidable fields in racing history, which included Ron Musson in MISS BARDAHL, Buddy Byers in MISS MADISON, Chuck Thompson in TAHOE MISS, Rex Manchester in NOTRE DAME, and Chuck Hickling in MISS BUDWEISER.
In any objective retelling of the President's Cup story, mention must necessarily be made of the tragic 1966 contest where three of racing's finest were stricken from the list of the living in two separate accidents on the Potomac River: Musson of MISS BARDAHL, Manchester of NOTRE DAME, and Don Wilson of MISS BUDWEISER. The race has come to be known as "Black Sunday."
Musson perished first when his radical new cabover MISS BARDAHL lost a propeller, became airborne, and disintegrated in a preliminary heat. A few hours later. Manchester and Wilson were lost when NOTRE DAME and MISS BUDWEISER collided on the first lap of the Final Heat.
Manchester, ironically, was declared the overall winner of the race, based upon points scored in earlier heats.
In a statement to THE NEW YORK TIMES, past-APBA President E.M. "Red" Peatross declared, "The boats were well designed and constructed; the water was reasonably calm; both accidents occurred on the straightaway, so the course layout can not be blamed. I guess all you can say is that it was an act of God."
Most of the remaining President's Cups were plagued by financial difficulties. Unlimited hydroplanes didn't even appear on the Potomac in 1967 and 1969.
For pure boat racing, it would be difficult to improve upon the exciting 1972 contest, which was won by Billy Sterett, Jr., in Dave Heerensperger's PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK. The '72 Unlimited season had been a rather one-sided affair with Muncey in ATLAS VAN LINES winning all of the previous races. Nobody expected much from PAY 'n PAK, which was having a difficult year and had gone through three drivers in half a season.
But in the final 15-mile moment of truth on the Potomac River, the PAK answered the challenge of the all-conquering ATLAS. Sterett and Muncey battled back and forth for six spine-tingling laps, with neither driver holding much of an advantage. At the finish line, it was PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK the winner by a tick of the clock over ATLAS VAN LINES in Muncey's only defeat of the year.
In a note to the media from Unlimited Racing Commission Executive Secretary Phil Cole, "You can't overwrite this one."
One of the President's Cups more surprising winners was rookie driver Gene Whipp in the underdog LINCOLN THRIFT'S 7-1/4% SPECIAL in 1973. At a time when most of the top teams used the more-powerful supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin, the LINCOLN THRIFT used a turbocharged Allison. The LINCOLN was also a terribly ill-handling boat. But that didn't prevent Whipp from quite literally "flying" LINCOLN THRIFT as if there was no tomorrow.
The 1973 President's Cup was Gene's first and last appearance as an Unlimited hydroplane driver. He retired from the sport undefeated.
A few years later, the sponsoring President's Cup Regatta Association disbanded. The last Unlimited race to be run in Washington, D.C., appeared to be a shoo-in for Mickey Remund in Bernie Little's MISS BUDWEISER in 1977. Unfortunately, Mickey jumped the gun in the winner-take-all Final Heat and was penalized a lap. This advanced second-place Bill Muncey to first-place and victory with his new ATLAS VAN LINES "Blue Blaster."
Muncey won a total of six President's Cups--more than any other driver. His previous wins occurred in 1956 with MISS THRIFTWAY, 1961 and 1962 with MISS CENTURY 21, 1970 with MYR SHEET METAL, and 1971 with ATLAS VAN LINES.
Muncey also had the longest career span of any President's Cup champion: 21 years.
One of Bill's most memorable President's Cup moments occurred in 1961. President John F. Kennedy presented Muncey not only with the cup but also with one of JFK's famous PT-109 tie clips--right off of his tie!