The First Thunderboat - Miss Great Lakes Remembered
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
One of the most significant boats in the history of Unlimited hydroplane racing--the MISS GREAT LAKES--has a reputation that it doesn’t deserve.
In hundreds of press interviews, the late great Bill Muncey would poke fun at himself by telling of his disastrous debut as an Unlimited competitor. That was when the bottom fell out of the MISS GREAT LAKES in the first heat of the Silver Cup at Detroit in 1950.
After a half century of retelling, the story is now celebrated as a part of Thunderboat folklore. In the minds of many, the MISS GREAT LAKES has come to be regarded as the epitome of a loser.
But this shouldn’t be.
History credits the craft with two major victories in the years just after World War II. Owned by Albin Fallon and driven by Danny Foster, MISS GREAT LAKES won the 1946 President’s Cup in Washington, D.C., and the 1948 Gold Cup at Detroit. She was also the second-place finisher in the 1947 Gold Cup on Jamaica Bay, New York, and took third in the 1946 Detroit Gold Cup and the 1947 President’s Cup.
More significantly, she was the first boat to be built with an Allison engine in mind. MISS GREAT LAKES was likewise the first to win a race with a modern power source and did so in record time.
At 26 feet in length, MISS GREAT LAKES is now considered rather short by today’s standards. But in 1946, she was the biggest boat out there at a time when most Gold Cup contenders measured closer to 20 feet.
As it turned out, the craft wasn’t large enough to handle that much horsepower. Consequently, she was a wild rider. As a testbed for the new-fangled Allison, she served her purpose well. Following and as a result of MISS GREAT LAKES, the accepted configuration for post-war piston-powered Unlimiteds has been more in the 28 to 30-foot range.
Designed and built by Dan Arena, the craft made its first competitive appearance as MISS GOLDEN GATE III at the 1946 APBA Gold Cup on the Detroit River. Arena was hoping to improve upon his second-place performance in the 1938 Gold Cup with an earlier MISS GOLDEN GATE. The 1946 renewal was the first major Unlimited race after the war.
The sport was trying to re-organize and recruit, from the remains of the pre-war fleet, a representative field of entries. Prior to 1941, the Unlimited Class had been known as the Gold Cup Class with a maximum of 732 cubic inches of piston displacement.
The modern era of Unlimited hydroplane racing began when the huge supply of converted aircraft and other types of power sources developed for the war effort became available in quantity.
Arena used a substantially stock 1710-cubic inch Allison, salvaged from a P-38 fighter plane. The engine was installed aircraft-style in the boat, as opposed to the present day practice of reversing the engine for use in a hydroplane.
In the years to come, “the good old Allison” would become to Unlimited racing what the Offenhauser is to Indianapolis.
Interestingly enough, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine made its debut at the same time as the Allison. Also in the pits at Detroit in 1946 was the MISS WINDSOR, a step hydroplane that never could seem to answer the starter’s gun but served to introduce “the mighty Merlin” to the racing world.
MISS GOLDEN GATE III arrived in the Motor City virtually untested. With Dan Arena at the wheel and brother Gene Arena along side as riding mechanic, the yellow-painted three-pointer ran conservatively in the first two 30-mile heats.
Going into the final round, the Arena team had 600 points for two second-place finishes. This compared to 800 points for the favored TEMPO VI and driver Guy Lombardo, who had the fastest lap of the day at 73.294 around the 3-mile course. (This compared to the previous high of 72.707 set by ALAGI in 1938.)
For the Third Heat, Dan and Gene decided to go for broke and see what the Allison engine could really do.
With the world watching, MISS GOLDEN GATE III thundered into the lead, leaving TEMPO VI, BUCKEYE BABY, BLITZ II, and ALJO V far astern. ABC-TV announcer Don Dunphy excitedly described the action as Dan Arena kept going faster and faster, breaking Lombardo’s mark on every lap and setting a new Gold Cup record of 77.911 miles per hour in the process.
As the Arenas lengthened their lead on that historic September 2, reaching straightaway speeds of 100 miles per hour, they noticed something strange about their wild-riding juggernaut. It was trying to propride!
Unlike the classic tail-dragging Ventnor three-pointers of the 1930s with propellers that were completely submerged, MISS GOLDEN GATE III was trying to ride much higher up on the three points with the propeller only partly submerged.
According to Dan Arena, the boat would only do this sporadically, but the tendency was definitely there. It was a concept that would reach fruition four years later with the Ted Jones-designed SLO-MO-SHUN IV.
After nine of ten laps, MISS GOLDEN GATE III was two miles ahead of TEMPO VI. The craft, which had only had about twenty minutes of water testing prior to race day, was in a class by itself.
Old-timers of Detroit River racing could not help but compare the raw competitiveness of MISS GOLDEN GATE III to that of Gar Wood’s MISS AMERICA VII, a legendary craft that was a brand new boat in 1928 and won the Harmsworth Trophy in record time with the varnish still wet--a contender right out of the box.
Unfortunately, the GOLDEN GATE’s oil pressure gauge was not working properly. The engine was completely dry of oil. With three quarters of a lap to the checkered flag, the Allison blew a rod. MISS GOLDEN GATE III slid to a halt. Guy Lombardo inherited the lead and claimed the victory.
Dan Arena speculated that his boat ran the entire Third Heat and half of the Second Heat without any lubrication. This is an eloquent testimonial to the durability of the Allison V-12, which is reputed to be the strongest engine ever built.
And while TEMPO VI had won the Gold Cup, there was no doubt as to which boat was the new star of the racing world. MISS GOLDEN GATE III--the first Thunderboat--had made its mark.
Dan Arena would like to have fine-tuned the GOLDEN GATE in future races but had commitments back in Oakland, California. He received an offer from Detroiter Albin Fallon and sold the brightest star on the Unlimited horizon.
Dan thus returned to California without the boat but rich with the satisfaction that he had proved his point about the Allison engine. Together with the Rolls-Royce Merlin, the Allison would reign as the premier Unlimited power source until the Turbine Revolution of 1984.
Arena had also made an important contribution to what was then known about the three-point design of hydroplane. Unlike the Ventnor three-pointers, Arena’s boat sported a flatter profile and trapped more air between the sponsons, allowing for less wetted surface areas.
Dan would experiment further with SUCH CRUST II in 1949, with GALE II in 1951, with MISS GREAT LAKES II in 1952, with MISS U.S. in 1953, and with MISS WAYNE in 1955.
The Arena design in Unlimited racing reached its zenith on April 17, 1962, when MISS U.S. I raised the mile straightaway standard to 200.419 miles per hour at Guntersville, Alabama, with Roy Duby driving, a world record that stood for thirty-eight years.
New owner Al Fallon took delivery of MISS GOLDEN GATE III and immediately entered the 1946 President’s Cup, which was run three weeks after the Gold Cup.
If the Allison’s claim to dominance over the pre-war power sources was doubted by anyone after Detroit, the results at Washington, D.C., must have settled the question for all time.
With Danny Foster behind the wheel and Fallon in the co-pilot’s seat, the newly renamed MISS GREAT LAKES outran TEMPO VI in all three Potomac River heats.
The Allison’s 1700 horsepower clearly spelled the difference and supplied the erratic handling MISS GREAT LAKES with the greater chute speed. The smooth-riding Lombardo craft--with its 585-horsepower Zumbach-Miller engine--held the advantage only in the corners.
“Wild Bill” Cantrell kept the Hispano-Suiza-powered WHY WORRY close to the leaders for four laps in the first President’s Cup heat before breaking down. But the handwriting was unmistakably on the wall. The World War II fighter engine-powered boat was the boat of the future.
In his first appearance as an Unlimited hydroplane driver, Danny Foster rewrote the record book for the 2.5-mile Potomac River course, including a lap record of 74.258, a 15-mile heat record of 71.181, and a 45-mile race standard of 69.632.
Unlike the Gold Cup, MISS GREAT LAKES this time went the distance. However, lubrication was still a problem, inasmuch as Foster and Fallon returned to the pits covered with oil.
On a human interest level, it is interesting to note that Foster--the most distinguished Thunderboat pilot of the forties and fifties--and Bill Muncey--the top driver of the sixties and seventies--both made their first impressions in the same boat, four years apart.
A post-season straightaway record attempt on the Detroit River did not go well for MISS GREAT LAKES. The craft spun around, flew into the air, and dropped back down into the water during a trial run.
Danny Foster and riding mechanic Lou Meier were thrown nearly forty feet from the boat and were hospitalized with injuries. Al Fallon worked all winter repairing the damage.
Mechanical difficulties plagued MISS GREAT LAKES in most of its early-season appearances during 1947 with Fallon driving. Midway through the 90-mile Silver Cup at Detroit, Al turned the wheel over to relief driver Guy Lombardo with spectacular results.
The bandleader won the Final Heat, which consisted of ten laps around a 4.5-mile course, decisively beating the overall winner, NOTRE DAME, 71.218 miles per hour to 67.813.
Guy endured a terrific pounding and emerged from the boat looking as though he had been in a fight. The great Gar Wood commented to Lombardo, “If you’re the winner, I’d hate to see the losers.”
Three weeks later, Lombardo and MISS GREAT LAKES provided some competitive moments at the President’s Cup. The team ran head-to-head with National Champion MISS PEPS V in Heat One and had a clear lead in Heat Two before being sidelined with a broken propeller shaft.
By 1948, the larger Allison-powered boats were all the rage. SUCH CRUST, MY SWEETIE, SKIP-A-LONG, LAHALA, and HURRICANE IV were the new tough kids on the block. MISS GREAT LAKES was obsolete.
Nevertheless, Al Fallon and company made up in reliability what they lacked in speed and stability at the infamous 1948 Gold Cup in Detroit.
Out of twenty-two entrants, only MISS GREAT LAKES finished all three 30-mile heats. She was one of only three boats to survive the opening stanza and was the lone finisher in Heat Two.
Danny Foster was back behind the wheel of MISS GREAT LAKES at the Gold Cup, after having spent the 1947 season in the cockpit of MISS PEPS V.
Foster in MISS GREAT LAKES and Warren Avis in MISS FROSTIE had the Final Heat of the 1948 Gold Cup all to themselves, even though Avis had zero points and thus had no mathematical chance of winning the race. The Gold Cup committee nevertheless insisted that the heat be run as scheduled.
Foster spotted Avis a clear lead at the start but quickly caught up with him.
Running at reduced speed in the rough water, MISS GREAT LAKES chugged to victory with Foster pointing to his boat’s damaged bottom and shaking his fist at the officials for not flagging him down and ending the fiasco.
MISS GREAT LAKES limped back to the pits, where she sank at the dock, while the driver was being presented with the trophy.
Owner Fallon and driver Foster at least had the satisfaction of winning the Crown Jewel of APBA racing. But their boat, having suffered extensive damage, was through for the season.
The one good thing to come out of the 1948 Gold Cup was a rule that required boats to qualify before being allowed to participate. In addition to their practical value of ascertaining a craft’s fitness to compete, these qualification trials add immeasurably to the color and pageantry of the races.
MISS GREAT LAKES did not appear in competition again until it was time to defend her Gold Cup title at Detroit the following year.
The boat seemed to be better balanced in 1949 but was thoroughly outclassed by the likes of Bill Cantrell in MY SWEETIE, Dan Arena in SUCH CRUST, and Stan Dollar in SKIP-A-LONG.
With Al Fallon driving, MISS GREAT LAKES ran back in the pack in the first heat before conking out in the second.
Two weeks later, the team made an appearance in the Percy Jones Memorial Hospital Regatta at Gull Lake, Michigan. The race was staged as a benefit for convalescing American servicemen.
In the first 15-mile heat at Gull Lake, MISS GREAT LAKES finished well behind SKIP-A-LONG and SUCH CRUST. She nevertheless posted a respectable 75.246 miles per hour on a 2.5-mile course, the fastest heat of her career.
Driver Fallon unfortunately was unable to capitalize on this performance. While negotiating a turn in Heat Two, MISS GREAT LAKES rolled over and sank in ninety feet of water. Fallon and riding mechanic Joe Rydzewski were thrown clear of the craft and sustained serious injury.
Retrieved and repaired, MISS GREAT LAKES next appeared in competition at the 1950 Detroit Memorial Regatta, where she finished sixth in a ten-boat field. Trading off behind the wheel were owner Fallon and Limited veteran Al D’Eath, the father of future MISS U.S. and MISS BUDWEISER pilot Tom D’Eath.
Now in its fifth season, the craft that had started its career as the trend-setting MISS GOLDEN GATE III had seen its better days. Moreover, with the spectacular success of the prop-riding SLO-MO-SHUN IV, the death knell had sounded for boats with the old-style submerged propellers.
Al Fallon nevertheless decided to enter his tired old boat in the 1950 Harmsworth International Regatta on the Detroit River.
The Harmsworth is technically a race between nations rather than individual boats with each country allowed a maximum of three entries.
Representing Canada was Ernie and Harold Wilson’s MISS CANADA IV. Trying out for the U.S. team were SLO-MO-SHUN IV, MY SWEETIE, MISS PEPSI, SUCH CRUST I, SUCH CRUST II, and MISS GREAT LAKES.
SLO-MO cleared 96 miles per hour in trials on the 5-nautical mile course; MY SWEETIE did 94. This, together with the excellent competitive record of both the SLO-MO and the SWEETIE, made their nomination to the team a foregone conclusion.
By far the biggest surprise of the trials was the incredible showing of MISS GREAT LAKES, the oldest and presumably the least competitive of the group.
With 21-year-old Bill Muncey, a local 225 Cubic Inch Class driver, in the cockpit, the veteran craft checked in at an unbelievable 92 miles per hour. This was just 4 miles per hour off the pace of SLO-MO and was faster than both SUCH CRUST I and SUCH CRUST II, which did 84 and 88 respectively.
The rookie Muncey reportedly had to be coached on the fine points of starting the big Allison engine. But once out on the race course, there wasn’t any doubt that a major new talent had arrived on the Unlimited scene.
A few years later, when Ted Jones was looking around for a top-notch driver to put in the MISS THRIFTWAY, he remembered Muncey’s stellar performance in the MISS GREAT LAKES and offered Bill the job.
Unfortunately, as far as the 1950 Harmsworth was concerned, Muncey and MISS GREAT LAKES were not a factor. The powers-that-be gave the nod to SUCH CRUST II, whose driver (Dan Arena) had much more experience than Bill Muncey.
The selection committee was also concerned about the MISS GREAT LAKES crew having to replace their engine with a new and untried Allison.
So, SUCH CRUST II was sent to the starting line with SLO-MO-SHUN IV and MY SWEETIE to face the Canadian challenger, which was easily defeated by the U.S. delegation. The top honor went to SLO-MO, driven by Lou Fageol, who turned the first-ever heat at over 100 miles per hour in the final stanza.
Two days later, the Silver Cup was run on the same race course as the Harmsworth. In the Silver Cup, young Muncey was given the chance that had been denied him in the international event.
Nine boats started in the first heat of 10 nautical miles with MISS GREAT LAKES running back in the pack. Bill worked his way past GALE I, TEMPO VI, and MY DARLING, and was trying to overhaul MY SWEETIE when his boat disintegrated on the second lap and disappeared beneath the surface of the Detroit River.
Muncey was unhurt, but MISS GREAT LAKES had reached the end of the line. The craft that had introduced the Allison engine to Unlimited racing now belonged to history.
Albin Fallon chose not to rebuild the aging hull and announced plans for a newer and larger Unlimited hydroplane that would likewise be designed and built by Dan Arena.
The original MISS GREAT LAKES was scrapped, but her gearbox found its way into MISS GREAT LAKES II, which also used Allison power and made its competitive debut two years later.
Before retiring from the sport in 1954, Fallon and MISS GREAT LAKES II finished second in National Points during 1952 with Joe Taggart as driver and won the 1953 Detroit Memorial with Danny Foster.