A Brief History of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing

By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian

Power boats of one description or another have existed since as early as 1887. That was the year when Gottlieb Daimler hitched a crude petrol motor to the rear of a rowboat and putt-putted a few miles per hour on the River Seine in Paris.

The first power boat race of any importance was the 1903 British International ("Harmsworth") Trophy at Queenstown, Ireland. An English boat defeated a French vessel at a speed of around 19 land miles per hour.

The Gold Cup race, first contested in 1904, was America's answer to the highly touted Harmsworth Trophy. Carl Riotte's STANDARD, powered by a 6-cylinder 110-horsepower Standard motor, won history's first Gold Cup at a speed of 23 miles per hour.

A century later, the fabled Gold Cup remains power boating's most coveted prize--the Crown Jewel of Unlimited hydroplane racing.

Up until around 1910, boats built for racing subscribed to the only known theory of water speed, plowing through rather than skimming over the surface. All of that changed with the appearance of the first "step" hydroplanes.

The "fast-steppers" skimmed over the surface of the water with a notch or "step" located approximately amidships on the underside of the hull. The "step" allowed the boat to plane over the water with much less friction than was possible with the old-style displacement craft.

The "step" hydros were often hard to handle, and they rode like bucking broncos. But they were fast. The "steppers" could run in some of the roughest water imaginable--the ocean, large rivers, or large lakes.

Garfield Arthur Wood and Christopher Columbus Smith probably did more to refine the "step" hydroplane concept than anyone else. Wood and Smith collaborated on MISS DETROIT III in 1917. They were the first to try a lightweight aircraft engine adapted for marine use in a race boat. The engine in question was a 1650-cubc-inch V-4 Curtiss power plant.

MISS DETROIT III achieved victory in the 1917 Gold Cup on the Mississippi River at Minneapolis. Three years later, Wood's MISS AMERICA I set a long-standing Gold Cup heat record of 70.412 miles per hour on a 5-mile course.

>From 1910 to 1936, the "step" hydroplane reigned supreme as the undisputed king of big-time power boat racing. This was especially true in the area of Harmsworth competition.

The British International ("Harmsworth") Trophy was the bronze plaque traditionally emblematic of the speedboat championship of the world. The Harmsworth was technically a race between nations rather than individual boats. During the years between the World Wars, the two countries that usually battled for possession of the Harmsworth Trophy were the United States and Great Britain.

MISS AMERICA I journeyed to England in 1920 and won the race hands down, powered by a pair of Smith-Liberty engines. Wood found that by adding a second engine--and by lengthening the hull accordingly--he had the fastest boat in the world.

By the time MISS AMERICA X came along in 1932, Wood had upped the ante to four giant engines. These were V-12 packards, rated at 7600 horsepower, installed two-by-two in a mahogany hull, 38 feet in length. MISS AMERICA X had great difficulty in cornering, but she was the first to average over 124 miles per hour on a mile straightaway course.

The Gar Wood team was never beaten in Harmsworth competition and retired undefeated after 1933. Their strongest challenger was MISS ENGLAND II in 1931. With Kaye Don driving, MISS ENGLAND II lost the race to MISS AMERICA VIII but posted the fastest lap ever turned on a closed course at 93 miles per hour, a record that would stand unchallenged in Unlimited hydroplane racing until 1949.

The late-1930s witnessed the birth of a radically different concept in competitive power boat designs--the three-point hydroplane, which would forever alter the course of boat racing history.

The first successful three-pointers were the product of the famed Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey. The father and son design team of Adolph and Arno Apel introduced a craft named MISS MANTEO II at the 1936 President's Cup Regatta in Washington, D.C. A 225 Cubic Inch Class competitor, MISS MANTEO II dominated the 225 Class action at Washington and posted speeds that were embarrassingly close to those turned by the larger and more powerful Gold Cup style hydros.

What the Apels did with MISS MANTEO II was to take the "step," split it in two, and put them on the opposite sides of the hull. These pontoon-like running surfaces were called sponsons. This greatly increased the footprint of the boat. MISS MANTEO II was wider and less prone to tipping over than a "step" hydroplane.

More importantly, from the standpoint of speed, a three-point hydroplane trapped air in the "tunnel" between the sponsons and had a great deal more "lift" than had been possible with the "step" boats. Even though the propeller was completely submerged in those early days, there was still a lot less friction with the water. And the three-pointer could also corner a lot better and faster.

The decade of the 1940s dawned with the Apels' three-point concept solidly ensconced. More and more owners of Unlimited Class equipment invested in hulls with sponsons on them. The time-honored "step" hydroplane would soon go the way of the biplane and the Model-T Ford.

The three-point revolution of the late 1930s effectively split big-time power boating into two separate categories. The three-pointers metamorphosed into the prop-riding Thunderboats of today, while the "fast-steppers" evolved into the deep-vee Offshore racers that rose to prominence in the 1950s.

If the three-pointers had one handicap, it was there inability to perform in rough ocean-like chop. They were too lightly constructed and too delicately balanced. Truth to tell, the sponson boats could do their spectacular thing only on small protected bodies of water.

Unlimited hydroplane racing entered its modern era after World War II. This was when the huge supply of converted aircraft and other types of power sources developed for the war effort became generally available.

The first boat to make use of a contemporary engine was a big wild-riding yellow craft named MISS GOLDEN GATE III, owned and driven by Dan Arena and equipped by a substantially stock Allison V-1710 motor, which had been salvaged from a World War II fighter airplane.

Arena failed to finish the 1946 Gold Cup race on the Detroit River but clearly labeled his rig as the boat of the future. MISS GOLDEN GATE III bettered the existing competition lap record of 72 miles per hour no less than seven times and set a new standard of over 77 miles per hour.

For the next four decades, the V-12 Allison and Rolls Royce Merlin were the engines of choice in Unlimited hydroplane racing. (An Allison engine is still being used today by the Ed Cooper U-3 Racing Team, which won the 2003 Gold Cup at Detroit with Mitch Evans driving.)

The Unlimited--or Thunderboat--Class quickly established itself as the “show” category of power boating in North America, drawing more spectators than any other racing division.

The first true national circuit for the Unlimiteds came into being in 1947. MISS PEPS V, owned by the Dossin brothers of Detroit and driven by Danny Foster, emerged as the first National High Point Champion with victories in three out of four races entered with an Allison engine.

If one famous name is to be singled out above all others as having exerted the greatest influence on post-World War II Unlimited hydroplane racing, that name is unquestionably Tudor Owen ("Ted") Jones from Seattle, Washington.

A boat racer since 1927, Ted designed and drove SLO-MO-SHUN IV, the first propriding Thunderboat to run successfully. He piloted the IV to victory in all three heats of the 1950 Gold Cup on the Detroit River.

This was in the days when the Gold Cup race location was determined by the yacht club of the winning boat. Jones and the SLO-MO-SHUN IV represented the Seattle Yacht Club and thus were allowed to defend the cup on home waters in 1951. This was the start of a hydroplane tradition on Seattle's Lake Washington that continues to this day.

Between 1950 and 1966, Jones-designed Unlimiteds won 75 major races, including fourteen Gold Cups, and claimed an unprecedented ten consecutive National High Point Championships.

In addition to SLO-MO, Ted designed SHANTY I, MAVERICK, MISS THRIFTWAY, MISS BARDAHL, MISS WAHOO, HAWAII KAI III, and others.

The world didn't know much about Tudor Owen Jones prior to June 26, 1950. But Ted took care of that in his own inimitable way. That was when SLO-MO IV set a mile straightaway record of 160.323 miles per hour on Lake Washington near Sand Point, which raised the former standard by nearly 19 miles per hour.

With owner Stan Sayres driving and Jones along side as riding mechanic, the IV had toppled Sir Malcolm Campbell's world mark of 141.740, established in England in 1939 with BLUEBIRD K4. The era of the three-point suspension design of hydroplane had most assuredly arrived.

Measuring 28-1/2 feet in length with an Allison engine, SLO-MO-SHUN IV was not the first Unlimited hydroplane to "propride" on a semi-submerged propeller. But she was the first to reap championship results in the application of the concept.

The days when a Thunderboat could win by plowing through the water with a fully submerged propeller were numbered. For the next twenty years, boats had to pretty much use a SLO-MO-type of design to be competitive.

Ted’s equally renowned son, Ron Jones, Sr., has continued the family’s hydroplane designing tradition. Ron pioneered the modern cabover (forward-cockpit) hull concept in the 1960s and was the first to install an F-16 fighter plane safety canopy on an Unlimited hydroplane in 1986.

Ron designed Gold Cup-winning hulls for the MISS BUDWEISER, the PAY ‘n PAK, and the MISS U.S. racing teams. He also produced the first Lycoming turbine-powered craft (Pam Clapp’s U-95) to start in a heat of Unlimited competition in 1974.

The Unlimited sport entered its professional era in the 1960s. Under the leadership of Commissioner J. Lee Schoenith, prize money became the rule rather than the exception. From 1963 onward, the Gold Cup race location was determined by the city with the highest financial bid rather than the yacht club of the winning boat.

Also in 1963, MISS U.S. owner George Simon won a landmark tax ruling from the IRS, which upheld Simon’s contention that Unlimited racing is a valid business expense (within specified guidelines) and thereby tax deductible. Simon demonstrated that his volume of business had increased substantially during the years that he was involved in racing and with no other change in normal business promotion.

This opened the door to major corporate involvement in Unlimited racing. In 1964, Bernie Little introduced the first in his long line of MISS BUDWEISER hydroplanes, sponsored by Anheuser-Busch. The MISS BUDWEISER team went on to win 141 races between 1966 and 2004 with drivers Bill Brow, Bill Sterett, Dean Chenoweth, Howie Benns, Mickey Remund, Jim Kropfeld, Tom D’Eath, Scott Pierce, Chip Hanauer, and Dave Villwock, among others.

Another successful commercially sponsored team was Bill Muncey’s ATLAS VAN LINES, which won 24 out of 34 races entered between 1976 and 1979 with Jim Lucero as crew chief.

The biggest news in the last 25 years has been the dominance of jet turbine power. Since 1984, the vast majority of races have been won by boats that used the Lycoming T-55 L-7C engine, originally intended for use in the Vietnam era Chinook helicopter. Lap speeds have increased from the 140 to the 170 mile an hour range.

The first truly successful turbine hydroplane was the Jim Lucero/Dixon Smith-designed ATLAS VAN LINES/MILLER AMERICAN, which won a record four consecutive Gold Cup races between 1984 and 1987 with Chip Hanauer as driver.

The Unlimited Class is water racing’s greatest show. Its history contains many, many highlights, too numerous to be retold here. It is impossible to describe the thrill that comes from seeing a fleet of giant boats contending for position, throwing impressive roostertails, and vibrating with truly awesome speed as they compete for the world’s most sought-after motor boat trophies.


The Hydroplane & Raceboat Museum
5917 South 196th Street - Kent, WA 98032
Phone: 206.764.9453 - FAX: 206.766.9620
info@thunderboats.org