Guy Lombardo and the 1946 Gold Cup
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Twenty-six long years ago, Gar Wood drove a 30-mile Gold Cup heat in Miss America at an even 70 miles an hour. On Labor Day, 1946, he stood in the stands and watched Guy Lombardo break that record by a scant 89 hundredths of a mile an hour.
But Detroit's 1946 running of the Gold Cup was such a rip-snortin' goose pimple raiser that it will take many a moon to figure all the records that were broken and all the lessons learned during those mad 90 miles. From doddering grandmothers to blase ex-champions, the crowd of untold thousands joined in the mad delirium after the spectacular race.
Seventeen operating boats comprised the largest starting field in Gold Cup history. Two of these were 135 cubic inch hydroplanes; ten were 225s and only five were out-and-out Gold Cup boats. Twelve of the seventeen starters fell victims of fate, luck and driver's whimsy during the qualifying heats, leaving a field of five to carry on through the final two heats. For 58 of those remaining 60 miles, all five continued to percolate and the checkered flag eventually dropped on three 225s and one Gold Cupper.
In that one short afternoon, all Gold Cup records were erased from the books. Theo Rossi's 1938 lap mark of 72.707 mph was first shoved into the discard when Lombardo tooled Tempo VI through the second lap of the second heat at 73.2948. The musician's record stood up for less than an hour and a half. Dan Arena catapulted Miss Golden Gate III around the first lap of the third heat at 73.740 and then went to work seriously to shred the record parchments with successive laps at 76.384, 75.821, 77.11, 75.172, 77.911 and 76.797.
To complete the eclipse of the past, Lombardo covered the full 90 miles at an average of 68.072, almost two miles faster than his craft had run several years ago when, with Zammy Simmons at the wheel, she first won the Gold Cup.
When the five-minute gun for the first qualifying heat went off, the river was calm but slightly lumpy, and spectators shivered between fitful gleams of sun. All boats were late coming out of the pits and for several minutes it looked as though there would be only a handful of snarling 225s to fight it out with the silken-smooth running Miss Canada III. Scant minutes before the start a loud roar was heard from the direction of the pits and Miss Golden Gate III's yellow hull was seen to get under way, throwing a tremendous rooster tail. As she milled around, it was obvious that Arena was not at all at home in his brand new craft and that she was going to be awkward on the turns. It was all Dan could do to holder as he ran large warm-up circles near the starting line. As a result, he was caught flat-footed when the white flag dropped and the 225s, led by Joe Taggart's Tommyann IV, lit out up the course.
Miss Canada, too, made a poor start but the advantage of the 225s was short-lived. Canada's conservative deep V-bottom really bit in on the turn and driver Harold Wilson bailed her around the buoys inside the entire 225 fleet, to emerge in the lead. Beset by Canada on the inside, the little fellows were hemmed in on the outside by Arena's madly careening Golden Gate which saucered around the turn in terrifying fashion and flashed into a brief lead as she came out into the backstretch.
Apparently Arena did not find the lumpy water to his liking and eased off to let Wilson retake the lead. And so for the next five laps, the two big Gold Cup boats ran well out in front, with Canada turning as beautifully as she ran and the whole crowd convinced that Golden Gate just did not have the speed to catch her. Both boats left the 225s steadily behind.
And so they ran until early in the sixth lap when Miss Canada sloshed to a stop, a victim of her old bugaboo of supercharger trouble. This moved Arena's West Coast challenger into the lead which she held to the finish, crossing the line for a 30-mile speed of a shade over 65 mph. Joe Van Blerck's Aljo V was the only other finisher within the legal limit of 9 minutes after the winner's checkered flag.
The water smoothed to a dead calm for the second qualifying heat. This time the usual flock of 225s was joined by Lombardo in Tempo VI, Cam Fisher's Miss Cincinnati, a new wild-riding hydroplane powered with an ancient Hisso, and Lou Fageol's So Long Jr., driven by a converted bus engine of some 400 cubic inches. In this heat, too, the larger boats were gun shy and Lombardo, obviously the driver to beat, made a late start. His handicap was of short duration, however, for he ironed out the entire fleet going down the backstretch with the same ease that you would pass a line of trucks on a four-lane highway. The fleet settled down, then, with Bob Bogie's Blitz II holding second place and Al Brinkman's Seabiscuit leading Miss Cincinnati and So Long.
As he crossed the line at the end of the first lap, Fageol appeared to slow down and stop voluntarily. The fleet continued on without pretense of pursuing Lombardo until the early stages of the third lap when Cincinnati, having passed Seabiscuit, attempted to lap the lagging Miss Spitfire on the outside. Her normally skittish behavior aggravated by these goings-on, Cincinnati reared up on her stern and rolled over, dunking driver and mechanic, unharmed, into the river. Lombardo continued, at constantly increasing speed, as though following a Bolero tempo, to clock the day's fastest qualifying time of 67.192 mph. Blitz was less than half a lap astern of Tempo at the finish, while more than three miles farther back came Gib Bradfield to nose his Buckeye Baby into the circle of qualifiers.
This left Tempo, Golden Gate, Blitz, Aljo and Buckeye Baby to fight it out for the second heat of the Gold Cup. Arena pushed Golden Gate out ahead at the start, leaving the 225s and Tempo, in fourth place, to follow his gyrating craft around the buoys on the Lake St. Clair turn. Part way through this turn, Tempo moved into second place, only to lose it momentarily to Blitz as they came into the backstretch and regain it once more as he set out in hot pursuit of Golden Gate. Picking up on the roaring California boat all through the west turn, Tempo moved out on the home stretch and took over first position as they finished the first lap.
Dropping inside as they flashed into the east turn, Lombardo wheeled Tempo neatly around and hosed Golden Gate far and wide. Momentarily during that lap, Arena poured the coal on Golden Gate and rushed up on Lombardo. And then, simultaneously, Tempo appeared to leap ahead and Golden Gate to lose speed.
In that second lap, Tempo raised the existing speed record, but Lombardo eased off soon after and finished the heat at a 66.315 average. As he rounded the second turn of his ninth lap, Lombardo lapped Arena, who still managed to take second place ahead of Bradfield, Van Blerck and Bogie.
As things stood at the start of the third and final heat, Lombardo was sitting on a pretty lead. Under the new scoring system, points for the qualifying heats are awarded in order of speeds of all the qualifying boats, as though the several qualifying heats were but one. Thus Lombardo had picked up 400 points for the fastest qualifying time and another 400 for winning the second heat.
Arena had amassed 300 for the second fastest qualifying time and another 300 for a second in the second heat. Further than that, Tempo VI held a time advantage, based on her 60 miles of racing to that point, of 5 minutes and 9 seconds. Still to be decided was the winner of the third heat, the winner of the 400- point bonus for the fastest heat and the recipient of the 400 points awarded for the fastest total race. Obviously, to win, Arena had to pick up all these points, which entailed beating Lombardo in the third heat by more than 5 minutes, 9 seconds.
At the time of the start of the third race, the sun
seemed to have taken permanent refuge behind the clouds and the water
was perfectly calm. As the boats poured down for the start, it was
apparent that Arena was not out to play second fiddle this time. Blitz
was first over the line, followed by Golden Gate, Buckeye Baby, Tempo
and Aljo, in that order.
It seemed certain that the Golden Gate was running over 100 on the straightaways and Arena was driving the turns with such daring that his boat seemed to catch the spirit of the thing and almost turn well. At the end of his first lap, it was seen that Arena had upped Tempo's new lap record. The small airplanes carrying photographers, which had been following the racers with ease before, now found that they could "shoot" Golden Gate only by diving on her to pick up speed -- and then the yellow boat would leave them as they leveled off.
As lap after lap went by, each one well above all previous records, the crowd knew that it was seeing a speed display of a lifetime. If anyone knew that Arena had virtually no chance of winning the race because of his time disadvantage, the secret was well kept from spectators and press alike, and Guy Lombardo was forgotten as he purred along with the greatest of ease in second place. No one would have guessed that he was running at a speed greater than the heat record for the Gold Cup. They were all guessing when Golden Gate would lap Tempo.
Cigarettes burned into nervous fingers on the judge's stand and highballs stood neglected aboard spectator yachts. You could feel in the crowd a silent wish that Dan would make it without accident to his careening craft and that his kid brother Gene, riding as mechanic, would not be injured from the frightful flinging about he was taking.
And then, without warming, a scant two miles from the finish, Golden Gate's roar ceased and she lay dead in the water. An oil line had ruptured early in the day's racing and her magnificent power plant had carried on, with failing lubrication, almost to the end. When it finally quit, it virtually demolished itself in one last gasp.
Lombardo went on to win, as he would have, even had Arena finished. Gib Bradfield's Buckeye Baby finished second in point standing, followed by Golden Gate, Blitz and Aljo V.
The race for the O.J. Mulford Silver Cup was open to any Gold Cup starter which did not rate among the first five at the end of the second heat of the Gold Cup. Six 225s and So Long Jr. appeared for the start and staged a bang-up 15-mile contest. For the first three laps it looked as though Al Brinkman in Seabiscuit had plenty to keep ahead of his fellow 225 drivers and was just able to stave off Fageol in So Long. But it developed that Fageol was just playing cozy for all at once he bore down on his throttle and took over the lead with easy, holding it to the finish line.
The Gold Cup race was, for the first time, placed on film for future telecasting. Camera crews of the American Broadcasting Company recorded the event on 35 mm. film and then subsequently telecast it over the web's five stations: New York, Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia and Schenectady. The first airing was the week of September 23.