Detroit's Fabulous Schoenith Family
By Steve Garey and Arline Carreyn
We just want to testify that everything you've ever heard about the Schoenith family is probably true. They were -- and continue to be -- one of the most successful and controversial families on Detroit's historical social register.
As patriarch of the family, Joe Schoenith, a quiet, unassuming man, amassed a fortune in the '40s and '50s in the electrical contracting and restaurant businesses. He utilized unlimited hydroplane racing as an advertising vehicle for those endeavors. His "walking time bomb" sons, Lee and Jerry, drove those boats, and never failed to keep things exciting by exploding at the most opportune moments, each blast calculated to gain maximum publicity for the family, the business, or boat racing.
Actually, the Schoenith boys were misunderstood.
During the Detroit-Seattle racing rivalry in the mid-fifties, feisty Lee was the villain to millions of Seattle fans. A good illustration of this happened in the early sixties, when Lee made the simple comment to the local press that the mist around their natural centerpiece, Mt. Rainier, was a little heavy that day. The populace took it as a personal affront when they read the headline, "Schoenith Lambasts Mt. Rainier."
At home, Lee was a family man. He and his wife, Shirley, raised their children quietly in Grosse Pointe. He worked for his dad in the electrical contracting business and drove the Gale hydroplanes.
Lee's younger brother, Jerry, had the nerve to stand up to the burgeoning turbine revolution in unlimited racing by forming his own piston-powered racing circuit in 1987. The concept had promise, with popular support from many businesses and a good part of the racing fraternity. But Jerry's strong will, and his determination to present his concepts in the face of insurmountable odds -- a Schoenith trait -- left his automotive thunderboat circuit dead in the water after one season.
Jerry's twin brother, Tom, took a different route and became the toast of metro Detroit's party-throwers.
A complete opposite of his brash brothers, the mild-mannered Tom and his wife, Diane, threw one lavish party after another at The Roostertail during the sixties and seventies. Any excuse or cause was worthy to warrant a Schoenith party.
Joseph A. Schoenith and his wife Millie started their family in the late '30s. Joe purchased the W.D. Gale Electric Company in the forties, with a promise to the retiring Mr. Gale that he would never change the company name. Branch businesses and forays into Ontario made Joe a wealthy man and propelled him to the top of Detroit business.
In 1949, bakery king Jack Schafer was enjoying great notoriety as the owner of the Such Crust race boats. On more than one occasion, Schafer extolled the advertising merits of these spectacular boats to Joe Schoenith, who listened intently. At that time in boat racing, the unlimiteds were metamorphisizing from step hulls with car engines to big, 3-point prop riders with Allison aircraft engines. Schafer suggested starting at the top with a brand new, state of the art hull But Schoenith saw a proven hull in the 1940 vintage Miss Frostie, which was originally Herb Mendelson's Notre Dame. His 20-year-old college student son, Lee, was anxious to drive one of these big boats, so Joe purchased Miss Frostie, renamed it Gale, after his electrical business, and prepared for the 1950 racing season.
What followed was a string of 16 different unlimited hulls and more positive publicity than Schoenith ever imagined. By 1954 he was campaigning two boats -- Gales IV and V -- winning everything in sight with Lee and popular Wild Bill Cantrell as drivers.
The Schoeniths reached the pinnacle of American boat racing when Lee won the thrilling 1955 APBA Gold Cup race at Seattle, beating Bill Muncey in Seattle's Miss Thriftway by 4.536 seconds. Muncey had won the last two heats while Lee had a pair of thirds and a second. Bonus points for fastest race were awarded in those days and Lee kept the Gale V's speeds constant while Muncey slowed down and coasted home in the finals. Confusion reigned in the official scorers' room as timers frantically checked the rechecked the overall speeds. If the Gale won, then the coveted Gold Cup would go to Detroit for 1956.
Meanwhile, Joe Schoenith arrived at the judges stand with stopwatch in hand and told the Seattle officials, "I believe we've won this race!" The chief scorer stopped him at the door. "Things may work out all right for you, Mr. Schoenith," he said, "but we're still recalculating and we'll let you know."
Three hours later, the Cup arrived at Schoenith's hotel room. But it wasn't until the next morning, when Joe carried the Gold Cup onto the plane for the flight home that he felt victorious. "Now I know it is official," he proclaimed to the exasperated Seattle media as he boarded.
Things were booming and, in 1957, Joe and Lee were at the top of their respective games. Joe opened the fabulous Roostertail night club and restaurant located on the upper turn of the Detroit River race course overlooking Belle Isle and the Detroit Yacht Club. The Roostertail quickly became the showplace of the midwest, presenting the top acts in show business in a glittering setting. Tom and Jerry opened the upper deck as a chic rock palace. The huge entertainment complex rode a wave of success until 1967, when the infamous Detroit riots took away the customer base.
On the racing front, Lee Schoenith saw the need for the unlimiteds to govern their own affairs separately from the APBA's inboard commission. In 1958, Lee, who was forced to take an early retirement from driving because of back problems, headed a committee that revamped the rules and formed the Unlimited Racing Commission.
An early '60s bout with the Internal Revenue Service forced the Schoeniths to take a different approach to boat racing. Joe lost a huge tax case that involved using the Gale name as an advertising write-off on his race boats. To continue racing, he'd have to find corporate sponsors for the Gale boats.
What followed was a string of hydroplanes owned and raced by Gale Enterprises, but with names like Miss Smirnoff, Myr Sheet Metal, Towne Club Beverages, Pizza Pete, and ultimately, Atlas Van Lines.
With the Atlas sponsorship came champion driver Bill Muncey, who rocketed the Schoeniths back to the top with eleven more race wins, plus another Gold Cup and the 1972 national championship.
After 25 years and 27 race victories, Joe decided to retire from boat racing in 1975. He and Millie retired to Florida. Lee became chief referee for the unlimiteds. Jerry, who retired from driving suffering the same back problems as his older brother, went on to become executive secretary of the Unlimited Commission in 1980, the owner of the Miss Renault in 1983-84, and the founder of the upstart Automotive Thunderboat Association in 1987.
Lee Schoenith died in Florida on August 20, 1993, at the age of 64. His careers in business and in boat racing were often stormy and controversial, but he will always be remembered as an outspoken guy, a family man, and winner of the fabulous Gold Cup race in Seattle in 1955.
Joe died October 9, 1996, at age 95, having spent his entire life nurturing his family, his successful businesses, and the thrills and excitement he generated in unlimited hydroplane racing.
The Schoenith wives, Millie and Shirley, reside in Florida. Shirley and son Jay run a business in Longboat Key. Shirley's other son, Joe, and his wife Lori, live in the Detroit area and remain active with the Spirit of Detroit Thunderfest. The twins, Tom and Jerry, are still here, too. Tom operates the Roostertail Catering business and Jerry is busy writing a book chronicling the Schoeniths' four decades as one of Detroit's most interesting and enigmatic families.