By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
The first West Coast Unlimited hydroplane race to count for National High Points was the 1951 APBA Gold Cup on Seattle's Lake Washington. SLO-MO-SHUN IV had won the 1950 Gold Cup in Detroit and had earned the right to defend her title on home waters, as per the then-current rules.
SLO-MO-SHUN V emerged victorious in 1951 with Lou Fageol at the wheel. SLO-MO V set a world lap speed record of 108 miles per hour on the first lap of the first heat. The race was declared a contest on the basis of two completed 30-mile heats on a 3-mile course, after the fatal accident involving QUICKSILVER, a Rolls- Royce Merlin-powered step hydroplane from Portland, Oregon.
Also in attendance that first year in Seattle were MISS PEPSI, GALE II, MY SWEETIE, HORNET, SUCH CRUST, and GOLD'N CRUST from Detroit, HURRICANE IV from Los Angeles, and DEE-JAY V from Philadelphia.
Upon arrival in Seattle, the veteran Unlimited participants found themselves, to their surprise, to be the subject of a barrage of press, radio, and television interviews--more mass media exposure than they had dreamed possible. (This was in the days before there were any Seahawks, Sonics, or Mariners in the environs of Seattle.)
With a heavy emphasis on the spirited Seattle-Detroit rivalry for possession of the Gold Cup, a sport that had previously been little more than a rich man's hobby was thrust into the spotlight. For the next decade, any threat from the Detroit contingent--or any other out-of-town challenger--to wrest the Gold Cup from Seattle's grasp was a matter of civic nervousness and economic concern to the Pacific Northwest metropolis.
The 1951 Gold Cup was the start of a competitive tradition on Lake Washington that continues to this day. After 55 years, only Detroit, Michigan, and Madison, Indiana, have hosted Unlimited races longer than Seattle.
The twin-Allison-powered step hydroplane MISS PEPSI was really on a roll in 1952. She won the majority of the races she entered--but not the Gold Cup.
After posting the first-ever Gold Cup heat of over 100 miles per hour (at 101.024) in Heat One, the PEPSI and driver Chuck Thompson blew a gearbox in Heat Two and had to withdraw.
Stan Dollar and SLO-MO-SHUN IV then went on to take the checkered flag for owner Stan Sayres and the Seattle Yacht Club.
The 1953 Gold Cup continued the victory string in the race of races by the Seattle-based SLO-MO-SHUN team.
With drivers Joe Taggart and Lou Fageol alternating in the cockpit of SLO-MO-SHUN IV, Sayres won his fourth straight Gold Cup in 1953--his third on the home waters of Lake Washington.
Designed by Ted Jones, "The Grand Old Lady" SLO-MO-SHUN IV was the first prop-riding Unlimited hydroplane to run successfully. It wasn't long before most new boats were obvious copies of SLO-MO.
None of the boats that SLO-MO-SHUN IV challenged at the 1950 Gold Cup were present in 1953. They had all been replaced by the new generation of SLO-MO-style Unlimited hydroplanes. These included: SLO-MO-SHUN V and GALE II, built in 1951; MISS GREAT LAKES II, built in 1952; SUCH CRUST III, SUCH CRUST V, and MISS U.S., built in 1953.
For the first time in Gold Cup history, all of the attending boats were three-point hydroplanes. The Dossin brothers' MISS PEPSI, the reigning step hydro, had retired for the time being. And Horace Dodge, Jr.'s MY SWEETIE team was concentrating on East Coast competition in 1953.
All seven entrants in the 1953 Gold Cup used V-12 Allison aircraft engines. And one of these (SUCH CRUST III) was twin-Allison-powered. This was a trend that had started seven years earlier when Dan Arena installed an Allison in MISS GOLDEN GATE III at the 1946 Gold Cup at Detroit.
For pure boat racing, it's hard to top the classic 1954 Gold Cup at Seattle. Indeed, boats ran head-to-head with each other all day long on that memorable August 7.
SLO-MO-SHUN V, driven by Lou Fageol, finished first in all three 30-mile heats. But Lou had to win them the hard way--especially in Heat Two, when SLO-MO-SHUN V, SLO-MO-SHUN IV, and MISS U.S. shared the same roostertail for seven of the eight laps.
SLO-MO-SHUN V was also the first boat to achieve competitive results with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. (All of the Gold Cup winners from 1947 to 1953 used Allison power.) This particular Merlin was salvaged from the ill-fated QUICKSILVER of 1951.
Lee Schoenith and GALE V from Detroit finally broke up the Seattle Yacht Club’s five-year monopoly of the Gold Cup in 1955. GALE V won a disputed decision over Bill Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY, which involved Bonus Points and 4.536 seconds in total elapsed time.
This was in spite of the fact that the Seattle-based MISS THRIFTWAY had posted heat finishes of third, first, and first, while GALE V had run second, second, and third.
On the strength of their victory, the father-and-son team of Joe and Lee Schoenith won the right to defend their title in 1956 on home waters in Detroit, which hadn't hosted a Gold Cup since 1950. This was a blow to the citizens of Seattle, accustomed as they were to considering the Gold Cup their own.
All of a sudden, the Pacific Northwest metropolis was without a major Unlimited race as the highlight of its annual Seafair celebration.
The Gold Cup was gone--at least for the time being. In its place was the Seafair Trophy, which had been a secondary event for Limited boats in recent years and run between heats of the Gold Cup main event.
But the Seafair Trophy was more than just another race in 1956. It was designated by the APBA Inboard Racing Commission as the "National Championship Race" for Unlimiteds. This designation had been applied to Detroit's Silver Cup in 1955.
Although the Gold Cup loss was keenly felt, the 1956 Seafair Trophy had the look and feel of a major event. It was also for the Gold Cup distance: 90 miles on a 3.75-mile course. (This was at a time when most Unlimited races were 45 miles in length.) Also, in the tradition of the Gold Cup, the boats had to qualify by running three consecutive and continuously run laps instead of the usual one lap.
Seattleites took their hydros seriously in the 1950s. The media build-up to the race was tremendous.
The 1956 Seafair Trophy was the first to feature a sizeable hometown fleet. From 1951 to 1954, only SLO-MO-SHUN IV and SLO-MO-SHUN V represented Seattle; REBEL SUH and MISS THRIFTWAY joined the SLO-MOs in 1955. In 1956, for the first time, the Seattle boats outnumbered all the others. Indeed, six of the twelve qualifiers were locally based: SHANTY I, SLO-MO-SHUN IV, MISS SEATTLE, MISS WAHOO, MISS THRIFTWAY, and TEMPEST.
Four boats from Detroit made the final cut: GALE V, GALE VI, MISS U.S. II, and SUCH CRUST III. These were joined by a pair from Oakland, California: SCOOTER TOO and HAWAII KAI III.
In short, this race may not have been for the Gold Cup. But it was the next best thing and packed plenty of prestige in its own right.
It's interesting to note that nine of the seventeen Seafair entrants were designed by Ted Jones, including the winner SHANTY I, which Jones always acknowledged as his all-time favorite.
Jones had been the primary force behind the SLO-MO phenomenon of the early 1950s--as the designer and also as a driver. It was Ted who had piloted the "IV" to victory in the 1950 Gold Cup. He had quite literally been the man most responsible for introducing big-time boat racing to the Pacific Northwest.
Following Jones's acrimonious departure from the SLO-MO team after 1951, he spent several years on the periphery of the sport. Ted then made a triumphant comeback in 1955 as team manager of MISS THRIFTWAY and was responsible for promoting driver Bill Muncey from obscurity to superstar status.
SHANTY I driver Russ Schleeh--a USAF Lieutenant Colonel--owed his entire hydroplane career to Ted Jones. Ted had initially hired Schleeh in 1955 to pilot the Jones-owned REBEL SUH in the Gold Cup. "The Flying Colonel" went on to become 1956 National High Point Champion and the only hydroplane personality ever to be featured on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
Despite the overwhelming success of the 1956 race, the Seafair Trophy disappeared from the Unlimited schedule following MISS THRIFTWAY's controversial victory in the Gold Cup at Detroit on September 1, 1956. The cup returned to its place of honor on the Seattle Yacht Club trophy shelf and stayed there for the next three years.
Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY made it two Gold Cups in a row in a row in 1957. Jack Regas and HAWAII KAI III, representing the SYC, triumphed on Lake Washington in 1958.
History repeated itself in 1959. MAVERICK, representing Las Vegas, Nevada, emerged victorious and took the Gold Cup south to Lake Mead as a consequence. The Seattle race committee dusted off the Seafair Trophy to stand in for "the golden goblet" again in 1960 and 1961.
MISS CENTURY 21 (the renamed former MISS THRIFTWAY) and Bill Muncey finally re-captured the Gold Cup at a race in Reno, Nevade, on Lake Pyramid in 1961.
Bill's victory meant the return of the Gold Cup to Seattle's Lake Washington for 1962, as per the time-honored rules. At the trophy presentation ceremony, Muncey exclaimed, "Let's throw it [the Gold Cup] in the lake so no one can ever take it away from us again!"
But the end of an era was at hand. Never again would the winner's yacht club be allowed the privilege of defending the cup on its home waters. Beginning in 1963, the race site would be determined by the city with the highest financial bid.
In the early 1960s, the Internal Revenue Service began questioning whether or not the Unlimited owners were indulging in a business or a hobby. It was necessary to professionalize for racing to survive. This included putting the Gold Cup up for a bid.
The sport did admittedly lose many old-time supporters when this break with tradition, which dated back to 1904, occurred. On the other hand, the change was entirely in line with the new professional school of thought, which included mandatory cash prizes at all Unlimited events.
The alteration of the Gold Cup location rule also accounted for the disappearance of the East-West rivalry, which had so defined Unlimited racing in the 1950s. Many veteran followers of the sport were understandably reluctant to see this and other facets of the amateur tradition vanish into history.
But change was necessary. And for those that accepted the new order of things, their reward was as competitive a series of aquatic festivals as one could expect, which compared favorably--if not better--to many of the great races of the past.