By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Unlimited hydroplane racing is the world’s most spectacular motor sport. Indeed, watching a fleet of these majestic boats streaking toward the first turn with roostertails flying is an awesome sight to behold.
The history of Unlimited racing contains many, many highlights--enough to fill many books. As the sport’s official chronicler, I have been privileged to attend over 200 Unlimited races from coast to coast. And I’ve enjoyed every one of them. I’ve also read about and researched many of the races that were before my time.
Every race is a unique experience. No two are ever alike. But some stand out as being extra special and cause a historian’s heart to beat faster. Allow me to share some of these "extra special" moments.
In doing research for my book, A CENTURY OF GOLD CUP RACING, I was fascinated by the account of the 1915 APBA Gold Cup race on Manhasset Bay, New York, which was won by the community-owned MISS DETROIT (much like the MISS MADISON of today). MISS DETROIT was a step hydroplane, designed by Christopher Columbus Smith of ChrisCraft fame.
MISS DETROIT driver John Milot was literally a last-minute choice to pilot the craft when the scheduled driver (who will remain forever nameless) couldn’t be found on race day morning. John didn’t have time to put on any protective gear. He just jumped into the cockpit and followed the other boats around the 5-mile triangular course.
Midway through the first heat of 30 miles, Milot got seasick and riding mechanic Jack Beebe had to take over the wheel. By some miracle, they managed to win the race.
Finishing second to MISS DETROIT in that race was a boat called TECH, JR., which was an early example of a three-point hydroplane with a pair of pontoon-like running surfaces called sponsons. TECH, JR., was owned and driven by industrialist Coleman DuPont, a relative of Samuel DuPont who--45 years later--would donate the first MISS MADISON to the city of Madison, Indiana.
Another "extra special" moment that was before my time was the 1933 Gold Cup race in Detroit. This was the Year of the "Dodge Navy" with five of the ten entries belonging to Horace Dodge, Jr., of the Dodge automotive family. Indeed, four of Horace’s entries were among the seven actual starters. Unfortunately, three of his boats were brand new and none were a match for EL LAGARTO, owned and driven by George Reis of Lake George, New York.
EL LAGARTO (nicknamed "The Leaping Lizard") was a re-modeled former displacement craft, which had made a lackluster debut in the 1922 Gold Cup as ED Grimm’s MISS MARY II. In transforming EL LAGARTO into a winner, Reis and his crew chief/riding mechanic Anderson "Dick" Bowers did all of the work themselves with no help from a designer or naval architect.
It was indeed a disappointing day for the "Dodge Navy". EL LAGARTO became the first boat to win a Gold Cup race eleven years after its competition debut. The only champion to duplicate this feat is MISS MADISON, which likewise was eleven years old when she won in 1971.
Of all the races that I have personally experienced, two in particular are "extra special": the 1958 Gold Cup in Seattle and the 1971 Gold Cup in Madison.
I was living in the Seattle area in 1958. As a 14-year-old hydro enthusiast, my whole life revolved around the annual Unlimited race on Lake Washington. My most urgent concern was whether or not the local Thunderboat fleet was going to retain the Gold Cup for the Pacific Northwest. (This was in the days when the yacht club of the winning boat had the option of defending the Gold Cup on home waters.)
In 1958, things didn’t look good for us. The previous year’s winner (MISS THRIFTWAY) had crashed at Madison, Indiana, with Bill Muncey driving. The new MISS THRIFTWAY wasn’t as competitive as its predecessor. Bill Boeing’s MISS WAHOO, a frontrunner in 1957, had temporarily retired as had the defending National Champion HAWAII KAI III, owned by Edgar Kaiser.
We had a new MISS BARDAHL, which had demonstrated some potential, but was clearly not in the same speed range as MAVERICK, the challenger from Las Vegas, which was coming off two victories in early-season 1958 and was really on a roll.
Fortunately for Seattle, HAWAII KAI III came out of retirement at the last minute and won hands down with Jack Regas driving. Stead and MAVERICK went all out after Regas and the KAI in Heats One and Two but were soundly beaten both times. MAVERICK missed the Final Heat entirely when her crew couldn’t replace a splineshaft in the aux-stage Allison engine in time.
Precious little can be said or written about the fabulous 1971 Madison
Gold Cup that hasn’t already been. Indeed, I made this race of the focus
of my book, MADISON: HYDROPLANE HERITAGE, that I co-authored with Ron
Down to their last Allison engine, having blown the other during practice, the MISS MADISON team was at a distinct disadvantage at the outset of the race. McCormick and MISS MADISON ran conservatively in their three preliminary heats and finished just high enough to qualify for the final 15-mile moment of truth.
MISS MADISON moved to the inside lane before the start, thereby forcing the rest of the field to run a wider and longer track. McCormick took the lead coming out of the first turn and streaked to victory with fast pursuit from Terry Sterett in ATLAS VAN LINES II, Dean Chenoweth in MISS BUDWEISER, Billy Schumacher in PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK, and Fred Alter in TOWNE CLUB.
MISS MADISON’s accomplishment was due in no small part to the input from team advisors Harry Volpi and Everett Adams who sorted out the team’s water/alcohol injection system, which resulted in some much-needed additional miles per hour for the boat.
This was a victory for the amateur, for the common man, a win that everyone could claim as his own.
To prove that the hometown performance was anything but a fluke, MISS MADISON captured first-place honors in the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup three weeks later on the Columbia River at Kennewick, Washington.
I was one of the privileged few to witness both of MISS MADISON’s victories that year. It was the first time that I had attended a race that had been won by a personal friend (Jim McCormick). This made the month of July 1971 that much more "extra special".