Battle For The Gold Cup
On Seattle's Lake Washington, the rooster-tailing
hydros put on a roaring show for half a million ardent fans.
The biggest single-arena sporting event in the world is the Gold Cup Race for unlimited hydroplanes at Seattle. This weekend, August 10 and 11, half a million people will be massed around Lake Washington, where the race is held, crowding around the mechanics' pits ashore, lining the famous floating bridge north of the course, jamming hundreds of boats moored gunwale to gunwale in every available inch of space, dotting the shoreline and the hillsides for miles around. What they will see will remain forever unforgettable to them: the world's largest and fastest racing boats—such as the two shown above: Seattle's Thriftway Too (top) and Miss Thriftway—skittering down the straightaways at better than 100 mph, careening through turns on a few square inches of hull that give them precarious hold on the water, all but airborne under the roaring pressure of fighter plane engines driving their propellers so fast that tons of water are spun 500 feet behind in giant rooster tails of spray. In all the world of sports, there is no sight that can quite compare with it.
To fully understand and appreciate what will be happening this weekend at Seattle, it is worth going back three weeks to a previous race for unlimited hydroplanes: the Mapes Cup race at Lake Tahoe. There, in the prism-clear water trapped 6,000 feet up in a ring of mountains at the California-Nevada border, some major actors in Seattle's coming drama thundered through their heats before the blue backdrop of the Sierras, giving spectators a thorough opportunity to study their performance and assess their chances in the climactic race to come.
Of all the people who watched the race at Lake Tahoe, none studied the roaring, rooster-tailing craft with a more expert eye than an unassuming, quiet-voiced man who stood throughout on the official barge. Lou Fageol had come all the way from Kent, Ohio to see the big boats do their stuff, and with more reason than the average fan. Until two years ago, Fageol himself was at the wheel of one of the best and fastest of the unlimiteds, and he was among the very best and fastest drivers of them all.
Five feet 8 inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, Fageol hardly seems a likely fellow for the job of jockeying an unlimited through a standard 30-mile heat. Just take a quick look at the records, however, and you'll find, along with an impressive list of Fageol victories, an entry reading: Fastest Gold Cup Lap, 108.663 mph; driver, Lou Fageol; boat, Slo-Mo-Shun V; owner, Stanley Sayres, Seattle, 1951.
Those were the great days of Fageol's association with Stan Sayres (SI, Aug. 23, 1954)—from 1950 to 1954, when Sayres's Slo-Mo-Shun IV and Slo-Mo-Shun V dominated Gold Cup competition, humbling year after year the entries sent out by archrival Detroit. Sayres died in 1956, having seen both his hydroplanes smashed, his two best drivers badly hurt and Detroit in possession of the Gold Cup; but he bequeathed Seattle, and all the rest of the West, for that matter, a flaming desire to keep the Gold Cup Race for the West's own.
That desire was evident on Lake Tahoe. No less than eight Seattle boats were on the water. Some of these were built by well-provided Westerners who, loyal to Sayres's memory, had come under the flag of the Seattle Yacht Club, Sayres's former outfit. Willard Rhodes of Seattle and the Thriftway grocery chain built Miss Thriftway two years ago, and last year she became the first non-Sayres winner of the Gold Cup out of Seattle. This year Rhodes had a second boat: Thriftway Too. Bill Waggoner, of oil and ranching and Arizona, also had two on hand: Shanty I, last year's high-point boat, and Maverick. "I'm just a little oilman," said Waggoner, who has about $300 million in the kitty, "and there's nothing cheap about having unlimited hydroplanes that I ever found, but I manage to keep them in gas."
Then there was Edgar Kaiser, son of Henry J. and now top executive in that empire, who brought out the Hawaii Kai. Bill Boeing Jr., heir to Boeing of airplane fame, was represented by his Miss Wahoo.
These were the big contenders who could most easily afford the $35,000 it costs to have a top designer-builder team like Ted Jones and Les Staudacher furnish them with an unlimited hydroplane, and who could also pony up the $20,000 it takes to campaign for a season in the unlimited circuit. But there are less expensive ways of getting into the Valhalla of motorboat racing, too. For instance, a group of Seattle hydrophiles, syndicated as Rooster Tails, Inc., rebuilt the gutted Slo-Mo V as Miss Seattle, and a Seattle boatbuilder named Norm Christiansen started a hull in his cellar, hoisted it into his backyard, completed it there and named it Miss Bardahl after a well-known manufacturer of engine lubricants. The vacuum left by Stan Sayres has been well filled.
Against these eight Seattle boats at Lake Tahoe, the Detroiters sent a couple of advance scouts, Gale V and Gale VI, owned by Joseph Schoenith, Detroit electrical contractor, with orders to see what Seattle had to offer.
By the time heat 1B had started, Lou Fageol was comfortably seated near the rail of the barge. Squinting out into the course, he studiously ignored its natural beauties in favor of the huge pink body of Hawaii Kai III, 30 feet and 5,000 pounds of hull, his favorite boat on the course. "Beautiful," said Fageol quietly, as the Hawaii Kai slammed around the far turn. "A boat like that is enough to make me go back to driving."
It was not long before it was obvious to Fageol, the Detroit contingent and to everyone else at the Mapes Cup that Seattle had plenty to offer. Hawaii Kai beat Gale V going away. Thriftway Too, so brand new that it was hardly broken in, and an experimental design to boot (the driver sits ahead instead of behind the engine), thrashed Gale VI.
This gratified the Seattlites and Lou Fageol equally, but for different reasons. The Seattle people had their ax to grind, but Fageol had supplied the Rolls-Royce engines for both the Kai and Thriftway Too, and this was by way of being a vindication of Fageol's theories on unlimited power plants.
As president of Twin Coach Co. (motor coach and marine engines, founded by his father), Fageol not only had the distinction of being the sole corporation president ever to drive an unlimited (or probably any other class, for that matter), but he also has had a great deal to do with motors. He made a shrewd guess back in 1945 and picked up 25 Rolls-Royce fighter plane engines at a war surplus price of $500 apiece. At that time, all unlimited hydros used the Allison airplane engine, but Fageol liked the looks of the Rolls better.
The first Rolls to go into an unlimited went into Slo-Mo V in 1953. In 1954 Slo-Mo V took the Gold Cup in a walkaway with Lou Fageol driving.
"I could have ridden around the course with my feet on the dashboard and still have won," Fageol recalls calmly. "The only reason I didn't run away and hide was that it would have made a bad race."
The first boat owner to whom Fageol sold a Rolls after the demise of the Slo-Mos was Edgar Kaiser. Kaiser put the engine into the Hawaii Kai in time to win the Rogers Memorial at Washington, D.C. last year and then the Sahara Cup at Lake Mead.
Fageol has a ready comparison on the potency of the Rolls. "With the Allisons in the Slo-Mos—and we had as good Allisons as anyone," he says—"the best time we got from 80 to 140 mph was 12½ seconds. With the Rolls we did it in eight. They say that in the Kai they are doing it in less than six."
Fageol sold his Rolls stockpile at $2,500 apiece. "I had more in them than that," he says. "I had stored them and run maintenance on them since 1945. Also, I had to do a lot of research on them. A plane engine does not have to accelerate or stop as quickly as an unlimited hydro engine. Stan Sayres and I pioneered the rebuilding of the Rolls so that it could jump to top speed or stop dead within seconds. Between what Stan spent and what I spent, the development of the quill shaft on the supercharger alone cost us $30,000.
"A good Allison," Fageol concluded, "costs $4,000 to $5,000 now. I could have gotten twice as much for the Rolls, but I don't need the money, for one thing."
Heat 2A of the Mapes Cup, with a Rolls engine riding around in the Hawaii Kai again, made the time and money spent by Fageol seem a good investment. Even though Jack Regas, the tightly wound-up little driver of the Kai, went roaring out of the pits before the five-minute gun had been fired and thus missed a chance to synchronize his stop watch with the starter's clock, he managed to synchronize by sighting the puff of smoke from the gun (its sound is inaudible to drivers over their engines) and he got off to a good start. Right then a lot of smart money on the Gold Cup shifted to the Kai; when she really got rolling, the rest of the field looked as though it were still tied up at the pits.
Regas turned in a 95-plus average and put the Kai in a good position to take the 400 bonus points for the fastest heat and another 400 for the fastest race (three heats). Since the winning boat can pick up only 100 points a heat over the second-place boat (400 points to 300), bonus points more often than not mean the race.
Lou Fageol watched the Kai's performance with the wise and tolerant eye of a tribal elder to the unlimited clan. Having been honorably retired from active status two years ago at the age of 48 when the Slo-Mo V did an inside loop and dumped him into the water from a height of 60 feet, he was entitled to his position, and aware of it.
"Now take Regas," said he, waving a gentle hand at the course, "he's an outstanding driver. Has all kinds of courage and a good, heavy foot, but he hasn't worked out an ironclad system for being on the line when the gun goes off. That's why he often has to come up from behind.
"Ask anyone," said Fageol as objectively as if he were talking about someone else, "who was the master of the fast start, and they will say Lou Fageol."
He was, too. At its zenith, the "Fageol start" involved running away from the line a certain number of seconds, then turning around and coming back at dead-top racing speed—about 165 mph—from half a mile away. This was one of the things that helped Sayres keep the Gold Cup in Seattle, but it scared the livers out of some of the other drivers. Eventually, the permissible starting area in back of the line was restricted by means of a log boom.
Fageol had nothing but praise for the most unfortunate of the drivers in heat 2A: Russ Schleeh (see cover), the Air Force colonel who was last year's high-point man in the 13-race unlimited circuit.
Schleeh is as relaxed and tall-in-the-saddle as the next Westerner, but this year he has had nothing but trouble—engine trouble.
Shanty had a broken quill shaft in lap seven of her first heat—Schleeh was leading at the time—and in the present heat she lasted less than a lap before her engine blew up.
Schleeh, in characteristically wry fashion, delivered his own estimate of his performance from under a large white Stetson after the race. "I am getting to be known as the fastest sprint man on the circuit—always first in the first 100 yards."
"It's too bad," said Fageol when he saw Schleeh sitting dead in the water during heat 2A. "The colonel is a fine driver. He's got a fine attitude toward racing. Not a bit of fear when he's out on the course.
"I remember the colonel last year in the Sahara Cup," Fageol continued. "He got out in front and did a masterful job of using up the race course. The Kai, which was faster, was right behind but couldn't get by."
Fageol's recipe for "using up the race course" (presumably Schleeh—when given the chance—uses some variant thereof) is as follows:
"In the first place," he says, "there's no need to get way out front. You should have the other boat right at the end of your rooster tail. That is right where the end of your spray comes down.
"That keeps him on the outside. If he tries to get inside and gets into the rooster tail, he'll feel like he's being washed down by a couple of man-sized fire hoses. And not only that, he'll get water through his air scoop into his carburetor, and probably wash out of the race.
"And then you can also mess up the turn for him," Fageol went on. "There are five or six markers on each turn. You weave a pattern past these markers that always keeps your wake in front of the boat behind you. You swing wide on the straightaway and then drive in on the first marker, giving it minimum clearance. Then you slide out as you get halfway through the turn, come back in on the last marker and then slide out again on the straightaway. That way there's nothing the following boat can do to avoid crossing your wake four times a turn, unless he keeps way outside the course.
"The only thing you can do if you're behind a smart driver is what I did one year to Danny Foster at the President's Cup. I kept coming up to him on the outside and he kept driving out to make me go wider.
"I set Foster up by coming up like that a couple of times. I had a special snorkel tube so I could close the carburetor while I ate someone's wake. It works if you don't have to eat it too long.
"So, the last time I came up on the outside Foster started to drift out to me and I closed the tube, chopped the throttle and dove through his wake. He was still looking for me on the outside, and the next thing he knew I was on the inside, and by the time we were going out of the turn he was eating my wake."
Having delivered himself of this, Fageol settled himself to watch heat 2B, the last heat before the finals. The principal figures in this were Bill Muncey, present holder of the Gold Cup, in Miss Thriftway and Mira Slovak in Miss Wahoo. The two were expected to furnish most of the excitement all by themselves.
Bill Muncey is a confident, almost brash driver who hot-rods when he feels he has to. He also has a smart head on his shoulders. By contrast, Mira Slovak is a tall, almost cadaverously lean, Czech who flew the C-47 he was piloting—passengers and all—out of the Iron Curtain in 1953. He clowns and laughs or is as moody as a poet by turns, but he hardly ever misses the chance to drive through an opening. Fageol calls him "the steadiest driver on the circuit."
Slovak outsteadied the irrepressible Muncey at the start of heat 2B and hopped to a lead that Muncey couldn't seem to cut down for all his willingness to burn up the corners.
"Muncey's Rolls isn't turning over," said Fageol, leaning forward as Miss Thriftway went by. "It should be hitting 3,800 to 4,000 rpm. To my ear, it's down 700 or 800 from that. I think he's got too big a wheel—his propeller has too much diameter."
By the end of four laps, Slovak was the one who looked like a hot-rodder. He was leaving Muncey behind, and trying for the heat and race bonus points. When he came through on the final lap, he made a grandstand showing by sizzling over the finish line close to shore right under the noses of the crowd, waving. Well he might: he had turned in the fastest heat—98 mph.
The end of 2B brought a feverish bustle of preparations for the final heat 30 minutes away. Over in the Thriftway pit, Ted Jones supervised the choice of a new prop for Miss Thriftway and received compliments on his new forward-cockpit design, Thriftway Too, which had held a respectable third until her engine died. "I'm never going to build another boat with the driver behind the engine," Jones said. He went on to state that the lessening of driver fatigue in the new design was phenomenal. "Brien Wygle was ready to dance after coming out of the cockpit," Jones said.
Ted Jones was the principal designer for the Slo-Mo IV and Slo-Mo V, the prototypes of the modern unlimited, and in Thriftway Too he may have created another prototype.
Fageol has a lot of respect for Jones. "Now, if it wasn't for Jones," he said, "this whole sport might get static. He goes right ahead and comes out with something like Thriftway Too and makes it work."
In all the drama of hydroplane racing, nothing is more exciting than a close start of a final unlimited hydroplane heat. The start of the Mapes Cup final was close. It looked as though every driver had synchronized on the clock. Six boats—Hawaii Kai, Miss Thriftway, Miss Bardahl, Gale V, Gale VI and Miss Seattle came smoking down to the line, accelerating hard, suddenly jetting their stern plumes 60 and 70 feet in the air, closing in on each other until they were one grand melee of spray and thunder, hiding each other as they went gunning across.
Hawaii Kai's engine washed out at the first turn.
"Damn," said Fageol, raising his voice a quarter decibel, which was about as vehement as he ever gets.
Miss Thriftway, however, seemed to be holding up the honor of the Rolls engine men. She had on her new prop, and she opened water on Miss Wahoo and stayed ahead.
"Muncey," said Fageol, "is the better of the best."
Then, on what should have been the last lap for Miss Thriftway, she was flagged to go one more. The judges had ruled she crossed the line ahead of the gun, and this relegated her to second place. Muncey probably just shrugged his shoulders when he saw the telltale flag. He and Miss Thriftway are the hard-luck twins of unlimited racing. He lost the 1955 Gold Cup by four seconds which cost him 400 bonus points, even though he won the final heat. After the 1956 Gold Cup, he had to fight three months before he got his disqualification reversed and finally got possession of the trophy rightfully his. The fact that sequence pictures of the Mapes Cup later showed that not only Miss Thriftway but also Miss Wahoo jumped the final gun fitted into the pattern. It had no effect on race standings, anyway—Wahoo had all the bonus points—but it did have an effect on the Gold Cup officials, who announced that they were going to use an electric-eye camera to monitor starts.
A surprising Miss Bardahl, homemade as she was, started third and finished third, ahead of Gale VI, getting an excellent drive by Norm Evans and, presumably, a boost from the product of the fuel outfit whose name she bears.
Said a disgruntled Detroiter: "It's getting bad. Here a guy in Seattle builds a boat in his backyard and he's beating us."
Lee Schoenith (son of the owner) came in a disappointed fourth over-all in Gale VI, the only boat at Tahoe that had twin engines. (Gale V and Miss Seattle also sputtered out.) "We've had eight unlimiteds in the family," said Schoenith, "and I'll be darned if they don't seem to be getting worse."
Schoenith, however, is too ebullient to stay in a temper long. He was soon going around telling the other drivers that at Seattle he would be turning on that other engine.
With that it was all over but the ceremony. The Wahoo crew threw Slovak into cool Lake Tahoe several times for the cameras, despite his yelling protests: "I can't swim!" Reno Hotelman Charles Mapes, donor of the trophy, fell off Miss Wahoo of his own accord while trying to hand Slovak the giant cup. After that, everyone packed the big boats onto their trailers and, after the inevitable banquet had been held, headed for home.
Detroit soon managed to recover from despair. The motor-city hydroplane people have been making warlike noises ever since the Mapes Cup—some of them probably meaningful. They have their own top driver in Fred Alter, who last year put Such Crust III through Gold Cup qualifying laps faster than Shanty. Alter, still untried against Seattle drivers this year, will be at the Gold Cup, driving either Miss U.S. I or Miss U.S. IV—fast and new—owned by ex-Detroiter George Simon. Detroit Breadman Jack Schafer's Such Crust III will be there, too. The Windmill Pointe Yacht Club will send tough Chuck Thompson to drive his Short Circuit. And the Gales will be there. Lee Schoenith now cheerily blames high altitude for the Gale boats' lack of speed. If this is so, no one can write off Lee or Gale V Driver Bill Cantrell—a veteran full of hydroplane guile.
The West has a few bench warmers that haven't been really tested yet, including one sure eye opener. There's the Tri-City Syndicate's Adios and there's a Skyway and a Whiz-Ski out of Seattle, a Miss Rocket out of Tacoma, a Breathless and Breathless II out of Tahoe—and now a Seattle mechanic named Armand Swensen has brought out a cross between a boat and a seaplane which he calls a one-pointer (see page 43), which he intends to enter in spite of the fact that some wags claim he'll be disqualified for failing to touch down on the finish line.
And although Lou Fageol retired temporarily to Kent, Ohio and a gray flannel business suit, nothing short of a natural catastrophe will keep him—or 499,999 others—at home when the big boats go at it in Seattle.