Dixie and Chip [Pt. 1 & 2]

The Years of Dixie and Chip, Part 1

A hundred years ago, not long after the first sanctioned motor boat races were held in the United States, two very different race teams campaigned very different boats and made for themselves a similar place in history.

The two had little in common. They emerged from contrasting backgrounds, were created to meet dissimilar challenges, and rarely raced against each other. Their differences were so great, in fact, that had the two met on the racecourse there would have been little doubt which would emerge the winner. But, a century later, the Dixie and Chip remain alike in the record books. They both figure prominently during the six-year span of time from 1905 to 1910.

The story of both begins in the fall of 1904 when officials of the American Power Boat Association held a second Gold Cup race only three months after the legendary Standard had won the event’s first running. The second Gold Cup was held at the same location as the first, on the Hudson River at the Columbia Yacht Club in New York, and resulted in a victory for a sleek, needle-shaped craft named Vingt-et-Un II, a new breed of race boat designed by Clinton Crane that was only two-thirds the length of the Standard. Crane called it an “autoboat.”

During these early years, the sport of motorboat racing belonged to the very wealthy. It was a hobby for yacht club members who had a desire for speed and didn’t mind getting their hands greasy tinkering with clattering, smoke-belching engines. When the owners of the Vingt-et- Un II accepted the Gold Cup trophy, two such people took particular note: Herbert J. Leighton, a mechanical genius from Syracuse, New York, and Edward R. Thomas, a young financier from New Y ork City.

Leighton was excited by the boat’s Gold Cup victory because it meant the next race would be held closer to his home.

According to the event’s rules, the yacht club represented by the winning boat would have the honor ofhosting the race the following year. Since the Vingt-et-Un had flown the pennant of the Chippewa Bay Yacht Club, it meant the third Gold Cup would take place on the St. Lawrence River, some 100 miles from Syracuse in Upstate New York.

It was an opportunity Leighton couldn’t ignore. Already a veteran boat racer, he had been an early nemesis of the monster Standard, which had dominated racing in the New York area during the sport’s formative years.

In late August 1903, in one of the first events held by the brand-new American Power Boat Association, Leighton took his boat, Adios, to Gravesend Bay near Brooklyn and won a match race against Standard while reaching an average speed of over 20 miles per hour.

Thomas had another reason to be enthused by the victory of Vingt-et-Un. It attracted his attention because he had developed a keen interest in speed and because his friend William Vanderbilt had been one of the competitors in the race and spoke highly of the experience.

By most accounts, Edward R. (Sam) Thomas was the epitome of the spoiled rich kid. The eldest son of a Civil War general and wealthy industrialist, the young Thomas had already acquired an empire that included the New York News Telegram, he was married to a noted Southern beauty, and he owned fabulous homes in Palm Beach, Florida, New York City, and Newport, Rhode Island. He also had a dark side.

When he eventually divorced his beautiful wife (who would later marry the famous composer, Cole Porter), he agreed to pay her $ 1 million a year just to keep her quiet about his cruelty and infidelities. He once seized control of a bank, only to see it collapse the next day, and was a devoted automobilist; a term of contempt for people who drove their horseless carriages with such wild abandon that horses and pedestrians had to scatter out of the way.

In fact, Edward Thomas holds the distinction of being the first person in U. S. history to kill someone while driving his automobile. The victim was a 7-year-old boy who was struck and instantly killed in 1902 as Thomas was driving his automobile, nicknamed the “WhiteGhost,” at high speed through the streets of New York. Tired of automobilists like Thomas, the pedestrians eventually fought back. Within weeks of the fatal accident, a gang of boys forced Thomas and his automobile to a stop and rained tin cans, rocks, pails, and frying pans upon him, his wife, and his brother-in-law.

Yet, while Thomas may have been a contemptible person, he at least made one positive contribution to boat racing. After hearing about the success of the Vingt-et- Un, he created one of the most beloved race teams in the early history of the sport.

After hearing the racing exploits of Vanderbilt, he decided he should get one ofthose fast boats and ventured down the street from his New York mansion to visit a boatyard operated by two young entrepreneurs, Proctor Smith and Carlton Mabley, the pair that had built the Vingt-et-Un. There, Thomas met Clinton Crane and made him a proposition; he wanted the fastest boat in the world, nothing less, a craft guaranteed to reach 30 miles an hour.

Crane was anxious to enhance his growing reputation, so he accepted Thomas’ challenge and produced a design for a forty-foot autoboat that was powered by a 150-horsepower engine, giving it a power-to-weight ratio that was even better than the Gold Cup champion. In honor of his wife’s Southern heritage, Thomas christened his new boat Dixie.

Given the boat’s pedigree, there was little doubt that the new Dixie would be fast. But, being the helmsman of a speedboat was a new experience for Thomas. During his first time behind the wheel of his new craft, he turned a lap of 27 miles per hour at Greenwich, Connecticut, then veered off course and struck a rock. He eventually got the hang of it as the season continued, however, swept a race at Marblehead, Massachusetts, and won just about everything else, except the sport’s biggest prize, the Gold Cup. That was won by Herbert Leighton, who analyzed the event’s quirky handicapping rules and adopted a strategy that was completely the opposite of what Thomas had done.

Hoping to make the competition equal, the American Power Boat Association had assigned each boat a rating that was calculated using a complicated formula that took into account the boat’s length, the engine’s horsepower, and various other factors. The boat with the lowest rating would start first then the others would follow at timed intervals determined by their rating. Some estimated that a powerful boat like Dixie would have had to go an unthinkable 60 miles per hour to catch the boat that started first. So, realizing the Gold Cup was an impossible cause, Thomas and the owners of several other powerful boats decided to stay home.

But, the clever Leighton saw the new rules as an opportunity. He studied the handicapping formula carefully and, in designing a boat named Chip for Jonathan Wainwright, a contractor from Philadelphia, he built a boat that was both extremely light and powered by an engine that the rules rated at only 10.25 horsepower. Only one other boat, a craft named lnvilese, was rated lower. That meant, in order to win the Gold Cup, the Chip would simply have to pass Invilese and avoid being passed by any other ofthe boats starting behind it. And, that was a fair bet because the Chip was capable of 18 miles an hour.

Sure enough, on the first day Chip passed Invilese as they neared the finish line and on the second day it beat Invilese by about two minutes. On the final day, Chip again nipped Invilese at the finish line and successfully defended the Gold Cup for the Chippewa Bay Yacht Club. Though Thomas had entered the sport of motorboat racing with the fastest craft in the sport, Leighton went home as the 1905 Gold Cup champion.

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The Years of Dixie and Chip, Part 2

Dixie was built to be the fastest motorboat in the world. It was created for a young millionaire named Edward R. Thomas, who loved to go fast and who was known infamously for the reckless way he drove his automobile through the streets of New York.

When he heard his friend William Vanderbilt talk of his experience driving in the 1904 Gold Cup, Thomas became intrigued by racing boats and asked Clinton Crane to design one for him. The craft, named to honor his wife’s southern heritage, was delivered along with a guarantee that it would far exceed the fastest motorboats of the day and reach the incredible speed of 30 miles an hour.

Dixie was everything Thomas had hoped. It was easily the fastest boat competing in 1905 and, after much tinkering and adjusting, it even managed to exceed the 30-miles-per-hour mark during a test run. But as the season moved into September, one goal remained beyond his reach—the Gold Cup. Because of the event’s quirky handicapping rules, powerful boats like Dixie were unable to compete on even terms with boats that were much smaller and more lightly powered boats like Chip, a craft that would have been no match for Dixie if they had met head-to-head on the same racecourse. Yet Dixie would earn an equally prominent place in the record books because of its exploits in the sport’s most prestigious event.

Herbert J. Leighton, a clever engineer from Syracuse, New York, had carefully studied the Gold Cup’s complicated handicapping formula and designed a little craft that took full advantage, being at the same time faster than most and among the lowest in horsepower rating. Leighton’s effort not only earned Chip a 1905 Gold Cup victory, but also caused the sport’s officials to seek a way to further equalize the competition. The result was a set of rules that became even stranger.

The new rules still called for the boat with the lowest rating to start the race first and then be followed at timed intervals by the boats with the higher ratings. The new rules also still used measurements such as the length of each boat, the midsection area and various other factors to calculate that rating. But in their effort to tighten things even further, the officials of the American Power Boat Association had also left open a loophole that the savvy Leighton was all too happy to exploit. In determining an engine’s size, the new rules for the 1906 Gold Cup took into account both the number of cylinders and the bore of the cylinders. Problem was, the rules didn’t mention anything about the stroke, the distance the pistons move up and down within the cylinder.

It turned out that Jonathan Wainwright, the Philadelphia contractor who owned Chip, wanted a new boat to defend his Gold Cup title, so when Leighton began to create the new craft, he did so with a gleam in his eye. He produced a hull that was small, yet conventional—a little more than 30 feet in length and about 5 feet wide— but that used an engine that could only be described as bizarre. It had just two operating cylinders, a bore of only 4 inches, and a stroke of a whopping 10 inches—almost twice what was typical. Further, because a two-cylinder engine would not be competitive unless it had some help, Leighton added a third cylinder that wasn’t connected to the crankshaft but instead functioned as a pump to compress the air-fuel mixture just before it entered the engine—a primitive supercharger. By the new Gold Cup rules, Chip II was rated at only 16.75 horsepower but in actuality it produced at least twice that.

The powerful Dixie, a no-show for the 1905 Gold Cup yet the winner of just about every other race held that year, was taken to Chippewa Bay on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York to make an appearance in the 1906 event. But the team had a new owner by this time. Edward Thomas had become enamored with the creation of a new organization called the Motor Boat Club of America and, wanting to devote his attention to that, decided to sell Dixie to Edward J. Schroeder of Jersey City, New Jersey, a quiet and introspective man who had earned his fortune supplying gas lights for railway cars and who also had been on the leading edge of the switch to electric lights. Schroeder had a passion for mechanical things. It’s said that when he hosted social gatherings at his home, he would sometimes leave his guests and steal away to the garage, where he could talk about engines with the chauffeurs.

Schroeder and the owners of the other top boats realized that their appearance at the Gold Cup was only a formality. Dixie, in fact, carried such a huge handicap under the rules that it was deemed out of contention before the race even got underway. “Leighton has us all stopped,” one owner remarked. But it wasn’t a complete cakewalk for the Chip II. The team had a small scare on the first day of racing when a boat named Sparrow actually managed to pass the Chip II and cross the finish line with an advantage of just over a minute. Dixie, meanwhile, clearly the fastest boat on the racecourse, managed only a fourth place finish despite averaging 28 miles per hour. Yet, in the end, the rating system gave Chip II too much of an advantage. On the second day, Chip II finished almost four minutes ahead of Sparrow and then plowed through rough water during the final race to again win the Gold Cup comfortably.

Things were much the same a year later, except that the rules were altered again to include the area of “compression” in calculating an engine’spower. That was no matter to Leighton. Because most of the top race teams had decided that the trek clear up to Chippewa Bay wasn’t worth the hassle of dealing with the event’s goofy rules, only five entrants appeared for the 1907 Gold Cup, all from the St. Lawrence River area. As a writer for Motor Boat magazine observed, the event “was somewhat in the nature of a family party.” That made the competition easy for the Chip II. Although the third cylinder was now included in the horsepower equation, the boat still had the lowest rating. It started all three races first and held its lead throughout, giving Leighton his third Gold Cup win in a row.

While a Gold Cup victory had not been possible fox Dixie, Schroeder’s boat did plenty of winning elsewhere. During the 1906 season, Dixie had gained a reputation as the fastest race boat in the United States, competing in small local events and major regional races with amazing success. So, in 1907, Schroeder decided it was time to test Dixie on a bigger stage. He took his boat to England to challenge for Europe’s biggest boat racing prize, the British International Trophy, an event created by newspaper publisher Sir Alfred Harmsworth four years earlier to feature one-on-one competition between the fastest motorboats two nations could muster.

With Captain S. Bartley Pearce at the helm, Dixie circled a seven-mile course on Southampton Water at an average speed of 31.8 miles per hour and easily defeated the trophy’s English defender, a boat named Daimler II, thus putting Schroeder at the pinnacle of the motorboat racing world. As soon as Schroeder returned to the United States, his newly-won British International Trophy was proudly displayed in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

Not long after Harmsworth ’ s trophy was taken west across the Atlantic, British boat racers began to make plans for winning it back. Leading that effort was the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England, who would invest a sizeable fortune toward the building of a craft named the Wolseley-Siddeley, a boat that was powered by two, eight-cylinder engines capable of producing more than 400 horsepower. Meanwhile, Schroeder felt he needed a new boat to defend the trophy, so had Clinton Crane build the Dixie II, a beautiful mahogany craft that was slightly smaller and lighter than its predecessor, but that also was powered by abigger engine.

The two boats met on Monday, August 3, 1908, on Huntington Bay, a protected harbor located along the north coast of Long Island. The day was bright and sunny and the crowd of spectators was immense. Hundreds ofboats of every description lined the ten-mile course, while others gathered wherever a vantage point could be found on the sandy beaches or amid the trees that lined the bluff. And, the race they saw did not disappoint them. Captain Pearce took the Dixie II to an early lead, finishing the first lap with a 47-second advantage over the British challenger, then saw that lead dwindle as the powerful Wolseley-Siddeley made a tremendous run during the second lap and closed the gap to only 16 seconds. But, although his riding mechanic passed out because of exhaust fumes blowing in his face, Pearce managed to stay ahead through the third and final lap and finished the race with an average speed of 32 miles per hour.

At a time when most motorboat competition took place beyond the sight of spectators or amounted to a race against the clock, rather than each other, such close competition between two powerful race boats was seen as a marvel. The yachting press called it the greatest motorboat race the world had ever known.

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The Years of Dixie and Chip, Part 3

by Andy Muntz

With its successful defense of the Harmsworth in 1908, beating a craft built by the richest man in England, no less, Edward J. Schroeder’s Dixie had cemented its reputation as the fastest racing motorboat in the world. Yet, the Dixie still hadn’t won the most prestigious race in the United States. Three Gold Cups had passed since the Dixie team was formed, but each of those races was instead dominated by small, lightly powered racers named Chip, boats that had been designed by Herbert J. Leighton of Syracuse, New York, to blatantly take advantage of loopholes in the Gold Cup’s quirky handicapping rules.

Only seventeen days after defending the Harmsworth against England’s powerful Wolseley-Siddeley on Huntington Bay on Long Island, Dixie II had been hauled about three hundred miles north to the St. Lawrence River for another attempt at the Gold Cup. And, this time, its chances were much better. American Power Boat Association officials had finally come to their senses and abolished the complicated rating system. Instead, the 1908 race would be a “free for all,” where all the boats would start at the same time and the first boat to the finish line would win, no matter its size or how much horsepower it carried.

Looking for their fourth straight Gold Cup, yet with no elaborate rules to manipulate, Leighton and the owner of the Chip boats, a Philadelphia contractor named Jonathan Wainwright, had to take a more conventional approach toward the race.

They needed a boat that would have enough speed to contend with the mighty Dixie. So, they created a new craft named Chip III, which used two six-cylinder engines that were each capable of producing 200 horsepower. Its most distinguishing feature was a set of twelve narrow exhaust stacks that stood about six feet tall, making the boat look like a floating pipe organ. The thing even made a sound that seemed vaguely to belong in a cathedral. The reporter for The Rudder said the boat’s noise was such that “one couldn’ t hear the balance of the fleet or anything else when she went by.”

For all the noise it made, however, its heavenly chorus wasn’t enough to bring good tidings for its performance. Although the locals believed before the race that Chip III was fast enough to defeat Dixie, as soon as the boats were underway on the first day ofracing, it was clear that Leighton’s hold of the Gold Cup was finally broken. Dixie II immediately built a commanding lead with Chip III gamely following behind and the other six boats bringing up the rear. The Dixie won easily again on the second day.

The only moment of doubt for the outcome occurred during the third and final race, when Dixie came to a stop shortly after crossing the starting line, its rudder fouled with debris. As the other boats sped away, the crew cleared the rudder, Dixie’s engine was restarted and, for the first time in the boat’s short career, the throttle was opened as wide as it could go. Dixie flew through the water as it passed one boat after the other and eventually crossed the finish line first. Its average speed after ninety miles of racing was just shy of 30 miles per hour.

Although it was the fastest boat in the world, Dixie still had a few shortcomings in the eyes of Edward Schroeder and the boat’s builder, Clinton Crane. It was too light, for instance, and tended to leak when running at top speed. So, the Dixie II was retired at the end of the 1908 campaign and was replaced by a new boat that used an even more powerful engine. [As if to confuse historians, it also carried the same name as its predecessor, though many accounts referred to the craft as Dixie III].

The 1909 season didn’t include a challenge for the Harmsworth, which left a second straight Gold Cup victory as the year’s highlight. The boat had an easy romp on Alexandria Bay, New York, against a fleet of five challengers that, according to The Rudder, were “incapable of providing a real race for Dixie.” A boat named Chip was not among them.

Following the 1909 season, Edward Schroeder sold the Dixie II (2) to a wealthy young New Yorker named Frederick K. Burnham, so it fell on Burnham to defend America’s claim to the Harmsworth Trophy and to defend the team ’ s Gold Cup title. The latter came first and came easily.

Dixie II faced a fleet of three challengers, including the 40’ Skipper, a boat named Skit built by Herbert Leighton, and Squaw that was built by Clinton Crane. Burnham and Dixie II [named Dixie III by The Rudder— Ed] won by a comfortable margin all three days—giving the team their third straight Gold Cup victory.

Defending the Harmsworth was a bigger test. The Dixie team would face a boat named Pioneer, which was built by England’s richest man, the Duke of Westminster, to redeem the disappointing defeat of his Wolseley-Siddeley two years before. Pioneer was powered by a massive 12-cylinder engine capable of 400 horsepower and, at a time when Dixie and other race boats plowed through the water, utilized a radical new concept of hull design that featured a series of steps, resembling shingles or saw teeth, that were placed along the underside of the boat to push it to the water’s surface, reduce drag and increase its speed.

From the start, as Noel Robbins, driver of Pioneer quickly got his boat into the lead and pulled away, the difference between the two boats became obvious. Dixie rode steadily through the waters of the Long Island Sound, a crisp wave curling from each side of its sharp bow, while Pioneer seemed to skip across the water’s surface, its bow pointed upward and the spray it pushed aside first appearing about ten feet behind the bow from a point beneath the engine. By the time Pioneer rounded the last turn and completed its first lap, the mighty Dixie was so far behind it was just a speck in the distance.

But, that’s where fate stepped in. Incredibly, just as Pioneer passed Scotch Caps only two miles from the finish line, the boat suddenly came to a stop—flames and smoke soon billowing from its engine. Seaweed had clogged the water intakes, causing the engine to overheat and catch fire. Fortunately, spectators on a nearby steam yacht were able to put the fire out, but not before Dixie had already passed the stricken craft and had taken an insurmountable lead. It crossed the finish line with an advantage of more than 13 minutes.

Although Frederick Burnham had successfully defended the Harmsworth, it was clear that Pioneer was the superior boat. Dixie had been nearly unbeatable, winning 108 of the 109 races it had entered, but in the instant it took for Pioneer to flash past Dixie at the start of the 1910 Harmsworth, the boat was suddenly rendered obsolete. Boats with steps would instead become the common practice—boats that wri ters, henceforth, would call hydroplanes.

For the 1911 campaign, Clinton Crane designed a new boat for Burnham named Dixie IV that use two engines set in tandem and that had a single step located about amidships on the bottom of the hull. And, when first tested in July with Burnham behind the wheel, it showed tremendous potential. Although a burned engine bearing prevented it from winning the team’s fourth straight Gold Cup, Dixie IV easily defeated Pioneer in yet another Harmsworth challenge. Then, for good measure, the boat set a mile straightaway record with a run of over 45 miles per hour on Huntington Bay. Meanwhile, Dixie IV also showed that it was difficult to control in rough water. During a test run a few days after its Harmsworth victory, the unstable boat suddenly flopped over onto its side without warning, tossing one of its riding mechanics into the water.

A week later, this weakness proved fatal. During a race in Buffalo, New York, Dixie IV hit the wake left by another competitor while it was rounding a turn, veered out of control toward the crowded shoreline, crashed into the riprap and leaped into the crowd, killing one young boy and seriously injuring two others. Burnham was charged with “criminal negligence and cowardice,” but though he was vindicated of those charges, he and the Dixie team would never race again.

The broken and splintered Dixie IV, the two-months-old Harmsworth champion, was stripped of its engine and other valuable hardware and dumped among the weeds and discarded varnish cans at Consolidated Boatbuilding in New York. There, eventually forgotten, the once glistening mahogany hull of the fastest boat in the world was left to succumb to the ravages of nature.

[Reprinted from Unlimited NewsJournal, 2009]