The President's Cup : The Truman Years

'All quiet along the Potomac tonight
Except, here and there, some remember
How race boats would fly 'cross the waters with skill
And thrill the great crowds each September...'

In 1946, the United States was recovering from the nation's longest military conflict since the American Civil War. The President's Cup, a full-spectrum hydroplane regatta and sailboat racing event founded by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926, was traditionally held on the Potomac River in the month of September, but was suspended during the war years. The revived regatta became an event of political, social, and sports significance in the national recovery.

The President's Cup Regatta Association, Inc., managed the race from its executive offices in the historic Willard Hotel, six blocks from the White House. September was a good weather month along the Eastern seaboard, so was retained for the festival during the Truman years. The heat and humidity would break, and it was a tolerable time to be outdoors enjoying the last gasps of summer.

The race was run in the Georgetown Channel of the Potomac River, just off Hains Point, with the pits in the Navy Yard across the Anacostia River. From a spectator standpoint, it was ideal. Abundant parking could be had on Hains Point by filling the two-lane parkway with bumper-to-bumper cars. But, of course, no one could leave until the after the last heat of the day. Viewing on the Virginia side was also available.

President Harry S Truman, the man who succeeded wartime leader Franklin D. Roosevelt, was an American hero in terms of his folksiness, his straightforward talk, and his ability to make decisions under tremendous pressure.

One concern brought to bear on him was whether or not he should attend the President's Cup events. In the busy postwar years, American foreign policy, domestic problems, and other political trials placed on the President did not allow for much time for him to enjoy his social and leisure activities.

Secret Service protection was also of concern. But Truman was a consummate boat-racing fan. With his genius for political innovation and know-how, he would always make time to be involved in the regatta. He encouraged his staff to be helpful and accessible to the Committee workers.

He actually attended the Sunday heats in 1946, 1947, 1949, and 1951, and in 1947 served on the Honorary Executive Committee of the regatta.

The President's involvement in the regatta is confirmed by information in archival records on the President's Cup at the Harry S Truman Library, Independence, MO. For each year of his administration, Truman was the recipient of requests for participation in the coronation and trophy presentation, preliminary regatta schedules, programs, guest lists, official correspondence, and handwritten or typed staff memos on the subject.

His personal day files include numerous letters from the Regatta Association, Walt Dossin, Edgar Morris, and Mildred Anderson of the boat racing community.

It was a rare year when the regatta queen was not the daughter of a Cabinet official, a major military figure, or a Presidential advisor. Queens during the Truman years:

  1946 -- Edith Drucie Snyder, daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury
1947 -- Marilyn Krug, daughter of the Secretary of the Interior
1948 -- Margery Clifford, daughter of the President's National Security Advisor
1949 -- Jane Tunstal Lingo, socialite
1950 -- No Queen Named
1951 -- Ann Cates, daughter of the Commandant, Marine Corps
1952 -- Suzanne Johnson, daughter of Navy captain Richard H. Phillips, involved with the Korean War effort

The White House ceremony of the formal presentation of the President's Cup was coveted by all the racers. Even during the Korean War, at a time of tremendous crisis for the United States and for the Presidency itself, Truman was able personally to make the presentation of the Cup.

The 1948 winning owner, Jack Schafer Sr., had to delay receipt of the Cup until January 10, 1949, because of a schedule conflict, but luminaries of the sport including Bill Cantrell, Dan Arena, and Danny Foster were escorted promptly to the Oval Office for the ceremonies.

Because of Presidential involvement, the President's Cup was not just a power boat race, but a weekend of national political significance. Any time that the Office of the President is connected with an event or with any kind of activity, it has an importance beyond just "how fast the boats went around the river."

The late 1940s and early 1950s were a time of change, not only for power boats but for the American people. The coming of the Cold War, the Berlin Crisis, the Korean War, the integration of the armed forces, the shortage of housing, urbanization, and the growth in wages and leisure time were all aspects of the turning of the American social scene. The President's Cup changed along with the times.

The President's Cup attracted upwards of 200,000 visitors every year to the National Capital area. The regatta involved all of Greater Washington, D.C.; it was one of the main social events of the year.

Numerous side shows were held along with this festival, including sailing contests. The coronation ball was held either at the Willard or at the nearby Statler. Band leader Guy Lombardo of Freeport, N.Y., accompanied by his Royal Canadians, was frequently one of the featured entertainers. Lombardo cannot be underestimated as a drawing card.

The winner of the 1946 Gold Cup, he was not only a power boat racer but also a star of films and one of the top recording artists and performers of the 1940s. Lombardo's presence lent a vital legitimacy to the sport in the postwar years. He was also a solid second-place finisher in the 1946 regatta.

The President's Cup relates to the sport of Unlimited hydroplane racing, but the regatta is important to APBA racing as a whole. Heats were always run in every Inboard and Outboard class for which participants brought their equipment. Disparity among the classes was almost unknown, as individual owners would trailer several Limited hulls to the race.

Participants of note at the Limited level included Al D'Eath (father of Tom), winner of the 135 cubic inch class in 1947; Bill Muncey of Detroit, with his seven-litre boat My Son, the National Sweepstakes winner in 1950; and Norm Lauterbach of the racing family, driving various Ventnor creations.

Drivers did not compete solely in the Gold Cup Class. Many drove in the Limited classes, also -- and won in multiple classes. Etta, driven by George Sarant, was a poor seventh as a contestant for the 1949 President's Cup, but also competed for the American Speed Boat Classic and won hands down.

When the schedule was met, some sort of race started every 13 minutes. This gave the spectators an opportunity to witness all kinds of action on the water and provided a full day's entertainment. It was an integral form of racing that provided, according to the Washington Post, a very exciting time.

Speeds may have been slow by today's standards, but the competition was evenly matched. Even the "mile-a-minute" fleet in the Gold Cup Class was inching toward the century mark.

With the involvement of the Presidency, the District of Columbia socialites and the Corinthian Yacht Club, and the well-to-do owners such as Arena, Schafer Sr., Bill Stroh, the Dossin brothers, and Horace E. Dodge, power boat racing enjoyed a milieu of wealth and power. National politics and the sport itself came together in an experience of the pursuit of leisure among the rich and famous. The American government wanted to produce the idea of a return to "normalcy" after the war. The regatta filled the bill.

There were years when the Unlimited racing was not very interesting. Other years, fields of over a dozen boats had to be whittled down through elimination heats. The race for the Cup consisted of three 15-mile heats run on a 2.5-mile course. The Potomac River was known for choppy water, tides, and unpredictable winds, but the race had to be called for course conditions only twice in the seven years.

The roughwater boats generally fared better. In 1949 there was only the one day of Gold Cup Class competition, but there were several good heats of Limited racing run on Sunday. In 1951, the U-99 Miss Pepsi proved to be such a dominant hull that she only had four challengers in the featured race. The contests themselves, Limited and Gold Cup Class alike, provided valuable entertainment to a people who needed something to relax them in the postwar period.

Seattle race fans will be disappointed to recall that prior to 1953 no Seattle boat was ever represented at a President's Cup. It was not until Stan Sayres took the U-37 Slo-mo-shun V east in 1953 and swept the event that the Detroit-Seattle rivalry was cemented. However, during the Truman years there was a full-blown Detroit-Atlantic City rivalry, between the step-hulls and experimental hydroplanes coming out of the Detroit builders and the venerated Ventor Boat Works of New Jersey. Such class contests were fully reported in the Washington Post newspapers at the time.

The New York yacht clubs, in two years, made a three-way battle out of the inter-city rivalry, and coverage was extensive in the New York Times as well.

To be sure, there were some strange moments in the seven regattas. In 1948, Dodge was the riding mechanic on his boat, the Sister Syn, which finished sixth in the Saturday heat. However, on Sunday morning the boat was disqualified for a safety equipment violation. Instead of wearing approved head gear, Dodge had worn a football helmet into competition.

In 1949, the veteran Detroit driver Ed Stair elected to test his new ride, the Astraea II, prior to his first heat. Unfortunately for him, there was already a Class F outboard race in progress at the time he elected to enter the course. He was beached by the referee for the rest of the weekend, and disappears into hydroplane racing obscurity.

In 1951, the 10-mile semi-feature American Speed Boat Classic event was won by Gale II of Detroit. Lee Schoenith's first Unlimited victory lacked some lustre, however, because Gale II was the only entrant in the heat.

The 1950 performance of the Miss Pepsi of Detroit was a record-setter, both in competition heat and overall race averages. Miss Pepsi was a dual-Allison Unlimited; not surprisingly, Chuck Thompson blasted the former records away by over ten miles per hour and by one of the greatest percentage increases in the history of the sport. The times would have been even faster had he not missed the buoys in the Saturday heat.

Instead of turning left at the entrance pin, Thompson continued upstream to a Potomac River navigation marker and wheeled around that instead. He added nearly an extra mile to his course. Nonetheless, he recovered to the pass the field prior to the end of lap two.

The President's Cup was the forum where power boat racing and power politics blended together on a national basis. Truman and the thousands of others on the shore watching the "rooster's tails" fly had the opportunity to witness some of the closest competition of the postwar era.

In retrospect, it was a series of regattas that heralded the advent and growth of power boat racing as a sport of national significance. Hydroplanes emerged from the surplus bins of World War Two in order to enter an era of innovation and technological exploration.

"All quiet along the Potomac tonight
No sound save the rush of the river
While soft falls the dew on the shores at Hains Point
The regattas will live on forever."

The President's Cup: 1946 Thru 1952

1946--Heat 1, Foster, 67.771; Heat 2, Foster, 71.181; Heat 3-- Foster, 69.945; Overall--Foster.
1947--Heat 1, Foster, 70.200; Heat 2, Foster, 60.429; Heat 3-- Foster, 60.429; Overall--Foster.
1948--Heat 1, Arena, 70.203; Heat 2, Lynn, 73.971; Heat 3, Arena, 77.856; Overall--Arena.
1949--Heat 1, Cantrell, 78.510; Overall--No Contest.
1950--Heat 1, Thompson, 79.434; Heat 2, Thompson, 88.278; Heat 3, Thompson, 82.191 
(includes competition lap record for 2.5-mile course set in final lap at 95.038 mph. 
Other laps not available); Overall--Thompson.
1951--Heat 1, Thompson, 81.372; Heat 2, Thompson, 77.031; Heat 3, Thompson, 77.430; Overall--Thompson.
1952--Heat 1, Thompson, 84.720; Heat 2, Thompson, 85.416; Heat 3, Thompson, 86.373; Overall--Thompson.

(Reprinted from the UHRA Thunder Letter, Vol. 2 No.100, June 17, 1996)