Howard "Whitey" Hughes

Howard Hughes and "Dukie" Remembered

The Howard Hughes of boat racing was not the well-known reclusive billionaire industrialist.

The boat racer Hughes campaigned a series of Unlimited hydroplanes named Dukie in the late 1940s. He was known to his friends as "Whitey." I interviewed Mr. Hughes in 1972.

"Whitey" and his brother Tom operated Hughes Bros. Machinists in Detroit. A lot of local race boats had work done on them at the Hughes plant in the 1940s and '50s. These included Miss Pepsi, My Sweetie, Lion Bar Special, Miss Kay, and others.

Howard Hughes was one of the founders of the old Detroit River Racing Association, a group affectionately known as the "River Rats." The DRRA, which became the Windmill Pointe Yacht Club in 1953, sponsored the Ford Memorial Regatta (also known as the Detroit Memorial Regatta) from 1947 to 1961.

Hughes quietly invested a lot of his own personal capital in the regatta, which greatly helped Unlimited racing in Detroit get off to a solvent start in the years following World War II.

"Whitey" and Tom campaigned three different Dukie hulls, although the third craft was never entered in competition. The name Dukie was taken from the nickname of "Whitey's" daughter Lilian.

The Dukie boats were basically home-built step hydroplanes that used Hispano-Suiza and Miller engines for power. The first Dukie had previously raced as Warnie on the pre-war 725 Cubic Inch Class circuit. With "Whitey" at the wheel, the initial Dukie won the first two heats of the 1947 Ford Memorial, defeating National Champions Danny Foster and Miss Peps V, before breaking a drive shaft in the finale.

The first Dukie was one of the first Unlimiteds with a commercial sponsor. As Pepsi Cola III, she finished third in the 1946 President's Cup at Washington, D.C., with Bill Stroh as driver.

The second Dukie was not nearly as competitive as her predecessor. Her best showing was a fifth-place in the 1949 Silver Cup at Detroit.

Mr. Hughes had many friends in racing. Two of his closest comrades were Chuck Thompson of Miss Pepsi fame and George Davis, owner of It's A Wonder. In fact, "Whitey" and George were among the last to converse with Chuck before his 1966 fatality at Detroit with Smirnoff. Just prior to stepping into the boat, Thompson had a long talk in the motorhome with his two old friends.

"Whitey" Hughes had been a fan of power boat racing since the 1930s. He continued to follow the sport long after his retirement from competition. He would frequently visit the Horace Dodge Pits in Detroit, often accompanied by his grandson Patrick Farrar.

Howard "Whitey" Hughes passed away in 1986 at age 77.