The Joe Schoenith Story
The Unlimited hydroplane sport has witnessed the rise to prominence of many racing dynasties. These include Joe Schoenith’s Gale Enterprises team from Detroit, Michigan.
Between 1950 and 1975, the Schoenith boats made their presence felt in “Water Racing’s Greatest Show.” During 26 seasons of participation, they won 27 races and four National Championships.
Joseph A. Schoenith made his fortune in the 1930s and ‘40s with W.D. Gale, Inc., a Detroit-based electrical contracting firm that Schoenith purchased in the 1940s. Joe promised Mr. Gale, the company’s founder, that he would never change the corporate name.
The Gale company’s trademark, “Millie Volt”, was inspired by Joe’s wife, Millie Schoenith. The trademark often appeared on the tailfins of the family’s race boats.
In the late 1940s, family friend Jack Schafer, Sr., generated a lot of publicity for his Detroit-based bakery firm through participation in Unlimited racing with a series of boats named Such Crust. Jack suggested that Joe do likewise.
As a trial balloon, Schoenith bought the vintage Miss Frostie and renamed it Gale. Joe’s 20-year-old son, Lee Schoenith, did most of the driving. Gale was an obsolete step hydroplane that won no races but served as the family’s introduction to the sport.
A new state-of-the-art Gale II, designed by Dan Arena and patterned after the world record-holding Slo-mo-shun IV, was introduced in 1951. The Schoeniths now had a competitive rig against the likes of Slo-mo, Miss Pepsi, Such Crust, and Hornet.
When Lee was called away for military service in Korea during 1952, Joe hired the top driver of that era – Danny Foster – to substitute for Lee in the Gale II’s cockpit. No one was happier than Lee to receive a long-distance telephone call from his father, telling him of Foster’s triumph in the 1952 Silver Cup on the Detroit River. The Schoenith team now had a major victory to their credit. It would not be their last.
The years 1953, 1954, and 1955 represented the Gale boats’ first golden era. They won the National High Point Championship three years running--the first with Gale II and the others with Gale V--with Lee Schoenith driving. Moreover, “Wild Bill” Cantrell joined the team as pilot of Gale IV, which won the 1954 President’s Cup and Indiana Governor’s Cup contests and the 1955 Detroit Memorial Regatta.
The day that will remain evergreen in the memory of the Gale racing team is August 7, 1955. That’s when Lee Schoenith and Gale V won the sport’s Crown Jewel--the APBA Gold Cup--without winning a single heat. This entitled them to defend the Gold Cup on home waters in Detroit in 1956.
The circumstances surrounding the 1955 Gold Cup victory are well known. Gale V had finished second, second, and third in the heat races for a total of 825 points, while the Seattle-based Miss Thriftway and driver Bill Muncey had run third, first, and first for a total of 1025 points. Because Muncey had won two heats out of three, most people assumed that Miss Thriftway was the winner of the race. But Joe Schoenith wasn’t convinced.
The Gold Cup scoring system at the time awarded 400 Bonus Points to the boat with the fastest overall average speed for all three heats. Joe had been keeping track of the times with a hand-held stopwatch. According to Joe’s figuring, Gale V had covered the 3-heat/90-mile distance a few seconds faster than Miss Thriftway.
Joe Schoenith confronted the APBA officials: "I believe we've won this race!" The chief scorer stopped him at the door. "Things may work out all right for you, Mr. Schoenith," he said, "but we're still recalculating and we'll let you know."
Three hours later, the Cup arrived at Schoenith's hotel room. The 5-year monopoly of the Gold Cup by the Seattle Yacht Club was over.
Gale V had indeed run a faster race than Miss Thriftway--4.536 seconds faster to be exact. This entitled Joe’s boat to the 400 fastest race Bonus Points, which increased Gale V’s total to 1225.
The announcement declaring a Detroit boat as the winner and the Seattle hydroplane fleet as the loser generated something akin to a cultural shockwave around the Pacific Northwest. Seattleites had come to regard the Gold Cup as their own.
The Schoeniths would win another Gold Cup (in 1972) and many other races in the years ahead. But for sheer emotion, nothing would top the triumph of August 7, 1955.
Although well into middle age, Joe Schoenith was a vigorous man who enjoyed life. He loved to water ski. His business empire now included the elegant Roostertail night club and restaurant located on the upper turn of the Detroit River race course, overlooking Belle Isle and the Detroit Yacht Club. Joe was a co-founder of the Spirit of Detroit Association, which kept the tradition of Unlimited racing in Detroit alive when both the DYC and the Windmill Pointe Yacht Club bowed out of the sport after 1961 over the issue of prize money.
In 1955, Schoenith helped his old friend Jack Schafer, who had gone bankrupt, get back on his feet financially. Joe and Miss U.S. owner George Simon bought Schafer’s Such Crust III at auction and then sold it back to Jack for one dollar.
Joe wasn’t afraid to try something new, although most of his experiments proved wanting. He spent a lot of money on Gale III, an experimental craft with an unusual gearbox arrangement, but never entered it in competition. Schoenith also ordered the first non-propeller-driven jet hydroplane in America from builder Les Staudacher. But this too failed to live up to expectation.
In 1957, Joe made his debut as an Unlimited hydroplane driver by qualifying the previously retired Gale III for the Detroit Memorial, although he didn’t drive in the race. This accomplishment, however, would come back to haunt him a few years later.
The IRS started cracking down on the Unlimited owners and questioned the sport’s status as a legitimate business expense. The IRS ruled that Joe’s performance with Gale III had more to do with indulging in a hobby than it did with promoting W.D. Gale, Inc. Joe ended up having to pay a huge 6-digit figure in back taxes.
As time went by, Joe left much of the day-to-day operation of the team to Lee. But there was never any question as to who was “the Boss.”
The 1967 season in particular is one that is best forgotten. The Schoenith team simply did not have its act together. When both of their boats--the Smirnoff and the Gale’s Roostertail--failed miserably to qualify at the APBA Gold Cup in Seattle, Joe angrily ordered the team back to Detroit. He withdrew the boats from competition to better prepare for 1968.
In truth, since the National Championship year of 1955, the Schoenith boats had been only sporadically competitive. They had spent too much time trying to get results with a twin-Allison-powered concept in the Gale VI that went nowhere. An attempt to re-introduce a step hydroplane into the Unlimited Class had likewise failed.
Between 1962 and 1967, the team had scored only one victory. And Smirnoff pilot Chuck Thompson had been fatally injured at the 1966 Gold Cup in Detroit. Drastic changes were needed to turn things around.
The first step was to hire quality personnel. These included the likes of Dean Chenoweth and Jim Lucero in 1968, Jim Kerth in 1969, and Bill Muncey in 1970. The team also changed, in 1968, from Allison to Rolls-Royce Merlin power.
On the Ohio River at Madison in 1969, Chenoweth steered the Schoenith-owned Myr’s Special to first-place in the Indiana Governor’s Cup. This was the team’s first victory in five years and the start of the Schoenith family’s second golden era in Unlimited racing.
Between 1969 and 1972, under the sponsorship of Arthur B. Myr Sheet Metal and Atlas Van lines, Inc., the Schoenith boats won thirteen races and the 1972 National High Point Championship. The 1972 season in particular was a standout with six victories in seven races with Muncey as driver. In 1972, they broke only one engine all year and--even then--were able to finish the heat in second-place.
After 23 years in the sport, Joe and Lee Schoenith were at the top of their game and at the very top of the racing world.
The future looked bright indeed. But all good things must come to an end. And the end came in 1975 when Joe Schoenith decided to call it a career. The team had gone through three difficult seasons without a victory. The opposition has caught up with them. Dave Heerensperger’s Pay ‘N Pak and Bernie Little’s Miss Budweiser now ruled the Unlimited roost.
Moreover, the Gale industries were experiencing hard times financially. And Joe worried about his son Lee’s declining health. (Lee had collapsed in the pit area at each of the Washington, D.C., Owensboro, and Detroit races in 1975 and had to be hauled away to the hospital each time in an ambulance.)
Joe finally had to forcibly remove Lee as corporate officer and replace him with Lee’s younger brother, Tom Schoenith. The racing team was shut down shortly thereafter.
Very few teams have demonstrated the longevity of the Schoenith family in Unlimited racing. For 26 consecutive seasons, they stood the test of time.
Although retired from competition, Joe retained a keen interest in the sport. When his son Jerry Schoenith announced the formation of his own Miss Renault racing team in 1983, Joe attended the press conference, beaming with pride.
Joe and Millie Schoenith eventually retired to Florida. They both outlived their son Lee, who died on August 20, 1993, at the age of 64.
A quiet unassuming man, unlike his flamboyant sons, Joe passed away on October 9, 1996, at the age of 95 after a full and rewarding life.
NOTE: The author is indebted to Steve Garey of the Unlimited Historical Committee who contributed to this article.