1931 Harmsworth Trophy (B.I.T.)

Gar Wood and the “Yankee Trick”

by Herbert L. Stone, reprinted from Yachting magazine

This account of what happened on the Detroit River, September 6th and 7th, 1931, during the running of the race for the British International Trophy, better known as the Harmsworth Cup, cannot help being colored by the unsportsmanlike action of the American defender in the second heat, which not only robbed the result of any semblance of a contest, but very nearly resulted in tragedy for the challenger.

In the first heat, run on September 6th, after the justifiable postponement of a day on account of rough water, the spectators (there must have been at least 300,000 of them) were treated to the most thrilling speed boat race ever seen anywhere. For once there were no breakdowns, there were no “alibis.” Thundering around the six laps of the five nautical mile course, the three fastest boats in the world fought it out grimly at speeds never before attained in competition.

They kept nothing back; each driver gave all that he had, and the boats responded as gamely as thoroughbreds, sparing themselves nothing.

On the straightaways the challenger must have been traveling at well over 100 miles per hour. To put her maximum speed at 110 miles on these stretches is probably nearer the mark. Behind her came Miss America IX, running as she had never run before and hanging on to her bigger and more powerful adversary like grim death. On the turns one held his breath as, with speeds only slightly retarded, the three contestants skidded around the buoys, throwing curtains or spray high in the air. At the speeds they were running it seemed as they must go up on the bank before they could get straightened out after making the turn. But skillfully each driver pulled his boat into the clear and, opening the throttle, shot away, at ever increasing speed. It was a race at which the spectators sat dazed at the tremendous burst of speed, and awed by the chances the pilots were taking.

In Miss England II, America was facing her greatest threat since the cup was brought here in 1920. She had already hung up a record of 110.223 m.p.h., made this spring, some eight miles better than the best record of Miss America IX, 102.256. She is a bigger boat than the defender, being 38½ feet in length by 10½ feet beam, and is driven by two Rolls-Royce engines developing some 4000 h.p.

She is thus nearly 10 feet longer than either of her competitors, and of at least a third more power. Miss America IX's two supercharged Packards develop nearly 3000 h,p. It was conceded, therefore, that Miss England II had the speed, but it was thought she would have difficulty making the turns on the Detroit course, and it was here that Wood, with his three entries (he actually started only Miss America IX and Miss America VIII) hoped to gain the advantage. So all eyes of the immense throng that lined both banks of the course were focused on the lower turn as the three contestants jumped away at the bark of the gun at 5:30 on that memorable Sunday.

There was considerable maneuvering before the start, but as they finally headed for the line, and opened up. it was seen that Kaye Don had put his boat in the center of the course, between his two opponents. Miss England II, at top speed, hit the line first, followed closely by Miss America IX, and shot away as if fired from a gun.

Before the first turn was reached she had a lead of perhaps 100 yards, and here Don slowed for the turn, taking it wide, but skidding around nicely, still with a slight lead. Wood hugged the buoys more closely, and was inside the broken water of the challenger’s wake. On the straightaway, Don increased his lead, but lost ground again on the upper turn. As they tore past the judges stand at the end of the first lap, the clocks showed that the challenger had done better than 90 m.p.h.

The second lap saw even wilder speeds. Wood was fighting hard, but the challenger held her lead and never for a moment slackened pace. She led Miss America IX by some quarter of a mile at the end of the lap, which she negotiated at the amazing speed of 93.017 m.p.h. In her game struggle to keep up, Miss America IX had bettered all her previous race records by some 10 miles, doing the five nautical miles at the rate of 89.287. This was racing!

On the third and fourth laps Kaye Don held Miss England to her tremendous speed until he had a lead of some half mile or more, when he cased down a trifle, playing it safe to hold his lead. Miss America IX was also showing the strain and her speed slackened a bit, especially on the last lap, which George Wood, “Gar’s” brother, for once being under no restraint to “pull” his craft, was making even better speed than in the early laps and was pushing Miss America IX closely.

As the three boats tore down the homestretch it was seen that Miss England had a lead of nearly a mile on the IX, and, as she flashed past the judges’ stand and got the winner’s gun. she received a great ovation from the spectators. They had at last seen a race - one that they could never forget - and when the time was announced, showing Miss England II to have averaged almost 90 miles per hour (89.913 to be exact) for the course, they cheered her again. Miss America IX had fought so gamely that her time was 87.039 mph for the course, and Miss America VIII hung up figures of 85.861. All three had broken the existing record for competition by nearly 10 miles per hour.

So far, so good. All three boats had finished the fastest heat ever run upon the water, and the challenger had proved herself the fastest. The veteran Wood had given his best, and if he had gone down to defeat the second day it would have been with colors flying and in the knowledge that he had only been beaten by the fastest boat yet produced by man. Defeat would have been more honorable than victory, as it was finally achieved.

Unfortunately, the terms of the Harmsworth Trophy allow each country to be represented by a team of three boats. When these terms were drawn it did not seem within the bounds of possibility that all the boats of one team would be owned by the same person. But in this case both the American boats were the property of Gar Wood. The American defender was thus able to employ tactics that he could not have used if he had been racing on even terms with the challenger.

At the start of the second heat on Monday, Wood had both of his boats at the line. Driving Miss America IX, Wood shot his boat over the line, with throttle wide open, far enough ahead of the gun to get himself disqualified, with the intention, as reported by the race officials, of enticing Miss England II over also, and getting her disqualified., leaving Miss America VIII. driven by George Wood, to cross properly and take the race without opposition. Unfortunately, Kaye Don fell for the trick. In his endeavor not to let his opponent get too far ahead, Don roared across the line in Gar Wood’s wake, just two seconds too soon to keep from being disqualified. Trying to get the lead, at all hazards, before the first turn was reached, he fell into the trap. Also, he failed catch his opponent in the scant mile to the turn, and had to take Miss America’s wash on the sharpest turn of the course. He got around all right, swinging outside of Miss America ’s wash until he came to the last of the three buoys, where he cut across the broken water into the straightaway. Here Miss England skidded, wobbled, straightened out for a fraction of a second, and then rolled over and sank, throwing all three of her crew into the water, and tearing the top of the stem out of her as the water hit it. Luckily, help was at hand and all three men were rescued without serious injury, although one of them had to be taken to the hospital.

With Miss England and Miss America IX both disqualified, Miss America VIII, starting leisurely and loafing over the course at mnabout speed, took the heat. This enabled her, on the following day, to go over three laps of the course without a competitor, be declared the winner by virtue of which the trophy stays here. It was a victory in which there can be no honor, and which was won by a sharp practice that violates all ethics of sportsmanship. It was achieved by a trick that was only possible under those conditions which allowed one competitor with two boats to “team up” against his adversary with one.

Gar Wood is quoted in the press, and by officials, as saying that he “outsmarted” Kaye Don by a “Yankee Trick.” This he has since denied in a belated and lengthy statement, which, to anyone who was on the judges’ stand at Detroit that memorable day, fails to carry conviction. American sportsmanship has thus been given a “wallop” from which it will take a long time to recover.

In some quarters there is a tendency to blame Kaye Don for falling for such a trick. It is said that he was warned of it beforehand.

Whether or not this is so, it must be remembered that he lacked the experience of the older driver, that he was intent on not letting Miss America IX get too far away from him, and that he may have felt his own timing was at fault. The gun cannot be heard in the roar of the exhausts, and the driver’s eyes are on the course and on his competitors rather than on the starting flag. Without previous experience with such shoddy practices, he fell an easy victim to the “trick.”

[Reprinted from Thunderboat, June 2010]