1800 Horses Ahead [Betty V, 1948]

With the horsepower of a Gold Cup unlimited in front of you for the first time — there comes a boating sensation unequalled on water. Here a noted racing driver and official tells, in his own words, how it feels.

The small crowd gathered at Smith's Lake George boatyard that day in 1948, there was little change in the outward appearance of the famous Betty V. She seemed the same old girl that had made such an enviable reputation back in 1934, 1935 and 1936, when Mel Crook piloted her to consecutive wins in the National Sweepstakes and other major regattas.

But what was not obvious to that group along the shore was the fact that with the exception of the sides and super structure, the hull was completely new, a redesigned bottom had been installed, and her sturdy 600 horsepower Packard V-12 we had replaced with an Allison aircraft engine with a potential of 1800 horsepower.

We were more than nervous and apprehensive about what would happen when this big 12 cylinder supercharged powerplant fired up. This was the sleek monster which had pushed P-40 Warhawks and P-51 Mustangs through the high skies of combat during World War II. The time had come when it .was necessary for us to attempt the starting procedure. ,

The Betty was set up to have a driver and riding mechanic; it was to be my assignment to hit the proper switches, energize the starter, flip on the ignition booster, and engage at the proper moment. All of the dry runs on these procedures had made the sequence seem very familiar, but with the boat in the water and ready to run, we looked out with a new emotion at the 1800 horses just ahead of our laps, ready to surge into power.

All was now set. Mel at the wheel nodded to fire it up for our first ride and I flipped the magneto switch to "Both". Fuel pump on, sufficient pressure surged to indicate on the dial. Primer actuated, the starter began to wind up for the 10 seconds required to get it whining to its peak. Booster coil buzzing, I engaged the starter, and with a metallic cough that became a screech the big engine began to turn over for an eternity that must have actually been a moment or two. Then it caught with an ear shattering roar, backfired through the super charger ripping open the aluminum air scoop as if it were tissue paper, then promptly died. Undaunted, we made a second attempt to get it going. Again it started up; again we got back-firing through the super charger and carburetor. A fast conference on possible causes resulted in a change of carburetors.

We checked everything again for at least the 90th time, fired up, and now, after a flaming belch out of the exhaust stacks the engine caught and settled into a smooth roar. We swung out from the pit, and with the Allison thundering out horsepower, Betty was up on plane in an instant. Before we had time to fully realize it we were clipping over the waters of Lake George; a glance at our speed gage showed 80 miles an hour.

All of the instruments on the dashboard indicated so far that the installation which we had worked out so carefully was on the nose—even the gear box that Mel and I had fabricated out of the nose section reduction gear of a Bell P-39 Aircobra aircraft was functioning perfectly. This first run began to be full repayment for the two years of untold hours of work rejuvenating the Betty. Every new piece had been personally made by either Mel or myself.

But this was different indeed from the many first-trial runs I had made over the past twenty-five years in my own racing outboards and inboards. There had been times during those years when my stomach had butterflies and my heart was full of apprehension; but those rides paled into insignificance compared to this.

Up to one hundred miles an hour the boat rode perfectly, but then when the fabled century mark was passed she began to develop a gradual leap and sinking back as if she were trying, at each surge, to tear us airborne up and away from the surface of the lake. The porpoising action became more pronounced with each additional mile an hour of speed.

Now we were ready to put some time on the Betty V and test her potential speed. After a few hours of running, checking the handling characteristics of the repowered and redesigned hull, we felt that we could go out and mash down on the throttle for a brief spell.

By this time the starting procedure had become almost mechanical. And yet as the big engine started and the exhaust barked out of the twenty four exhaust stacks, that new thrill was there. When the engine was fully warmed up and all the instruments checked, Mel steered down to the north end of Northwest Bay and put the Betty into a long sweeping turn, bringing us in the lee of Tongue Mountain where the water was smooth. Here was the final test that would show us whether we had a possible contender or whether we had nothing to show for our labor of love. Running parallel to the shore line, Mel began mashing down on the throttle. The tachometer needle climbed up toward three thousand revolutions per minute, and the manifold pressure gage moved up past fifty-five inches of ramming boost. The shore line blurred as our speed clocked up. Unfortunately we had not yet installed the windshields, and as we got into the hundred mile an hour bracket our breath was literally blown away. Both the tach needle and the manifold pressure crept higher and we were really on our way.

Mel had the throttle to the floor and the Allison was singing a beautiful song of horsepower. The Hi Johnson propeller was turning 8100 rpm, and the hull, while fully stable laterally, was becoming a wild thing in its increasing leaps. On one, with the speed close to one hundred and forty miles an hour, Mel was bounced up out of his bucket seat. With my left hand I made a grab for him and got him. My right hand was firmly anchored to a handle placed on the stringer, all that kept me in the boat, and I am sure that during the ride my fingerprints were etched indelibly on the bronze handle. When Mel went up, his foot was pulled off the throttle and we began to slow down somewhat, though our speed had been still building during that last long leap. What would have resulted if we had kept on accelerating no one knows, but it would be a safe bet that no hull could long stand the punishment the Betty was being given at that speed.

Back down around one hundred mph the old girl settled to a truly lady-like performance and our ride back to the boat house was a joy, but we were two shaken characters when we stepped out of the boat. All I could think of was the feeling of exhilaration I had when we were out on the water; at the time, the disaster of a spill or flip at that speed never entered my mind.

In the post mortems which followed we came to several conclusions, and plans were made for some modifications of the bottom. However, we both were convinced that the old adage that "horsepower alone can not set records or win races" was indeed true.

Races which Betty entered were most gratifying, even though no records were set or major trophies won. But from her I first learned the special lessons, plus the thrills and proper respect for high speed on the water.

— Lou Eppel

(Reprinted from Yachting, August 1957)