Anything Goes In the Gold Cup [1957]

Some guys will try anything, even chopping along at a wild 170 mph, to grab hold of this 80-pound cup

By Emmett Watson

For more than 50 years, a squat, homely-looking, 80-pound mug of metal known as the "Gold Cup" has been the Holy Grail to men who worship speed on water. The Gold Cup is a perpetual trophy awarded by the American Powerboat Association for victory in its annual 90-mile challenge race — a heavyweight aquatic match involving ugly, snub-nosed and super-powered hydroplanes that torpedo along the surface at breath-stopping speeds of 160 miles an hour and more.

The Gold Cup is a fascinating symbol to the relatively few men who have dedicated their lives to winning it. In recent years, two obscure, hopeful men died in the pursuit of it. Others, like wealthy and famous Lou Fageol, and Joe Taggart, a middle-aged retired businessman, will live out their lives in debt to a few brief, borrowed seconds of incredible luck that kept them alive. Colorful "Wild Bill" Cantrell, a phrase-making Dizzy Dean of the hydro pits, still carries the scars of horrible burns suffered in pursuit of the Gold Cup. So does Danny Foster, a celebrated name among hydroplaners. Guy Lombardo, who is sort of a one-man General Motors of the musical word, quit driving only recently-to the vast relief of a long line of people who depend on his existence for a livelihood.

Other famous personalities, like Horace Dodge, the automobile man, and Gar Wood, whose name calls up an instant image of speed, have won and lost the Gold Cup. In recent years — make it the last three — talented, hopeful young designers and mechanics have taken to building hydroplanes in their basements and backyards. "Little Corporations" of a few working guys have banded together to buy or build machines costing $25,000 to $40,000. They, too, have caught the Gold Cup fever.

A Texas oil and cattle man, William T. Waggoner (rated by Dun & Bradstreet at $200 million), also got the hydroplane fever. He cashed in his first year, 1956, by winning the ancient international Harmsworth Trophy. And still another chap, Detroit bakery man Jack Schafer, has gamely poured his limited wealth into the sport for 20 years. He has owned five boats. He hasn't won the Gold Cup yet.

Why? Well, ask Jack Schafer why he keeps trying, and he pushes his yachting cap back on his head, fixes you with a friendly grin, and replies, "At my age I can't be a high-jumper and I don't have the hay to own the Detroit Tigers. But in the boat sport — hell, I can exercise some of my own design ideas and play my own game of trial and error."

For six of the past seven summers, the Gold Cup has been contested on Seattle's Lake Washington over an oval-shaped course varying from three to three and three-quarter miles long. The setting is beautiful beyond description. The Gold Cup course is bordered on the west by high hills and a lovely shoreline, beautiful homes and front lawns. On the north it is bordered by Lake Washington's famed floating bridge, and on the west and south by a miles-long log boom, anchoring more than a thousand yachts and cruisers.

This log-boom has sometimes been called "the longest cocktail bar in the world." This year, as always, some 300,000 to 500,000 people (estimates vary) gather on and about and above the flat blue waters of the lake-the largest crowd to watch a single sporting event in the world. Seattle has been taken by something called hydro-mania.

Not everyone likes the Gold Cup, of course. Jack Hurley, a prizefight manager who lives in Seattle, turns slightly sick when the race is mentioned. "All those free customers," he moans. "If I could put a box office on this mob, I'd feed the IBC to the pigeons."

Hurley has a short description of the race itself: "Here they come — splllt! — there they go!" The word "splllt" is obtained by sticking your tongue out, closing your lips and blowing hard. Try it sometime.

But make no mistake about this: Hydroplane racing is a fiercely competitive sport. It has spawned cold, lasting hatreds among owners, drivers and designers. There have been disgusting displays of poor sportsmanship, petty jealousies and mean politicking at high levels to gain an edge. Gold Cup rhubarbs have wound up in blaring headlines and serious litigation.

Fortunately, not everything about the race is grim. In 1954, to take an example, Dr. and Mrs. F. A. Black of Seattle were giving a quiet lawn party at their home fronting on the Gold Cup course. The day was bright and sunny. At the precise moment, perhaps, when Dr. Black was mixing his guests another gin-and-tonic, the steering rudder jammed on Gale IV, a two-ton monster owned by Joe Schoenith, Detroit electrical contractor. Helpless at the helm was Mr. "Wild Bill" Cantrell, hurtling out of the north turn at 100-plus miles an hour — straight for Dr. Black's lawn party. It is no exaggeration to say that this kind of thing can be very upsetting to your guests.

Gale IV hit the beach, shot up in the air and came down smack in the middle of Dr. Black's rose garden. Cantrell unbuckled himself from his cockpit, climbed out of the boat, and surveyed his position morosely. "Well, this is the first damn time I ever walked away from a boat race," he growled at the stunned guests. For much of its 53-year existence, the Gold Cup race was kind of a floating crap game, because of a unique provision in the rule which provides that the winner can decide where he will defend his title. The first Gold Cup competition in 1904 involved a long, 59-foot winner called Standard, which beat two other boats on the Hudson River at the eye-popping speed of 23.6 mph. In subsequent stages of our half-century, the race moved from New York to the St. Lawrence River, to Lake George; to the Mississippi, to the Detroit River. Total average times increased, fell back, then increased some more until 1946, when Lombardo's Tempo VI won the race at 70.8 mph.

Traditionally, the 90-mile Gold Cup race is run in three heats of 30 miles each. Through the post-war years of 1946 to 1950, and even before that, Detroit owners and designers had a virtual monopoly on the Cup. Miss Peps, Miss Great Lakes and My Sweetie were the speed giants of the time. The top boats of those days were long, flat-sided and narrow, and they rode "through" the water. Then one man changed all that.

He was Ted Jones, a tall, handsome Welshman, born and bred in Seattle, and for years an obscure Boeing Airplane Co. mechanic. Years ago, Jones conceived the revolutionary design which since has been copied by virtually every Gold Cup contender of the past seven years. But to put his design into operation, Jones needed two things — time to work and money to build. He got them, both in the person of Stanley St. Clair Sayres, a wealthy Seattle automobile dealer, whom he met in the early Forties. Unfortunately, the two men had only one thing in common — a driving desire, some inner compulsion, to travel faster and ever faster on water. Aside from that, they were born to clash. Jones is a free-thinking individualist, something of a dreamer, and touched by the queer disease known as genius. Sayres, who died last fall, was a strong-willed than, a successful business leader used to giving the commands. Their partnership held together only long enough to create a new, revolutionary era in the sport of hydroplane racing. Then it fell apart.

In the late Forties, Sayres frequently attended the Gold Cup races in the East. Friends who knew him at the time say he would return home, nervous, brooding and preoccupied; then he would describe the boats and the race intensely, remembering every slight detail. Together; Jones and Sayres built the Slo-Mo-Shun III, "as a proving ground." For years, Jones had dreamed of a design that would minimize the friction of a boat going "through" the water. He wanted his boat out of the water, to skim over the surface, riding on only a few square inches of surface; he wanted what is now called "a prop rider."

In earlier experiments of his own, Jones had tried adding "bustles," or out-riggers, to provide stability on the turns. In Slo-Mo III, he brought the bustles in and incorporated them as part of the hull. But there was too much air under the boat and she had a tendency to pull over backward.

Jones and Sayres scrapped Slo-Mo III and went to Detroit in 1948 to watch the Gold Cup. After the race, Jones, Sayres and Anchor Jensen, a Seattle boat builder, went to their room in the Hotel Statler and began talking about the race. Miss Great Lakes had won the cup at an average speed of 57.452 mph. "Hell, we can beat that," Sayres said. The threesome sat up all night talking, drawing, and laying out the basic design for Slo-Mo IV. They completed her in October, 1949. , She was a relatively light boat for those days, 4,400 pounds, compared to the 6,000 to 9,000 pounds for the current competition.

In appearance, Slo-Mo IV looked like an Indian arrowhead, cut off an inch from the tip. She was flat and triangular. A 1,500-horsepower Allison engine was moved forward in her hull, and at high speeds she rode on only two tiny sponsons and her propeller.

In one dramatic morning, the whole sport of hydroplaning reached its turning point. On June 26, 1950, Stan Sayres put on a crash helmet and called for the clockers. Lashing a white, 30-foot high spray of "roostertail" behind, Slo-Mo IV bellowed down Lake Washington at a straightaway speed of 160.323 mph. Sayres shattered the old mark of 141.7, set by Sir Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird, a record that had gone unchallenged since 1938.

This was the beginning of a loud, dramatic, two-city rivalry between Detroit and Seattle for Gold Cup supremacy. Less than a month after his record speed run, Sayres took Slo-Mo IV to Detroit. With Ted Jones driving, she spread the field, lapped one of Detroit's star contenders, set a new heat record (80.892 mph) and took the race itself in record time 78.216. A short time later, Slo-Mo IV won the Harmsworth Trophy.

Would Sayres defend the Gold Cup? He would — in Seattle. At that time, Seattle was beginning an ambitious summer "Seafair" program, a sort of water-conscious Mardi Gras, designed to lure the tourist trade. So in 1951 the Gold Cup race became the focal point, the keystone attraction, of the whole Seafair program. Any threat by eastern boats to take the Gold Cup back to the Detroit River became a matter of civic nervousness and economic concern to the city of Seattle.

Slo-Mo IV, soon to be christened "The Old Lady" by adoring Northwest racing fans, proved a stern Queen Victoria of the Gold Cup. She set the style for an era; she ruled her subjects with a maternal despotism, beating them back, whipping them into line. With her sister ship, Slo-Mo V, built in 1951, Stan Sayres successfully defeated the Detroit challengers for four straight years. A grateful Seattle named Sayres its "Man of the Year" in sports. It carried on fund drives, which averaged perhaps $30,000 a year, to help him improve and maintain his two boats. The annual Gold Cup race on Lake Washington, lacking only a local tradition, dwarfed such ancient spectacles as the Indianapolis "500" and the Kentucky Derby in sheer size and beauty.

Now, it is pointing out a rather obvious thing to say that Jones is not a hard name to spell. Used properly, it fits easily into a headline. But after 1951, the name Jones began to be read less and less in Seattle newspapers. Slo-Mo IV and Slo-Mo V were being driven by Lou Fageol and Joe Taggart, and Jones, the architect of modern hydroplane racing was just another guy named Jones. For reasons mainly personal, partly financial, he had broken with Sayres; he had become the Gold Cup's forgotten man.

"Sayres saw to that," he said bitterly.

During the years 1951 through 1954, Ted Jones made his quiet contribution to hydroplane racing. He helped improve and redesign such Detroit boats as Jack Schafer's Such Crust III and V, and Joe Schoenith's Gale IV and Gale V. All of them followed the Slo-Mo pattern. He designed a new boat for J. Philip Murphy, a California contractor, a boat aptly called Breathless. Guy Lombardo's Tempo VII, Henry J. Kaiser's Scooter Too, Edgar Kaiser's Hawaii Kai III, and several more all of them bore the distinctive stamp of Ted Jones.

Then, abruptly, Jones came back. In 1954, he met a lanky, drawling southerner named Kirn Armistead, who suggested they form a partnership and build a boat of their own. "I got tired of listening," Jones said, "and he said he had a rich aunt."

Jones went back to Detroit and the boatyard of an old friend, Les Staudacher, where he designed and built his new boat, the Rebel Suh. And almost immediately he met Willard Rhodes, a chunky, likeable chainstore grocery operator, who had contracted Gold Cup fever. So Jones designed still another new hydroplane for Rhodes called Miss Thriftway.

As Lou Fageol piloted Slo-Mo V to victory on Lake Washington in 1954, one of the thousand yachts anchored on the three-mile log boom was the Blue Peter, owned by Horace W. McCurdy, prominent Seattle contractor. McCurdy's enchanted guests, thrilled by the beauty of the scene, the great crowds, the bellowing speed and high-lashing roostertails, included one William Waggoner, of a famous old Texas oil and cattle family. A few months later, McCurdy got a long-distance call from Waggoner's winter home in Phoenix. "I've been bit," he announced. "How do I get one of those boats?"

McCurdy laughed. "I'll tell you, on one condition," he said. "If you ever win the Gold Cup, you've got to keep the race on Lake Washington." Waggoner agreed. "All right," McCurdy said, "there's only one man can design you a boat. Get in touch with Ted Jones when you're ready." In a matter of weeks, Jones was sitting across a desk from 200 million dollars, represented by that rarity among the American species — a shy Texan.

"We talked for a few minutes," Jones said, "and all of a sudden I was staring at a $10,000 check. The conversation turned social after that."

Eventually, Waggoner bought Rebel Suh from Jones and Armistead and rechristened her Maverick. His new boat, the Shanty I, was Waggoner's pet nickname for his pretty wife. Meanwhile, Bill Boeing, Jr., son of the Seattle airplane company founder, had got into hydroplane racing with Miss Wahoo, another Jones-designed hull. Only recently, during the sad revelations of the Dave Beck hearings, it was suggested facetiously that Jones might design another, newer hydroplane for the Teamsters Union. It would be christened Miss Appropriation.

Anything goes in the Gold Cup and it goes very fast. Speeds of 170 miles an hour are frequent, speeds of 150 are common, and the three-lap qualifying time alone for this year's race on Lake Washington was raised from 85 mph to 95 in order to weed out the jalopies and narrow the field to a safe number. In the interests of safety, the field for any single heat is limited to six boats.

Arguments rage over a somewhat academic point — whether or not a flying hydroplane actually is airborne. Pictures have been taken, purporting to show the clearance between boat and water, "proving" that the hydros actually fly.

In 1955 there occurred a tragic episode which proves that a modern hydroplane has, at least, reached the stage of becoming airborne. Lou Fageol, wealthy Kent, O., industrialist, who twice won the Gold Cup as a driver, was piloting Slo-Mo V in her qualifying run. Coming south to north, on the west [east —LF] side of the course, Fageol had the Rolls-Royce-powered craft up to 170 mph when abruptly her rudder was sheered off by a submerged object. Slo-Mo V nosed up, her flat bottom took air, and she literally took off some 60 feet in the air, turned completely over and landed in the water right-side-up.

Fageol's racing career was ended. Thrown clear in mid-air, he landed in the water with killing force and was fortunate to escape with a punctured lung, internal injuries and a severely damaged back. Sayres later sold the Slo-Mo V hull to a small group of enthusiasts called "Roostertails, Inc." who rebuilt her and now race her under the name of Miss Seattle.

These heavyweight speedsters, constructed with steel and glue and screws and plywood, frequently show the durability of an average soap bubble. They weigh anywhere from 2,800 pounds to 8,000 pounds and average about 30 feet in length. They cost about $25 000 to $40,000 to build, not counting the engines, which run anywhere from $3,500 to $16,000 depending on kind and supply and who is selling.

Most of the boats use the V-12 Allison G-6 airplane engine, and some of them, like Jack Schafer's Such Crust III and Joe Schoenith's Gale VI, are powered by twin engines. It's the opinion of Fageol, an expert on motors, that the Rolls Royce airplane engine is a superior power plant, once mechanics learn to adapt it to marine racing.

The Rolls engine generates about 1,650 horsepower at normal takeoff speed; the Allison about 1,400. Under boat-racing conditions — that is to say, souped-up conditions — the Rolls can deliver about 2,500 horsepower to the Allison's 2,000. The drawbacks to a Rolls engine are its higher cost, lack of knowledge among racing camps of how to install it, and the fact that only a certain series of the Rolls can be adapted — these being in short supply.

Speeds have increased alarmingly since Slo-Mo IV made her smashing debut by winning the Gold Cup at Detroit with an average speed of 80.1 mph. In last year's Seafair Trophy Race, the winner, Waggoner's Shanty 1 toured successive heats at 104.6, 102.7 and finally, at the unheard of speed of 109.9 mph. To attain such averages, a boat must hit well over 150 miles an hour on the straightaway, go into a turn at about 130 and come out of it around the 100 mark, with tremendous acceleration.

It should be clear to anyone by now that these boats do not run on Mercurochrome and asparagus juice. In fact, the various camps have taken to mixing high-test airplane gasoline with nitro methane, picric acid, alcohol and nitro propane in their intense efforts to obtain maximum speeds and acceleration. The net effect is to overload the engines and put a tremendous strain on bearings, gear boxes, shafts, propellers and motor blocks.

"Most of them don't even know what they've concocted," Fageol says. "Let some of that volatile fuel get loose in a boat and you have the danger of a horrible fire or explosion."

Ted Jones agrees. "I don't think any of us know enough about fuels to start playing chemist. You take Tempo VII in 1955. They were using a hot fuel mixture when that thing caught fire. Danny Foster was one lucky driver. The reports said his gas tank came off.

"Came off?" Jones laughed. "That gas cap blew off! Danny is lucky he didn't wind up in pieces on the Lake Washington Bridge."

As a sporting spectacle, the Gold Cup has certain drawbacks and peculiarities. There is the terrible engine attrition, which frequently knocks out the most colorful contenders right at the start; not to mention the everpresent danger that souped-up fuels can, at any time, create some distraught relatives. Another drawback, which puzzles even veteran spectators, is the Gold Cup point system. It is entirely possible — and it happened in 1955, to the anguish of Seattle citizens — for a boat to win a race without ever winning a heat. This is the result of a fairly complex system of "bonus points" that need not be set to music here. But Gale V, a Detroit boat, won the '55 cup by finishing no better than second twice and third once in the three 30-mile heats. So some 300,000 to 400,000 spectators went home under the impression that a Seattle boat, Miss Thriftway, which won two heats, including the last one, was the victor.

The 1955 race, by the way, was conceived in trouble and raced with bitterness. Mel Crook, a respected APBA referee, banned something called the "flying start" — employed effectively by Lou Fageol in Slo-Mo V. Stan Sayres and Seattle Yacht Club members put tremendous pressure on Crook to rescind the ban. Crook finally resigned, to be replaced by a local referee, who promptly okayed the "flying start." The start in question was one in which Fageol, rather than jockeying for position with the other boats, would hide behind the Lake Washington Bridge and come shooting out at the critical time like a runaway torpedo. The other drivers argued that the "flying start" was dangerous and discriminatory. Furthermore, they threatened to boycott the race unless the ban on the "flying start" was re-imposed. The argument became somewhat academic when Fageol flipped over during the qualifying runs and wrecked both himself and his boat. Meanwhile, however, Stan Sayres, an angry man when provoked, dramatically announced that he was through with the sport.

But. it was the Detroit crowd, ending four years of frustration and defeat, which really sizzled Seattle's sides. They won the race by some cool-headed teamwork and clever figuring on the part of George Simon, owner-driver of Miss United States [Miss U.S.], and Jack Schafer. Going into the final heat, Slo-Mo IV and Miss Thriftway, both Seattle boats, were tied with 625 points apiece. Simon figured that Schafer's Such Crust III, if it could block off one of the Seattle boats, might win the race for Gale V on bonus points — 400 of these being awarded for the fastest average time for the full 90-mile race.

Luck was with Detroit. Slo-Mo IV caught fire and went dead in the water. Miss Thriftway, meanwhile, made a terrific final run — won the heat, in fact. But not before Detroit's canny Walter Kade, driving Schafer's Such Crust, turned in some of the best Michigan blocking since Forrest Evashevski was a youth. Blocking Miss Thriftway for part of the heat, Kade slowed driver Bill Muncey's average time down just enough. Enough so that Gale V, which hadn't won a heat, but had performed ably, won 400 bonus points for the fastest total time of the race. She shaded Thriftway by a few points, and Detroit — using Seattle's term — "stole" the Gold Cup back.

Almost before the last cry of local anguish died away, Seattle officials announced a new "Seafair Trophy Race" for the following summer, 1956. This one, run along Gold Cup lines, offered a classy new Seafair Trophy, plus $25,000 in prize money to be divided among the first three boats. Waggoner's Shanty I breezed home in front. But the real crusade last year was in Detroit-to get the Gold Cup back. This is exactly what Bill Rhodes' Miss Thriftway did, but only after one of the most fantastic, mouth-souring beefs in the history of American sports.

Miss Thriftway, the apparent victor once more, was disqualified for allegedly striking a buoy on one of the turns. Miss Pepsi, a Detroit boat, was declared the winner. Protest followed protest and accusations ran wild. Distressed officials of the American Powerboat Association called a halt to study the situation. Witnesses were heard and movies were studied. After weeks of deliberation, the APBA finally declared Miss Thriftway the legal winner and the Gold Cup was returned to Seattle.

Meanwhile, final announcement was held up pending a lawsuit by Horace Dodge, who contested the whole race as illegal, on the grounds that his boat had been bumped out of the race by boats which were allowed to qualify under a special time extension.

Piled on top of all this was the tragic end of Slo-Mo IV. During the qualifying runs, a Detroit patrol boat ran across the course as Joe Taggart was barrelling through at a speed of more than 150 miles an hour. The wake left by the patrol boat flipped Slo-Mo over and splintered her hull beyond repair. Taggart, like Fageol, had driven his last race. Joe went to the hospital with multiple fractures of ribs, arms and legs.

The news reacted on Seattle like a major disaster. Thousands of men, women and children called newspapers, radio and television stations to ask if the news about Slo-Mo was true; many broke down and wept. Few thought to ask about Taggart. One got the impression, having witnessed this mass mourning for a boat, that people wanted Bill Waggoner to buy Detroit and turn it into an owl sanctuary.

Slo-Mo IV was trucked back to Seattle where she "lay in state" for four days in a downtown parking lot. An estimated 30,000 people stood patiently, sometimes in a driving rain, to file past her roped-off resting place. Sayres refused to go to look at it. In an almost eerie atmosphere of coincidence, Sayres, who loved his powerful, swift red-and-mahogany boat with a violent passion, died quietly in his sleep while the boat was still on display.

This final curious fact, this fact that a boat can somehow take on live, personal and human characteristics to great masses of people, and to the man who owns it, is what has made the Gold Cup great. It explains, perhaps, in small measure, why 150,000 people spend long days on the beaches of Lake Washington, merely to watch Gale VI, Miss Thriftway or Such Crust III cough and belch smoke and run past for a trial spin; why a man like Edgar Kaiser, quitting the sport, turned his Hawaii Kai over to the old pit crew of Slo-Mo IV, or why boat-worshiping small children speak knowingly of quill shafts and superchargers and sponsons and gear boxes.

It is a strange and fascinating sport, where even the start is a climax. The great pie-faced starting clock, entirely yellow with one minute to go, is steadily eclipsed by black, turning clockwise, second by second, until the face is all black as the starting gun booms. At this precise moment they come-great, deadly monsters flat against the blue water, hurling their wide white curtains of spray behind them, sounding their deep-throated cacophony of angry power plants, sounding their brazen defiance against the standing records of time.

(Reprinted from Sport, September 1957, pp. 42-45, 75-77)