Detroit River Thunder

In the years after World War II, Detroit, Michigan, reigned supreme as the hub of big-time power boat racing in North America. As many as five Unlimited hydroplane contests a year would be conducted in and around the Motor City. These included the Silver Cup, sponsored by the Detroit Yacht Club, and the Detroit Memorial Regatta, sponsored by the Detroit River Racing Association (later the Windmill Pointe Yacht Club). And, for a time, the Windsor (Ontario) Yacht Club presented the Maple Leaf Trophy, also on the Detroit River.

The post-war years of 1948 to 1950 witnessed a boatbuilding boom unprecedented in modern times. More than 30 Unlimited hydroplanes were constructed. Many of these represented Detroit. Because of ever-increasing operating costs, commercial sponsorships of boats became more and more acceptable and necessary. Still, old ideas died hard. One nationally prominent Unlimited writer, in fact, refused to acknowledge the new Miss Peps of 1948 in print by anything other than its APBA registration number of G-99.

The late '40s Motor City scene was an exciting time for the sport, which looked and acted amateurish by today's standards. Nevertheless, it still had much to offer in terms of having fun. The major Detroit teams of that era included the likes of Horace Dodge, the Dossin brothers, Albin Fallon's Miss Great Lakes, Jack Schafer's Such Crust, and Whitey Hughes's Dukie. In addition to the "heavyweights," an intriguing assortment of lower budget race teams surfaced along the banks of the Detroit River in the years just after the War. More often than not, these "River Rats" were ex-servicemen who had grown up watching Gar Wood's Miss America boats and who knew what an Allison engine was from being in the military...but who didn't necessarily possess the wherewithal to put a viable race boat package in order.

The Motor City "backyard jobs" included Eager Beaver, whose owner (Howard Eager) allegedly filled with ping-pong balls to aid in buoyancy. Then there was Let 'er Go Gallagher, a curious contraption that resembled a cross between a conventional race boat and a soapbox derby push-car and was appropriately retitled Wha Hoppen.

Miss-Ter-E was an eccentric-looking Detroit craft, described as a "tri-prow hydro-air plane," badly underpowered with a pair of Gray Fireballs and then a pair of Fageol bus engines. Another curiosity piece, Miss Windsor, never could seem to answer the starter's gun but is the earliest known American example of a boat with Packard Rolls-Royce Merlin power. Owner Ted Newkirk supposedly mortgaged his home to finance Sheri-San, a multiple-step hydroplane that sank when first placed in the water.

And Miss Grosse Pointe, the twin-Fageol-powered entry of Al D'Eath, struck the Belle Isle Bridge during the 1948 Detroit Memorial. The father of future Miss Budweiser pilot Tom D'Eath, Al used both hands to operate the twin throttles and had to steer with his feet.

Clearly, enthusiasm frequently had to compensate for the lack of competitive finesse in those early days. This was especially apparent at the disastrous 1948 APBA Gold Cup in Detroit when only one boat (Miss Great Lakes) out of 22 could go the 90- mile distance--and that one sank at the dock while the driver (Danny Foster) was being presented with the trophy!

Following and as a result of the 1948 Gold Cup, qualification speed trials were written into the rule book to ascertain a craft's fitness to compete. These trials also added greatly to the color and pageantry of the races. The first boat and driver combination to earn the distinction of fastest Gold Cup qualifier were My Sweetie and Bill Cantrell--the race winners that year--with a mark of 92.402 around the 2.5-mile course. On race day, "Wild Bill" made his claim to fame by outperforming Stan Dollar in Skip-A-Long and Dan Arena in Such Crust.

A two-step Allison-powered craft, the John Hacker-designed My Sweetie raised the 30-mile Gold Cup heat record to 78.645. And this was just a few years after a speed in excess of 70 miles per hour was considered almost "impossible." During the first half of the 20th Century, not once had the Gold Cup ever been won by a boat representing a yacht club from west of the Mississippi River.

All of that changed in 1950 when Slo-mo-shun IV from Seattle finally turned the trick at Detroit. Slo-mo owner Stan Sayres, driver-designer Ted Jones, and builder Anchor Jensen thoroughly debunked the well-publicized impression that three-point suspension hulls become hopelessly uncontrollable at racing speeds--especially in the corners.

Slo-mo IV wasn't the first hydroplane to "prop-ride" on a semi-submerged propeller. (Jack Schafer's Such Crust II and Morlan Visel's Hurricane IV had both experimented along those lines.) But Slo-mo-shun IV was the first craft to reap championship results in the application of the concept. The days when a hydroplane could win with a fully submerged propeller were numbered.

For the next two decades, the boats had to use a Slo-mo-type design, or they simply weren't competitive. Overnight, competition speeds of over 100 miles per hour and straightaway speeds of over 150 were commonplace. When Sayres was presented with the Gold Cup, following his 1950 Motor City triumph, the cynics wagged that the Cup was "only being loaned" to him. The "loan" proved to be of long duration as Sayres went on to become the first five-time consecutive winning owner of power boating's Holy Grail. Not until 1956 would another Gold Cup contest be staged on the Detroit River.