From Rowboats to Roostertails [1986]

A Brief History of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing

by Fred Farley, APBA Unlimited Historian

The Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900 was the scene of the first successful power boat race of the 20th century. Eight speed launches competed over a 7½ mile course on the River Seine. Marius Dubonnet's L'Aiglon was first over the finish line with an elapsed time of 47 minutes and 15 seconds. Gasoline engine-powered craft of one sort or another had been in evidence since as early as 1887 when Gottleib Daimler hitched a crude petrol motor to the rear of a rowboat and putt-putted a few miles per hour with it, also on the River Seine.

The first formal power boat race of any lasting importance occurred in 1903 at Queenstown (now Dun Leary), Ireland.

The event was the inaugural running of the British International ("Harmsworth") Trophy. The award is nicknamed after its donor, Sir Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe), then publisher of The London Dally.

The 1903 British International Trophy was won by England's Napier I (also known as Napier Minor), owned by S.F. Edge and driven by a woman, Miss Dorothy Levitt. The narrow 35-food craft, using a 75-horsepower Napier engine, defeated Trefle-A-Quatre - a French vessel - at a speed of 19.530 land miles per hour.

The initial contest for the famous APBA Gold Cup - officially known as the American Power Boat Association Challenge Cup -was run on the Hudson River in New York as America's answer to the highly touted Harmsworth Trophy. The Gold Cup course was 16 nautical miles up and down the Hudson, unlike the oval-shaped 2½ statute mile circuit that is in use today. Carl Riotte at the helm of Standard won all three heats of history's first Gold Cup competition with a 96-mile average of 23.160. Standard was a displacement craft. measuring 59 feet in length with a 8½ foot beam, and subscribed to the only known theory of water speed: cutting through instead of planing over the surface. It was powered by a 110-horsepower Standard motor, which resembled a miniature steam engine with its steel columns and open frame.

The Harmsworth Trophy and the Gold Cup have proven to be two of the greatest incentives in the development of competitive power boats in the history of the sport.

The earliest hydroplane hulls appeared around 1910. At high speeds, they rode on one or more breaks or "steps" affixed to the underside, thereby using much less wetted surface area than had been the case with the old style vee-bottom displacement craft. One of the most successful of the early step hydroplanes was Maple Leaf IV , owned by Sir Edward Mackay-Edgar and driven by T.O.M. Sopwith. Powered by twin Austin engines which gave her a total of 400 horsepower, Maple Leaf IV won back for England the Harmsworth Trophy at Huntington Bay, New York, in 1912 with an average speed of 43.125 miles per hour.

Beginning with the 1917 Gold Cup contest in Minneapolis, power boat racing entered its first golden age, "The Gar Wood Era". For sixteen years, Garfield Arthur Wood (named after two U.S. Presidents) would seemingly be the personification of big-time boat racing in the eyes of the world. The popular "Gray Fox of Grayhaven" (Michigan) won the Gold Cup four times as an owner and five times as driver and captured the Harmsworth Trophy eight times as driver and nine times as an owner. He was also victorious in events such as the Thousand Islands Trophy, the 150-Mile Detroit Sweepstakes, the Fisher-Allison Trophy, and the Dodge Memorial.

In the final 30-mile heat of the 1920 Gold Cup on the Detroit River, Wood, at the wheel of his first Miss America, turned a phenomenal 70.412 miles per hour, a record that would stand until 1946.

Gar's greatest personal triumph occurred in 1920 on Osborne Bay, England, where the 26-foot Miss America I , powered by twin 450horsepower Liberty power plants, recaptured the Harmsworth Trophy for the United States for the first time since 1911.

Wood's two most famous racing crafts were Miss America IX - the world's first official 100 mile an hour boat(102.256 in 1931) - and Miss America X - 38 feet of mahogany powered by four giant Packard engines, rated at 7600 horsepower, set in tandem. The X won the 1932 and '33 Harmsworth races and, in 1932, set a world mile straightaway record of 124.915.

The now-defunct Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey, occupies a special place in hydroplane history. It was there that the very first three-point hydroplanes came into being. In 1936, Ventnor engineers Adolph and Amos Apel, a father and son team, introduced a series of boats that rode on the trailing edges of two pontoon-like running surfaces called sponsons and the propeller. This was a radical departure from the step hydroplanes and forever altered the course of competitive power boating. Jack Rutherfurd's Gold Club Class Juno and Jack "Pop" Coopers 225 Cubic Inch Class Tops II were two of Ventnors most successful three-pointers in the late 1930's. So, of course, everybody else had to start building boats with sponsons on them in order to be competitive. Other early three-pointers of that era included the likes of Zalmon Simmons' My Sin (the 1939 and '41 Gold Cup champion), Bill Cantrell's Why Worry, Marion Coopers Mercury, Lou Fageol's So-long, George Davis's Hermes IV and Hermes V Dan Arena's Miss Golden Gate, and Horace Dodge, Jr.'s Excuse Me.

The modem era of Unlimited Class hydroplane racing began after World War II when the huge supply of converted aircraft and other types of power sources developed by the war became generally available.

The first boat to make use of a contemporary engine was a big wild-riding yellow craft named Miss Golden Gate III. Owned and driven by Dan Arena and equipped with a substantially stock Allison V-1710 motor. Arena failed to finish the 1946 Gold Cup Race oh the Detroit River but clearly labeled his rig as the boat of the future, bettering the competition lap record of 72 miles per hour no less than seven times and setting anew standard of over 77 mph.

The Unlimited - or Thunderboat - Class quickly established itself as the "show" category of power boat racing in North America, drawing more spectators than any other racing division. The first true national circuit for the Unlimiteds came into being in 1947. Miss Peps V, owned by the Dossin brothers of Detroit and driven by Danny Foster, emerged as the first Season High Point Champion, winning the 1947 Detroit Memorial, Gold Cup, and President's Cup with an Allison engine. Foster quickly established himself as the most victorious driver of his day. He became to the 1940's and '50's what Bill Muncey would become to the 1960's and 70's, a bona fide superstar. Fosters contemporaries included the likes of Bill Cantrell, Lou Fageol, Guy Lombardo, Harold Wilson, Stan Dollar, Chuck Thompson, Lee Schoenith, and Roy Duby.

Unlimited hydroplane racing entered a new administrative era in 1958withthe formation of the Unlimited Racing Commission (URC). All but nominal ties with the parent American Power Boat Association were severed. As a result, owners and drivers were given more say about rules and procedures. George Trimper served as the first Unlimited Commissioner. He was succeeded in the ensuing years by Lee Schoenith, E.M. "Red" Peatross, George "Buddy" Byers, Fred Alter, and Don Jones.

Free to govern its own affairs, the Unlimited fraternity began to stir the imagination of corporate marketing strategists. Inspired by the sport's potential as a unique and exciting promotional venture, a handful of enterprising regional companies started painting Unlimited hydroplanes with their colors and slogans and began racing them across the United States.

In 1963, Miss U.S. owner George Simon of the U.S. Equipment Co., won a landmark tax case against the IRS, establishing Unlimited Hydroplane competition as a valid business expense within specified guidelines. The door was thereby open for "big money" national sponsorship.

Ole Bardahl's Miss Bardahl, sponsored by Bardahl International Oil Co,, was one of the first commercial teams to take advantage of the new tax-exempt status and reap championship results. Pilot Ron Musson won three consecutive Gold Cups In 1963-64-65 and was the first to average 115 miles per hour In competition at the 1965 San Diego Cup on Mission Bay. When Musson was fatally injured at the 1966 President's Cup in Washington, D.C., Billy Schumacher picked up right where Ron had left off and won two Gold Cups of his own in 1967-68. The success and popularity of the Miss Bardahl and other sponsored teams proved that the fans would indeed accept boats with commercial names as well as those with nicknames.

But despite its heavy commercial gloss, Unlimited competition retains its down-to-earth All-American aspect, a lure for millionaire and millworker alike. The 1971 and '76 APBA Gold Cup Races in particular were reminiscent of olden days when a hometown favorite claimed his own piece of the pie. In '71, the community-owned Miss Madison with driver Jim McCormick made their claim for immortality with a richly sentimental triumph before 110,000 partisan fans in Madison, Indiana, the picturesque Ohio River town with a competitive tradition that dates back to 1911. The same was true in the '76 contest when Tom D'Eath wheeled the Detroit-based Miss U.S. to first place on home waters in the Motor City before an established half million spectators - the largest live audience of any event during the U.S. Bicentennial Year.

If two famous names above all others are to be singled out as having exerted the greatest influence on post-World War II Unlimited racing, those names unquestionably and Tudor Owen ("Ted") Jones and William Edward ("Bill") Muncey.

Jones designed the Stan Sayres-owned Slo-mo-shun IV and Slo-mo-shun V, which won five consecutive Gold Cups, one Harmsworth Trophy, and one President's Cup between them, representing the Seattle Yacht Club and introducing the major league of water sports to the Pacific Northwest. Slo-mo-shun IV raised the mile striaghtaway record to 160.323 in 1950 and to 178.497 in 1952. The IV was the first successful three-point "prop-rider", using a propeller that was only partly- instead of fully - submerged and kicking up a spectacular "roostertail" of spray a football field in length behind the boat. Between 1950 and -66, Jones hulls won 74 major races and claimed ten consecutive Season High Point Championships. In addition to the Slo-mo boats, Jones designed, Shanty I, Maverick, Miss Thruway, Hawaii Kai Iii, Miss Wahoo, Miss Bardahl,and many more.

Muncey, the most successful driver of all time and the sport's most eloquent ambassador of good will, won 62 major races in the Unlimited Class between 1956 and '81, including an unprecedented eight victories in the Gold Cup with the Miss Thriftway (in 1956-57), the Miss Century 21 (in 196162), and the Atlas Van Lines(in 1972-77-78-79). He was High Point Champion in 1960-61-62-72-76-78-79 and also raised the mile straightaway record to 192.001 in 1960 with the Miss Thriftway, a mark that stood for two years.

The high-water mark of Muncey's career was the 1976-79 period when he teamed with non-pariel Crew Chief Jim Lucero and won 24 out of 34 races entered under the aegis of Atlas Van Lines. This was after Bill had purchased the entire racing equipment inventory of three-time National Champion Dave Heerensperger's Pay'n Pak organization.

On October 18,1981, Muncey suffered fatal injuries while competing for the World Championship on Laguna de Coyuca in Acapulco, Mexico, with the Atlas-sponsored "Blue Blaster". The victim of a "blow-over', Bill lost his life while maintaining his familiar first place.

Over the past several decades, more and more Unlimited teams have opted for the cabover - or forward cockpit -design. With its flatter and wider profile, a cabover can generally corner better and faster than its rear cockpit/forward engine-situated predecessor.

Designer Ron Jones (son of Ted Jones) pioneered the modern cabover concept with the 225 Cubic Inch Class Tiger Too of 1961 and the Unlimited Class

Miss Bardahl of 1966. Ron discovered that the weight placement of a rear-mounted engine made for a safer-riding hull. Still, the concept did not gain widespread acceptance until the late 1979s. This was on account of some unfortunate accidents that had nothing to do with the fact that the boats were cabovers, but the were associated with cabovers. And that made the idea difficult to sell. Since 1978, all of the new boats in the Unlimited Class have been built with the driver sitting ahead of the engine.

The two most successful Unlimited cabovers to date have been Ron Jones-designed Miss Budweiser, which won a record 20 consecutive heat victories at the first five races of 1980 with Dean Chenoweth driving, and the Jim Lucero-designed Atlas Van Lines,which claimed an unprecedented 24 race wins between 1977 and 1981 will Bill Muncey at the wheel.

The most exciting news in recent years has been the long-awaited introduction of jet turbine - as opposed to piston -engines in the Unlimited ranks. the first turbine-powered craft to truly get Is act together and claim a Season High Point Championship was the Chip Hanauer - chauffeured Miller American.

in 1985, winning five of nine races and rewriting the speed record book. On the Columbia River at Tri-Cities, Washington, the Lycoming-powered Miller craft became the first to exceed 150 miles per hour around a closed course with a reading of 153.061 for the 21/2 mile distance. And to think that, as late as 1971, a lap time of 1231 on a speedier 3 mile course was considered by many to be an impossible!

So impressive was the Miller American's performance that arch-rival Bernie Little - the sport's winningest owner - likewise jumped on the turbine bandwagon, starting in 1986. Little's Miss Budweiser organization had won a record 53 races and seven High Point titles since 1966 with Rolls-Royce piston power.

Another successful turbine team has been the variously named entry of owner Steve Woomer and driver Steve Reynolds, using a hull that was designed by Jim Lucero and rebuilt by Ron Jones. As Miss Tosti Asti in 1984, the Woomer/Reynolds boat won the World Championship on Clear Lake in Houston, Texas. And, as Miss 7-Elevenin 1985, the craft took top honors at the Indiana Governor's Cup in Madison.

Unlimited hydroplane racing is water racing's greatest show. There have been many many highlights too numerous to be retold here. The sport has changed as has life in general. The boats are faster, more sophisticated, and more expensive. A rich man's hobby has been transformed into a professional pursuit.

The march of time not withstanding, the racers of today share a common mistress with their predecessors of another era: the quest for speed and victory on water.

(Reprinted from the 1986 Miller High Life Thunderboat Regatta (San Diego) program)