How To Win The Gold Cup [1959]

A two-time winner of this Unlimited Hydroplane classic tells how
he and his crew get ready for this year's race and drive to win

There's no race like the Gold Cup; there's no competition like Gold Cup competition. You drive with pride and ride with fear, for no other race on the unlimited hydroplane schedule builds up such pressure of performance in light of its tradition, prestige and accomplishment.

Yes, there is fear, fear because of those who love you, fear because of those who fear for you. An acute awareness of this is never more prominent than on the morning of the race. As time for the five-minute gun nears, the pressure seems to increase, the tension within you is more demanding, and the knot in your stomach expands and contracts as giant-size butterflies race around in it. For a minute or two during the hour before the start, when you are alone, you are overcome by a strange feeling. You begin to wonder why you are about to drive a 2000-plus horsepower monster at speeds in excess of 150 mph around a three-mile oval course for a total of 90 miles in three grueling heats. You wish you were someplace else; you wonder what the thousands of spectators are thinking.

Suddenly, you become sensible again, as in the center of the pit area the communications office is broadcasting a time check for participants in heat 1-A. Your name was picked from a hat the night before to run in the first heat. It is now time for action.

With life jacket securely fastened, helmet, goggles and gloves in place, you step into the cockpit and your heart beats faster. With an anticipated nod from your crew chief, you throw the main electrical system to the "on" position, check breaker circuits which have already been adjusted by your crew, turn the magneto switch to "both," and drop your right hand to the fuel mix control installed beside the seat (before starting it is in the "idle-cutoff" position).

With your left hand, you begin your starting procedure. Your heart beats faster. With the third finger of this hand you switch on the electric fuel boost pump, with the second finger you hit the spring-loaded starting switch, and with the first finger you apply primer to the engine in a continuous on-off motion. And with your heart beating far beyond its capacity, your whole physical being seems to demand explosion. And suddenly . . . suddenly, the engine belches combustion and exploding gasses. With a coordinated effort

of left hand primer coupled with a slight movement of the right foot at the throttle, you slowly pull the fuel and ai mix control in your right hand to the position recommended by the engine experts in your crew.

Now you are moving. And you are moving quickly. Al is well and you feel good again. You feel the wind against your face, you recognize the water rushing by, and the engine sustains a constant tempo.

Your crew chief has predetermined the number of minutes it takes to warm oil and engine to that temperature which will allow you maximum performance. With this it mind you proceed out onto the race course, into the counter-clockwise pattern required, and run through an instrument check. Magnetos (right and left bank), engine temperatures, oil pressures, water overboard, and seemingly million other things. And though you can't hear it, as you glance at the Official Barge, a puff of smoke indicates the five-minute gun has been fired, and a red flag appears. You continue in the pattern around the race course, which is becoming more and more disturbed by the other boats coming out of the pits. As the last seconds before the start tick off, you slowly begin to lose your identity.

This is the moment for which drivers, and crews began to prepare early in the year. In my own case that means attention to diet, diaphragmic breathing, and the continued development of leg, chest, shoulder and arm muscles. Complete physical being has won more than one Gold Cup race. Some drivers value physical conditioning more than others, and more than once I have been kidded because of my strict attention to it. But I have experienced its necessity and am a living witness to its value. The pounding, bouncing and body-gyrating incurred from the planing action of the boat, particularly on a rough course such as the Detroit River, is one thing; but an even greater problem, I believe, is the physical reaction to the intense heat.

The exhaust stacks, one on each side pounding out the exhaust gasses of 12 cylinders as close as two feet away, can surely push your physical stamina to its limit. In Detroit in 1956, I lost 14 pounds in less than 60 minutes during the running of the Gold Cup because of extreme humidity and an overabundance of nervous tension. And more than once I have seen the reflexes of a poorly-conditioned chauffeur slow up enough to make the difference between winning and losing.

For me, the Gold Cup begins on the Tuesday just prior to the race, for that is the day qualifications begin. It is with intense interest that I watch each qualifier, whether it is for a slow speed test run for course familiarization or, he is going for the gun and his qualifying effort.

Reactions of the boat, the ability of the driver, and the attitude of the organization can be well observed during the few days prior to the event. And the psychology of hydroplane racing runs amok. Some will run real "hot" in their qualifying effort not only to win the trophy given to the fastest qualifier, but in a definite effort to accomplish that section of their psychological strategy. Others, as we will do, qualify at a speed of around 110 mph average; not too fast, not too slow, reputable, impressing the competition that we might have gone faster. Others still, not interested in the value of psychology in racing, will qualify just above the minimum of 95 mph average for the, three laps, will save their equipment, and come out screamin' on race day.

It is during these qualifying days that I decide the average speed I'll need to maintain in order to win the race. Willard Rhodes, representative owner of Miss Thriftway, Ted Jones, manager of our racing team, along with Jack Ramsey, our crew chief, and I will have many strategy meetings prior to the race. All of this is an effort to keep me informed. Between heats of the race there are many conferences called within our organization for the sake of information and resulting strategy.

But once Miss Thriftway and I leave the pit area, the race strategy takes meaning and we are free to put it to work to fit the situation as only we can see it on the race course. The average speed decided upon must be capable of not only winning the race, but one that will not tax the physical properties of the boat. And once we decide on this necessary speed average, we will not deviate from it more than two mph above or below it.

Sometimes, because of heavy traffic, unusual water conditions, or efforts to come back through the field once a lapping situation has taken place, we may deviate more from our pre-planned average. But with a definite plan in mind, we try to work as closely as possible to it.

The average speed is determined after clocking, timing and calculating the capabilities of the competition during qualification trials. Once picked, we maintain that average even if we find ourselves running third or possibly fourth. For we pick a speed fast enough that for the competition to run much faster, the odds are very good that they will not be able to finish the 90 miles. And today, to win the coveted Gold Cup, you have to travel the complete distance. Also, there are bonus points awarded for the fastest race, and to be eligible for these you must finish all heats.

The Gold Cup race, in contrast with other races across the country, employs a rather complicated scoring system. As a result we must be constantly aware of average speeds of all participants; these are posted by the race committee in the pit area at the conclusion of every heat. Our organization keeps accurate accounting of our 'position in relation to the others.

Back to the first heat: many drivers time their s from a given point on the race course around to the starting line. When the smoke of the one-minute gun appears, the competition begins to approach the various spots from which they have chosen to start their run for the line.

Miss Thriftway and I do not make our starts in this manner because too often traffic on the course prevents you from getting to your "spot" on time, and as a result you are boxed in and late at the line. I suppose you'd say

that we hit the line by the seat of our pants, but from hours of test running we are quite familiar with the abilities of one another, and we hope that no matter what the traffic situation may be, we will be able to adjust so that when the starting flag goes up, we are there! I realize this is a little vague, but it's the way we do it, and it hasn't worked out too badly over the years.

As we move up the back stretch, our identity is more and more dissolved in the rush of action. The one-minute puff of smoke appears, and the big clock begins to tick off the last 60 seconds to the start. All of a sudden you are engulfed in a sort of vacuum, unaware of the wind against your face, the water rushing by, the noise of the engine. Engrossed in the job at hand as the fleet begins to maneuver for the start, you are aware only of the boats about you, the tempo of the engine, and making an objective study of traffic as it is, you break for the starting line in an effort to acquire a lane that will place you in the best competitive position. Much depends upon who is running where when you go for the line and, of course, dependent too upon what you have observed of the competition the week prior to the race. You must remember as well to apply throttle slowly and evenly so as not to overload your engines.

The pack, never more than seven boats in Unlimited competition, proceeds across the line at a speed approaching 140 mph, and they all are still accelerating for they, too, know what speeds they must reach on the straightaways to approach predetermined average rates.

As the pace increases, torque from the engine is transmitted from the propeller to the rudder and on through the steering system, and begs for escape through the steering wheel. You must compensate the pressure, pushing with your left hand and pulling with your right hand in an effort to keep the boat going straight. And though fixed trim tabs, friction areas and gear box are designed to absorb the appalling torque load from the engines, still much of it is tossed at the chauffeur, a definite contributor to fatigue.

At this point you see some 70 inches of manifold pressure and 3800 revolutions per minute, and you know that it is this speed at which you should begin setting up your turn. You do not get to the corner and turn left. You've anticipated the corner and set it up long before you are to arrive there. Your set-up involves a very slight release, or slip, of the steering wheel and a simultaneous movement of the throttle. You've stopped applying throttle; you did this when you reached your predetermined top speed, three-quarters down the course.

Your boat speed quickly surpassed your engine speed and you began to set up your turn. A slight movement to the left, correction to the right; slight movement to the left, correction to the right. And by the time you reach the entrance buoy to the turn, your boat is already in a position to literally slide through the corner. From there on your objective is to maintain the radius you established when you entered the turn by slightly turning left and correcting, and allowing your hull and boat speed to do the job they were designed to do. In this sequence your propeller is not necessarily pushing the boat, rather, it is lifting. The idea is to keep frictioned areas at a minimum, boat speed at maximum, with as little engine labor as possible.

If you allow friction areas to increase, you must compensate for the resulting increase in drag through the application of more power, and your engine life is immediately jeopardized. Once through a turn, and in some cases three-quarters through the turn, your boat speed will reach a deceleration point where you are about to increase friction areas. Now you begin to apply more throttle, and you apply it slowly. Moving through the turn in the middle of a hornet's nest, you were able to back the throttle to this point of minimum boat speed so when the propeller begins to really push again you are operating at the predetermined engine speed which you discovered gives you maximum horsepower where it is really needed.

You accelerate down the back chute (backstretch) in the heat of competition. You are never really aware of how fast you are moving and you really don't care. Your only concern is the competition around you, the job to be done, and just how you are going to do it.

Often the why and wherefore questions rear their heads. After recuperating from two pretty serious accidents in the 1957 and '1958 seasons, and announcing that I was still very enthusiastic about hydroplane racing, anonymous folk suggested that I was a rather irresponsible father and my wife was an irresponsible mother. She should "put her foot down" about this racing stuff, and I should stop participating in this thing which twice has nearly left our two boys fatherless.

But our reasoning is simple, and should be obvious to anyone who would care to look a bit below the surface of life and observe its foundation. For one thing, and first above all things, our young family has pounds and pounds of faith. We know that no matter the situation, the circumstance or what have you, He is watching and caring constantly. This is the basic reason why my wife, Kit, enjoys the racing so very much. With a prayer in-the morning, and complete confidence that it will be answered, she is free to watch the racing activity and the complete happiness of her husband without a worry.

There is nothing so thoroughly wonderful as participating in an activity, no matter its nature, that is enjoyed with complete, enthusiastic sincerity by thousands. It has been said that the racing breed of man is without heart or soul, that a "devil-may-care" attitude of "live today, tomorrow we die" is the philosophy upon which he dedicates himself.

Nothing could be further from the truth. — As a matter of fact, the racing man is probably closer to the magnificence of life, and the value of it, than anyone. We do not' feel that we are risking our necks, for if we did, we would probably stop racing. We have a thorough confidence in ourselves, our equipment and our organizations. This, coupled with a down-to-earth faith in God, makes us dedicated and happy.

Gold Cup race day, 1959, will be one of the happiest and most complete days of my life.

(Reprinted from Popular Boating, August 1959, pp.24-26)