New Hydroplanes Heavier, Strong [1967]

A period of reflection -- and, consequently, regression -- is settling over the men who buy, build and drive the Gold Cup hydroplanes which will blaze over the Detroit River this week in qualifying trials for the World's Championship Race.

Death has cut a tragic swath through their numbers. It has claimed the lives of five drivers in the last 11 months. Yet the drivers are slaves to their inborn hunger for speed. They will think nothing of the consequences as each dons a helmet and life jacket and jams the throttle to unleash a monstrous airplane engine in a saucer-shaped hydro.

But these men are not fools. They are capable and successful in a wide range of fields. It is just that they find it difficult to harness their craving for hurtling across the water with a wild, high roostertail following their quest for glory.

"Not one of the drivers, including the ones who lost their lives, ever thinks the next race will be his last," said Les Staudacher, the master boatbuilder and a walking testimonial to this premise.

"Each man is aware of the dangers of boat racing. But each thinks the dangers are to someone else."

Someone has to look after the drivers, too.

That is why Staudacher's boat shop up at Kawkawlin is crammed with six of the $35,000 hydroplanes as he leads his crews in an around-the-clock effort to make everything right for the World's Championship Race.

"Boat racing has progressed to a far different combination of things than the Gold Cup fleet used in its heydays in the '50s," Staudacher said.

"The overall lap speeds are not faster now than then. But the emphasis now is on power and acceleration in the turns. The boats used to to have big propellers which would help brake a boat in a turn. Now they have racing props designed to explode a boat out of a turn once the supercharger train takes over.

"All five fatal accidents occurred when the drivers were at full throttle shooting down a straightaway, supposedly the safest place on a course.

"Yet each time the tremendous power and speed shot the boat out of control when the driver hit a patch of rough water."

Less weight was the factor in the designs for more acceleration and speed. Wood gave way to aluminum and aluminum gave way to magnesium as the owners and their crews cut the pounds-per-horsepower ratios.

Some hydros were reduced to not much more than plywood covered by an ever thinning aluminum skin.

Prior to the ill-fated Suncoast Race two weeks ago, the Miss Budweiser camp boasted of "replacing a heavy mahogany deck with lighter woods." The boat was so light it kited into the air and then somersaulted, throwing driver Bill Brow to his death.

Work has begun on a new Miss Budweiser in Staudacher's plant, the 44th Gold Cup boat to be built there since the highly successful My Sweetie back in 1948.

"It will be heavier. It will be stronger," Staudacher said.

The new boat will feature wood framing instead of aluminum construction. Laminated oak construction will be an integral part of its makeup. The battens will be an inch and a half instead of an inch. Five-ply oak will be used instead of three-ply.

Regression? Yes.

But boat racing's a matter of trial and error.

The Allison and Rolls-Royce engines were never intended for use in boats. They've been in use for 20 years and only now are getting a serious challenge from an automotive engine -- the Chrysler hemi which powers Chrysler Crew.

"There is not threat of a turbine engine in boat racing like there is in auto racing," Staudacher said. "You can't slow a turbine engine fast enough to make a turn in racing.

"There is too much power developed by the spinning impellers even when the fuel switch is cut off to shut down the engine."

So it will be a field of heavy-hearted men with slightly heavier boats which will go against the qualifying clock when the trials open Monday at 8 a.m.

(Reprinted from the Detroit Free Press June 25, 1967)