Presidents Cup History, 1926-1976

History of the Presidents Cup 1926-1976

1976 marks the 50th anniversary of the President's Gup Regatta for Unlimited hydroplanes. Since 1926, there haven't heen fifty contests for the coveted trophy that is usually presented by the U.S. Chief Executive, but it was fifty years ago that the tradition commenced. Of those Unlimited awards currently in competition, only the Gold Cup—inaugurated in 1904—outranks the Presidents Cup in terms of age.

L. Gordon Hamersley won the 1926 race—conducted on the Georgetown Channel—at the wheel of his Cigarette IV— a 34 footer built of duraluminum and powered by a twelve cylinder Curtiss engine. Hamersley won all three heats with an average speed of 54.229 miles per hour in the craft that cost a reported $60,000. Among other famous names participating in the opening event were George Townsend in Greenwich Folly, Horace Dodge, Jr. in Miss Syndicate, Bill Horn in Solar Plexus, and Delphine Dodge Baker in Nuisance. Committee members Edward Balts, Dr. Roy Sexton, Bill Rogers and Conrad Smith, officers of the Corinthian Yacht Club, had hit on the idea of staging a major power boat regatta with rules similar to those in effect for the Gold Cup. President Calvin Coolidge consented to donate the handsome bowl on which the winner’s name was to be inscribed.

Auto magnate Delphine Dodge Baker became the first and only distaff winner in the series with a victory in 1927 at the controls of Miss Syndicate. F.G. Erickson took second to Mrs. Baker in Sister Syn followed by Bernard Smith in Baby Chic and George Townsend in Greenwich Folly. In 1928, plans for the construction of the Mt. Vernon boulevard forced the Corinthian Yacht Club, whose property had been purchased by the government, to forego the event, fearful that they might have to vacate the premises before they could stage it. The next year, C.Y.C. officials felt that they were not sufficiently settled in their new quarters on the Anacostia River to do justice to the race. So the newly formed Chesapeake And Potomac Power Boat Association came to the rescue. Unfortunately, this joining of hands was not completed until mid-summer and, by that time, most of the top-notch Gold Cup drivers had arranged their schedules for the season and Richard Hoyt won the trophy almost without opposition aboard Solar Plexus. Thankfully, George Wood—brother of the famous Gar—stepped into the breach driving Joyee III and staged a special one heat free-for-all with Hoyt. It was a thrilling exhibition with Solar Plexus winning by barely a boat length.

In 1930, the Maryland Yacht Club became the third co-sponsor with the C.Y.C. and the C. & P.P.B.A. and requested the event for the Severn River at Harold Harbor near Annapolis. The classic was conducted there in September and won by Vic Kliesrath in Hotsy Totsy. But somehow things didn’t seem right without the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the background. So, the 1931 affair was scheduled for the Potomac River's East Branch. El Lagarto and George Reis emerged triumphant but did so on a somber note. Billy Freitag, driving John Shibe’s Miss Philadelphia, mortally expired when his long slender craft rolled over on the front straightaway at approximately 60 miles an hour.

Frietag was knocked, unconscious and drowned, when his inert body failed to free itself from the cockpit. Not for 35 years would similar tragedy again mar the running of a President’s Gup Race.

During the Depression era, Washington, D.C. was a vital mainstay on the racing calendar, comparing favorably on a national level with Detroit, Michigan and Red Bank, New Jersey. 1932 saw the elevation of John A. Remon—a titan in President’s Cup history— to the office of General Chairman—a position he was to occupy for many years. The 1933 regatta witnessed the introduction of swimming, rowing, and canoeing competitions, and the first in a long series of beauty pageants. The addition of these secondary events broadened the scope of community involvement and, in March of 1934 the President’s Cup Regatta Association was formally incorporated with the objective of its assuming a role of leadership in all aquatic interests in and around Washington. The 1937 regatta had a total of 368 sail and motor entrants with a spectator estimate of more than 320,000 persons.

A popular President’s Cup co-feature—the William Randolph Hearst Trophy—was instituted in 1934 Exploited by its promoters as the "American Speed Boat Championship Race", the affair was a free-forall for boats powered by a single engine with unlimited piston displacement and unrestricted hull design. The most famous of the Hearst Trophy winners was Mel Crook’s 28-1/2 foot English-style Betty V which triumphed in 1934, '35 and '36 with a 1500 cubic inch Packard engine. The race was re-named the Rogers Memorial Trophy in 1955 In honor of the late Bill Rogers, the original President's Cup Regatta Chairman.

From a competitive standpoint, the pre-World War II decade is memorable for the dominance of the old style Gold Cup Class contenders. Boats with "stepped" planing surfaces were deemed acceptable for competition beginning in 1929 to the end that many owners of the previously popular vee-bottom monoplanes "shingled" their hulls in compliance with the new regulation. The first to do this was Richard Hoyt who applied a series of shallow "steps" to the underside of Hotsy Totsy. Following Hoyt’s lead were Bill Horn with Delphine IV (the aging former Solar Plexus) and George Reis with his resurrected El Lagarto. After Hoyt's triumph in the 1930 contest, Reis was the winner in 1931-33-34 with Horn capturing the honor in 1932. Not until 1935 did a hull (Notre Dame) constructed after the rule change of 1929 score a victory in the President's Cup.

The late 1930's and early *40's brought down the curtain on the pre-war Gold Cup Class with its 732 cubic inch piston displacement limitation. By this time, there were no suitable engines being manufactured in the sizes prescribed by the then current rules. No longer could such time honored power plants as the Hispano-Suiza, the Deusenberg, the Packard, the Wright, or the Miller be had in plentiful quantities for use in race boats. Only one craft— Count Theo Rossi's Italian challenger Alagi—showed up for the 1938 Potomac River renewal. Rossi won the first heat—and the President's Cup—unopposed with a 15 mile average of 66.981 on Saturday, Sept. 24 but insisted that the gold replica of the Cup that he had acquired without competition be put up for a handicap race between Alagi and entries from the smaller divisions on Sunday, September 25. Five contenders from the 225 Cubic Inch Class answered the challenge. The 225's were spotted one minute and fifty seconds, almost a complete 2-1/2 mile lap, ahead of the Italian. Rossi had to squeeze every bit of speed he had in his Isotta-Fraschini aircraft engine to overtake the little boats, outdistancing George Seay and Miss Manteo II in the final straightaway by a mere two seconds. President Franklin Roosevelt, who viewed the regatta from the upper deck of the Presidential Yacht Potomac, was so thrilled by the close finish that he immediately sent for the drivers of the first and second place boats to come aboard his vessel where he heartily congratulated the two pilots for their sportsmanship and excellent driving.

With the advent of World War II and gasoline rationing, competition for the President's Cup and most other power boating awards was suspended. When the sport revived in 1946, a liberalized format was in evidence. The Gold Cup Class became part of the Unlimited Class with no restrictions on engine size to take better advantage of the huge supply of converted aircraft and other types of motors produced by the war. The 1946 President’s Cup Regatta enjoys the distinction of being the first to be won by a modern Unlimited hydroplanes the wild-riding, Allison-powered Miss Great Lakes owned by Albin Fallon and driven by Danny Foster. Miss Great Lakes averaged 69.6)2 and won all three 12 mile heats with ease, trouncing such highly regarded pre-war stalwarts as Tempo VI with Guy Lombardo, Miss Canada III with Harold Wilson, and Why Worry with Bill Cantrell. Following and as a result of the 1946 President’s Cup, big time power boat competition revolutionized itself overnight. Almost immediately, owners of high speed racing craft commenced construction of new hulls or modified the old ones to accommodate the larger and more powerful Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin equipment. Unlike Miss Great Lakes, most contemporary Unlimited hydroplanes would measure more in the 28 to )0 foot range rather than 26, but the trend initiated by Fallon, Foster and designer-builder Dan Arena had altered the course of hydroplane history.

During the three post-war racing decades, the President’s Cup Regatta has emerged—with Detroit, Michigan; Madison, Indiana; and Seattle, Washington—as one of the four perennial stopovers on the Unlimited calendar. And the continued interest in the race by the U.S. Government’s Executive Branch has done much to focus positive national attention on power boat racing in general and the President's Cup in particular.

The first—and only—three time consecutive winning boat and driver combination in regatta history achieved that distinction in 1950, 1951 and 1952. With Chuck Thompson at the wheel, the twin Allison-powered Miss Pepsi, owned by the Dossin brothers of Detroit, could do no wrong, starting in nine heats and winning them all with a record breaking 15 mile average of 88.725 on the second round of the 1950 classic. In 19b0, Thompson won a fourth title— this time with his self-owned Miss Detroit—to become the only chauffeur to receive the President's Cup from Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. Only Bill Muncey outranks Thompson in the area of driver victories on the Potomac River with championship performances in 1956 with Miss Thriftway, 1961 and 1962 with Miss Century 21, 1970 with Myr Sheet Metal, and 1971 with Atlas Van Lines. Other multiple race winning chauffeurs in recent years comprise triple champion Danny Foster (1946, 1947 and 1955 with Miss Great Lakes, Miss Peps V and Tempo VII), and two-time title holder Bill Cantrell (1954 and 1964 with Gale IV and Miss Smirnoff).

In any objective retelling of the President's Cup story, mention must necessarily be made of the tragic 1966 regatta in which three of power boating's finest were lost in two separate accidents on the Potomac. Stricken from the list of the living on that fateful day were Ron Musson of Miss Bardahl, Don Wilson of Miss Budweiser and the posthumous race winner Rex Manchester of Notre Dame. Time would dim the memory of "Black Sunday" but, for a while the sport's very foundation was shaken. Editorial writers with a particularly negative motor racing bias called for a cessation of competitive activities on all fronts, but ultimately, cooler heads prevailed. Past A.P.B.A. President Red Peatross called it "an act of God" but perhaps the sanest analysis of the overall situation was supplied by Yachting Magazine columnist and former driver Mel Crook who admonished that even the safest boat in the world will attain a speed where it travels unsafely. And for a driver to place his boat in an unsafe attitude—even for the purpose of improving his order of finish in a race—is to court disaster. Thankfully, both the sport at large and the President's Cup Regatta survived the excesses of unfavorable publicity and endured to see brighter days. But none who were there—in person or in spirit—on that traumatic June 19 will ever forget it.

Recent years have seen significant increases in speed and revolutionary refinements in hull configuration. The first of the new design of Unlimiteds to win a President's Cup Race was Dave Heerensperger's Pride of Pay 'N Pak in 1972. Handled by Billy Sterett, Jr., the Pak outdueled defending champions Bill Muncey and Atlas Van Lines in a titanic Final Heat struggle that can be described only with superlatives. With his Rolls-Merlin engine not missing a beat, young Sterett guided the swift-turning, low-profile, wide transom hull around the buoys at an unprecedented 109.090 miles per hour, ushering in a new era in high speed power boating. Today, every Unlimited hydroplane is either a Pay 'N Pak style hull or it simply isn’t competitive.

In boat racing, fifty years can seem like fifty decades. Since 1926, the boats and personnel involved with the President's Cup Regatta have all changed. Only the trophy itself remains along with the original idea of providing an exciting show for all to enjoy under the aegis of the highest office in the land. A lot of people—from the President of the United States, to the ice cream vendor, to the ticket-buying spectator—have contributed to the fifty year perpetuation of the President's Cup. To them, salute and thank you.

--- Unlimiteds Detroit