Speedboat Kings

Ch. 1: The World's Classic - The Harmsworth Trophy [1939]

I can see that vast throng now, as I have seen it before, packed along that stretch of shoreline that hems in the Harmsworth racing oval. Almost half a million people . . . tense, silent. It's just about sunset. The Detroit River is as smooth as glass. The black time discs drop one by one from high above the judges' stand at the Detroit Yacht Club. Five minutes before the starting gun five time discs are poised there. One drops each minute.

That's what brings the catch in the throat-those dropping discs. There's nothing for the crowd to cheer here. A vast awful silence floats over the river. This is drama, possible tragedy. The dropping discs are for those madmen out there in the cockpits of those boats-the drivers, the mechanics. You can see them in the upper course warming up their engines, curving great white arcs in the water as they jockey for position, watching the discs. Always those discs. Every second counts. A mistake may mean tragedy, death. Because death walks close to these Harmsworth scenes. You can almost feel it as the faint thunder of giant engines drones in your ears.

The last disc drops. The crowd knows. Wood knows. He's timing his start to a split second. He's been here before, many times. They don't talk in that cockpit, he and Orlin Johnson, his mechanic. No voice could ever be heard against the bedlam of 7,600 horsepower. They use signals. Wood signals to Johnson because Johnson handles the throttles. Wood does the driving, handles the wheel.

Suddenly, at a signal from Wood, Johnson pulls open the throttle. You can't see him. All you can see is the gleaming brown speck of the Miss America way out there near the upper turn and the white speck of the English boat and the two twin lines of wake.

But you know something is happening. You know Johnson is pulling those throttles because the engine roar gets louder and louder. The boats are coming now. They grow from dim specks to little blobs, heading straight for the starting line. In another moment the roar is terrific. Thousands of horsepower is loose. The starter's flag

goes down, the last disc drops, the gun cannons the signal, and the boats, throttles open, thunder across the line at over loo miles an hour and spin into the hairpin turn at the Belle Isle Bridge.

You have to be there to know, really-to feel the air charged with drama. This Harmsworth crowd is different. It isn't a sport crowd because the Harmsworth race is not a sporting event any more. It's more like a duel between modern mechanized giants with thunderbolts as weapons. Death has walked too close to these Harmsworth events to make it a sport show. The men in the cockpits are riding with Death every instant. A stick of wood, a floating bottle, anything could smash through one of those boats at that speed and tear it to pieces.

What kind of men are these that go on-defying Death?

I don't know about Sir Malcolm Campbell, who now holds the world's speed record on water. But I know about Wood and Johnson. I've heard it said that danger doesn't mean a thing to either of them; that they haven't any nerves. That's not true. Wood has a pet fear. He believes that someday, while rocketing over the water at tremendous speed, he'll die-suddenly. Not because one of his boats will crack up, or explode, or blow to pieces. No. Not those. He fears those things, too. But he's been through all that.

What then? He believes that somewhere there is a vibration cycle that is high enough to kill a man. And, what's worse, he doesn't know just where that cycle is. It may come when he rides his next boat. Or maybe when he again steps up the horsepower of his Miss America X.

And Johnson? Although Johnson, at fifty years, scarcely owns a gray hair, he, too, is afraid. Whenever he steps into the Miss America he turns to Vance Smith, his cousin and riding mate of many speed trials, and hands him his watch as though to say, "Well, Vance, old boy, it may be the last time. I may not come back. So here it is. Keep it for me, will you, Vance-as a-reminder?"

Wood has played almost a lone hand in this Harmsworth business for two decades, turning back the threat of eight challengers with a distinguished line of Miss Americas.

But even with that record behind him Wood looks like he's through, like the British International Trophy will eventually go back to England for the first time since 1920.

And here's the reason.

Sir Malcolm Campbell, of England, with a single Rolls Royce engine in his boat, Bluebird II, sped over the waters of Lake Coniston, England, on August 19, 1939, at 141.74 miles an hour. A new world record with a single engine, an engine that develops 1,800 horsepower, set into a tiny twenty-seven-foot hull.

How does Wood's boat compare with this?

Wood has four engines in his Miss America X. From those four engines and their superchargers he gets about 7,600 horsepower, over three times the horsepower of the English boat. But here's what's wrong. Wood's four engines are heavy, bulky. They take up space. He must have a 38-foot hull to crowd them in and a 40-foot hull is the maximum length allowed in Harmsworth competition., A 40-foot hull is heavy, too. It takes all the power of those engines to get that boat up to 125 miles an hour. That's Wood's top speed, officially — 124.86 miles an hour.

But why doesn't Wood use just one or two light, fast engines like the English? Or like the Italians do. Because there isn't any such thing in America and the Harmsworth rules demand that American boats be equipped with American engines. It would cost several mighty fortunes to develop engines like the English and the Italians and the United States government doesn't subsidize the development of high-powered engines like the European governments do. The English engines are government-restricted-engines, not Campbell's, developed by Rolls-Royce, Ltd., with the limitless finances of the British Air Ministry.

And now Wood is faced with this problem. What is he going to do? The English have more speed, lighter engines, faster boats. Wood went as far as he could when he built his Miss America X in 1932, a boat that can summon 7,600 horsepower from its loins. But now, today, the answer isn't horsepower. It's speed. And the English have it. Wood hasn't.

That's why I went to Wood.

I knew the slim little white-haired inventor had ideas. You can see it in the quick flick of his eyelash, in the way his eyes dance when you talk of boats, of trophies, of speed records. He's not going to lie down. Not Wood. He'll be in there with his best boat like he always is, guiding his thunderbolt down the straightaway, spinning at the perilous turns, scraping the buoys and charging down the backstretch with the flames spitting madly from his exhausts.

That's Wood. I found that out the other night when I went to his home in Detroit.

As I pressed the button on the door panel my memory was alive with the scenes that had been enacted here in other years-the stirring seconds before a Harmsworth race, when the first big disc on the judges' stand over across the river gave the five-minute time signal; a swarm of Wood's men racing around his Miss America IX, getting the boat ready for a race with Kaye Don and his Miss England II that was just five minutes away; the sleek mahogany defender of the Harmsworth Trophy roaring out of Wood's boathouse here just before the last patch of solder had cooled on her gasoline tank. I saw it dash madly for the start in that 1931 disaster that sent both Wood and Kaye Don across the starting line over five seconds ahead of the gun and spilled and battered Miss England II before it went wheeling around one lap of the course.

In a few moments Wood himself was leading me into his living room. The mantelpiece was lined with gold and silver trophies, mementos of his other racing days. An organ throbbed somewhere back in the vault. Revolving lights were set mysteriously behind panes of frosted glass in the ceiling, changing the colors of the room from half darkness to purple, then to violet and pale rose. Wood's hair gleamed whiter than ever under those deepening lights and, for a moment, I could imagine myself in the chancel of a medieval necromancer.

I didn't like to talk of boats and engines here. It didn't seem like the place for it. But I said, "Mr. Wood, what about the Harmsworth?"

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well, I mean-the English. They have a 140-mile-an-hour boat."

He looked at me with an amused smile. "That's nothing." His eyes kept dancing in a steady, brilliant light.

"Nothing! One hundred and forty miles an hour is nothing?"

"Listen," he said, "speed on water, real speed, is just beginning. We'll go 150 before long."

"But how?"

We sat down. Wood looked out over the Detroit River, then down at the Teddy Bears in his hands. "This Bluebird, Campbell's boat, is a 'paper' boat."

"A 'paper' boat?" I knew it was made of Saunders Roe multi-ply wood and duralumin. That seemed sturdy enough for me.

Wood saw I was confused and he hurried to say, "By paper boat I mean it's good only for short sprints. It would crack up if it didn't ride on a glass-flat surface. It would tip over on a turn. It's not built for racing. It couldn't take one lap of a Harmsworth course."

Then I knew.

Wood kept on. "That English boat is built only to achieve its 'paper' speed, its theoretical speed. It should go 150 miles an hour and it will."

"But suppose," I said, "suppose Campbell puts his engine in a race boat, a Harmsworth boat. He has 2,150 horsepower in one engine. Then what?"

Wood smiled, said, "We have ideas, too. We've been up against this thing before, these 'superior' boats. Many times."

Then he told me. That's the story of this book. But for the moment I asked, "Why do you do this? What's in it?"

"I don't know. Just for a thrill, I guess. It seems like suicide sometimes. And the cost is tremendous. You haven't any idea. There's a trophy there," pointing to a small silver trophy on the mantelpiece. "That cost me $75,000 before I won it."

Another had cost him $10,000. Yet another $25,000, and so on. "In 1920," he said, "I spent $250,000 to win the Harmsworth Trophy; That's why I'm trying to keep it. It's only worth, though, about $5,000."

Wood wasn't fooling when he mentioned the cost. The Harmsworth is a toy for multi-millionaires. In 1921, Sir Mackay Edgar spent $75,000 building the English boat, Maple Leaf VII, a boat that didn't even finish the second lap of the race at Detroit.

Wood's Miss America II, in the same year, cost him $40,000. He also spent $20,000 to put Miss America I in condition. Sheldon Clark, of Chicago, spent a mere mite on his Miss Chicago-$15,000.

Henry Esders, Paris department store owner, built two boats in 1925 and 1926 at a cost of $50,000. The first one burned up at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in a trial run; the second didn't get around the first lap of the Harmsworth course at Detroit.

Marion Barbara Carstairs, in three years, gambled $275,000 on boats and about $70,000 for expenses.

C. Harold Wills spent $30,000 for the Baby Marold. In its first race on the Detroit River, in 1916, it burned down to the water line-a complete loss.

The British Air Ministry spent almost $5,000,000 to develop the Rolls-Royce Aircraft engines used in Miss England II, Miss England III, and Campbell's Bluebird.

Before Sir Henry Segrave was killed in Miss England II on Lake Windermere in June, 1930, he let it be known that Lord C. C. Wakefield had already spent $90,000 on the boat. That was just the beginning for Wakefield. The figures pirouetted madly to $250,000 before the boat cracked up in 1931 on the Detroit River.

And you can be sure that Wood has matched these Britons dollar for dollar. Most of Wood's fortune spirals from his invention of the hydraulic hoist now used on trucks throughout the world; from other road-building equipment and from the famous Gar Wood oil furnaces. Wood does not make money on boats. That's where he spends it. That's his hobby. He spent $30,000 merely to test new superchargers on the dynamometer at the Packard plant in 1933. The superchargers cost him close to $150,000 before they were ready. Just the superchargers!

But Wood doesn't care. He loves to hear those engines cannon in his cotton-stuffed ears; loves to feel the sting of hailstone spray on his face, the white heat of the exhaust stacks in front of him. Almost a half-million people surge down to the Detroit River to see him race. For over twenty years they've been doing it. The starting gun is fired, the last time disc drops, the starter's flag goes down. Giant hydroplanes dash across the starting line, the race is on. But Wood hears nothing above the high drone of 7,600 horsepower, the thundering herd, steelshod, threatening to pound his boat to slivers.

Just before I left Wood's home that night I asked him one more question. We were standing near the door. My hand was already on the latch. "How is it, Mr. Wood," I said, "how is it you're alive today?"

"Don't you know?" he asked. And then, suddenly, he had gone back to where we'd been sitting.

I stood there, waiting and wondering.

He came back in a moment holding his two teddy bears, Teddy and Bruin, in the fingers of his right hand. "Here's the reason," he said, seriously. "These, THESE are the captains of my fate-mine and Johnson's."

For thirty years Wood has been tying these teddy bears to his engines. A fortune cannot buy them from him. After he won the Harmsworth Trophy in England in 1920, an Englishman offered him £1,000 for one of them. Wood refused the offer.

Wood stole these teddy bears thirty years ago-from Mrs. Wood, his wife. She had bought the first one for fifteen cents in St. Paul, Minn., where they lived. When Wood saw it in their home he took it and put it in his first raceboat, Little Leading Lady. He won every race with that boat.

Mrs. Wood bought another. Wood stole that one, too.

When he built his Miss Detroit II, Mrs. Wood saw her lost teddy bears for the first time. She made each of them a cork life-saving jacket, a bathing cap, rubber-soled shoes. She even stuffed their ears with batting to keep out the thunder of the engines. She gave them to Wood and asked him to put them into his new boat, for luck.

Wood smiled and tied them to his engines.

But Mrs. Wood fondles them as her own, as indeed they are. She dries them out when they're pitched overboard, dresses them up again. Wood will never go out on the river in his fast boats without them. The only time he ever lost a race was when his son, Gar, Jr., gave one of them to his opponent. Nearly every time he went out without them, something happened. Once it was a broken gear box, another time a split cylinder. Six thousand dollars . . . $10,000 . . . $25,000, a fortune cannot buy them from him. They have become a devotion to him. Every race thickens the halo about their fuzzy little heads.

It wasn't thus when boat racing was fun and a catapult meant nothing more than a good solid drenching. But when Wood stepped his boats up to 80 . . . 100 . . . 125 miles an hour, he began to get serious about these Teddy Bears. Boat racing began to look like suicide and mere sportsmen began to fear these fast boats.

The Teddy Bears in their early years were a victory charm. Wood played with them like a boy. But now he talks to them seriously, believes in them. One day, just a few minutes before an important race, Wood was sitting next to Johnson in the cockpit of his Miss America, waiting for the moment to dash out on the course. He picked up his Teddy Bears, held them up, and, without a smile, said to them, "Can you bring us through this time?"

And they both seemed to nod their heads and say, "Yes, Boss; yes, we can."

I'm continually surprised at Wood's wealth of technical knowledge, his humor, his possessing manner. And yet, when he steps into the cockpit of his fastest boats he seems quixotic to the point of madness. It's something in his blood and in the blood of his men.

Wood told me the most dramatic story of the sea I'd ever heard. It's the story of his Harmsworth races from 1928 to 1933, when the battle for the Trophy became not the battle of two individuals but the battle of nations.

The story will be told in its proper place.

(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.1)