The Fast-Steppers : From Pioneer to Miss Pepsi

When most people think of an unlimited hydroplane, they envision a three-point race boat riding on the tips of two sponsons and a propeller and kicking up an impressive roostertail of spray a football field in length.

But it wasn't always that way.

The very first race boats, around the turn of the century, were displacement craft. They subscribed to the only known theory of aquatic speed. They plowed THROUGH rather than skimmed OVER the surface of the water. Indeed a velocity of 20 miles per hour was considered a major accomplishment in those early days.

The three-point configuration was tried rather unsuccessfully as early as 1915, but didn't gain wide acceptance until the late 1930s.

Between the era of the displacement boats and the advent of the three-pointers, another type of craft held sway. This was the so-called "step" hydroplane, which was considered the state of the art in big-time boat racing for more than a quarter century.

The earliest step hydroplanes appeared around 1910. At high speeds, they rode on one or more breaks or "steps" that were built into or affixed to the underside of the hull. Boats that were so equipped utilized a lot less wetted surface area than had been the case with the old-style vee-botton displacement craft. The step hydroplanes rode like bucking broncos, but they were fast.

An English designer, the Reverend C.M. Ramus, had drawn up plans for a high-speed skimmer as early as 1872. Unfortunately, the power necessary to make such a craft operational wasn't available at the time. But interestingly enough, almost sixty years later, the first boat to clear 100 miles per hour (Gar Wood's Miss America IX) used a hull shape that was almost identical to the Ramus design. But instead of rocket engines, as proposed by Reverend Ramus, Miss America used Packard aircraft power.

A lot of trial and error went into the development of step hydroplanes. There were many failures. Some couldn't plane at all. Others were impossible to steer. Boats swamped, capsized, and broke their backs. Finally, one of them, the Pioneer, actually worked.

Pioneer was an English boat, owned by the Duke of Westminster, and challenged America for possession of the Harmsworth International Trophy in 1910. Powered by a 12-cylinder Wolseley-Siddeley engine, rated at 400 horsepower, Pioneer left the American defender, Dixie II, far astern. Pioneer ran laps in the 40 mile an hour range on Huntington Bay, Long Island, and traveled three feet for every two of Dixie.

Unfortunately for Pioneer, the engine overheated and caught fire. The fire burned the ignition wires. This caused the engine to miss and slowed Pioneer down. Dixie II, a displacement craft, managed to overtake Pioneer and retain the trophy for the United States. But the victory was a hollow one, inasmuch as Pioneer was clearly the faster boat. The era of the step hydroplane had arrived.

The first hydroplane hull to score a victory in the APBA Gold Cup was MIT II in 1911 with J.H. Hayden at the wheel. The best heat of the 1910 winner, Dixie II, was 33 miles per hour. MIT II, in 1911, with forty per cent of Dixie II's power, exceeded 36 miles per hour. Unquestionably, the era of the displacement hull was over.

The fast-steppers came of age during the heyday of Gar Wood, between 1917 and 1933, Wood was to boat racing what Babe Ruth was to baseball. With his various Miss Detroit and Miss America boats, Wood won five consecutive Gold Cups, starting in 1917. In the final heat of the 1920 race, Gar and Miss America I set a 30-mile heat record of 70.412 that would stand until 1946.

After 1921, Wood became a victim of his own incredible success. Gar simply outspent his rivals and installed not one but two Smith-Liberty engines in the first Miss America, which was unbeatable. So, the opposition went to work and legislated the huge multi-engine hydroplanes off the race course--or at least out of the Gold Cup. Starting in 1922, the Gold Cup was limited to "gentlemen's runabouts" with no "steps" or "shingles" allowed and a maximum engine size of 625 cubic inches.

So, for the balance of his career, Wood concentrated primarily on Harmsworth competition. Between 1920 and 1933, Gar won the Harmsworth Trophy eight times as a driver and nine times as an owner. And with Miss America IX, Wood became the first to average better than 100 miles per hour on a straightaway mile with a clocking of 102.256 in 1931.

Gar's most famous hydroplane was Miss America X, the last of the line and the winner of the 1932 and 1933 Harmsworth races. Thirty-eight feet of mahogany, the X used four giant Packard engines and was the first boat in the world to do 124 miles per hour.

The Wood team's most significant challenger was Englishman Kaye Don in 1931. As driver of Miss England II, Don was the only man ever to defeat Gar in a heat of Harmsworth competition. And in so doing, Don set a world lap speed record of 93 miles per hour that stood until 1949.

Following Gar Wood's retirement from competition, the most prominent patron of big-time power boat racing was Horace E. Dodge, Jr., the auto magnate, whose career spanned from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Hydroplane hulls were re-admitted to the Gold Cup Class in 1929, and Dodge was quick to jump on the Gold Cup bandwagon. He won the race twice (in 1932 with Delphine IV and in 1936 with Impshi). Over the years, Dodge spent millions of dollars on the sport and built literally dozens of boats.

But not even the Dodge millions were a match for the most successful Gold Cup boat of the Depression Era, El Lagarto, owned and driven by George Reis.

El Lagarto was a recycled former displacement craft from the 1920s, resurrected from obscurity. Reis and crew chief Anderson "Dick" Bowers "shingled" the boat's underside in compliance with the new regulation of 1929, and a racing legend was born. Nicknamed "The Leaping Lizard of Lake George" (New York), El Lagarto became the first three-time consecutive winner in Gold Cup history with victories in 1933, 1934, and 1935. The "Lizard" also won the President's Cup and National Sweepstakes Trophy races and set an unsupercharged Gold Cup Class straightaway record of 72.727.

The first successful three-point hydroplanes appeared on the scene in 1936. They could run with the fast-steppers and defeat them on occasion. For the next twenty years, an ideological battle ensued between the proponents and opponents of sponson boats as the future of boat racing. Horace Dodge, for one, never approved of the three-point design and was still campaigning step hydroplanes as late as 1956.

Some of the more successful step hydros of the late 1930s were the Notre Dame, the Alagi, the Ma-Ja II, the Miss Canada III, the Why Worry, the Warnie, the Big Shot, and the Hermes III.

After World War II, the Gold Cup Class became the Unlimited Class. War surplus Allison aircraft engines found their way into step boats and three-pointers alike.

In the late 1940s, the sponson boats garnered most of the glory in terms of the number of race victories. These included Tempo VI, Miss Peps V, Miss Great Lakes, La-Ha-La, Such Crust I, and Skip-a-Long, which achieved great success. But then along came My Sweetie, a two-step Allison-powered charger from the drawing board of John Hacker.

With "Wild Bill" Cantrell driving, My Sweetie won the APBA Gold Cup and the National High Point Championship in 1949. In the Gold Cup, Cantrell held off challenges from Stan Dollar in Skip-a-Long and Dan Arena in Such Crust I enroute to the title.

My Sweetie won all but one of her races in 1949. This made her the winningest unlimited hydroplane of the 1940s.

All of the superlatives lavished on My Sweetie in 1949 would be descriptive of the Dossin brothers' Miss Pepsi in 1950, 1951, and 1952.

Miss Pepsi was a lengthened-out copy of My Sweetie by designer Hacker. Nicknamed "The Mahogany Cigar" and "The Aquatruck," Miss Pepsi was a 36-foot-long three-step hydroplane with two Allisons in tandem. She was the only boat--step or three-point--to be successful with twin-Allison power. Driven in all of her races by Chuck Thompson, Miss Pepsi was the ultimate step hydroplane, capable of lap speeds 8 to 10 miles per hour faster than any other fast-stepper ever built.

A three-time President's Cup winner, Miss Pepsi was the first boat to average over 100 miles per hour in a heat of the Gold Cup (in 1952). She was one of the few boats truly competitive with Slo-mo-shun IV and Slo-mo-shun V, the first successful three-point prop-riders in the Unlimited Class.

Retired after 1952, Miss Pepsi came back for a few curtain calls in the middle 1950s. But times had changed. The Pepsi had trouble with some of the newer single-engine three-pointers, most notably Tempo VII in 1955 and Miss Thriftway in 1956.

Miss Pepsi didn't race in 1957. But if she had, she would have been no match for Jack Regas and Hawaii Kai III, which rewrote the record book from coast to coast and did a lap of 116 miles per hour on Lake Chelan. As a competitive concept, the step hydroplane was a dead issue after 1956.

The last step boat to start in a heat of competition was Chuck Doran's Miss Ricochet at St. Clair, Michigan, in 1959. She finished all three heats and managed an overall third in a five-boat field, but could only average 46 miles per hour for the 45 miles.

The last two attempts at a step configuration in the unlimited ranks were Gale's Roostertail in 1967 and Something Else in 1983. They weren't fast enough to qualify, and both were quickly retired.

The fast-steppers now belong to history. Their racing days are over. But in recent years, the step hydroplanes have experienced a rebirth of interest among members of the Antique and Classic Boat Society, a national organization dedicated to the restoration and duplication of classic wood hulls.

These include such famous names as Miss America VIII, Arab IV, Miss St. Lawrence, Delphine IV, Impshi, Rainbow IV, Lil Miss Pepsi, Wings, Liberty Secong, and John Francis My Sweetie.