The Oakland Boys

The Oakland Boys, Part One

by Andy Muntz

Oakland, California, has never hosted an unlimited hydroplane race. The Sacramento Cups of 1966 and ’67 were the closest the sport has ever come to the city; the Gold Cup came closest in 1961 when it was held in Reno, almost 200 miles away. Yet, thanks to five friends who grew up there in the 1920s and early ‘30s, Oakland has had a greater impact on the sport than most of the cities that have actually seen the roar of thunderboats and the majesty of a roostertail.

Gold Cup boats had a way of capturing the fancy of young racing fans during the decades before World War Rudder, or Yachting magazines to follow the exploits of Gar Wood, George Reis, Bill Horn, or Clell Perry; the people who were leading a racing life they could only imagine.

The oldest of the group, Lou Fageol, oozed self-confidence and had engine grease in the family gene pool. His father as cofounder of the Fageol Motor Company, maker of the “Safety Bus,” the first passenger bus built from the ground up. The wealthiest of the neighborhood chums were Stanley Dollar and Edgar Kaiser. Dollar was the grandson of the steamship magnate Captain Robert Dollar, the founder of the Dollar Steam Ship Line, and Kaiser was the son of Henry Kaiser, the famous industrialist who by this time had built Boulder and Bonneville dams and who would soon make a fortune in shipbuilding and aluminum.

The remaining two, Dan Arena and Danny Foster, were the youngest. They were not as rich as the other three, but they dreamed large and would become the first to make their mark on the sport, along the way being the main characters in one of the greatest underdog stories in the sport’s history.

Both Arena and Foster started by racing small outboards, but when the expense of trying to outdo the other became too high, they decided to consolidate their efforts. That joint project came in the form of faster and more challenging inboards, thanks to the encouragement of Fageol, who had ordered several hulls and wanted the others to race against him so he would have some competition. Of course, racing inboards was expensive, so Arena convinced his father to give them some sponsorship money, which meant the boat was named Miss Golden Gate in honor of the family business, the Golden Gate Winery in nearby Modesto. In exchange, the pair promised they would work in the vineyards when the grapes were ready for harvest.

In time, Arena’s father also became enamored with his son’s racing hobby. In fact, during a business trip to Philadelphia, he found an aging Hispano-Wright engine that he thought would be perfect for his son’s boat, had the thing shipped to Oakland and asked a mechanic named Lloyd Taylor to rebuild it. (Taylor would later gain fame as the developer of the Crosley engine.) With Taylor’s magic touch, the engine was one of the most powerful in Northern California and gave Arena and Foster the wherewithal to collect race victories at a rapid pace.

By the mid 1930s the pair felt like they had conquered the California racing scene, so they turned their sights to the big time: the Gold Cup. Arena volunteered to attend the 1937 race in Detroit, carefully noted the variety of entrants there and returned home believing that their engine probably would be adequate for the challenge. Their problem, he concluded, would be the boat; it wasn’t up to Gold Cup standards. So, Arena’s dad reached into his pocket again and agreed to fund the construction of a larger hull.

Being careful readers of the speedboat magazines, Arena and Foster knew all about a new three-point hull design developed by Ventnor Boat Works of New Jersey. Problem was they couldn’t afford the $2,200 price tag for a bare hull from Ventnor, so they instead produced their own set of drawings based on photographs they had acquired of a smaller three-point boat. Once their new craft emerged from the shop, they painted it bright yellow and put the name Miss Golden Gate on its side.

Following a test run of 75 miles per hour on the Oakland Estuary, the 21-year-old Arena and his 23-year-old friend borrowed a car from Arena’s mother, loaded it with their provisions and set off on their adventure and headed east across Donner Pass with their big yellow hydroplane following behind, strapped to an old wooden trailer that was attached to the bumper. Along the way, they stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats to watch John Cobb set a land speed record, and then pushed on across the Great Plains, over the Mississippi River and through the Midwest to Detroit.

When they arrived, their first order of business was a stop at the Detroit Yacht Club to get their registration materials. That’s where they learned they had already become famous. The Detroit newspapers had been buzzing about a mysterious entry by what they described as two California millionaires, so race officials were shocked when the two bedraggled young men appeared and identified themselves as Arena and Foster. Danny Foster remembered the moment in an interview published in the Unlimited Newsjournal in December 1984:

“We drove in, and they said, ‘Where’s your boat? Are you shipping it by train?’ We said, ‘Why no, it’s right out in front. You wanna see it?’ They almost died. The next day: retractions. ‘They weren’t millionaires. They were just two kids with a boat!’”

Arena and Foster were directed to the pit area and parked their humble $1,000 craft among race boats that cost at least forty times more. But, judging by the performance of those boats in testing, it was hard to tell much difference. While the Golden Gate cruised smooth and steady around the Detroit River course, the others became victims to a host of maladies.

One of the biggest knocks against the Gold Cuppers had been their poor reliability. It seemed the boats couldn’t stay running for more than a few laps; and the 1938 Gold Cup was proving to be no exception. Herb Mendelson’s new Notre Dame flipped during a run and sent driver Clell Perry to the hospital; Zalmon Simmons couldn’t start the engine of his new Ventnor boat My Sin because water had gotten into the oil system; and two more boats dropped out on the morning of the race because of mechanical problems. That left only four to answer the starting gun for the first heat: the Italian Count Theo Rossi in his bright red Alagi, Harold Wilson in the Miss Canada III, Bill Horn in Horace Dodge’s odd-looking Excuse Me and the low-budget boat from Oakland.

In the first heat, with Arena at the steering wheel and Foster in the riding mechanic’s seat, the Golden Gate bounded across the starting line right behind the Canada III. Their hold on second place lasted only a few seconds, however, as Count Rossi soon roared past in the more powerful Alagi. Meanwhile, behind the Oakland pair, the Excuse Me chugged along for a few laps and then began to fall apart; the sponsons split, then pieces of decking flew off and finally the nose folded back and landed in the cockpit before it came to a stop and quietly sank. That left only three.

The second time out, the Canada III was hampered by an oil pump problem, which left the race to Alagi and the Golden Gate. Arena again got across the starting line before Count Rossi, but the Alagi was soon past the yellow boat and continued to pull further ahead clear to the end.

In the final, Arena again piloted the Golden Gate across the line first and turned a first lap at almost 66 miles-per-hour, but then the natural order of things took over and Rossi roared past once more. Arena was having a great ride, nevertheless. The Golden Gate was running smoothly and, though he had fallen about half a lap behind, he was keeping pace with the Alagi as they started their fourth time around the buoys. All considering, the second place trophy was looking pretty good, he thought to himself.

Suddenly, the Golden Gate’s engine coughed and fell silent. As the massive crowd groaned in despair and the boat slowed to a stop, Foster leapt from his seat and dived headfirst into the engine compartment. He immediately saw the culprit (the cable connecting the accelerator pedal to the throttle had broken), grabbed the throttle linkage and brought the engine back to life just as the sputtering Miss Canada III wallowed past. So, on they went for the remaining eight laps, bounding across the waves at about 50 miles-per-hour as Foster lay prone on the deck with his head nestled next to the engine and his hand manipulating the throttle, and as Arena drove the boat with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his friend’s ankle so he wouldn’t fall into the river. With one lap to go, the Canada III finally stopped running, which gave Arena and Foster the second place finish they hoped for.

“The roar of the crowd drowned out the roar of the mighty motors,” gushed a reporter for Pacific Motor Boat. “The Oakland lads received a tribute few losers ever receive. They lost the race but they were the heroes of the Gold Cup.” The writer for Yachting Magazine, meanwhile, referring to the sport’s recent history of lackluster performances, pointed out that it was fortunate Arena and Foster brought their little yellow flyer across the country because they “provided most of the color that relieved the drabness of the match.”

Back home in California, Arena’s mother and father spent the day listening to the radio reports. They heard the excited announcer urge the pair to the finish line and, after the race, heard their son congratulate the winner and talk about how much fun it had been. His mother’s only complaint was about the way some of the press had embellished the story by saying the young men had come to Detroit in a second-hand car.

“It wasn’t a second-hand car,” Mrs. Arena told a reporter, incredulously. “It was my 1935 Ford coupe—without a dent in it!”

After the race, the two Californians returned home to make good on their promise to tend the family vineyards. Arena was so sure that his future was in the winery, in fact, that he sold the Miss Golden Gate to his friend Stanley Dollar; his life’s ambition having been met, or so he thought.

[Reprinted from Unlimited NewsJournal, May 2011]