The Thunder Returns to Virginia [1997]

This Memorial Day weekend [1997], the unlimited hydroplanes will return to the state of Virginia for a new race, to be run on Willoughby Bay, near Norfolk.

That's right -- RETURN...after an absence of more than 60 years. The thunderboats last competed in Virginia in 1933 and 1934. This was for the Virginia Gold Cup, conducted by the Hampton Yacht Club.

Horace Elgin Dodge, Jr., the auto magnate, sponsored the race and donated the trophy. Dodge, at the time, owned the Horace E. Dodge Boat and Plane Corp., headquartered in Newport News. Dodge's plant, located within sight of the race course, served as the pit area for the Virginia Gold Cup entrants.

The 2.5-mile course was laid out in a protected bay between the Chamberlin Hotel and Hampton Creek, right off Hampton Roads. In both 1933 and 1934, the race consisted of two heats of 15 miles each. The boats entered in this race had to be of the single-engine variety with no limit as to horsepower or type of hull bottom.

The Hampton Yacht Club had conducted an annual event on the Fourth of July weekend for a number of years. The 1933 Virginia Gold Cup was run in conjunction with the HYC's sixth annual regatta.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Horace Dodge did much to help keep the sport of boat racing healthy in that time of extreme economic uncertainty. He supported the races in Detroit and Washington, D.C., and tried to do the same for the race in Hampton.

In both 1933 and 1934, Dodge entered Delphine VII in the Virginia Gold Cup. Delphine VII was a step hydroplane, designed by George Crouch. Powered by a 6-cylinder Packard Gold Cup Class engine, she measured 25 feet in length with a six-foot beam.

Many other types of boats ran at Hampton that first year in addition to the Gold Cuppers. These included Stars, knockabout sloops, moths, cruisers, outboards, 151 Class inboards, and runabouts.

The regatta attracted 5,000 spectators, according to the Newport News Daily Press.

The popular Bill Horn, who had won the 1932 APBA Gold Cup as driver of Dodge's Delphine IV, served as referee.

Victory in the 1933 Virginia Gold Cup went to John Bramble, driving Pep III, owned by Ernest Chase of Baltimore, Md. Pep III, a 20-foot step hydroplane, was the former Miss Chicago. She used a 12-cylinder Liberty engine. Pilot Bramble got off to a good start and won both heats. Bramble's exhaust stacks sent forth large clouds of black smoke during both heats, laying down a smoke screen all over the course.

Pep III averaged 54.162 mph in Heat One, followed by Dodge and Delphine VII, which managed 53.731. Jack Rutherfurd, driving the Gold Cup Class Imp, broke a camshaft on the Hispano-Suiza engine on lap two and was forced to retire.

In Heat Two, Pep III averaged 55.958 to Delphine VII's 55.785, winning another close race.

Columnist Stuart Gibson, reporting for the Norfolk Landmark, described the action in these words:

"Bramble and Dodge furnished as pretty a race as a gold cup event has ever produced. Not once during the 12-lap grind were the craft more than 200 yards apart. In the first two laps of the second heat, Dodge took the lead with his white flash, but Bramble thundered down the southern side of the course on the third lap to make his best lap time (57.7 mph) and take the lead that he maintained until the finish."

Horace Dodge, in presenting the Virginia Gold Cup to Bramble and Chase, congratulated them on their victory. Dodge indicated that Delphine VII (in her first race) gave everything she had to win.

In 1934 at Hampton, Dodge was able to present the first-place trophy to himself. That year, Delphine VII improved upon her 1933 performance and took the top honor, this time with Walter Leveau as driver.

Leveau, who served as chief designer for the Horace E. Dodge Boat and Plane Corp., finished second in Heat One to Rutherfurd's Imp. Leveau made Rutherfurd work for it. The victory margin was 52.941 to 52.427.

Heat Two was a heartbreaker for Rutherfurd. After having led all the way and with only a quarter of a lap remaining to the checkered flag, Imp's rudder pin broke. In an instant, the boat was unsteerable. Rutherfurd manfully limped over the finish line, with his riding mechanic holding the rudder post. But this was ten minutes after the salute gun had boomed out victory for Delphine VII, which had averaged 51.625 for the final 15 miles.

A third running of the Virginia Gold Cup was scheduled for 1935, but none of the larger inboard boats attended. Victory went instead to Ednandy III, a 225 Class hydroplane, owned by Andy Crawford of Washington, D.C., and driven by 1934 winner Walter Leveau, who had designed the craft for Crawford. Ednandy III was an 18-foot step hydro, powered by a six-cylinder Lycoming engine.

The 1935 race at Hampton brought down the curtain on unlimited action in the state of Virginia, although the area has long been a hotbed of limited hydroplane activity.

There is simply no comparison between the race boats of the '30s and their counterparts of the '90s. None of the hydroplanes that competed for the Virginia Gold Cup were three-pointers. And turbine engines were still confined to the realm of science fiction.

Now, after 62 years, the thunderboats are back, sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the Virginia Waterfront, and the City of Norfolk. The newly established Virginia Is For Lovers Cup promises to revive a long-dormant tradition.

Let the races begin!

(ED. NOTE--David Greene of the Unlimited Historical Committee contributed to the above article.)

(Reprinted from the UHRA Thunder Letter Vol.2 no.207 April 29, 1997)