Dan Arena — A Powerboat Racing Legend
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
|Albin Fallon's Miss Great Lakes II was designed, built by Dan Arena in 1952. Dan won the Biscayne Gold cup in Miami in '52 with her. Photo courtesy Greg Fallon
|Ventnor-built Such Crust I. Dan Arena drove for Jack Schafer in 1948-49. Dossin Museum photo
|Jack Schafer's Such Crust I and Such Crust II on Detroit River in 1950. Arena designed and built the Crust II in 1949, drove Crust I in '48-49. Dossin Museum Photo
Future Unlimited Class luminary Dan Arena made his first impression in the California Gold Cup Class of the 1930s with a series of boats named Miss Golden Gate. Dan drove the first of these, a step hydroplane, to victory in the Pacific Motorboat Trophy at Newport Harbor in 1936 and 1937.
The three-point hull design of racing hydroplane caught on in a big way in the years just prior to World War II. Most of the early three-pointers were products of the Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey. These were boats that rode on the tips of the two sponsons and a submerged propeller.
Arena decided to embrace the three-point concept with a design of his own in the form of a new Miss Golden Gate, which measured 20 feet by 7-1/2 feet, powered by an 8-cylinder Wright/Hisso engine. The craft, which resembled the Ventnor hulls, was co-designed by riding mechanic Danny Foster and built by E.A. McLean.
At the 1938 APBA Gold Cup in Detroit, the Miss Golden Gate team was long on talent but short on cash. Still, they managed to survive the 90 miles and to finish second overall to the Italian Count Theo Rossi and Alagi. In claiming the runner-up spot, Miss Golden Gate posted the highest finish ever, up to that time, by a Western boat in the Gold Cup series. (Californian had finished third in 1931.)
Based upon their performance at Detroit, it was obvious that much would be heard from Arena and Foster in the years to come.
And the story of their finish in the Final Heat would become a racing legend. That was when, for the last 24 miles, Foster had to hang precariously out of the Miss Golden Gate cockpit into the engine compartment, holding the gas controls open with his hands after the fittings connecting the foot throttle with the carburetors went adrift.
For 1939, Arena received an offer of employment from millionaire owner Herb Mendelson to take over operation of the Notre Dame racing team.
Mendelson had won the 1937 Gold Cup with Clell Perry as driver. Perry had built a new Notre Dame hull in 1938 but had crashed the boat and suffered severe injuries.
Arena rebuilt the damaged hull for Mendelson and drove it to a third-place finish in the 1939 Gold Cup behind Guy Simmons in My Sin and Harold Wilson in Miss Canada III. But Mendelson was dissatisfied with the hull and ordered a new boat to be designed and built by Arena for 1940.
Dan would have preferred a three-point design, as Miss Golden Gate had been, but Mendelson insisted on another step configuration.
Despite not being able to finish at the Gold Cup, Arena steered the new Notre Dame to victory in the President’s Cup at Washington, D.C., and set a supercharged Gold Cup Class mile straightaway record of 100.987. The record stood for six years.
Arena also participated in the 1940 National Sweepstakes Regatta at Red Bank, New Jersey, where Notre Dame recorded a 2-1/2 mile competition lap of 76 mile per hour. This translated to approximately 81 miles per hour on a standard 3-mile course. This achievement was not exceeded until 1948.
With the advent of World War II and gasoline rationing, APBA boat racing was suspended for the duration. The Notre Dame team did not re-appear until 1947.
After the war, Dan Arena is credited with designing and building the first boat to be built with an Allison engine in mind--the Miss Golden Gate III, later renamed Miss Great Lakes, the first boat to win a race with a modern power source.
At 26 feet in length, Miss Golden Gate III is considered rather short by today’s standards. But in 1946, she was the biggest boat out there at a time when most Gold Cup contenders measured closer to 20 feet.
As it turned out, the craft wasn’t large enough to handle that much horsepower. Consequently, she was a wild rider. As a testbed for the new-fangled Allison, she served her purpose well. Following and as a result of Miss Golden Gate III, the accepted configuration for post-war piston-powered Unlimiteds has been more in the 28 to 30-foot range.
The "III" made its first competitive appearance at the 1946 Gold Cup on the Detroit River. Arena was hoping to improve upon his second-place performance in the 1938 Gold Cup with the previous Miss Golden Gate. The 1946 renewal was the first major Unlimited race after the war.
The sport was trying to re-organize and recruit, from the remains of the pre-war fleet, a representative field of entries. Prior to 1941, the Unlimited Class had been known as the Gold Cup Class with a maximum of 732 cubic inches of piston displacement.
The modern era of Unlimited hydroplane racing began when the huge supply of converted aircraft and other types of power sources developed for the war effort became available in quantity.
Arena used a substantially stock 1710-cubic inch Allison, salvaged from a P-38 fighter plane. The engine was installed aircraft-style in the boat, as opposed to the present-day practice of reversing the engine for use in a hydroplane.
In the years to come, “the good old Allison” would become to Unlimited racing what the Offenhauser is to Indianapolis.
Interestingly enough, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine made its debut at the same time as the Allison. Also in the pits at Detroit in 1946 was the Miss Windsor, a step hydroplane that never could seem to answer the starter’s gun but served to introduce “the mighty Merlin” to the racing world.
Miss Golden Gate III arrived in the Motor City virtually untested. With Dan Arena at the wheel and brother Gene Arena alongside as riding mechanic, the yellow-painted three-pointer ran conservatively in the first two 30-mile heats.
Going into the final round, the Arena team had 600 points for two second-place finishes. This compared to 800 points for the favored Tempo VI and driver Guy Lombardo, who had the fastest lap of the day at 73.294 around the 3-mile course. (This compared to the previous high of 72.707 set by Alagi in 1938.)
For the Third Heat, Dan and Gene decided to go for broke and see what the Allison engine could really do.
With the world watching, Miss Golden Gate III thundered into the lead, leaving Tempo VI, Buckeye Baby, Blitz II, and Aljo V far astern. ABC-TV announcer Don Dunphy excitedly described the action as Dan Arena kept going faster and faster, breaking Lombardo’s mark on every lap and setting a new Gold Cup record of 77.911 miles per hour in the process.
As the Arenas lengthened their lead on that historic September 2, reaching straightaway speeds of 100 miles per hour, they noticed something strange about their wild-riding juggernaut. It was trying to propride!
Unlike the classic tail-dragging Ventnor three-pointers of the 1930s with propellers that were completely submerged, Miss Golden Gate III was trying to ride much higher up on the three points with the propeller only partly submerged.
According to Dan Arena, the boat would only do this sporadically, but the tendency was definitely there. It was a concept that would reach fruition four years later with the Ted Jones-designed Slo-mo-shun IV.
After nine of ten laps, Miss Golden Gate III was two miles ahead of Tempo VI. The craft, which had only had about twenty minutes of water testing prior to race day, was in a class by itself.
Old-timers of Detroit River racing could not help but compare the raw competitiveness of Miss Golden Gate III to that of Gar Wood’s Miss America VII, a legendary craft that was a brand-new boat in 1928 and won the Harmsworth Trophy in record time with the varnish still wet--a contender right out of the box.
Unfortunately, the Golden Gate’s oil pressure gauge was not working properly. The engine was completely dry of oil. With three quarters of a lap to the checkered flag, the Allison blew a rod. Miss Golden Gate III slid to a halt. Guy Lombardo inherited the lead and claimed the victory.
Dan Arena speculated that his boat ran the entire Third Heat and half of the Second Heat without any lubrication. This is an eloquent testimonial to the durability of the Allison V-12, which is reputed to be the strongest engine ever built.
And while Tempo VI had won the Gold Cup, there was no doubt as to which boat was the new star of the racing world. Miss Golden Gate III--the first Thunderboat--had made its mark.
Dan Arena would like to have fine-tuned the Golden Gate in future races but had commitments back in Oakland, California. He received an offer from Detroiter Albin Fallon and sold the brightest star on the Unlimited horizon.
Dan thus returned to California without the boat but rich with the satisfaction that he had proved his point about the Allison engine. Together with the Rolls-Royce Merlin, the Allison would reign as the premier Unlimited power source until the Turbine Revolution of 1984.
As for Miss Golden Gate III, she went on to win the 1946 President's Cup and the 1948 Gold Cup as Miss Great Lakes with Danny Foster driving.
Arena had made an important contribution to what was then known about the three-point design of hydroplane. Unlike the Ventnor three-pointers, Arena’s boat sported a flatter profile and trapped more air between the sponsons, allowing for less wetted surface area.
Dan would experiment further with Such Crust II in 1949, with Gale II in 1951, with Miss Great Lakes II in 1952, with Miss U.S. in 1953, and with Miss Wayne in 1955.
For 1947, Arena returned to the driver's seat of the re-activated Notre Dame. By then, the Gold Cup Class had changed over to the Unlimited Class. The Allison V-12 was the new engine of choice. But Mendelson elected to stay with his tried and proven Duesenberg W-24.
At the 1947 Gold Cup on Jamaica Bay, New York, Notre Dame posted the fastest heat (56.842) and the fastest lap (62.645), but experienced mechanical difficulty and didn’t finish the race.
Three weeks later, Notre Dame won the Silver Cup at Detroit, which consisted of two heats of 45 miles each on a 4-1/2-mile course. With brother Gene as riding mechanic, Dan Arena ran head-to-head with Harold Wilson in Miss Canada III and beat Wilson over the finish line in Heat One, 73.685 miles per hour to 73.505.
In Heat Two, Notre Dame ran a steady second behind Guy Lombardo and Miss Great Lakes, which hadn’t finished the first heat. This gave Notre Dame a victory total of 700 points compared to 469 for second-place Miss Canada III.
Dan's final appearance with Notre Dame occurred at the 1947 President’s Cup. Notre Dame finished second but was beaten in all three heats by Danny Foster in Miss Peps V, an Allison-powered three-pointer. The handwriting was clearly on the wall. Notre Dame was obsolete. Three-point hulls with the large World War II fighter plane engines were the future of the sport.
In 1948, the Arena brothers affiliated with Jack Schafer's Such Crust organization. Dan drove Such Crust I; Gene handled Such Crust II. Dan was the High Point Unlimited driver that first year and won three races: the Webb Trophy, the Gull Lake Regatta, and the President's Cup, which was presented to him by President Harry S. Truman.
Dan won no races in 1949 but drove Such Crust I to third-place in the APBA Gold Cup with a victory in Heat One.
Switching to Such Crust II, Dan captured the inaugural running of the Steel Cup at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1950.
For the balance of his career, Arena concentrated less on driving and more on building. With two of his creations (Miss Great Lakes II and Miss U.S.), Dan would "give the bride away" by driving the boat in its first race before relinquishing the wheel to someone else.
With Miss Great Lakes II, he won both ends of a two-heat match race against Lee Schoenith and Gale II at the 1952 Biscayne Bay Regatta in Miami. Joe Taggart drove the Great Lakes for the remainder of the season.
With Miss U.S., Dan drove to a fourth-place finish in the 1953 Gold Cup at Seattle as a favor to owner/driver George Simon who wasn't yet qualified to drive in a Gold Cup race.
The Arena design in Unlimited racing reached its zenith on April 17, 1962, when Miss U.S. I raised the mile straightaway standard to 200.419 miles per hour at Guntersville, Alabama, with Roy Duby driving, a world record that stood for thirty-eight years.
Miss U.S. I, built by Les Staudacher, was a line-for-line hull duplicate of the Miss U.S. that Dan had designed and built in 1953.
Dan Arena's "Last Hurrah" in boat racing occurred in 1994 when he and brother Gene were inducted together into the Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame.
As a young man, Dan Arena never thought powerboat racing would turn into a prosperous and prestigious career. In fact, growing up in Oakland along the beautiful Lake Merritt which the city surrounded, Arena took up outboard racing just for fun.
He went on to race inboards because he wanted a new challenge and more speed. And when Lou Fageol started a series of Gold Cup class races on the west coast, Arena went to work in Sam Baxter's garage and helped Sam Kuntz build then race the Baxter Special on the Salton Sea against Fageol and his boat So Long. The year was 1935 and Arena had just turned 19.
He stayed with boat racing for the next few years, waiting for the opportune time to step into his father's winery business.
But in '36, the Baxter Special which was renamed Miss Golden Gate to help publicize his father's winery, did not lose a heat of racing, winning everything including the most prestigious trophy on the coast — the Pacific Motorboat Trophy in Newport Beach.
The big wins in racing led Arena to collaborate on a new boat for the following year. His Miss Golden Gate had already reached a performance level almost equal to that of the best time of three-time Gold Cup Champion El Lagarto.
Arena was now thinking about stepping up to the big time, and he came to Detroit for the first time in 1937 without a ride just to scout the powerful unlimited class of racing.
He watched as Herb Mendelson's Notre Dame tore apart the El Lagarto by nearly ten miles per hour in each heat. The Duesenberg powered Notre Dame impressed Arena and he went back to the coast to defend his Pacific Motorboat Trophy.
He knew the Miss Golden Gate was too slow to catch the boats now being raced in the east, so he and A.E. McLean built a new Miss Golden Gate. This was a three-point design and not a step design as the old Golden Gate.
The crew worked on a shoestring budget and in a Cinderella Story, the low budget Miss Golden Gate completed all 90 miles of the '38 Gold Cup race, placing second to the Alagi driven by Count Theo Rossi, but becoming the toast of the city. In fact, the Golden Gate's throttle became dislodged and riding mechanic Danny Foster had to lean outside the boat to keep it going.
After the 1939 season ended, Arena gave up boat racing, heading for a career into the winery business. But the only "whine" Arena would be a part of would be the whine from the engines of powerboats.
He had already sold his Miss Golden Gate to Stan Dollar. But when Clell Perry and Mendelson and a parting of the ways, suddenly Arena found himself installed as the driver for the Notre Dame at only 22 years of age.
This team had won three of six races from 1935 to 1937 before sitting out 1938 due to a crash of the Notre Dame. This same boat was Arenas mount for 1939.
Unfortunately the Notre Dame was difficult to steer, having a bucking motion which made it a challenge to drive. Nevertheless Arena took second in the Gold Cup, posting a lap time within four m.p.h. of the winning My Sin. At the President's Cup, the boat was further refined due to the efforts of Arena and famed designer John Hacker. He took another second overall, although winning a heat and posting a lap time the equal of the victorious Miss Canada III.
In spite of the encouraging results at Washington, a new boat was planned for the Notre Dame team for 1940. It was to be designed by the 23-year-old Arena as opposed to Arno Apel, Douglas Van Patten or John Hacker. This was a tremendous vote of confidence by Mendelson as this was to be Arena's first attempt at designing a Gold Cup boat entirely by himself. It was the thrill of a lifetime for the young Arena, who was in the employ of the multi-millionaire Mendelson, who was closely associated with General Motors.
At the time Arena built the third Notre Dame in 1940, he not only had the considerable financial resources of Mendelson at his disposal, but also the research facilities of General Motors which provided the best of answers to his questions as well as materials. The new Notre Dame was a step hydro although designer Arena preferred the three pointers. Mendelson's previous boats had been of the step design with the first Notre Dame sweeping the 1937 season.
The new boat was quick in its first trials in posting a straightaway speed of 98 m.p.h. — the record for the Gold Cup class being held by Lou Fageol's So Long at 97 m.p.h. However the new Mendelson entry had steering problems and failed to win the 1940 Gold Cup at New York in August. Once these steering problems were overcome, Notre Dame gave one of the most remarkable performances in the history of motorboat racing by raising the 15 mile heat record for Gold Cup boats by 10 m.p.h. at Red Bank, beating his nearest opposition by nine m.p.h. The second place boat was the 225 class Tops 111, which had embarrassed the 1939 Gold Cup champion My Sin by running head to head with the latter on Lake Hopatcong.
The Notre Dame closed out her 1940 campaign in spectacular fashion by easily defeating the My Sin in all three heats to win the 1940 President's Cup. This was not the end of the honors to be secured by the new Arena design as in October 1940 the boat set a mile straightaway record of 100.987 m.p.h. at Detroit. A Gold Cup class boat had not exceeded the century mark before this run.
In the spring of 1940 when Germany attacked the major powers, it became clear that the whole world would soon be involved in war. As a result boat racing for the Gold Cup came to a standstill in 1941 with the nation becoming increasingly involved in the
Allied war effort. Arena became part of this effort by first working as a naval architect for the Navy Department and then as a commissioned officer, being involved with the U.S. Army Transportation Corps in the marine design section. However as the war drew to a conclusion, Dan came up with the design for a Gold Cup boat that would utilize the Allison engine that powered the P 38 fighter plane.
The Miss Golden Gate III was completed in Berkeley California about a month before the September 1946 Detroit Gold Cup. Unfortunately at its first trial the bow of the boat was severely damaged when dropped by a crane. This necessitated around-the-clock repairs and as a result the new boat arrived in Detroit with almost no testing time. In the Gold Cup, the untrimmed Golden Gate proved second best to the winning Tempo VI until the final heat when she led the latter lap, after lap breaking the Gold Cup lap record on almost every round. When the boat, as Miss Great Lakes, swept the President's Cup against the same Tempo VI, it was clear that Allison power was the way to go.
Shortly after the President's Cup, Dan Arena went to work for Lou Fageol's Twin Coach Company in the marine division. But before long he again got the call from Herb Mendelson to drive his Gold Cup class Notre Dame, which was still powered by a Duesenberg engine that gave up about 500 horsepower to the Allison-powered boats. This was 1947 and the Notre Dame, which had been a very smooth riding boat in 1940, was now a hard ride since it had been stored at a dock warehouse and the bottom had become warped. Nevertheless the Notre Dame posted the fastest heat and lap in the Gold Cup before winning the Silver Cup. However at the President's Cup it was apparent that the underpowered Notre Dame could not keep up with the aircraft-engined boats any longer.
In 1948, Arena enjoyed perhaps his greatest season as he became involved with Jack Schafer and a new Ventnor three pointer named Such Crust. The boat was the Ventnor Boat Company's first design to accommodate an Allison engine and was immediately successful in winning two of four races including the President's Cup. The Such Crust was clearly the outstanding boat of 1948, but deferred to Tempo VI as High Point Champion. This was due to the fact that the Such Crust was registered as an Unlimited, while most of the other boats were registered as Gold Cuppers. As a result each class was scored separately with the unlimited class having an insufficient number of registered entries to justify a High Point Champion.
The following year Arena started to get involved with the activity that was to be his profession for the rest of his life. That year he built and designed the Such Crust II and in 1950 he opened his boat shop and marina at Mt. Clemens, Michigan, which produced such Gold Cup boats as Gale II, Miss Great Lakes II, and Miss U.S.. Still, Dan Arena set a new North American mile straightaway record in 1949 aboard Such Crust, besting Gar Wood's record by three miles per hour, and in 1950 he won the Steel Cup with Such Crust II, before posting his final victory at Miami in 1952 in the cockpit of the Miss Great Lakes II.
Both the Gale II and Miss Great Lakes II, which were of an identical design, won races and showed an ability to run with the Slo-Mo-Shun boats, which set the standard at that time. But perhaps Dan Arena's greatest design was the Miss U.S., which also was competitive with the Slo-Mos as well as the all-conquering Tempo VII of 1955, but in addition in a later version built by Les Staudacher to an Arena design, was the first boat to record an official mile straightaway record of over 200 m.p.h. in 1962.
To understand the significance of this accomplishment it should be remembered that two of the most outstanding boats of that era — the Hawaii Kai III and Miss Thriftway -could not come close to this mark over the mile straightaway. In addition, the Miss U.S. record run has now stood for over 25 years.
Truly Dan Arena is a unique individual in the history of motorboat racing, since he has proved himself to be of Hall of Fame calibre both as a driver and as a designer. Only Gar Wood occupies a similar position. Dan became a member of the prestigious A.F:B.A. Honor Squadron in 1982. He has spent the last thirty years in Oakland as a builder and designer of pleasure boats.
(Reprinted from the 1987 Budweiser Thunderfest program)