Fred Alter

Fearless Freddie

Fred Alter
Fred Alter

When the thundering, breath-taking Unlimited hydroplanes churn the familiar waters of the Detroit River this summer [1990] it will mark the 75th anniversary of Gold Cup racing as it is known here in the Motor City.

Generations of Detroiters have migrated to the banks of the river along East Jefferson to answer the call of the ear-shattering thunder of the boats' powerful airplane engines ricochetting of the buildings or rolling across the tree tops of Bell Isle to the Canadian shores.

Some of the noise has been tempered by the introduction of the swooshing sounds of the newer aircraft turbine engines now powering the rulers of the fleet.

But the mighty, 30-foot, 6,000 pound, man-made sea monsters still leap, snarl and dart crazily on, over and, at times, under the water to thrill the thousands on the shoreline.

It is a combination of all these elements that annually draws the thousands of fans back to the banks this onetime every year.

One such fan is Fred Alter. A super fan.

Although he is now greying and maybe a step slower, there is no denying this man with the chisled face is the same Fearless Freddie Alter who delighted and thrilled fans for more than 20 years as a driver of the huge Gold Cuppers.

Yet driving was only one phase of Alter's total dedication to the sport he grew up with and loves to this day. Over the last 40 years, Alter grew from a pit lizard hanging around Kean's Harbor to a crew member, driver, boat owner and on up until he was proclaimed the Unlimited Racing Commission's "Official of the Year" in 1977.

At 63, Alter is hardly through.

He is throwing his tireless efforts into his latest project: "The Pioneers of Powerboating" a proposed shrine to honor those who have gone before him and those yet to come who will devote their time and efforts in the interest of powerboat racing.

Based on Alter’s record, it should happen.

A limited class racer with the late Bill Muncey and Ronnie Musson in the 1950's, Alter got his first chance to drive an Unlimited racer in 1955 in Bill Stroh’s Miss Detroit.

Ray Crawford, an Indy 500 driver and Mexican road racer, wanted no part of Unlimited powerboat racing after just one heat in the boat. Alter got his chance.

He drove a competitive race and drove everything from clunkers to race favorites for the next 20 years.

Although only one of his four victories came in Jack Schafer's Such Crust III, Alter's racing days are best remembered when he was at the helm of the unwieldy blue monster, the first twin-engine threepointer.

At times, Alter seemed to go up into Lake St. Clair in his battle to get the thundering monster to turn around. Yet, by the time the rest of the fleet neared the Naval Armory, Alter would be in their roostertails.

"I may not win, but I'm spectacular;" Alter would joke with his crew.

He was. Spectacular enough to be nicknamed, "Fearless".

In the 1957 Silver Cup Race on the Detroit River, Alter was thrown out of George Simon's Miss U.S. while leading Gold Cup-winner Jack Regas in Hawaii Kai.

"Fred shot out of Miss U.S. like a rocket;' Regas said. "He hit the water and tumbled like a rag doll:'

Regas drove to Alter's aid only to be greeted by "Thanks, Jack"; as Alter swam back to Miss U.S., climbed in and drove it back to the pits.

The doctors and Simon said Alter and the boat were through for the day.

He did an encore four years later in the President's Cup in Washington only this time there wasn't enough left of his Such Crust IV to drive back.

The two accidents did more for Alter and his fellow drivers than all of his victories or daring feats on water.

He became a crusader for driver safety. Bright colored helmets to make the driver more visible in the water, the use of smoke flares and the stopping of a race when a driver was in the water became mandatory.

Now Alter is on another crusade: to honor the great names like Gar Wood, Muncey, Bill Cantrell, the Schoeniths and a host of others who helped make Gold Cup racing the annual institution it has been for Detroiters for 75 years.

"We should have had a Hall of Fame for the sport years ago;' Alter says. "Seattle beat us to it. But theirs is only for Seattle people:'

"Detroit's Pioneers of Powerboating will be open to everyone who has contributed so much to the sport. What more natural setting is there for it than the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle. Miss Pepsi is there. There is a proposal to add a wing to display Simon's Miss U.S., the only propeller driven boat to top 200 miles an hour. Its 200.419 record stands.

"It's time we honored those who have made Unlimited boat racing possible. We plan to hold fund-raisers in the hope that the boat race fans will voluntarily pay back something for the years of free enjoyment they've had.

"Early contributions from a few companies and business leaders have given us $22,000 to launch the program. The members of the Spirit of Detroit Association, the Great Lakes Maritime Institute and City officials have promised their support.

"We had boat racing for 75 years. We have a lot of people to thank for it:'

Alter knows of the changing economic conditions surrounding Detroit. He's beaten other big challenges before.

At 63 and with more than 40 years in the sport, he's still fearless.

(Reprinted from the 1990 APBA Gold Cup program)