Gar Wood

Gar Wood : The Beginning of a Career

Orlin Johnson and Gar Wood (centre)
Orlin Johnson and Gar Wood (centre)

Garfield Arthur Wood - the immortal "Grey Fox of Grayhaven (Michigan)" - was Unlimited hydroplane racing's first superstar. In the years prior to World War II, "King Gar" personified power boat competition in the eyes of the world.

Between 1917 and 1933, he won the APBA Gold Cup four times as an owner and five times as a driver, and captured the Harmsworth International Trophy eight times as a driver and nine times as an owner. Gar was the first to average over 70 miles per hour in a heat of Gold Cup competition (in 1920). He was also the first to average over 100 miles per hour on a straightaway mile (in 1931).

Wood was a multi-millionaire who worked with the government in developing the U.S. Navy's PT Boat for service in WWII. But he was not born to great wealth.

The saga of the "Grey Fox" began on December 4, 1880, in a small town in Indiana. His parents, Walter and Elizabeth Wood, named their son Garfield Arthur in honor of the newly elected U.S. President, James Garfield, and his Vice-President, Chester Arthur.

A few years later, the family relocated to Minnesota where Walt Wood operated the ferry boat Manitoba on Lake Osakis. At the time, another ferry boat was plying the same waters and a rivalry developed between the two captains.

Boasts about the speed of the vessels-and arguments about it-inevitably led to a contest for the title of fastest boat on the lake.

With young Gar Wood on board as a part of the crew, the two ferry boats squared off against each other. The Manitoba jumped into an early lead but lost it when Walt Wood's paddlewheeler ran out of fuel. Undaunted, Walt yelled to Gar to break up the boat's furniture for fuel. Father and son quickly dismantled the chairs and tables, regained the lead, and went on to win the race in a frenzied finish.

Gar never forgot that first taste of competition-and victory-on the water. Years later, he would recall, "I still feel the thrill of winning that race. The engines driving those paddlewheels fascinated me. I resolved right then that someday I was going to build race boats of my own."

As a young man, Gar married Murlen Fellows, had a son, Garfield A. Wood, Jr., and moved to St. Paul. There, he opened a machine shop. One of his first projects was the construction of a racing craft, which he built in 1910 and named Leading Lady. Under the sponsorship of W.P. Cleveland, Leading Lady covered ten miles at an average of 30 miles per hour.

The following year, Wood and Cleveland modified the hull and entered her in some races on the old Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association circuit in the Mid-West. They managed to win a few trophies but lacked the financing to be truly competitive.

The problem of money was solved when Wood invented the hydraulic lift dump truck. This came about one day when Gar happened to observe a truck driver laboriously unloading two tons of coal with a hand-operated lift. After listening to the poor fellow curse his fate about having to perform such dirty and heavy work, an idea took root in Wood's mind.

He went home, took half of his life savings of $200, and in his backyard garage built the world's first hydraulic truck hoist, for which he obtained a patent. Gar then established the Wood Hydraulic and Body Company, and his fortune was made.

Wood then stepped up his participation in boat racing. He built a new craft, the Little Leading Lady, in 1912. Gar won every heat of the MVPBA Regatta at Keokuk, Iowa, that year, and a racing legend was born.

At this time, Wood added two important members of his team. They were a couple of teddy bears, named Teddy and Bruin. These two mascots were decked out in racing apparel, which included tiny cork life preservers.

For the balance of his career, Gar would never set foot in a race boat without his twin good luck tokens. Teddy and Bruin rode with Wood during all of his championship exploits over the next two decades. And he kept them close by for the rest of his life until his death on June 19, 1971.

When Miss America VI crashed to the bottom of the St. Clair River in 1928, the first items salvaged from the wreck were the teddy bears. Gar credited Teddy and Bruin with saving his life and the life of his riding mechanic, Orlin Johnson.

In Wood's words, "They (the teddy bears) are the captains of my fate."

© Fred Farley.

(Reprinted from the UHRA Thunder Letter No. 326, December 15, 1997)