George Davis : "The Hisso Man"
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of interesting people in the Unlimited hydroplane sport. One of the most unforgettable characters that I have ever met was the late George N. Davis, the owner and driver of the vintage It's A Wonder. Prior to his death in 1979, George was like a second father to me. Nicknamed "The Hisso Man," Davis was the last driver to use a 1914 vintage Hispano-Suiza ("Hisso") aircraft engine in APBA competition (in 1957). After having corresponded with George for several years, I finally met him in person in 1971 at the Madison Regatta. For the next eight years, I always made it a point of visiting him and his wife Dorris every summer at their home in Vine Grove, Kentucky, near Louisville.
Davis started racing in the late 1920s. During the years prior to World War II, he participated in the 510 and 725 cubic inch hydroplane classes of the old Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association (MVPBA), which was the southern counterpart of the American Power Boat Association (APBA).
For many years, George served as riding mechanic for future Miss Madison driver Marion Cooper in a series of boats called Hermes. In 1939, Davis built one of the very first boats in the world with sponsons on it. George drove this craft, named Hermes IV, to a third- place finish in the 725 Class race at the 1939 Gold Cup Regatta at Detroit.
During WWII, George served in the U.S. Army Air Force and, while stationed in Greenland, flew 57 combat missions over the North Sea. Davis later compared warfare to hydroplane racing. Both require an iron fortitude. When George married after his return from the military service, his bride did not like the boat name Hermes. She once remarked, "It's a wonder it starts or runs, it's so old." So, Davis renamed his craft It's A Wonder.
A close friend of veteran competitor Bill Cantrell, George was a spectator when "Wild Bill" won the 1949 Gold Cup at Detroit with the My Sweetie. Davis recalled that when Cantrell came back to the pits after the Final Heat, Bill got out of the cockpit and kissed the deck of that boat. "Then he pulled his old dollar watch out to see what time it was" to note his moment of triumph.
George is credited with three victories during the post-World War II era: the 1947 Marine Derby at Louisville with Hermes V, the 1953 Marine Derby with It's A Wonder, and the 1957 Dale Hollow (Tennessee) Regatta with It's A Wonder. He also received the third-place trophy at each of the 1951, 1952, and 1953 Indiana Governor's Cup contests at Madison with It's A Wonder.
Most of the races in which Davis participated were multi-class "free-for-all" events, a format of competition that has long since vanished from the Unlimited scene.
In the 1960s, George concentrated on a 280 Class rig, the My Tennessee Gal, named after his wife. One of the drivers that Davis recruited to handle My Tennessee Gal in 1962 was future Miss Budweiser pilot Tom D'Eath.
George also introduced future Miss Madison luminary Jim McCormick to inboard racing. When Jim won the 1971 Gold Cup at Madison, Indiana, Davis wept unashamedly at the sight of his protege achieving "the big time."
George would occasionally grumble at the increasing commercialization of the Unlimited sport. But the races were always his real love. You couldn't keep him away.
One of the greatest experiences of my life occurred in 1996 at the Gold Cup in Detroit. I had the opportunity to go for a ride in It's A Wonder, which has been lovingly restored to running condition by current owner Geoff Magnuson of Alfred, Maine. The former Hermes IV looked absolutely gorgeous. George would have been proud.