Guy Lombardo

The Guy Lombardo Story

Guy Lombardo
Guy Lombardo

Unlimited hydroplane racing lost one of its most ardent supporters on November 5, 1977, in the person of Guy Lombardo--the world-famous bandleader from Freeport, New York, whose participation did much to focus positive national attention on power boat competition during the post-World War II reorganizational era beginning in 1946.

A hydroplane enthusiast for nearly 60 of his 75 years, Lombardo remained active in boating affairs long after his retirement as a competitor and attended the 1977 Unlimited race in Detroit--the scene of many a stellar performance in days of old.

Guy stepped up to the big time after a distinguished pre-war 225 Cubic Inch Class career. Lombardo purchased the champion My Sin from Zalmon Simmons who had won the 1939 and 1941 APBA Gold Cup contests at her wheel. Designed by Adolph Apel of the famed Ventnor Boat Works, the maple and mahogany three-pointer measured 24 feet in length with a 10-foot beam and weighed approximately 4000 pounds.

Power was supplied by a 604 cubic inch Zumbach-Miller engine, which consisted of four Indianapolis race car motors measuring 151 cubic inches each and fitted onto a common crankshaft. In 1948, the bandleader repowered the craft--renamed Tempo VI--with an Allison V-1710 aircraft engine.

History credits Guy Lombardo with as many as fifteen Unlimited or Gold Cup Class victories as a driver between 1946 and 1953. But these include about thirteen races that were multi-class free-for-all events which don’t count in modern records.

Guy’s two major victories were the 1946 Gold Cup and the 1948 Ford Memorial contests--both in Detroit--with Tempo VI. Other wins include the 1946, 1950 and 1951 National Sweepstakes Trophy Races in Red Bank, New Jersey, the 1949 and 1950 Star Spangled Banner Regattas in Baltimore, Maryland, and the 1950 and 1951 Buffalo Launch Club Regattas.

In March of 1946 at Miami Beach, Lombardo broke the record for super-charged Gold Cup Class boats with a mile straightaway average of 113.031, which eclipsed the former mark of 100.987 set in 1940 by Dan Arena in Notre Dame. Tempo VI thereby became but the second Gold Cupper in history to clear the elusive 100 mile an hour hurdle. (The Unlimited straightway record for propeller-driven boats at the time was still the 141.740 standard established in 1939 by England’s Sir Malcolm Campbell in Bluebird K-4.)

Guy’s first outing in competition with Tempo VI was at Red Bank in the National Sweepstakes. The lone representative of the combined Unlimited and Gold Cup fleet, Lombardo easily defeated seven challengers from the Limited ranks in all three heats on the Shrewsbury River with an overage speed of 65.382 miles per hour in the Final.

The 1946 Gold Cup was the first major regatta since the war. A record 22 boats entered with seventeen actually starting. For the first time ever, elimination sections were required in the First Heat.

Lombardo and Tempo VI finished half a lap ahead of Bob Bogie in Blitz II to win the 1-B section at a 67.192 velocity.

Guy flew around the three-mile Detroit River oval the next time out, lapping the entire field and setting a Gold Cup competition record of 73.294 on the second lap. (The former mark had been 72.707 established in 1938 by the Italian Count Theo Rossi in Alagi.) Tempo VI turned the thirty miles at a speed of 66.315--about four miles per hour short of Gar Wood’s legendary 70.412 achievement for the same distance with Miss America, which had been on the books since 1920.

The Final 1946 Gold Cup Heat raised the curtain on a new era of speed. For nine laps, Dan Arena driving the Allison-powered Miss Golden Gate III held the lead. The bandleader followed close behind, knowing that the race was his on the basis of total points and over-all average speed for the 90 miles. Then, three quarters of a lap from victory, Arena’s boat went dead in the water with a broken connecting rod. Lombardo promptly took the lead and received the checkered flag far ahead of the remaining finalists Buckeye Baby, Blitz II, and Aljo V.

Then came the announcement that Guy had not only won the race but bettered Gar Wood’s 26-year-old heat record of 70.412 with a reading of 70.890. Guy Lombardo thus became the only pilot to ever clear 70 miles an hour in a heat of the Gold Cup with an old-style restricted power source.

Lombardo’s narrowest escape in a race boat occurred at the start of the 1948 Gold Cup renewal in Detroit. In his 1975 Auld Acquaintance autobiography, Guy described the incident in these words:

"I had Tempo in a favorable starting position for the first heat, nursing it along, planning to get up to 125 mph before we hit the first turn. In front of my boat was Morlan Visel’s Hurricane IV from California, untested in major racing, a big humpbacked affair that seemed perpetually airborne. My plan was to hit the starting line at full speed, cut across his wake and go inside at the first turning buoy.

"And so it went as the starter’s gun went off. I was flying at 125 mph at least, heading for Visel’s wake, when his boat’s rudder and prop suddenly failed and veered into the path of the oncoming Tempo. If I kept going, I would have crashed into him at tremendous speed; If I swerved in the opposite direction, I would have hit a pier that jutted into the river at that point. Hundreds of spectators crowded the pier and my boat would surely have killed some of them. Hardly thinking, I spun my wheel and shut off the engine, sending Tempo into a broadsiding stall.

"For a moment it seemed my beautiful boat would achieve a miracle of stability and stay right side up. That was the last thought I can remember. Tempo dug her port sponson into the churning wake, whirled on her side, and flipped over in a huge cascade of spray, splotched with debris and the floating form of a forty-six-year-old orchestra leader turned racing driver."

Lombardo suffered a broken arm in the near-tragedy, his battered craft was beached for the year, and the Royal Canadians band had to make do with a one-armed leader for several weeks.

Following and as a result of the 1948 Gold Cup fiasco--in which only four boats out of 22 scored points--qualification speed trials were written into the rules to ascertain a craft’s fitness to compete.

Guy continued driving a rebuilt Tempo VI until 1953 and also appeared occasionally in the cockpits of such well-known boats as Lahala, Miss Great Lakes, Delphine X, and My Sweetie.

His competitive exploits and on-shore commentaries were regularly and dutifully reported by the media, making him the sport’s first bona-fide super star since Gar Wood who had been a boyhood idol of Lombardo’s.

In 1947, Guy earned a niche in the hydro trivia hall of fame when Tempo VI and the Danny Foster-chauffeured Miss Peps V battled down to the wire at Red Bank to record Unlimited racing’s one and only dead heat finish with both drivers checking in at an identical 68.706 for the Final Heat of the National Sweepstakes. Lombardo and Foster divided the 400 and 300 point allotments for first and second positions between them and took home 350 markers each.

Skipping the 1954 campaign, Guy reappeared in 1955 with a new Tempo VII--a hull to which he devotes but a single paragraph in his autobiography but which was by far his most competitive machine and which was labeled by the press as "The Sweetest Boat This Side of Heaven."

A 29-foot Allison-powered Les Staudacher creation, Tempo VII debuted at the 1955 Detroit Memorial with former Lombardo nemesis Danny Foster in the driver’s seat. The team took an overall fifth despite being rammed by another boat at the start of the race.

At the Gold Cup in Seattle, Tempo VII qualified at an incredibly fast 116.917 for three laps around the 3.75-mile course but caught fire in the First Heat, inflicting severe burns on pilot Foster. Attempts to repair the craft for the second stanza with Guy Lombardo ready to step in as relief driver proved futile and the craft was withdrawn from further action that day.

Then, in the second half of the season, Tempo VII came alive and could hardly do wrong. Lombardo and Foster took all three heats of the first annual Copper Cup at Polson, Montana and then returned East for the Detroit Yacht Club-sponsored Silver Cup which carried with it the added distinction of being the "National Championship Race" for Unlimiteds.

Fifteen boats--the largest single gathering of the season--attended the Silver Cup. Included among the "hot dogs" were Gale IV and Gale V, owned by Joe Schoenith, the Dossin brothers’ Miss Pepsi, and Willard Rhodes’ Miss Thriftway. Tempo VII rebounded from a second place in Heat 1-A to win the 2-A section after a spectacular duel with Chuck Thompson in Miss Pepsi. In the final go-around, Danny Foster thrilled the fans by fighting off a gusty challenge from Bill Cantrell in Gale V.

The victory was the first ever in the Silver Cup for Guy Lombardo whose previous high had been a fourth in 1950 with Tempo VI. Foster’s winning 45-mile average of 93.120 was distinctive as being the second fastest race speed ever recorded on a 3-mile Detroit River course at the time.

Tempo VII continued at its historic pace in the Washington, D.C., President’s Cup with a 15-mile clocking in Heat I-A of 100.709 to eclipse the former Potomac River standard by better than five miles per hour. Foster recovered from a fourth in 2-B and took the Final Heat, outscoring runners-up Bill Muncey and Miss Thriftway by 69 points to claim a third consecutive regatta triumph. Lombardo, who had finished second in the 1948 President’s Cup with Tempo VI, was running out of worlds to conquer.

Although far behind Schoenith’s Gale V in National Points due to the early season difficulties, Foster and Tempo VII continued their domination of the Unlimited Class.

The super-fast Lombardo craft coasted to victory in both ends of a two-heat exhibition doubleheader at New Martinsville, West Virginia, and scored a record-breaking three-heat triumph at the International Cup in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on the Pasquotank River with a 3-mile lap 0f 105.987, a 15-mile heat of 104.775, and a 45-mile race of 102.469.

Inclement weather necessitated a two-week postponement of the Indiana Governor’s Cup at Madison and allowed the fleet fourteen additional days to better prepare for one final go at the matchless Lombardo-Foster combo, the most successful in Thunderboating since the Miss Pepsi vintage year of 1951. But the result was the same.

Tempo VII took Heat 1-A at 102.079--the first 100-plus clocking ever on the narrow Ohio River--to outdistance second place Lee Schoenith and Gale V which checked in at 97.052. The remainder of the event was reduced to an exhibition with Danny Foster throttling down to 84.945 and 84.230 for the spectators’ benefit to win the next two 15-mile outings by a tick of the clock over 1955 Season Point Champion Gale V, which had Bill Cantrell behind the wheel during the Second Heat but with no change in the order of finish.

His victory at Madison was Lombardo’s last major appearance as a boat racer, although he did send Tempo VII to one event in 1956 before selling it to Chuck Thompson.

In the years that followed, Guy experimented with a pickle-forked Les Staudacher-built jet craft called Tempo ALCOA in association with the Aluminum Company of America. But the boat was completely destroyed in a test run while running on remote control at an estimated 250 miles per hour on Saginaw Bay near Kawkawlin, Michigan in 1960.

By now, Lombardo no longer had free summer time to devote to the racing business. Guy had deeply committed himself to a new career as producer of musical comedies in an outdoor stadium at Jones Beach in addition to other commercial pursuits exclusive of directing an internationally prominent orchestra.

Although retired as an active racer, Lombardo never strayed very far away from the roar of the Thunderboats. For years, he served as Honorary Chairman of the President’s Cup Regatta. In 1971, he presented the Gold Cup to Miss Madison’s Jim McCormick.

In 1963, Guy consulted on the production of a television film with a boat racing theme filmed near St. Petersburg, Florida. An interested spectator was one Bernard Leroy Little--a local aircraft sales executive--who became "hooked" on the sport after taking a ride with Lombardo in a new Staudacher-built Unlimited. Little bought the craft on the spot and campaigned it as one of a successful series of boats named Miss Budweiser.

Guy Lombardo’s "Last Hurrah" as a boat racer occurred in February, 1977, only a few months prior to his passing. At the National Awards Banquet in Miami, the Unlimited Racing Commission presented the J. Lee Schoenith Award to Lombardo in grateful recognition for his long-term contribution to the betterment of hydroplane racing.

Very few men in competitive power boat history have ever demonstrated the uncanny knack of generating newspaper headlines over a long period of time by their mere presence at a race site. Only the names of Gar Wood, Bill Muncey, and Guy Lombardo come immediately to mind. The bandleader/boat racer’s death has left a void that can never be filled, but his "Auld Acquaintance" will never be forgotten.