The Pop Cooper Story
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian
One of the most colorful characters ever to inhabit the hydroplane racing world was Jack "Pop" Cooper. The Kansas City, Missouri, native won many trophies as an inboard driver during the late 1930s and 1940s. He was the first to average more than a mile a minute in a heat of racing with a 225 Cubic Inch Class hydro.
At 126 pounds, his hair white, his features pinched and wrinkled behind colorless rimmed glasses, Pop Cooper was the answer to a sports interviewer's dream. He was also one of the oldest drivers ever to achieve success in power boat racing.
In 1937, at age 57, Cooper won the prestigious National Sweepstakes Trophy at Red Bank, New Jersey, with Tops II, a Lycoming-powered Ventnor 225. The Sweepstakes was a special event for unlimited single-engine inboards. Pop finished first, second, and first to outpoint Jack Rutherfurd in the Gold Cup Class Ma-Ja II. Cooper set a Sweepstakes heat record of 64.420 and, the following day, set a 225 straightaway record of 73.170.
Pop eventually sold Tops II to a Seattle automobile dealer named Stanley Sayres who renamed the craft Slo-mo-shun I. And, several years later, Cooper also sold Tops III to Sayres who renamed it Slo-mo-shun II.
Two of Pop's biggest wins were with Tops III, another product of the famed Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey. In 1939, Cooper and Tops III captured the W.D. Edenburn Memorial Trophy at the Gold Cup Regatta in Detroit. (The Edenburn Memorial was the most coveted 225 Class trophy in the country at that time.)
And, in 1940, Pop scored another victory in the National Sweepstakes on the Shrewsbury River. Cooper made one appearance in competition at the wheel of a Gold Cup Class hydroplane. He won the William Randolph Hearst Trophy for the American Speedboat Championship at Washington, D.C., in 1940 at the wheel of My Sin, the future Tempo VI.
Owned by Guy Simmons, My Sin was one of the most famous boats in the history of the sport. Pop averaged 62.390 for the 10- mile distance and beat Tom Chatfield and Viper III over the finish line by 2.1 seconds.
When racing revived after World War II, Cooper resumed his driving career with boats like Tops Pup and Tops Speedliner. The end came in 1948 when he suffered fatal injuries in a 135 Cubic Inch Class race at Picton, Ontario. [Correction: Cooper was racing his newly-acquired 135 Blue Blazes against several 225's in the larger class event at Picton].
After Pop's death, his son, Thom Cooper, continued the family tradition into the 1950s by driving a boat that was appropriately named Pop's Tops.
For many years, the fastest qualifier for the APBA Gold Cup was awarded the Pop Cooper Memorial Trophy. The first such winner was Bill Stead and the Maverick in 1957.
Although small in body with a wiry frame that reminded one of nothing more than a corn stalk, Jack "Pop" Cooper was clearly a giant of a man when behind the wheel of a three-point hydroplane. To get any racing practice, Cooper had to haul his boat some 200 miles. In this regard, perhaps, it was advantageous that Pop was the operator of a big Kansas City motor car transportation company.
Cooper loved to tell stories. One of them is preserved in a 1957 issue of Motor Boating Magazine. It had to do with one of his defeats. At the 1938 Detroit race, an elderly man came up to Pop and asked a lot of questions about the 225s. When Pop asked the man, who was clearly in his seventies, why, the reply was "I'm going to get me one."
"Why?" Pop persisted.
"To race--why do you think?"
Pop felt like a schoolboy trying to give his grandfather advice as he tried to pursuade the elderly gentleman that he was too old to take up inboard racing. Next year, when Pop looked over the starting line-up in the Prince Edward Gold Cup at Picton, Ontario, there was the man with whom he had talked. His name was Robert Jaite of Jaite, Ohio, and some said he was 79 years old.
His boat had the swift-sounding name of Apache. Cooper was the defending champion. He won the first heat and was surprised to find that the second-place boat was Apache. In the following heat, Pop said "I was doing 72 mph and going for a world's record. As luck would have it, a battery cable worked loose and short circuited. I slipped in a new one and managed to get in fourth."
"But, of course," he added, "you know who was first. That's right, Jaite." Pop won the final leg of the race with Apache finishing second. But Jaite had beaten him on points. At the trophy awards ceremony, Pop said that he could detect a gleam in the winner's eye that was meant just for him (Cooper).