Al Fallon

The Albin Fallon Story

Albin Fallon and Danny Foster
Albin Fallon and Danny Foster

Albin Fallon was the first significant Detroit owner in the post-World War II Unlimited hydroplane era. His trend-setting Miss Great Lakes was also the first to win a race with a war surplus Allison aircraft engine.

History credits the craft with two major victories in the years just after the war. Owned by Fallon and driven by Danny Foster, Miss Great Lakes won the 1946 President’s Cup in Washington, D.C., and the 1948 Gold Cup at Detroit.

At 26 feet in length, Miss Great Lakes is now considered rather short by today’s standards. But in 1946, she was the biggest boat out there at a time when most Gold Cup contenders measured closer to 20 feet.

As it turned out, the craft wasn’t large enough to handle that much horsepower. Consequently, she was a wild rider. As a testbed for the new-fangled Allison, she served her purpose well. Following and as a result of Miss Great Lakes, the accepted configuration for post-war piston-powered Unlimiteds has been more in the 28 to 30-foot range.

The 1946 Gold Cup was the first major Unlimited regatta to be run after the war. Fallon showed up at this race with the vintage Hotsy Totsy III, powered by a Sterling engine, which failed to make a start due to mechanical difficulties. But it was another boat--the Miss Golden Gate III from Oakland, California--that caught Fallon's eye.

Designed and built by Dan Arena, Miss Golden Gate III was unable to finish the race but set a Gold Cup competition lap record of 77.911 miles per hour on a 3-mile course and was clearly the fastest boat in the fleet.

Arena used a substantially stock 1710-cubic inch Allison, salvaged from a P-38 fighter plane. The engine was installed aircraft-style in the boat, as opposed to the present-day practice of reversing the engine for use in a hydroplane.

In the years to come, “the good old Allison” would become to Unlimited racing what the Offenhauser is to Indianapolis.

And while Guy Lombardo's Tempo VI had won the Gold Cup, there was no doubt as to which boat was the new celebrity of the racing world. Miss Golden Gate III--the first Thunderboat--had made its mark.

Arena would like to have fine-tuned the Golden Gate in future races but had commitments back in California. Fallon made an offer, Arena accepted, and the brightest star on the Unlimited horizon had a new owner.

Al took delivery of Miss Golden Gate III and immediately entered the 1946 President’s Cup, which was run three weeks after the Gold Cup.

If the Allison’s claim to dominance over the pre-war power sources was doubted by anyone after Detroit, the results at Washington, D.C., must have settled the question for all time.

With Foster behind the wheel and Fallon in the co-pilot’s seat, the newly renamed Miss Great Lakes outran Tempo VI in all three Potomac River heats.

The Allison’s 1700 horsepower clearly spelled the difference and supplied the erratic handling Miss Great Lakes with the greater chute speed. The smooth-riding Lombardo craft--with its 585-horsepower Zumbach-Miller engine--held the advantage only in the corners.

“Wild Bill” Cantrell kept the Hispano-Suiza-powered Why Worry close to the leaders for four laps in the first President’s Cup heat before breaking down. But the handwriting was unmistakably on the wall. The World War II fighter engine-powered boat was the boat of the future.

In his first appearance as an Unlimited hydroplane driver, Danny Foster rewrote the record book for the 2.5-mile Potomac River course. This included a lap record of 74.258, a 15-mile heat record of 71.181, and a 45-mile race standard of 69.632.

Unlike the Gold Cup, Miss Great Lakes this time went the distance. Lubrication, however, was a problem, inasmuch as Foster and Fallon returned to the pits covered with oil.

On a human-interest level, it is interesting to note that Foster--the most distinguished Thunderboat pilot of the forties and fifties--and Bill Muncey--the top driver of the sixties and seventies--both made their first impressions in the same boat, four years apart.

A post-season straightaway record attempt on the Detroit River did not go well for Miss Great Lakes. The craft spun around, flew into the air, and dropped back down into the water during a trial run.

Danny Foster and riding mechanic Lou Meier were thrown nearly forty feet from the boat and were hospitalized with injuries. Al Fallon worked all winter repairing the damage.

Mechanical difficulties plagued Miss Great Lakes in most of its early-season appearances during 1947 with Fallon driving. Midway through the 90-mile Silver Cup at Detroit, Al turned the wheel over to relief driver Guy Lombardo with spectacular results.

The bandleader won the Final Heat, which consisted of ten laps around a 4.5-mile course, decisively beating the overall winner, Notre Dame, 71.218 miles per hour to 67.813.

Guy endured a terrific pounding and emerged from the boat looking as though he had been in a fight. The great Gar Wood commented to Lombardo, “If you’re the winner, I’d hate to see the losers.”

Three weeks later, Lombardo and Miss Great Lakes provided some competitive moments at the President’s Cup. The team ran head-to-head with National Champion Miss Peps V in Heat One and had a clear lead in Heat Two before being sidelined with a broken propeller shaft.

By 1948, the larger Allison-powered boats were all the rage. Such Crust, My Sweetie, Skip-A-Long, Lahala, and Hurricane IV were the new tough kids on the block. Miss Great Lakes was obsolete.

Nevertheless, Fallon and company made up in reliability what they lacked in speed and stability at the infamous 1948 Gold Cup in Detroit.

Out of twenty-two entrants, only Miss Great Lakes finished all three 30-mile heats. She was one of only three boats to survive the opening stanza and was the lone finisher in Heat Two.

Danny Foster was back behind the wheel of Miss Great Lakes at the Gold Cup, after having spent the 1947 season in the cockpit of Miss Peps V.

Foster in Miss Great Lakes and Warren Avis in Miss Frostie had the Final Heat of the 1948 Gold Cup all to themselves, even though Avis had zero points and thus had no mathematical chance of winning the race. The Gold Cup committee nevertheless insisted that the heat be run as scheduled.

Foster spotted Avis a clear lead at the start but quickly caught up with him.

Running at reduced speed in the rough water, Miss Great Lakes chugged to victory with Foster pointing to his boat’s damaged bottom and shaking his fist at the officials for not flagging him down and ending the fiasco.

Miss Great Lakes limped back to the pits, where she sank at the dock, while the driver was being presented with the trophy.

Owner Fallon and driver Foster at least had the satisfaction of winning the Crown Jewel of APBA racing. But their boat, having suffered extensive damage, was through for the season.

The one good thing to come out of the 1948 Gold Cup was a rule that required boats to qualify before being allowed to participate. In addition to their practical value of ascertaining a craft’s fitness to compete, these qualification trials add immeasurably to the color and pageantry of the races.

Miss Great Lakes did not appear in competition again until it was time to defend her Gold Cup title at Detroit the following year.

The boat seemed to be better balanced in 1949 but was thoroughly outclassed by the likes of Bill Cantrell in My Sweetie, Dan Arena in Such Crust, and Stan Dollar in Skip-A-Long.

With Al Fallon driving, Miss Great Lakes ran back in the pack in the first heat before conking out in the second.

Two weeks later, the team made an appearance in the Percy Jones Memorial Hospital Regatta at Gull Lake, Michigan. The race was staged as a benefit for convalescing American servicemen.

In the first 15-mile heat at Gull Lake, Miss Great Lakes finished well behind Skip-A-Long and Such Crust. She nevertheless posted a respectable 75.246 miles per hour on a 2.5-mile course, the fastest heat of her career.

Driver Fallon unfortunately was unable to capitalize on this performance. While negotiating a turn in Heat Two, Miss Great Lakes rolled over and sank in ninety feet of water. Fallon and riding mechanic Joe Rydzewski were thrown clear of the craft and sustained serious injury.

Retrieved and repaired, Miss Great Lakes next appeared in competition at the 1950 Detroit Memorial Regatta, where she finished sixth in a ten-boat field. Trading off behind the wheel were owner Fallon and Limited veteran Al D’Eath, the father of future Miss U.S. and Miss Budweiser pilot Tom D’Eath.

Now in its fifth season, the craft that had started its career so spectacularly as Miss Golden Gate III had seen its better days. Moreover, with the tremendous success of the prop-riding Slo-mo-shun IV, the death knell had sounded for boats with the old-style submerged propellers.

Al Fallon nevertheless decided to enter his tired old boat in the 1950 Harmsworth International Regatta on the Detroit River.

The Harmsworth is technically a race between nations rather than individual boats with each country allowed a maximum of three entries.

Representing Canada was Ernie and Harold Wilson’s Miss Canada IV. Trying out for the U.S. team were Slo-mo-shun IV, My Sweetie, Miss Pepsi, Such Crust I, Such Crust II, and Miss Great Lakes.

Slo-Mo cleared 96 miles per hour in trials on the 5-nautical mile course; My Sweetie did 94. This, together with the excellent competitive record of both the Slo-Mo and the Sweetie, made their nomination to the team a foregone conclusion.

By far the biggest surprise of the trials was the incredible showing of Miss Great Lakes, the oldest and presumably the least competitive of the group.

With 21-year-old Bill Muncey, a local 225 Cubic Inch Class driver, in the cockpit, the veteran craft checked in at an unbelievable 92 miles per hour. This was just 4 miles per hour off the pace of Slo-Mo and was faster than both Such Crust I and Such Crust II, which did 84 and 88 respectively.

The rookie Muncey reportedly had to be coached on the fine points of starting the big Allison engine. But once out on the race course, there could be no doubt that a major new talent had arrived on the Unlimited scene.

A few years later, when Ted Jones was looking around for a top-notch driver to put in Miss Thriftway, he remembered Muncey’s stellar performance in Miss Great Lakes and offered Bill the job.

Unfortunately, as far as the 1950 Harmsworth was concerned, Muncey and Miss Great Lakes were not a factor. The powers-that-be gave the nod to Such Crust II, whose driver (Dan Arena) had much more experience than Bill Muncey.

The selection committee was also concerned about the Miss Great Lakes crew having to replace their engine with a new and untried Allison.

So, Such Crust II was sent to the starting line with Slo-mo-shun IV and My Sweetie to face the Canadian challenger, which was easily defeated by the U.S. delegation. The top honor went to Slo-Mo, driven by Lou Fageol, who turned the first-ever heat at over 100 miles per hour in the final stanza.

Two days later, the Silver Cup was run on the same race course as the Harmsworth. In the Silver Cup, young Muncey was given the chance that had been denied him in the international event.

Nine boats started in the first heat of 10 nautical miles with Miss Great Lakes running back in the pack. Bill worked his way past Gale I, Tempo VI, and My Darling, and was trying to overhaul My Sweetie when his boat disintegrated on the second lap and disappeared beneath the surface of the Detroit River.

Muncey was unhurt, but Miss Great Lakes had reached the end of the line. The craft that had introduced the Allison engine to Unlimited racing now belonged to history.

Albin Fallon chose not to rebuild the aging hull and announced plans for a newer and larger Unlimited hydroplane that would likewise be designed and built by Dan Arena.

The original Miss Great Lakes was scrapped, but her gearbox found its way into Miss Great Lakes II, which also used Allison power and made its competitive debut two years later.

Before retiring from the sport in 1954, Fallon and Miss Great Lakes II finished second in National High Points in 1952 with Joe Taggart as driver and won the 1953 Detroit Memorial Regatta with Danny Foster.