1940 APBA Gold Cup

Speed Spray and Spills

By Lewis B. Funke

With nerve-tightening precision, a giant clock aloft over the waters off Northport, L. I., will tick away sixty anxious seconds this Saturday. Men in sleek, great motor-boats will glue their eyes on the clock's hand as it moves stroke by stroke. The instant it reaches its appointed mark a white flag will drop. There will be a roar that will shake the neighboring country-side for miles around. The water will be churned into a white-green froth as the boats dash madly for position. At a mile and a half a minute speed they will race for the Gold Cup, America's premier prize for the sport of motorboat racing, established by a group of enthusiasts thirty-six years ago.

Not since 1926 have New Yorkers had the opportunity to see this classic in metropolitan waters. Tens of thousands are expected to line the shores, and what may be the largest spectator fleet since the one which dropped anchor off Newport. R. I., in 1937 for the America's Cup yacht races will gather along the Gold Cup racing lanes. (Last year's race in Detroit drew 300,000 persons.)

All will be drawn by the lure of speed, the spectacle of thrill-hungry drivers, chancing death and shattered limbs, streaking over the water at 80 and 90 miles an hour. Three separate times that afternoon the racers will tear thirty miles around the two and one-half mile oval course, trying for a prize worth no more than $750. For one reason or another, all that set out in the first heat will not be there when the third is over.

Realizing the risks inherent in the sport, few in the gaping throng will know of the preparation made by the drivers; the ordeals endured by mind, body and engine; how it feels to go hurtling over water at 132 feet a second; what rewards and reasons compel men to do such homage to Mercury; what makes drivers good or bad.

Weeks before a race (for a Gold Cup test, months), the driver begins his preparations. He works indefatigably during every moment he can spare, tuning his motor, testing it, tinkering with it and priming it. Physically, he has tried to keep in good shape for the beating and the bruises he inevitably will receive before the race ends.

Despite his long preparation, he finds most trying the half hour before race time. Irritable and cranky, he awaits the signal that will release at his touch 2,000 "horses." Two veteran Gold Cup drivers once compared notes on their reactions before a race. One sheepishly asked the other if he felt as though he had butterflies inside of him. The frank reply was. "Butterflies! Mine feel more like homing pigeons!"

Finally, the time has managed to pass. The driver straps his midsection so that his bodily machinery won't come apart. He dons his life-saving jacket as required by the rules. He may or may not, as is his inclination, wear a "crash" helmet. Last minute checks are made. The gas is pumped into the carburetors and the priming pump jabbed a few times. The spark is retarded, lines cast off, starting switch pressed and the ignition kicked on.

As soon as the motor picks up, he accelerates quickly. Modern high-speed engines will idle for only a few seconds before "fouling up" and starting to miss. He runs his powerful craft out to the course at about half speed, checks his instruments as the engine warms up. He listens closely for the bark of the five-minute gun. The looked-for puff appears. He presses his stop watch and starts milling around in circles before taking off.

He figures the whole fleet should be ready, and anxiously he watches the clock as it begins its sixty-second toll. He has estimated that it will take just twenty-seven seconds from a certain buoy to the starting line, wide open. So, as the clock starts, he begins working toward that buoy. He passes it with thirty seconds to go and slows down a bit. Several boats are ahead and one flashes by. He feels frantically that he is late and opens up wide. Checking his speed with that of the clock, he tears toward the line with his rivals abreast. Just as he is certain that he will be too soon over the line and disqualified, the starting flag drops. The race is on.

His nervousness disappears as he busily watches every move of his opponents while keeping an eye peeled for driftwood that could smash his boat to bits. The first buoy flashes toward him. He increases the speed — 60, 70, 80, 90 miles an hour (an automobile could, possibly, equal the sensation at twice the speed). The stern wiggles and kicks him from side to side.

The water on either side of the boat is a blur. He keeps his eyes fixed at a point 150 feet in front. Between that mark and the prow of the boat he can't see a thing. Should something suddenly bob up between those points there would be nothing he could do about it. The noise of the engine crashes against his eardrums and it is impossible to speak to the mechanic riding with him. Only signals can be exchanged. The spray from the boat in front whips into his cheeks like buckshot. Experience has taught him to smear his face with grease as a measure of protection.

The buoy seems to be on top of him and he whips the steering wheel over for the turn. Around and around, lap after lap, the boat thunders. Firmly he grips the wheel. It takes strength to steer the boat and he jabs his elbow into his side to keep steady. The surrounding scenery is a complete haze. Soon, not even the feeling of rocketing through the water remains. He has become part of the bouncing, surging craft. That his face is sore from wind and water, his teeth clenched into his lips and his eyes burning in their sockets is forgotten in the tension of the race.

Then suddenly it's all over!

The finish line has been crossed. Winner or loser, the driver reacts in many cases in either of two ways. He grins like a Cheshire cat, silly and uncomprehending for a while as to what has happened, or he bawls like a baby as did Mel Crook several years ago after he had won the National Sweepstakes.

Crook had a right to his tears. In Betty V. with his mechanic Walt Ackerly, he found John Bramble's Pep III the boat to beat. In the first heat the throttle control under the cowling of Crook's boat broke. Ackerly had to get down and hold it. It was on the turns that Betty V lost distance, for Ackerly could not see ahead and didn't know when to let up on the throttle, with the result that at every turn Crook was forced into a wide skid. Just before he hit the final turn, Crook conceived the solution. Unable to make Ackerly understand the trouble, he booted him in the ribs and knocked him loose from his grip. The boat slowed up sufficiently for a proper turn. Ackerly recovered in time to get hold of the throttle again, and Crook sent the boat over the line the winner. An ignition wire broke in the second heat and Betty V was beaten. But everything went well enough in the final heat, and needing victory to clinch first place, Crook brought home the craft ahead of the field. After that, he sat down and had a good cry.

Drivers readily acknowledge that preparing a boat for a race can be even more risky than the race itself. For no matter how many hours may be put in on the engine in the shop the craft must be tested on the water be-fore its fitness can be ascertained. That's where the trouble starts. The driver must do things, take chances in the trials he would never undertake in a race in order to discover the flaws and limitations of his boat. As a result accidents are common on the test runs.

Two years ago, before the Gold Cup race, Clell Perry, winner the year before, found his Notre Dame an extremely fast boat but tricky to handle at high speeds. He made several important adjustments and installed a new rudder. The day before the big event he took the boat for another run. Speeding along at more than a mile a minute, something seemed to stick inside the Notre Dame. The knife-sharp bow dived downward. Mechanic Ernest Herndon was thrown clear but Perry, wedged in, was carried below the surface of the St. Clair River. He was taken to the hospital with a fractured shoulder, compound breaks of the left wrist and arm, cracked ribs and a few other aches and pains.

Besides being hazardous, motorboat racing is an expensive sport regardless of the size or type of craft. No matter what the initial investment may be, it's the upkeep and the traveling expenses that boost the outlay. It is estimated, for instance, that My Sin, with which Zalmon G. Simmons Jr. won the Gold Cup last year, cost at the outset approximately $60,000. How much Simmons has spent in keeping the boat up to mark is anybody's guess, but the figure is well into thousands of dollars. It is worth noting that no matter how many races a driver may win, the winnings will be pin money compared to his expenditures. The prizes offered are either a little cash or a trophy.

Yet, such is the love of the sport, so great its fascination, that drivers take little heed of the dangers, the disappointments and the costs. That there is something unreasonable about this devotion they will admit. Indeed, the fraternity, in the words of one driver, knows that it is suffering from a "mild form of insanity."

It isn't love of speed, alone, that grips many. There are those who simply cannot exist without puttering around an engine. And it is an axiom of the sport that you cannot buy a racing boat that will be a winner at the start. It is up to the drivers and mechanics to get the most out of the craft by continual experimentation. In back yards, garages and workshops they spend an estimated 400 hours of tinkering and tuning for every hour of actual racing.

Knowledge of what makes a boat go is not enough. Driving skill buttressed by courage and nerve is essential. It is not unusual to see a driver escape death or serious injury and immediately "remount" and come back to win. Excellent reflexes are necessary to take advantage of every break. The driver must know how to jockey for position, to save water on the turns. He must know how to time himself for the flying start that prevails in the sport, otherwise he may lose the race before it has been run.

The usually forgotten, unsung mechanic, riding along, does his share in bringing home a victory. He must have his portion of pluck, too. There are many occasions when he performs yeoman service. In 1938 at the Gold Cup regatta in Detroit, the crowd saw the youthful California mechanic, Dan Foster, ride twenty-eight of the thirty miles of the final heat stretched forward over the hot engines of Miss Golden Gate, holding with pliers in each hand parts of the loosening throttle assembly that was threatening to come apart.

Whatever it is that enables the motorboat enthusiast to win, it is certain that, win or lose, he will be back another day to match his skill and fortune against the field.

(Reprinted from the New York Times Magazine, August 11, 1940)