By Fred Farley - H1 Unlimited Historian
The Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900 was the scene of the first successful power boat race of the 20th Century. Eight speed launches competed over a 7.5-mile course on the River Seine. Marius Dubonnet's L'Aiglon was first over the finish line with an elapsed time of 47 minutes and 15 seconds.
Gasoline engine-powered craft of one sort or another had been in evidence since as early as 1887 when Gottleib Daimler hitched a crude petrol motor to the rear of a rowboat and putt-putted a few miles per hour with it, also on the River Seine.
The first formal power boat race of any lasting importance occurred in 1903 at Queenstown (now Dun Leary), Ireland.
The event was the inaugural running of the British International ("Harmsworth") Trophy. The award is nicknamed after its donor, Sir Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe), then publisher of The London Daily.
The 1903 British International Trophy was won by England's Napier I (also known as Napier Minor), owned by S.F. Edge and driven by Campbell Muir. The narrow 35-foot craft, using a 75-horsepower Napier engine, defeated Trefle-A-Quatre--a French vessel--at a speed of 19.530 land miles per hour.
The initial contest for the famous APBA Gold Cup--officially known as the American Power Boat Association Challenge Cup--was run on the Hudson River in New York as America's answer to the highly touted Harmsworth Trophy.
The Gold Cup course was 16 nautical miles up and down the Hudson, unlike the oval-shaped 2.5 statute mile circuit that is in use today. Carl Riotte at the helm of Standard won all three heats of history's first Gold Cup competition with a 96-mile average of 23.160.
Standard was a displacement craft, measuring 59 feet in length with an 8.5-foot beam, and subscribed to the only known theory of water speed: cutting through instead of planing over the surface. It was powered by a 110-horsepower Standard motor, which resembled a miniature steam engine with its steel columns and open frame.
The Harmsworth Trophy and the Gold Cup have proven to be two of the greatest incentives in the development of competitive power boats in the history of the sport.
The earliest hydroplane hulls appeared around 1910. At high speeds, they rode on one or more breaks or "steps" affixed to the underside, thereby using much less wetted surface area than had been the case with the old-style vee-bottom displacement craft. These boats rode like bucking broncos, but they were fast.
One of the most successful of the early step hydroplanes was Maple Leaf IV , owned by Sir Edward Mackay-Edgar and driven by T.O.M. Sopwith. Powered by twin Austin engines which gave her a total of 400 horsepower, Maple Leaf IV won back for England the Harmsworth Trophy at Huntington Bay, New York, in 1912 with an average speed of 43.125 miles per hour.
Beginning with the 1917 Gold Cup contest in Minneapolis, power boat racing entered its first golden age, "The Gar Wood Era." For sixteen years, Garfield Arthur Wood (named after two U.S. Presidents) would seemingly be the personification of major league boat racing in the eyes of the world. The popular "Gray Fox of Grayhaven" (Michigan) won the Gold Cup four times as an owner and five times as a driver and captured the Harmsworth Trophy eight times as a driver and nine times as an owner.
In the final 30-mile heat of the 1920 Gold Cup on the Detroit River, Wood, at the wheel of his first Miss America, turned a phenomenal 70.412 miles per hour, a record that would stand until 1946.
Gar's greatest personal triumph occurred in 1920 on Osborne Bay, England, where the 26-foot Miss America I , powered by twin 450-horsepower Liberty power plants, re-captured the Harmsworth Trophy for the United States for the first time since 1911.
Wood's two most famous racing crafts were Miss America IX--the world's first official 100 mile an hour boat (102.256 in 1931)--and Miss America X--38 feet of mahogany powered by four giant Packard V-12engines, rated at 7600 horsepower, set in tandem. The X won the 1932 and 1933 Harmsworth races and, in 1932, set a world mile straightaway record of 124.915.
The now-defunct Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey, occupies a special place in hydroplane history. It was there that the first modern three-point hydroplanes came into being. In 1936, Ventnor engineers Adolph and Arno Apel, a father-and-son team, introduced a series of boats that rode on the trailing edges of two pontoon-like running surfaces called sponsons and the propeller. This was a radical departure from the step hydroplanes and forever altered the course of competitive power boating.
Jack Rutherfurd's Juno and Jack "Pop" Cooper'sTops II were two of Ventnor's most successful three-pointers in the late-1930's. So, of course, everybody else had to start building boats with sponsons on them in order to be competitive.
Other early three-pointers of that era included the likes of Zalmon Simmons's My Sin (the 1939 and 1941 Gold Cup champion), Bill Cantrell's Why Worry, Marion Cooper's Mercury, Lou Fageol's So-long, George Davis's Hermes IV , and Dan Arena's Miss Golden Gate.
The modern H1 Unlimited era of hydroplane racing began after World War II when the huge supply of converted aircraft and other types of power sources developed for the war effort became available for sale to the general public.
The first boat to make use of a contemporary engine was a big wild-riding yellow craft named Miss Golden Gate III. Owned and driven by Dan Arena and equipped with a substantially stock Allison aircraft motor. Arena failed to finish the 1946 Gold Cup Race on the Detroit River but clearly labeled his rig as the boat of the future, bettering the competition lap record of 72 miles per hour no less than seven times and setting a new standard of over 77 mph.
The first true national circuit for the Unlimiteds came into being in 1947. Miss Peps V, owned by the Dossin brothers of Detroit and driven by Danny Foster, emerged as the first Season High Point Champion, winning the 1947 Ford Memorial, Gold Cup, and President's Cup regattas with an Allison engine.
Foster quickly established himself as the most victorious driver of his day. He was the forerunner of future driving champions Bill Muncey, Ron Musson, Chuck Thompson, Mira Slovak, Billy Schumacher, Dean Chenoweth, Jim Kropfeld, Tom D'Eath, Chip Hanauer, Steve David, Dave Villwock, and others.
In 1963, Miss U.S. owner George Simon of the U.S. Equipment Co., won a landmark tax case against the Internal Revenue Service, establishing Unlimited hydroplane competition as a valid business expense within specified guidelines. This opened the door to major corporate sponsorship.
Ole Bardahl's Miss Bardahl, sponsored by the Bardahl International Oil Co., was one of the first commercial teams to take advantage of the new tax-exempt status and reap championship results. Pilot Ron Musson won three consecutive Gold Cups In 1963-64-65 and was the first to average 115 miles per hour in a heat of competition at the 1965 San Diego Cup on Mission Bay.
When Musson was fatally injured at the 1966 President's Cup in Washington, D.C., Billy Schumacher picked up right where Ron had left off and won two Gold Cups of his own in 1967-68. The success and popularity of the Miss Bardahl and other sponsored teams proved that the fans would indeed accept boats with commercial names as well as those with nicknames.
Two of the more memorable races of the post-World War II era are the 1971 and 1976 Gold Cup Races in Madison (Indiana) and Detroit (Michigan) respectively. Both were reminiscent of olden days when a hometown favorite hydroplane claimed its own piece of the pie.
In 1971, the community-owned Miss Madison with driver Jim McCormick made a claim for immortality with a richly sentimental triumph before 110,000 partisan fans in Madison, the picturesque Ohio River town with a competitive tradition that dates back to 1911.
In the 1976 contest, Tom D'Eath wheeled the Detroit-based Miss U.S. to first-place on home waters in the Motor City before an established half-million spectators--the largest live audience of any event during the U.S. Bicentennial Year.
If three famous names above all others are to be singled out as having exerted the greatest influence on post-World War II Unlimited racing, those names unquestionably are Tudor Owen ("Ted") Jones, William Edward ("Bill") Muncey, and Bernard Leroy "Bernie" Little.
Jones designed the trend-setting Slo-mo-shun IV and Slo-mo-shun V, which won five consecutive Gold Cups, one Harmsworth Trophy, and one President's Cup between them, representing the Seattle Yacht Club and introducing the major league of water sports to the Pacific Northwest.
Slo-mo-shun IV raised the mile striaghtaway record to 160.323 in 1950 and to 178.497 in 1952. The IV was the first successful three-point "prop-rider," using a propeller that was only partly--instead of fully-- submerged and kicking up a spectacular "roostertail" of spray a football field in length behind the boat.
Between 1950 and 1966, Jones hulls won 74 major races and claimed ten consecutive Season High Point Championships. In addition to the Slo-mo boats, Jones designed, Shanty I, Maverick, Miss Thriftway, Hawaii Kai III, Miss Wahoo, Miss Bardahl, and many more.
Muncey, the sport's most eloquent ambassador of good will, won 62 races in the Unlimited Class between 1956 and 1981, including eight victories in the Gold Cup with the Miss Thriftway, the Miss Century 21, and the Atlas Van Lines. He was High Point Champion Driver seven times and raised the mile straightaway record to 192.001 in 1960 with the Miss Thriftway, a mark that stood for two years.
The high-water mark of Muncey's career was the 1976-1979 period when he teamed with Crew Chief Jim Lucero and won 24 out of 34 races entered under the aegis of Atlas Van Lines. This was after Bill had purchased the entire racing equipment inventory of three-time National Champion Dave Heerensperger's Pay'n Pak organization.
On October 18, 1981, Muncey suffered fatal injuries while competing for the UIM World Championship on Laguna de Coyuca in Acapulco, Mexico, with the Atlas-sponsored "Blue Blaster." The victim of a "blow-over," Bill lost his life while maintaining his familiar first-place.
Bernie Little, the most successful owner in history, certainly made his presence felt during his 40-year racing career with the Miss Budweiser, sponsored by Anheuser-Busch.
Between 1963 and 2002, Little's boats participated in 354 Unlimited races. His team finished in the top-3 a total of 230 times with a record 134 victories. He was National High Point Champion 22 times.
Despite his many victories and record performances, Little always considered his greatest triumph to be the development of the enclosed cockpit. In 1986, Bernie allowed designer Ron Jones, Sr., to install the first F-16 fighter plane canopy on one of the Miss Budweiser hulls. That was the beginning. The idea caught on in a hurry.
Starting in 1987, all new boats in the Unlimited Class were required to seat their drivers "indoors." The older ones were given until 1989 to make the change-over. Thanks to the F-16 canopy, many drivers have literally walked away from accidents that previously would have been fatal.
A major development in recent years has been the long-awaited introduction of jet turbine--as opposed to piston--engines in the Unlimited ranks. The first turbine-powered craft to truly get its act together and claim a Season High Point Championship was the Chip Hanauer-chauffeured Miller American in 1985, winning five of nine races (including the Gold Cup) and rewriting the speed record book.
At the 1985 Tri-Cities (Washington) Columbia Cup, Hanauer and the Lycoming-powered Miller craft became the first to exceed 150 miles per hour around a closed course with a reading of 153.061 in qualification for the 2.5-mile distance.
The past decade of H1 Unlimited racing has been blessed with spirited competition. Dave Villwock, driver of Spirit of Qatar, and Steve David, pilot of Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison, have garnered most of the glory.
David was High Point Champion in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010; Villwock made headlines in 2011 when he scored the 65th win of his career (on San Diego's Mission Bay) to become the sport's all-time most victorious driver.
The H1 Unlimited hydroplanes are water racing's greatest show. There have been many many highlights too numerous to be retold here. The boats are faster, more sophisticated, and more expensive. A rich man's hobby has been transformed into a professional pursuit.
The march of time not withstanding, the racers of today share a common mistress with their predecessors of another era: the quest for speed and victory on the water.
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