A huge crowd milled along the banks of the Detroit River on September 4, 1933. It was the day of the great American speedboat classic, the Gold Cup Race, and most of the crowd had gathered to watch one of millionaire car manufacturer Horace E. Dodge's five boats run off with the trophy.
Dodge was determined to win. During the winter he had engaged one of England's best boat builders to design and build two new racers for him at a cost of many thousands of dollars and while the new importations looked good in trials, his powerful Delphine IV, which had won the race the previous year, was a heavy favorite to take the cup again.
The people allowed along the docks above the slips where the racers were waiting, crowded to glimpse the Dodge racing fleet and the other famed Gold Cup boats. entered in the race. Hotsy Totsy, Victor Kliesrath's two-time winner, was there ready to go and pre-race rumor had it that her new engine made her ten miles an hour faster than ever. In the pits crews of mechanics swarmed over the racers making frantic last-minute adjustments, rechecking fuel lines and gas mixtures.
At the far end of the dock, in the end slip, a short, friendly little man and a raw-boned, lantern-jawed giant sat talking idly in the cockpit of a pencil-thin mahogany boat. There was no pushing crowd fighting for rail space on the dock above it. Its hull was sleek, true, but its deck was pieced together with unmatched mahogany and the two men sitting there did not look as though they were about to race for America's greatest speedboat trophy. Few had ever even heard the name painted on her side — El Lagarto.
"You fellows racing or watching?" a spectator from the dock above yelled down good-naturedly.
"Oh it's a nice day," the man behind the wheel called back cheerily, "we'll go out there and tag along, I guess."
Hours before the race the drivers eased their boats out, one and two at a time, to warm up around the box-shaped 2½-mile course. In the pits drivers and mechanics of the other boats reached for their stopwatches as the boats they feared most went out for their trial spins. As the well-known boats completed their trial laps and rivals snapped their stopwatches and shook their heads at each other with worried gestures, George Reis and his big friend Dick Bowers nosed El Lagarto out of her slip and headed for the first turn. Some of the other drivers just smiled and put their stopwatches back in their pockets as El Lagarto picked up a little speed and loped toward the first turn with an ungainly bouncing gait which gave the boat the appearance of a big, friendly puppy dog. Veterans remembered this old-timer had been entered in the race twice before. Once she broke down and the first time, in 1922, she finished last. They weren't really very worried.
Reis, Bowers and El Lagarto took two laps of the course as though they were out for a Sunday pleasure cruise and a chuckle rippled through the conversation of the crowd along the banks. It seemed there was always a boat in the Gold Cup Race which didn't belong there.
When the cannon shot came as a signal for the drivers to turn out for the start of the race there was ill-tempered jockeying for position a half mile from the starting line. Each driver and his mechanic kept one eye on the dangerous boats and one eye on the big clock on shore.
As the red hand moved past the thirty-second mark, the boats began their run, picking up speed and trying to judge their pace to hit the line simultaneously with the crack of the starting gun.
None of the other drivers were watching El Lagarto gunning along on the inside and neither Reis at the wheel nor Bowers next to him watched them. Bowers was intent on the tachometer and a shore marker he had established earlier in the day. He knew just how many revolutions per minute El Lagarto should be turning up at the half-mile marker and when they hit the quarter-mile marker Bowers shouted to Reis and the trim mahogany racer shot forward full speed.
Simultaneously with the crack of the starter's cannon El Lagarto flashed across the line 25 feet ahead of her nearest rival.
That was the closest any of the ten boats entered in the race ever got to this big, loping puppy with the ungainly gait. Horace E. Dodge and his fleet of costly speedsters never caught El Lagarto that day. George Reis, the well-to-do California owner of the boat and his stock-broker mechanic,. Dick Bowers, flashed around the three thirty-mile heats of the Gold Cup course still looking as though they were out for a pleasure cruise. There was no boat on the river which could match El Lagarto's speed and endurance.
During the next three years no one caught, this dark horse which had come down from a leisurely life of retirement on Lake George at the ripe old boat racing age of eleven years, to walk off with the greatest motorboat racing trophy in America. This Cinderella speedboat, which had been used as a combination pleasure cruiser, errand runabout and fishing smack, won the Gold Cup race three years in a row, a feat never duplicated in Gold Cup history and in nine tries from '33 to '36 at boat racing's Big Three — the Gold Cup, the President's Cup and the National Sweepstakes — El Lagarto won eight times and broke down once. It is a record unparalleled on boat racing annals.
And it was a fabulous story behind this Cinderella craft which was sold by her first owner for a song after he gave her up as hopeless, and was retired twice by her second owner, George Reis, before she was brought back to become the golden girl of the boat racing world with Reis at her wheel.
In the late 1920's, Reis got tired of having an old Lake George rival, Commodore Jonathan Moore, beat him. Moore had dominated Lake George racing for as long as any of the natives could recall and Reis decided it was time he was beaten. Dick Bowers, a Wall Street broker and World War I pilot, was a close friend who lived across the lake from Reis. He thought he knew of a fellow in Buffalo, Ed Grimm, manufacturer of Peerless marine engines, who had a boat he'd sell which might beat Moore's Jolly Roger.
In 1925 Grimm declined to sell his boat. He had raced it in the Gold Cup regatta in 1922 and had been soundly beaten when his boat averaged only 29 miles per hour and finished tenth, but he wanted to see what he could do with it for just one more year. The following year Grimm called Reis and said he'd sell the boat.
With Reis' blank check, Bowers went to Grimm to buy it. He first had to make sure it could beat Commodore Moore's boat, however, so he insisted on a trial run. Grimm didn't have a measured mile so Bowers got a bicycle, measured the distance one wheel revolution covered, then, counting the bike's wheel turns, he rode off a mile along the Erie Canal near Grimm's boathouse. The boat clocked close to fifty miles per hour and Bowers bought it for Reis.
The boat was then called Miss Mary. It was a beautifully designed boat built by the famous boat craftsman, John Hacker, in 1922. The design, as was later to be proven, was almost perfect and while Hacker hadn't spent time and money getting all the grains and colors in the mahogany to match perfectly, the boat had a toughness built into it that was to carry it to more victories than any other speedboat the world ever knew.
When the boat came to Lake George in 1927 Reis kept it hidden is Dick Bowers' boathouse across the Lake and often, after the sun went down, the two men would take the boat out to some sparsely populated shoreline of Lake George and let it oft.
The day of the race the boat, which Reis had renamed El Lagarto (The Lizard), sneaked down to the races on the far side of the lake. The new boat had been entered under the name of Reis' sister so that Commodore Moore would have no idea that George Reis had a plan afoot to trim him.
With five of the fastest boats on the lake to race against, Commodore Moore lined up with the others five minutes before the start of the Lake George race. He was smiling, waving cheerily and brimming with confidence.
He had beaten all these boats before. As the race was about to start a thin streak of mahogany knifed across the lake and as Reis came abreast of Commodore Moore he waved gaily and took off in a cloud of spray to win the Lake George championship.
El Lagarto Wins Again
But the late Commodore Moore was not a than to be whipped twice if he could help it. The following winter John Hacker built him a racing boat with an engine more powerful than the Gold Cup class limit. Reis won again with El Lagarto that year but he was getting only fifty miles an hour out of the boat and he knew that if Moore hadn't developed engine trouble his new Falcon II would have whipped him.
Reis bought a new Packard engine that summer and, on his way back to Pasadena for the winter in 1929, stopped to talk with boatbuilder Bob Purdy in Port Washington, L. I.
"Just build me a fast boat," Reis told Purdy. "I don't care how long it is or how wide it is. Just build me a fast boat around my Packard engine, I'll be back here to try it out May 15."
Reis never told his friend Bowers about this new boat but that summer he brought it to Lake George, named it El Lagartito (The Little Lizard), and roared up and down in front of Bowers' place with it until his friend rushed down to the dock in excitement.
They played with the boat that summer, beat Commodore Moore, and in 1931 decided it might be good enough to enter in the National Sweepstakes on the Potomac in Washington. They finished out of the money and Reis was disappointed with his new boat. For $1,800 the builder added another 18 inches to the boat to bring it to Gold Cup specifications, but the hundred-dollar-an-inch revamp didn't help.
"I could take that old thing there," Reis said to the builder one day in his boathouse as he pointed to the old dry-docked El Lagarto, "put a new bottom on her and beat this thing you built me."
Reis Wins a Bet
The two men made a good natured bet of a suit of clothes. Reis hardly thought he'd win the bet but he and Bowers went to work on El Lagarto, and with the powerful Packard engine and ⅝ inch-high steps on her bottom they took her out for a trial run. He had acquired another Packard engine for the 'Tito.
Because Reis had paid $12,000 for El Lagartito and consequently nurtured the hope that it would sometime turn up to expectations, he climbed in that and Dick Bowers got in the old El Lagarto. Down the middle of the lake they started, and at a signal each gave his boat full throttle. The old Lizard pounded past the 'Tito and leaped further away with every bound. Before they'd gone a mile Reis pulled up and opened his engine hatch. Thinking he had developed trouble Bowers circled back and pulled alongside him.
"Get out of that boat," George Reis grinned at his Wall Street mechanic, "it's mine."
They never set foot in the new boat again. Reis had spent $12,000 to buy himself a boat that would beat his arch-rival Moore and be good enough to race with the nation's best and had found out too late to save himself the money that he had one right in his own boathouse. They clocked El Lagarto at 63 mp.h. that day and during the next few years they were to get her closer to 75.
Gold Cup on Lake George
In 1934, after his 1933 Detroit River victory. Reis brought the Gold Cup Regatta to Lake George and again walked off with the trophy, beating in speed and endurance the fastest boats is the world for the 90-mile grind. The old boat, now 12, was at home there on Lake George. The lake was often rough and El Lagarto loved nothing better than to pound around her home course at full speed with that long, distance-eating lope, which by now was a familiar sight in boat racing circles. Nothing bothered the Lizard If she was tuned to run at 70 m.p.h. she could curt that fast all day long in circles and in rough water just as well as she could on a glass smooth mile straightaway.
When she won the big three in 1933 and 1934, people began to grumble, as they always do about unbeatable champions; saying that she was lucky. Washed up, they said she was. And five days before the 1935 Gold Cup Race it looked as though they might have been right. Reis and Bowers were out giving her a final tune-up when something went wrong and they did serious damage to the Packard engine.
They had her towed in and the two men sat dejectedly in the boathouse. It was nothing they could fix in five days. It was a factory job which demanded heavy tooling machinery they didn't have. There was still work to be done on. the rest of the boat too and it looked impossible.
"Look." Bowers said to Reis, "why don't we toad this half of the engine in the back of your car. You take off for the builders. shop and I'll stay here and finish the test."
Repairs Come High
At the motor plant manufacturer's it took two days to do the job and when it was done the foreman at the plant presented Reis with a bill for $2,000.
As Reis prepared to leave, the foreman and several officials gathered around Reis to chat amiably.
"By the way," the foreman said to Reis, "what are you fellows doing to that engine of ours? It wasn't built to turn up that much power. Like to see the whole engine some time."
The fact was that Reis and Bowers had so altered the big marine engine that while it was built to produce about 250 horsepower, they were getting closer to 400 horsepower out of it.
"Tell you what I'll do," Reis grinned. "You just sign this bill, just receipt this $2,000 bill you've given me right here, and I'll tell you what we've done to your engine."
The foreman smiled uneasily and said that after all they had a research department to find out those things for them.
"For $2,000 your research department will never find out what we've done to your engine," Reis said, grinning like a Cheshire cat as he climbed in his. car to return to Lake George with the repaired half of the engine.
The two men little more than got the engine back down on the blocks in the boat before it was race time. It was time enough. Again El Lagarto went out and showed her trim heels to the field.
New Engine Fails to Stand Up
In 1936 the trophy was finally lost. They got a little greedy, Reis recalls sadly. The previous winter he had designed a new engine in collaboration with the airplane maker, Monasco, in California. The new Reis-Monasco was installed and used in place of the old faithful Packard in the belief that it could get better than 80 mp.h. out of El Lagarto.
Shortly after the start of the race the engine broke down and that ended El Lagarto's Gold Cup Class. Just to prove she could still do it Reis put the Packard back in, set a new Gold Cup class record of 72.73 miles an hour and again won the National Sweepstakes. He never entered the boat in the Gold Cup Race again. His record still stands ten years later but all engine size and boat design restrictions have been lifted from the race now and Reis believes that, even though the 1947 race was won in slower time than El Lagarto's, she no longer should be entered against the unrestricted class boats.
It was El Lagarto which brought about the change in the Gold Cup Class. Everyone realized that weight-for-length-for-engine-size the old boat was unbeatable. She had run boat-racing's four-minute-mile. She was the perfect design and there was no room for improvement or increased speed with the 728 cubic inch piston displacement. (Her record of 72.73 m.p.h. does not represent her best speed because it was made on Lake George and drivers agree that the lake water was almost five miles per hour slower to race on than any other. Despite that, no one has ever bettered it.)
And last year. while the Gold Cup Race was being won by Danny Foster, the speedboat Man O' War was out cruising around its Lake George pasture as usual. There was a smug little smile on George Reis' lips.
And the Gold Cuppers had better stay on their toes or one of these years George Reis will whistle for Dick Bowers across the lake and they'll throw their 26-year-old beauty on a trailer and show the supercharged, gadget-ridden modern racers how to win a boat race.
(Reprinted from Motor Boating, March 1949)
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