The Lady With A Past
Twenty years ago this autumn the late Herbert Stone, reporting the President's Cup race in YACHTING, wrote: "El Lagarto, thrice winner of the President's Cup and also of the Gold Cup, was so badly smashed as the result of a collision that she will be permanently retired, and may end her days in the Smithsonian Institute as a monument to speed boat racing of the middle thirties."
Few authorities of that day, not even El Lagarto's owner-driver George Reis, would have disagreed with "Skipper" Stone's timing of this obituary. For not many Gold Cup hvdroplanes live long enough to run in three Gold Cup and President's Cup contests, and no boat before or since has been capable of the supreme effort of winning each trophy three times, plus establishing two victories in the National Sweepstakes. And, incredible though it may seem, El Lagarto (Spanish for The Lizard) was then a 14-year-old antique.
If you should drop in on Reis at his Bolton Landing, N.Y. home this summer and be fortunate enough to be invited for one of the daily spins in his fastest boat, be prepared for a severe shock. Still going strong, and as fast as ever, she is the same Lizard, hale and hearty in her 35th year.
Packed into this more than one-third of a century has been a career never approached by any other racing power boat: ten Gold Cup races, five runs for the President's Cup, two National Sweepstakes contests and countless pleasure junkets, fast dashes to social functions and flat-hatting sessions to bring gasps from unsuspecting passengers.
Obviously, El Lagarto's career is not the result of a strange quirk of luck or of a series of such quirks. As a neighbor and close friend of George Reis for almost as long as he has owned The Lizard, I have been able to observe and evaluate the ingredients that have gone into making her a legend.
It all started with fine design and superlative building by that old master John L. Hacker. Another deep bow is due to the Packard Motor Car Co., designer and builder of the power plants that have driven her successfully. But Hacker has turned out other fine hulls and Packard has produced many good engines, none of which were ever combined into a boat which could equal this one.
I feel that the magic ingredient has been supplied by three men who have tended El Lagarto over the years three men, any one of whom could do anything necessary for her handling, care or repair. With her from the beginning has been Ferris (Smoke) Gates, the only paid hand, who doubles as caretaker of the Reis home on Lake George. Gates' loyalty to the boat was never more truly proven than on his wedding day when he finished the ceremony and reception with all decorum, quickly changed to his work clothes and dashed back to the boathouse to finish preparing The Lizard for a race.
The co-pilot in all of El Lagarto's races and steadfast member of her mechanical crew throughout her racing days was Anderson (Dick) Bowers. Bowers combined the rugged daring of one of the pioneer aviators of the U.S. Navy with an engineering flair that carried him to second in command of the Assembly and Repair shops of the Naval Air Station at Jacksonville, Fla., during the second World War.
George Reis knows fast boats as have few men. He drove unlimited hydroplanes for the late A. L. Judson before World War I and since then has always had speedsters of his own. But for all this technical know-how, Reis' forte is driving genius. I firmly believe this talent is closely related to that which has made him one of the nation's top actors. While at the wheel he seems to be playing to the hilt the part of the maestro of his craft. Although George claims that The Lizard is a cinch to drive—"Why you can take your hands off the wheel at full speed"—it is likely that only his deft touch has kept her from dumping on a hundred occasions. My guess is that this is why only two other men have ever been allowed to drive her, even briefly — Dick Bowers and Reis' arch-competitor Bill Horn.
What Reis, Bowers and Gates did to make this Hacker-Packard combination the winningest Gold Cupper of all time is simple. They worked and ran and kept everlastingly at it. Their methods were experiment, cut and try. Every change was given a most grueling trial under racing conditions. Every item was tested until it proved it could "take it." Anything that failed was improved until it could stand the gaff. It is the same technique, albeit on a grander scale, that later paid Stanley Sayres in victories for his Slo-mo-shuns.
El Lagarto was conceived at the opening of an era in Gold Cup racing. Following the 1921 contest for the Trophy the rules were amended, limiting contestants to the use of monoplane (stepless) hulls having a minimum water line length of 25 ft. and a w.l. beam of at least 5 ft. Power plants were restricted to a top piston displacement of 625 cu. in. As soon as the new rules became known John Hacker created a hull design to fit. It was typically Hacker in line, but distinguished by lines that pulled in to a narrow transom. The intended power plant was a 200 hp. Packard and the designed speed 50 to 55 m.p.h.
Hacker went ahead and built a hull to his new plans—built it on speculation. The finished hull was sold to E. L. Grimm of Buffalo for a sum which Hacker recalls as between $1,500 and $2,500. Grimm christened her Miss Mary and installed a 125 hp. Peerless engine.
Miss Mary was constructed with natural knees, an oak frame and mahogany planking fastened with copper rivets. The materials were selected by John L. personally. Asked what magic he had used to produce such longevity, Hacker replied "The boat was constructed properly to Hacker specifications, which meant a first class job. I had one of the best builders with me and yours truly was not too bad a builder himself."
Thirteen boats started in the 1922 Gold Cup Race at Detroit, among them the new Grimm challenger. From her performance no one would have foretold her fabulous future. Miss Mary finished the first heat in last position, at an average speed of 29.1 m.p.h. The second and third heats she did not start.
The following year Grimm returned for the Gold Cup contest with a 150 hp. Peerless beneath Miss Mary's hatches. What her capabilities might have been remains unknown for she did not finish a heat.
Again in 1924 Grimm tried for the Cup using the same hull driven by a 200 hp. Peerless. But again the record book contains no speeds for Miss Mary—only "D.N.F."
The summer of 1925 found Dick Bowers in Buffalo commissioned to buy Miss Mary for Reis. In due course George received a wire saving that $2,500 had changed hands and the boat was his, complete with Peerless engine.
Rechristened El Lagarto, the new acquisition was checked and found to have a top speed of 44 m.p.h.—fast enough to beat the stock runabouts, but not for serious racing. Thus, during 1925, 1926, 1927 and much of 1928 the pleasure boat El Lagarto was a familiar sight on Lake George.
In the summer of 1928 Reis learned of a used but rebuilt Packard Gold Cup engine belonging to Sam Dunsford. This model had been introduced by Packard in 1925. It was a 6 cyl., 621 cu. in. machine having a bore of 5½" and a stroke of 4 9/16". 275 hp. was developed at 2500 r.p.m. Reis bought the Dunsford Packard for $3,000.
The new motor was quickly installed and taken out for trials. After giving the engine a preliminary breaking-in, Reis and Bowers took her over their mile course. The author, watching at the finish line, saw Bowers take one peek at the stop-watch and toss it joyfully overboard. It indicated a speed of 52 m.p.h. Later that year El Lagarto won the Lake George championship and we all figured she had reached the peak of her career.
The Gold Cup rules were amended at this stage so as to allow hydroplane (stepped) hulls. Reis bought a single-step hydro which he named El Lagartito (The Little Lizard). She competed without distinction in the 1930 Gold Cup Race which was won by Hotsy Totsy, a four-year-old mono-plane converted to a multiple-step hydro.
The Hotsy Totsy conversion fascinated Reis. On a bet that a multiple-step El Lagarto could beat his El Lagartito, in 1931 he applied shingles to The Lizard's riding bottom. And shingles are exactly what they were: approximately three feet in length, they tapered from an effective thickness of zero at the leading end to ¾" at the trailing end. Courses of these screwed to the El Lagarto bottom formed five transverse steps each ¾" in depth.
After the shingling job was completed and a few adjustments made, The Lizard was turned over to Dick Bowers while. Reis drove the "Tito" for a show-down brush. It was no contest. The 9-year-old El Lagarto, which later that day was timed at 63 m.p.h., swooshed away from her young sister.
El Lagarto appeared at the 1931 Gold Cup Race to the thinly disguised merriment of many. The obviously aged craft (she was then in her 10th year) seemed out of place alongside such new boats as Californian, Miss Philadelphia, Miss Syndicate III and Scotty Too. But the giggles subsided as The Lizard took the lead at the start of the first heat and for ten of the 2½-mile laps stayed in front of the eight-boat pack with ease. Then on the 11th go-around a valve stuck in its guide, snapped and was sucked into the motor.
Encouraged by this performance, Reis made hasty repairs and set out for the National Sweepstakes Race. Here everything worked to perfection and El Lagarto topped a nine-boat field for the first major victory in the old gal's career.
Later that season George and Dick proved their earlier runs had been no flukes by whipping six other aspirants for the President's 'Cup.
By standing pat in preparing for the 1932 Gold Cup, the El Lagarto crew did not reckon with Bill Horn who had been experimenting with shingles on Horace Dodge's old monoplane Delphine IV. Ever since being shingled Delphine had exhibited a wild porpoising action that Horn had managed to bring within controllable bounds by the time of the '32 race. The 90-mile elapsed times of Delphine and The Lizard were only 45 seconds apart, but the Horn charge came up with the win.
It took the Lizard board of strategy but a short time to conclude that they had been whipped by a boat that got its speed from staying off the water. Tests were started with varying thicknesses of El Lagarto’s after shingles. It seemed that the more this was thinned down, the more she would jump. And the more she jumped, up to the point of lost control, the faster she went.
So, for the 1932 President's Cup the formerly smooth-riding El Lagarto became the Leaping Lizard. Obviously her porpoising did the trick for she won the first heat from Delphine IV by 300 yds. Then, while warming up for the second heat, her crankshaft snapped.
Several mechanical improvements were made in El Lagarto prior to the 1933 Gold Cup Race. New pistons were installed, boosting the Packard's compression ratio from where much higher speeds were being 7.6/1 to 9.5/1. The standard camshaft was replaced with a new Winfield that immediately added 250 r.p.m. to the engine's top.
The 1933 race is sometimes recalled as the year of the "Dodge Navy." No less than five Delphines were entered and four of them were among the seven actual starters. El Lagarto led the first heat from start to finish, setting a new heat record of 60.866 m.p.h. The second was much the same story, and an easy second spot in the final heat was enough to bring the first Gold Cup win to the boat on her sixth try in 12 years.
The National Sweepstakes and President's Cup races in 1933 followed the same pattern as the Gold Cup. In each The Lizard went out and grabbed the first two heats, then coasted to victory with a second place in the finale.
After the close of the 1933 season the rules-makers decided to pep up a class dominated by a boat resurrected from obscurity. So they voted to permit superchargers on Gold Cup engines. But Reis decided to fight it out with his unblown Packard.
The 1934 race for the plated urn was taken by El Lagarto from five challengers. Her closest competition came from Benny Hill in Hornet, which the defender trailed for four consecutive laps in excess of 61 m.p.h. That year's President's Cup Race was also won by the now phenomenally consistent Lizard.
Again the rules solons went to work. They compared the U.S. dominance by El Lagarto (weighing 3,440 lbs. in 12-litre class hydros. It was decided to allow participants in the 1935 Gold Cup Race to use either supercharged engines up to 625 cu. in. or unsupercharged power plants up to 732 cu. in. They further resolved to banish all hull restrictions after the 1935 race.
Once more the Bolton Landing boys stuck to their unsupercharged 621 cu. in. Packard. But whereas they had been using 86 octane aviation fuel (the tops of its day) blended with 28 c.c. of tetra-ethyl lead per gal., they shifted to a special mixture of gasoline, benzol and alcohol, turned out by the Texas Co. This particular blend was chosen after Reis and crew discovered they picked up speed by sucking the intake air over a basket of dry ice.
With this combination El Lagarto walked away from all challengers, new and old, in the 1935 Gold Cup. She did not compete again that year. But in the autumn she ran an official mile trial at 72.727 m.p.h., the highest speed ever to be attained by a Gold Cupper of the unblown 625 cu. in., restricted hull variety.
Late in 1935 the rules were changed to provide for a maximum motor displacement of 732 cu. in. and a minimum of 600 cu. in. Virtually every other restriction was dropped.
The El Lagarto management finally decided to make changes and for 1936 installed in her a 732 cu. in., 12 cyl. machine developed from a sleeved and de-stroked Curtiss D-12 aviation engine. Weeks of recurrent bearing failure was not cured in time and The Lizard lasted less than two laps in the Gold Cup Race.
At that year's President's Cup El Lagarto led the first heat until an oil line broke. The flying hot lube made the steering wheel so slippery that The Lizard became almost unmanageable and she was passed short of the finish line by Notre Dame. In the milling about prior to the start of the second heat Notre Dame rammed El Lagarto's starboard side and smashed her so badly she had to be withdrawn. It was this inexplicable crash that prompted "Skipper" Stone's obituary to the Reis craft.
But she was repaired during the winter and had a final fling (her tenth) at the Gold Cup in 1937. For three-fourths of the first heat she ran close behind Notre Dame with her 24-cylinder supercharged Duesenberg and Miss Canada II with a 12-cylinder supercharged Miller. Then The Lizard's oil pump gave out and she was withdrawn from her final race.
In YACHTING for Nov., 1937, Everett Morris told the story: "The low weight per horsepower ratio possible in Gold Cup hydroplanes since the rules were brought in line with the International Twelve Litre Class has sounded the death knell of such famous campaigners as El Lagarto."
If you ask George Reis why The Lizard was faster around a course than her contemporaries, he will tell you much of it was due to her controlled air vents. To relieve the speed-killing partial vacuum which develops behind each step, two standpipes were installed through the bottom just abaft each step, one on either side of the keel. These permitted air drawn from inside the hull to flow down and break the vacuum.
The Lizard responded to the vents with a substantial increase in speed, but on a turn she would skid far and wide. While truing to cure the skidding it was found that plugging the port tubes caused the boat to turn left. Following this discovery, shut-offs were installed on four port and two starboard vents, with controls leading to the dash. Going into a turn Bowers would close all port vents and the boat would whip to port. At the last buoy the vents were opened and the boat would leap straight ahead.
Another factor in her remarkable handling was the intermediate propeller shaft strut installed about 18" ahead of the prop. After applying the shingles Reis found that the lone rudder-trunnion did not provide sufficient support and the boat steered with great difficulty. Installation of the strut added 3 miles top speed and greatly aided steering.
The boat's career speaks well for all her components. All but the earliest races were run with Federal-Mogul Equipoise propellers especially designed for El Lagarto. Not one ever shed a blade. Sizes averaged 17" diam. and 27" pitch with r.p.m. close to 3300.
Reis always used Champion spark plugs. A set of plugs which fired well and showed the right color on the porcelain after the final hard test run was used throughout the race without change.
Since the start of her successful racing career El Lagarto has had but two propeller shafts, both products of the International Nickel Co. One lasted until the prop whacked deadhead in 1938. The other is still being used.
Carrying the prop shaft are two lignum vitae bushings. This material was first installed in 1931. The original bushng is still in the intermediate strut. The trunnion at the rudder is on its second lignum vitae set, the first having been mashed underfoot while temporarily off the boat.
The hull has always been well maintained and in 1952 her stringers, beds, frames and some of the shingles were rebuilt.
All told, Reis has bought five Packard engines. At last count three were assembled ready for use and there were enough parts to build up a fourth.
The Lizard still looks most fit and still travels in the seventies. It is difficult to predict how much longer she should keep going. Reis' figures indicate that he has averaged 2,000 miles of running each season since he bought her. That adds up to more than 60,000 miles, the equivalent of 2½ times around the Earth at the Equator.
(Reprinted from Yachting, July 1956)
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