How to Drive a Racing Speedboat
There is only one way to learn to drive a speed boat — get into one and drive her. You cannot become a seagoing chauffeur by reading books on the subject any more than you I can qualify as champion of the Indianapolis automobile track by absorbing the contents of a pamphlet entitled: "From Novice to Expert Motorist in Five Easy Lessons at Home."
It is not the purpose of this article to attempt any such fantastic transformation. I aim merely to give the embryonic motor boat jockey a few concise, helpful hints and suggestions from the storehouse of my fifteen years of experience and study in the exciting but difficult school of trial and error. Perhaps I can save you from shipwreck and broken bones, to say nothing of impromptu submarine exploration.
The qualifications of a successful racing speed boat driver are, in general, those required of a participant in any dangerous sport. And at the speeds we are traveling on the water these days motor boat racing has to be regarded as a dangerous pursuit. You must have keen perceptions, lightning reflexes, unfailing courage and, preferably, no nerves. If you are a fatalist, so much the better. You must give no thought while racing to what might happen should anything go wrong. There are too many other things on which to concentrate.
Think of your boat, how to get the most out of her, how best to handle her in any situation that may arise, and let old Lady Luck take care of the rest. She will do pretty well by you if you do your part.
The best and only way to learn to handle a high speed boat is by observation and driving. Beg, borrow or steal rides with a good driver, a chap with a reputation for experience and skill. Study his every mood and move, his reactions in different circumstances; watch how he handles varying situations. Don't go just for the ride and tell him afterwards how thrilling it was. You don't learn anything just getting a kick out of speed. After a few such rides, wangle a trick at the wheel yourself, get the feel of the boat, know every whimper and twist, and be alert to correct her idiosyncrasies. No two racing boats behave alike.
I proved the truth of this at Washington in the President's Cup race last September when I spilled in Hotsy Totsy II. I had been out in her for only two brief runs before I drove that race. I was not familiar with her peculiarities, so when I bailed into that first turn and the boat began to slide on an even keel instead of banking as my old Delphine IV did, she got away from me and turned over. That would not have happened had I had the opportunity thoroughly to acquaint myself with her.
You've got to be like a jockey; master your boat just as a jockey masters his horse. A jockey will never get anywhere in a horse race if he is afraid of his mount. I never knew anyone to get anywhere in motor boat racing who was afraid of his boat — did not have confidence in his ability to handle her. A boat might kill me but she never will lick me. That is why George Reis is so successful with El Lagarto. That old lizard is going to fly into a thousand pieces one of these days, but George never thinks of that. He gives his boat hell and pushes her for all she's worth when he has to. He is utterly fearless.
Reis and El Lagarto are one in a race. He knows every screw and fastening, every plank and frame in her; every nut and bolt in her engine. He knows he can make her do just what he wants her to do when he wants her to do it. That is what makes Reis the greatest driver, bar none, in the history of the Gold Cup Class.
You never stop learning in a speed boat. The more you run one in tests and competition, the more you learn. You pick up something new every time out. So, if you really aspire to be a top notch driver, you must keep on driving.
Before we go any farther, let me tell you that a lot of races are won before the start by perfect installation of the motor and its accessories and the most thoroughgoing preparation. Leave nothing — absolutely nothing — to chance. You don't want to lose a race because a nut or washer worked loose, a battery cable slipped through improper fitting in the first place, or an oil or fuel feed line snapped or went adrift because of faulty installation. It is hard enough to win races without handicapping yourself beforehand by slipshod fitting out.
When Charley Grafflin was riding with me as mechanic, I never had a breakdown from haywire installation. We threw a lot of metal sometimes, even melted it; yes, but no crack-up ever resulted from anything Charley could have foreseen and prevented. The fellow who rides with you will win more races for your boat than you can shake a stick at. The public does not realize the importance of the fellow who sits alongside the driver and he never gets the credit which is his just due.
As I figure it, motor boat racing success is 50 per cent preparation, 30 per cent mechanic and 20 per cent driver. A good mechanic watches the instrument panel, tells you how the motor is behaving, keeps an eye on the rest of the field and, by a word or tap on the leg, tells you when to put your accelerator foot down to the floor or pull it back a little. He can watch the starting clock and let you know whether you are early or late. In many other ways he can be worth his weight in gold to you.
A good start is vital. Don't make the mistake of under-estimating the importance of hitting the line right on the gun. Remember that you must have a 65-mile-an-hour boat to get past a 60-mile-an-hour competitor on the straight-away of a 2½-mile course, such as the one the Gold Cup races are run on. If the course is shorter, then your chances of getting past the slower but better starting boat are reduced proportionately provided that she can take the turns as well as you.
Here is a perfect example of what I mean. It occurred in the Gold Cup race at Detroit, in 1933, where I failed in my defense of the trophy I won the year before at Lake Montauk. A combination of George Reis' better first heat start in El Lagarto and the longer straightaways on the five-mile course we used there brought about my downfall.
George got the jump on me in the first heat and I couldn't get Delphine IV past him to save my neck, although I was on his tail all the way. In the second heat I beat George to the line and, despite the fact that he had just a shade more speed than I, he had to ride my wash until we hit the long straightaway on the back stretch. It was a bit over two miles long, that straightaway, and it took George's old Lagarto, wide open, the entire stretch to draw sufficiently ahead to allow her to whip into the upper turn ahead of me. On a 2½-mile course, with its shorter straightaways, I don't think George could ever have passed me.
In preparing for a start, I always pick out a buoy or some landmark well above the line and make a few practice starts from there, heading for the line at about one-third speed and gradually picking up acceleration until the throttle is wide open when we cross. I try, as a rule, to select a starting run that takes about 22 seconds to cover. That gives the boat an opportunity to pick up speed steadily, getting up on her plane and running away from the wheel. It is bad policy to assume a position not far from the line, keep your engine idling and then throw in the clutch and jam down the accelerator for a quick dash to the line. You get cavitation then, not speed, and put too heavy a load on clutch, shaft and wheel. With supercharged engines, the standing start is absolutely out. A sudden jump in r.p.m.'s from one to three thousand will just about take all the teeth out of the blower gears.
If you find that you have mistimed your start and are a little too soon, don't disengage the clutch. Just back up on your accelerator foot and, if you have room enough, swing out of the direct course for the line. If you disengage the clutch you must decelerate, shove it in again, and then repeat the gradual acceleration process. All this takes time and you'll probably find that the other boats have left you to wallow through their wakes.
Contrary to popular opinion, it is easier to handle a racing boat in a turn than it is on a straightaway where you are likely to encounter a cross slop or what I call a wallowing sea — waves that parallel your course. Of course there is a lot of water flying when boats bail into a turn, and you get pretty wet sometimes, but you won't have any trouble as long as your boat banks properly and keeps her outside chine up.
I have found that the best way to go into a turn is to follow the method used by racing car drivers on dirt tracks. Hook your boat into the turn sharply, to get the stern skidding in the opposite direction, sort of trying to beat the nose around. Hold her against this tendency slightly by reducing the rudder angle to compensate for the changed direction of the hull and boot the accelerator. You must not let the nose dig in and the tail lift out of water. If you do, you'll do a flip, sure as shooting. To avoid this, if the nose has a tendency to root, make the turn less tight by easing off on the steering wheel a little. Whatever you do, don't cut your power or you'll lose your bank, roll off the wrong side of the wake and take a Gilhooley.
Just as in an automobile, you have control only as long as you have power; so keep going and by correcting the rudder to offset the boat's actions in the broken water you will be able to get her back into her turning bank.
End for end spins on turns — I took a beauty at Palm Beach two years ago trying to catch Antonio Becchi's twelve-litre — are caused by getting the bow around too sharply. Too quick a turn stops the forward motion of the boat. The bow, being sharp and cut away, depresses, whereupon the tail lifts, the propeller becomes a surface wheel, and the boat tramps right around in a circle, the nose acting like a rudder. If you feel this happening, get the power off, to make the entire hull settle, and then whip the steering wheel around in the opposite direction from the spin.
I said further back that it is harder to drive on the straight-aways than on the turns. I have seen more accidents on the stretches than ever I did when boats were hitting the corners. Delphine IV tore her rudder and tail section right off in the straightaway at Washington a couple of years ago. Hornet cracked up on the home stretch a year later on the same course when she came down on her side in a patch of bad water. Billy Freitag lost his life when Miss Philadelphia flopped on him almost in front of the judges' boat at Washington.
The reason is that very few boats are so constructed that they can maintain their equilibrium in a beam sea of the sort caused by backwash from bulkheads and the wakes of racers running on narrow courses. When you get into such a wallow, or trough, there is a tendency for the chine to dig and trip. That is what does the business. You have to lift your boat over these waves coming at you from the side. Suppose, for instance, that the wash is toward your starboard side. To get a lift over it as it strikes you, give quick left rudder. This snaps her up on her port side, raises the starboard chine and allows the wash to fold under it. Then throw your rudder back again and straighten out.
Some boats have a tendency to jump in broken water. They take right off and drive through the air for as much as a length before coming down into their element again. Remember Delphine IV when she was at her wildest? Well, there is one all important thing to remember when your boat takes a leap like that — get your rudder amid-ships so that when she comes down again it will be straight with the keel. If your rudder is cocked one way or the other when the boat hits water after a jump you'll flip just as sure as you're a foot high.
Now about passing another boat — provided you have speed enough to do it. Run right in her wake, letting the other boat flatten out the trough for you, until you are within about 25 feet of her transom. Then snap the wheel over and cross her wash at as straight an angle as possible so as to take it bow on and get over the hump with a minimum of fuss. Once across your adversary's wash, straighten out and concentrate on the next problem.
If that puts you in front of the field, ease back on your accelerator foot and save a few r.p.m.'s. You never know when you're going to need them.
Don't do anything shoddy when you are overtaking another boat or going into a turn with one. If you can't win by clean driving, don't win at all. Remember that no accident caused by tricky driving ever measured up in value to any trophy. None of them are worth it. You'll hear us "kid" a lot about what we are going to do to each other in a Gold Cup race, but you never found a fairer, better or more sportsman-like group of drivers anywhere.
Now a bit about your engine. Make friends with it. Don't abuse it. You can't win races with an engine that won't work for you, and it won't work if you kick it around. Every time you can lift your foot a little without hurting your position in the race you are helping the motor and oiling the bores. Give the engine a chance to breathe. Drive with your head, not your foot. You have heard the remark that "So-and-So has a lead foot." They imply that he is a fearless fellow who always drives at top speed. But just check back over the records and see how many races he wins. I'll bet that they are few and far between.
It is essential before competition to warm up the engine thoroughly and evenly to obtain the proper balance of water and oil temperatures, to put the motor into condition for the heavy load it must carry under high racing speeds.
Run it just fast enough to keep the plugs from fouling, slowly working it up to its proper state of warmth and then, when you are ready to pour the coal to it, the old iron pile will take it like a lady. A cold engine just won't step out for you when you jam your throttle to the floor.
The best drivers are those who follow these methods — Geoge Reis for one and Victor Kliesrath, the chap who revived the shingle bottom idea in the Gold Cup Class.
So, summing up, keep these driving principles in mind:
1. Learn by driving and keep on driving.
2. Be the master of your boat and your engine's best friend.
3. Know your boat inside out; know every little quirk of your motor.
4. Prepare for a race with exacting care and thoroughness.
5. Go into racing partnership with a first class mechanic.
6. Race cleanly.
(Reprinted from Yachting, April 1936, pp. 43-4, 108-9)
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© Leslie Field, 2005