Grief And Glory In This Year's Racing [1938]
By George W. Sutton, Jr.

Since the admission of foreign boats and engines into our Gold Cup and President's Cup races, it has taken the European motor boatmen only two years to dominate our two greatest racing events. This is one way of expressing it. Another and perhaps fairer way would be to say that of all the new and old 12-Litre boats in the world, regardless of nationality, only one managed to keep running and, naturally, walked off with all the important races. In this connection, it must be remembered that all the other Gold Cup boats in Italy and France fell apart during the season, as did the entire American fleet. Bad luck? No. Bad management? Yes.

There is not a great deal to be said about the thirty-fifth Gold Cup Race on Labor Day at Detroit and the President's Cup Race in Washington, which Count Rossi won so decisively and with so little competition, except this preparedness won again. And in those three words is the whole history of thirty-five years of motor boat racing, here and abroad.

In the highly complicated and expensive business of racing boats in the big inboard classes, there is a scant handful of men who know what it is all about, get really expert work done on their hulls and motors, get their boats built and tried out months in advance and get all the bugs worked out of them. When race time comes, their hulls are known to be correctly designed, stable, strong and fast. Their engines are ready in every part and every accessory. They run and they win races. Such men as Gar Wood, Melvin Crook, George Reis, Antonio Becchi, the Italian, Bill Horn and a few others whose exploits have been the high spots of our motor boat racing.

In outboard racing, there are two or three dozen such people, Jacoby, Fonda, Ferguson, Mullen, Carlisle, Neal, Wearly, the Tysons and others.

And now comes Count Rossi to prove that he belongs in that efficient group of practitioners whose boats are ready to race at race time. No broken oil line, no untried idea of hull design, no weakly fastened frame or overlooked engine part punishes the good Count in the middle of a race by suddenly depriving him of the rewards of months of labor and expense. His old Isotta-Fraschini engine, which consists of six cylinders out of one of the 12-cylinder machines used in the fleet of flying boats General Balbo flew from Italy to Chicago four or five years ago, is constantly kept in prime condition by his small staff of mechanics headed by the skillful Venturoli. His boat, not a seagoing craft but a racing machine beautifully and strongly put together, never falls apart or does unexpected things. The combination has run more than 500 miles in competition during the past two years with practically no breakdowns. It has won many races in Europe; has won, with a perfect score in three races, the 12-Litre world championship; established the 12-Litre world record of 91.04 miles an hour; made the fastest lap for two years in the Gold Cup Race and the fastest time ever made for the entire 90 miles; finished second last year and now has captured our two premier trophies, making record times in both events.

It is not a story of skillful design, superb driving, mystery engines or unlimited cash outlay. It is purely a story of reliability brought about by careful preparation.

In the sixteen Gold Cup Races since the limitation of power was put into effect in 1922, every single race has been won by reliability, frequently one boat running perfectly while the others quit entirely or limped around with internal ills. Packard Chriscraft, Baby Bootlegger, Greenwich Folly, Imp, Hotsy Totsy, Delphine Iv, El Lagarto, Impshi and Notre Dame all won on reliability. It is the priceless ingredient of racing which a majority of our race boat owners seem never to achieve. Races are won in the boat house.

Generally speaking, and with only a sprinkling of exceptions, our Gold Cup boats from the beginning have been the subject of faulty design, weak construction, incorrect engineering, inadequate preparation, bad management and, consequently, dismal performance. It was not hard luck alone which has been responsible for the failure, as competitions, of most of the last ten Gold Cup Races. There are a number of other reasons.

In the first place, the Gold Cup Race has always been a development race. It was planned as such, to stimulate experimentation in hull and engine design and practice. There are no standardized boats and engines available for it. Those who desire to participate are forced to use old aviation engines or pay huge prices for the building and frequently rebuilding of new, engines of untried and unknown performance. Designers of automobile engines and automobile mechanics are employed to work out the complicated and, to them, unfamiliar problems of marine propulsion. Experimental hulls are created, sometimes by qualified naval architects but frequently by other men with plenty of imagination but little knowledge of marine design. And this is as true in Europe as it is here; in fact, somewhat more so.

But perhaps this is as it should be. After all, the Gold Cup was originally dedicated to experimentation in boats and engines. The absence from the present marine market, here and abroad, of stock boats and engines suitable for high speed racing in the 12-Litre and unlimited classes may be a good thing for development. It has certainly been productive of experimentation. Countless breakdowns, upsets, failures and vast public disappointment have been the accompaniments. The A.P.B.A. Year Book, in its Gold Cup records, does not paint the forlorn competitive picture as it really is because, giving only the best speeds made by the boats in single heats, it does not show that in each of the past ten races all but one or two of the contenders have failed to finish the entire race. It has cost the losers somewhere between five and ten million dollars to try out their ideas since that first Gold Cup Race on the Hudson in 1904. This vast sum has not been entirely wasted. It has brought forth a number of valuable ideas which have produced progress in our racing boats. The speed of the Gold Cup Class has climbed from 23.6 miles an hour to 72 in competition, with single miles at 91.

While real competition is still lacking, we all dream of a race in which four or five of these new speed creations will hang together long enough to finish the entire three heats of the Gold Cup Race at their highest capacity. And that, my hearties, will be a contest to tell the grandchildren about many years hence. It is what we are all hanging around for and what all these fellows are spending their good money for on hulls and engines.

False economy has also played havoc with our 12-Litre racing as a spectacle. You can't buy for a song an ancient cylinder block and, with economy and dabbling, create around it an engine which will run with the necessary per fection for 90 miles at 90 miles per hour. It's not in the cards. Time, or rather the lack of it, has wrecked more boats than driftwood or rough water. It has been the habit of many of our Gold Cup contenders to start construction of a beat in June, to complete her and try her out the day before the race and - spend that night rebuilding the hull and motor. If you want names, I can give you at least twenty offhand. Motor boat racing is not primarily a contest of driving skill.

It is, more than any other sport I know, a battle of equipment. And our equipment is generally faulty.

The double victory of Count Rossi is a striking challenge. I am curious to see how many people will accept it seriously. Herb Mendelson, E. A.. Wilson and Zalmon Simmons have, in Notre Dame, Miss Canada III and My Sin, new boats of tremendous possibilities. Perhaps Horace Dodge's Excuse Me has equal potentialities. Dan Arena and Dan Foster, the California youngsters who startled the motor boat world by actually finishing the Gold Cup Race, should be backed by the Golden Gate Exposition with a new boat and a little travel money. Those kids can go places in boat racing. But the time to start building and testing and rebuilding and retesting is now, not next June. The greatest single curse of the Gold Cup Class is lack of adequate preparation.

Among all our inboard classes the 225-cubic-inch (4-Litre) hydroplanes have been by far the star performers. Without them, the inboard season would have been sad indeed. While the group has not reached the huge proportions predicted four years ago, when it was proposed by John Hacker, C. F. Chapman, George Townsend and Gar Wood as a truly international class, it has become the most popular and successful class of inboard boats we have ever had. The "225's" have provided a backbone of close, thrilling inboard racing for many of the best regattas here and in. Canada and Europe. They have won the Duke of York Trophy and many others, important races against more powerful boats in Italy and Germany, and have set up a world's record of 73.70 miles an hour excellent for a small, inexpensive boat with 175 horse power. It is a good class with a brilliant future.

Inboard runabout racing, too, has had a considerable increase this year and may be in the process of re-establishing the popularity it held from 1925 to 1929, but on a much healthier basis.

The outboards have had a magnificent and normal season. There has been no great dropping off in the number of veteran drivers competing and a lot of new boys and girls have come into the sport. Freddie Jacoby has repeated his exploit of 1935 and 1936 in walking off with the American Outboard High Point Trophy (the George H. Townsend Medal) symbolic of the national scoring championship, by the simple process of getting 10,000 more points than his nearest competitor.

The girls, for the first time, have had their own prize to shoot at this year, the lone Ulrich Sutton Trophy for the Women's National High Point championship, and it has been won by a young amateur racer in the Midget Class, Miss Irene Defibaugh, of Woodside, Del. The trophy to encourage the driver who cannot afford a great fleet of boats and engines but has only one or two outfits, the Charles E. Rochester National Two-Class Medal, has been captured by a comparative newcomer, Gerard Sheeran, amateur of Brooklyn, who also won the important Lipton Trophy Race and the National Championship Race in Class F. The enormous Col. E. H. R. Green Round Hill Trophy, for amateur drivers in regattas sanctioned by the A.P.B.A., was won handily by the young amateur meteor of Boston, Clinton Ferguson, who established two new world's records in its quest.

In spite of some disappointments, it has been a fine racing season, with plenty of keen competition, fairly big fields of entrants, oodles of hard work for faithful officials, normally large crowds of spectators and lots of fun for almost everybody. And that last is the main objective, isn't it?

[Reprinted from Yachting, November 1938, pp.35-36, 99]


Hydroplane History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at wildturnip@gmail.com
Leslie Field, 2005