Racing on Three Points! [1963]

In recent years, the engine capacity and power output of Grand Prix cars have been steadily reduced until the cars are mere shadows of their former selves. To unashamed reactionaries, such as myself, who can remember when 400 bhp, superchargers, and alcohol fuel were all the rage, it is frankly a disappointment. However, there is still one type of racing extant where sheer power is nothing to be ashamed about, and the results are just as impressive as Grand Prix racing used to be. This branch of the sport is unlimited hydroplane racing.

Hydroplane racing in the unlimited class is a peculiarly American pastime which poses many of the same problems, and demands many of the sane skills as sports car racing, although it appears to be quite unknown to nearly all sports car enthusiasts. There are many different classes of boats, both inboard and outboard, but the ultimate in hydroplane racing is the unlimited class which, as its name implies, is not restricted by limits of engine capacity or other rules designed to reduce the power output, speed or financial outlay.

Specifically, an unlimited boat must be between 25 and 40 feet long with a minimum weight of 3500 pounds, and be controlled by water reaction through a propeller and rudder, which rules out jet engines and aircraft-type directional guidance. The result is an exceedingly fast and exciting boat, with a length of about 30 feet, a beam of 12 feet and powered by either a Rolls-Royce or Allison aircraft engine giving over 2000 bhp, with the whole capable of a racing speed in excess of 150 mph. At the present time, there are some 30 of these boats being actively campaigned in America, and competition is provided for them at some eight or ten events during the season at Seattle, Detroit, Washington D.C., Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Madison, Ind., Lake Tahoe and other places. The big event of the year is the Gold Cup which is held at one or another of these courses.

The rules for the Gold Cup are incredibly complicated and sufficiently voluminous to fill a telephone directory, but they do cover every eventuality. Basically, they require a course of three miles, oval in shape, and with 300-ft-radius turns. Boats are required to qualify over three laps at an average speed of more than 90 mph, and the fastest twelve boats are accepted for a race. Qualifying takes place for four days preceding the race, and the normal procedure is to allocate prize money for the fastest qualifier of each day, and also an encouraging $250 for the slowest qualifier. On race day, each boat is required to run three heats of 30 miles, or ten laps — a total of 90 miles of racing, and elapsed time is taken into account as well as position. Although qualifying speeds this, year have exceeded 115 mph for a three lap average, the heats are usually won around the 100 mph mark, due to weather conditions and the presence of other boats.

To average 115 mph for a lap requires a maximum speed on the straights of at least 160 mph. However, a fast lap is a combination of factors involving acceleration out of the turns, handling in rough water, directional stability and many other things. Actually, acceleration is more important than maximum speed and it is normal to set a boat up so that the engine peaks, and has to be feathered on the straights to prevent a blow-up. As far as maximum speed is concerned, the present record for propeller boats is held by the Miss U.S. I, driven by Roy Duby, at a whisker over 200 mph for a two-way average over the mile.

The start, as in all boat racing, is a timed one in which drivers circulate at the end of the course watching the hand on an enormous clock face at the start line. As the hand approaches the 60-second mark, the boats start to head down on the start line and the idea is to cross the line at maximum speed the instant the hand reaches the top of the clock face. This is exceedingly difficult to judge and penalties are imposed for jumping the start.

Having attended more "First Annual" events of one kind or another than I care to think about, it is interesting to note that the Gold Cup has been contested every year since 1904 with the exception of the war years, and the 1963 race at Seattle was the 55th running of the event.

The last 59 years have seen a lot of development in the design of racing power boats, and the outcome is the three-point or prop-riding hydroplane which is now universal. In this design, the hull of the boat is that on the bottom with two sponsons, one on each side of the hull, which project down into the water, and the idea is that the boat rides on a few square inches of the tip of each sponson and also on the bottom half of the propeller. These make up the three points, and the theory is to reduce the wetted area of the hull to a minimum to cut clown the water drag. Hulls are made of wood with an aluminum sheath on the bottom, and the interior is reminiscent of a Birdcage Maserati due to the tremendous number of strengthening pieces incorporated in the design. Hulls are usually built by Ted Jones or Les Staudacher (who earns his living making church pews somewhere in Michigan).

Sufficient engine power had always been a problem in unlimited racing, but after the second World War many fighter aircraft engines were lying around in cases with nowhere particular to go, and they were soon found to be ideally suited to the job, once specific modifications had been carried out. The most suitable units were the Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin and the latter, usually, were Packard Merlins built under license by the Packard Company during the war. (We hydroplane enthusiasts do appreciate that, apart from its endeavors in the aircraft engine field, Rolls-Royce has made quite a name for itself in automobile manufacture.) At first, a generous government allowed these engines to be purchased for about as much as it cost to haul them away, but the market has hardened considerably in the last few years and crews are now stock-piling them, and it is not unknown for serious competitors to have twenty on the shelf. The record for hoarding appears to have been set by the late Lou Fageol who, realizing the potential of the Rolls in 1954, is reputed to have immediately bought 25 of the engines for only $500 apiece.

Until two or three years ago, the Allison was the most popular unit but it has lately been passed by the Rolls-Royce. Both are V-12s approaching 30 liters depending on the particular model, and deliver a solid 2-3000 hp in the competitive boats. They are superb precision-built units in a long tradition of aircraft engine manufacture, and are supercharged, with an overhead camshaft running along each cylinder head operating four valves per cylinder, and a total weight of nearly 1500 lb. Unfortunately, they both have their weaknesses when tuned for boat racing; however, these weaknesses are very similar to those of any other racing engine, and the net result is that they blow up, but on an exceptionally grand and expensive scale.

The type of fuel used in the unlimited boats is unrestricted and is obviously an important factor in the ultimate horsepower obtained from the engine so the pits are invariably stacked with 50-gallon drums of mysterious liquids. The crews are rather evasive about their fuel mixtures and, to the best of our knowledge, aviation gasoline is the basis for the "blends" if not the standard fuel used by the majority of competitors. Depending on the mixture and fuel consumption, about 100 gallons are carried during a race with 60 quarts of oil in the dry sump system.

A supercharger is virtually essential as the "courses" range from, say, Seattle (sea level) to Lake Tahoe (over 5000 ft) and the original factory-installed centrifugal supercharger is used with the Allison engine installations. This unit is driven at 10 times engine speed which means the impeller reaches 40,000 rpm during a race.

Obviously it is possible to get to the refinements such as cam grinding, valve springs and so on. However, as in car racing, it is essential to have an engine that will last the length of the race and this poses a tremendous problem in hydros. Due to the design of the prop-riding boats and the nature of the courses on which they are run, it is necessary to use a small 13-in.-diameter two-bladed propeller with a low pitch for acceleration, and this propeller must be turned extremely' fast. The engines are modified to peak at 4000 rpm and a 1:3 transmission is fitted to produce 12,000 rpm at the propeller, and over 2000 hp must be passed through the drive train. To compound the fracture, the water during a race is never calm and as a result the propeller is continually being liberated from the water while the boat is momentarily airborne. In consequence, it is probably Superfluous to point out that no one has ever designed and built a transmission which he was able to offer with the now-popular two year guarantee.

At the other end of the drive line, we have the supercharger which is a massive object requiring tremendous torque to drive. It is actually driven by a short shaft, known in the trade as a "quill shaft," and this is by far the weakest link in the chain. Being designed for constant speed engines, these shafts and couplings were never meant to handle the sudden increases and decreases in engine speed in hydroplane racing, and consequently either break or bend with disastrous results. The rules specifically prohibit complete engine changes during the course of a day's racing, so most crews have developed a quill shaft changing drill which can he performed in an hour between heats. This is the reason why pictures of unlimited boats often feature the back end of six crew members, and a supercharger temporarily suspended from a crane.

At the 1962 Gold Cup in Seattle, one or two other power units were in use, including a Daimler-Benz Messerschmitt engine which, being designed to run in an inverted position, did not take too kindly to operating the right way up for once, and refused to lubricate itself as it should. Other unusual installations were the two Allisons in the all-aluminum Such Crust IV-one in front of the other-two Allisons side by side in Miss Wayne and an enormous Packard V-16, which was originally designed for air-sea rescue boats and develops 3000 bhp from its 55 liters, in the Gale VII.

Driving a hydroplane of any capacity is a sobering experience and can only be likened to driving a fast sports car, which is entirely devoid of suspension, over a rough road at high speed. On the straights, it will not proceed in a straight line because it is continually being deflected by the water. This prevents its one method of directional control-the rudder-from doing its job and, rather than fight all its little whims, the driver just aims it in the general direction of the next turn. Not only is its directional stability very poor indeed, but its motion in the water is also appalling. During a race, the water is never calm and the boat has an alarming tendency to become airborne for considerable distances, which is disconcerting and dangerous to the driver. It also tends to blow up engines and damage hulls. Apart from this tendency, hydroplanes have a peculiar walking motion as they bounce from one sponson to the other and, to add to the joys, stub exhausts are normally used because headers and pipes break off too easily, so the driver gets the full benefit of the exhaust noise.

One of the characteristics of a hydroplane is that it throws an enormous jet of water, called a rooster tail, from its propeller and unless you are in the lead, it is necessary to avoid the rooster tails of other boats or you may end up with a drowned engine . . . apart from the fact that a well directed rooster tail at close range practically knocks you out of the boat. The end result of all this is an incredibly jarring, back-breaking, wet, noisy, neck-snapping ride and, in fact, you get more racing in five minutes in an unlimited hydroplane than you get in five hours in a car.

If the straights are frantic, the turns are more so. Whereas the displacement type hulls on normal power boats ensure that a definite line can be held with the boat leaning into the turn, a hydroplane has to be drifted. The turn is started a long way back from the first buoy marking it, and the boat proceeds in a crabbing sideways motion which is difficult to control accurately, although the first essential is to keep your foot well in it, because once speed is lost in a turn it is very difficult to regain until one is proceeding in a straight line. This limited acceleration is due to a peculiarity of propellers called cavitation, which is very similar to wheelspin in a car, and is caused by the propeller creating an air cavity in the water in which it spins. The remedy is to back off and accelerate slowly, but by then a lot of forward motion has been lost.

In general, the handling of hydroplanes varies considerably from one boat to another, although they may appear the same. This is due to basic hull design, weight distribution, sponson and propeller angle, and many other factors which have to be corrected, adjusted and experimented with. Actually, "chassis tuning" of this nature is just as important as engine tuning and is a continuous process in hydroplane racing.

A good example of the importance of this detail work was the all new Miss Bardahl that appeared at the 1962 Gold Cup. Although demonstrably fast and superbly prepared and turned out, it was throwing a rooster tail about six stories high and wallowing badly in the turns, which was obvious from the unusually sudden and frequent changes in engine note. This was probably due to faulty weight distribution, and was also the probable cause of a broken supercharger drive on the first day of qualifying. After a night of engine changing, further bad luck beset the crew on the following day when a swallow was sucked into the air intake. However, after another night spent picking feathers out of the supercharger, driver Ron Musson got in three laps at an average of 113 mph and eventually placed second in the race to Bill Muncey in the Century 21.

At the unlimited level, hydroplane racing is an extremely dangerous sport, and there is a certain unpredictable quality about the boats which does not appear in automobile racing. Due to the very high speeds involved, a combination of wind and water can flip a boat as though it were a mere feather, and a straightaway flip can reduce a Gold Cupper to kindling in a second. The presence of any hard object in the water is an additional hazard because the force of the water entering a small hole opened tip in the hull can rip a boat apart. Because of this, it is necessary for the course to be patrolled continually and spectators warned not to throw anything in the water. Visibility is also a problem to the drivers because of the glare from sunlight on the water and also because of the perpetual rainstorm from rooster tails. Actually, visibility is more of a hazard in the limited classes because 12 boats may be running, and the first turn is frequently like driving into Niagara Falls at 70 mph.

To combat the hazards of the sport, a life jacket with a collar that supports you face upward is standard equipment, and crash helmets painted red so that they show up in the water are also required. In unlimited events, a helicopter with a skin diver aboard is always flying when boats are in the water and has proved to be a remarkably effective method of rescuing the drivers of' boats that have flipped.

Unlimited racing is a fearfully expensive pastime, which can only be indulged in by undoubted millionaires, corporations whose owners are addicted to the sport, and communities such as the inhabitants of Madison, Ind., who own Miss Madison. Fortunately, Our Uncle Sam is not oblivious to the advertising value of these boats, provided it is prominently displayed, which accounts for names such as Miss Thriftway (supermarkets), Such Crust (bread), the Bardahl entries, and so on; and with equal good fortune, nobody has so far instigated an amateur ruling to protect the morals of those involved in this particular form of competition. Admittedly, a boat can be purchased for about $25,000, but this is nothing compared to the cost of operating it-a season's expenses may run ten times that. An experienced, full time crew chief is essential, and even if you can con your friends into helping with the labor, you will have to pay their expenses.

As a spectator sport, unlimited racing has a certain carnival and Roman Holiday atmosphere reminiscent of European Grand Prix racing. It has its favorites in both man and machine, which are currently the almost undefeated Bill Muncey and the Century 21, and it can be counted on to draw upward of a quarter of a million people in its home towns of Seattle and Detroit, with slightly smaller crowds at the other courses where contests are regularly arranged. This is not surprising to anyone who has witnessed six tightly hunched unlimited boats thundering across the start line at 150 mph, and is proof that sheer power and speed are definitely an essential part of the racing spectacle.

(reprinted from Road & Track, November 1963, pp. 88-94)

[Photos for this article will be added in the next couple of days. --LF]


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Leslie Field, 2001