Some More Early Three-Pointers (Vintage
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian
The three-point hydroplane class of 1939 included no fewer than four new Gold Cup Class rigs with the new-styled sponsons on them.
In the 1939 APBA Gold Cup at Detroit, the three-pointers, for the first time, outnumbered the step hydroplanes.
The four new-comers to the combined Gold Cup and 725 Cubic Inch Class fleet that year comprised So-Long, Why Worry, Mercury, and Hermes IV. Together with My Sin, a 1938 vintage three-pointer, these four new sponson boats made their presence felt in competition with the fast-steppers during 1939.
This first generation of three-point hydroplanes constituted the first serious threat to twenty-five years of dominance by the step hydros.
So-Long and Why Worry were products of the Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey. The Ventnor company, headed by Adolph and Arno Apel, had popularized-and patented-the three-point concept, beginning with Miss Manteo II, a successful 225 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane, in 1936.
Mercury and Hermes IV were strictly homebuilt, as were most of the boats that participated on the 725 Class circuit in the Mid-West. Hermes IV, however, bore a striking resemblance to the Ventnor My Sin.
The 725s were the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association's counterpart to the American Power Boat Association's Gold Cup Class. After World War II, the 725s and the Gold Cuppers combined and changed over to the APBA Unlimited Class.
All of the three-pointers of the 1930s were tail-draggers with fully submerged propellers and, as such, didn't kick up very much in the way of a roostertail. Not until the late 1940s did the boats start to "propride."
So-Long was one of a series of similarly named hydroplanes owned and driven by Lou Fageol who, in the 1950s, would achieve fame as pilot of Slo-mo-shun IV and Slo-mo-shun V.
The craft used half of a 12-cylinder Curtiss Conqueror. The power plant consisted of two banks of three cylinders each, rated at 450 horsepower.
In trials on the Detroit River at the Gold Cup Regatta, So-Long was credited with a straightaway speed of 88 miles per hour. This was Fageol's first appearance in a Gold Cup career that was to span sixteen years from 1939 to 1955 with victories in 195l, 1953, and 1954.
The 1939 race, unfortunately, was not one of Fageol's or So-Long's better moments. During the warm-up for Heat One, the boat struck some drift and suffered propeller damage. This reduced her to a slow cruising speed. So-Long did, however, complete the ten 3-mile laps in last place behind My Sin, Miss Canada III, and Mercury.
So-Long tried to make a go of it in Heat Two, even though propeller vibration had cremated the boat's thrust bearing in the initial contest. Fageol was ultimately flagged off the course at the end of lap seven and given a DNF for being too far behind.
Not for another eight years would So-Long finally come into her own. Renamed Miss Peps V by the Dossin brothers of Detroit, she was one of the first boats to try an Allison V-12 aircraft engine in competition.
To accommodate the huge Allison, the cockpit had to be literally hung over the transom to make room for the driver, Danny Foster. Miss Peps V was a terribly uncomfortable craft to drive. (Foster sat on fourteen inches of foam rubber to help cushion the ride.) But she was fast.
Miss Peps V emerged as High Point Champion in 1947, which was the first year that the unlimiteds had a true national circuit. Foster captured the APBA Gold Cup at Jamaica Bay, New York, the Ford Memorial at Detroit, the President's Cup at Washington, D.C., the National Sweepstakes and Auerbach Trophies at Red Bank, New Jersey, and the Viking Trophy at New Martinsville, West Virginia.
The former So-Long continued her winning ways into the 1950s. Renamed Short Snorter in 1953, she was the original winner of the Lake Tahoe Mapes Trophy at Tahoe City, California, with Stan Dollar driving.
Why Worry was originally a 225 Class hull, beefed up to handle a 725 Class Wright/Hisso V-8 engine.
About the only part of Why Worry that wasn't homebuilt was the bare hull itself. In certain places, baling wire was used in the craft. The gears dated back to 1925, and a second-hand automobile wheel with wire cable constituted the steering mechanism.
As the story goes, the engine cost driver Bill Cantrell $175. When he discovered that the type of pistons that he needed would cost $700, he did the work himself at a cost of $3.50 per piston.
The three-point Why Worry was the successor to a successful namesake, which had finished third in the 725 Class races at Detroit in 1937 and 1938 with Cantrell driving. A Hisso-powered single-step hydroplane, the first WHY WORRY had won the top prize at the 1936 Madison Regatta in Madison, Indiana, and also the 1937 Calvert Trophy in Louisville, Kentucky.
The old Why Worry was capable of straightaway speeds of up to 61 miles per hour, while the new Ventnor Why Worry could do 99 on a straightaway mile (at Washington, D.C., in 1940).
The 1939 Why Worry proved to be the most significant boat in the long history of the 725 Class. For years, the 725s were demeaned as the "Haywire Class" in comparison to the more expensive and more exotic-looking Gold Cup Class rigs. In winning the 725 Class invitational race, run in conjunction with the Gold Cup, Why Worry made a stunning impression. She won all three heats decisively and posted an overall average of 62.186.
Why Worry's performance in the 725 Class event could not be overlooked. Clearly, the underfinanced craft from Louisville had speed credentials that warranted her inclusion in the main event. This had never happened before.
Indeed, Why Worry's average speed in Heat Three was 66.325. This compared favorably to Alagi's 66.080 mark in the 1938 Gold Cup and Notre Dame's 68.645 in the 1937 race. No longer could the 725 contingent be rejected out of hand as the "Haywire Class."
Driver Bill Cantrell was ripe for a shot at the big time. He had started racing in the middle 1920s. "Wild Bill" would become a Gold Cup legend. The MVPBA's most celebrated personality, Cantrell would go on to post one of the longest career spans in the history of the event. He made his first appearance in 1939 with Why Worry, won in 1949 with My Sweetie, remained active as a driver until 1965 with Miss Smirnoff, as an owner until 1982 with Miss Kentuckiana Paving, and as a team consultant until 1995 with Miss D.O.C./Cooper's Express.
On the eve of the 1939 race, the 725 Class contestants decided to consolidate their equipment and enter their two best boats: Cantrell's Why Worry and Marion Cooper's Mercury.
Six boats-each with a crew of two-made a start in Heat One. Vibrating with incredible speed, Cantrell and riding mechanic Jim Vetter led the field over the starting line. Why Worry sprinted around the first turn and powered down the backstretch, followed by Notre Dame, So-Long, My Sin, Miss Canada III, and Mercury. For the first time in Gold Cup history, a three-pointer was controlling the race. Also, for the first time, a low-budget 725 Class rig, representing the underdog Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association, was holding its own against the pride of the American Power Boat Association.
Why Worry finished the first lap in first place with Dan Arena and Notre Dame challenging. Then the craft from Louisville leaped out of the water with such force that all of the blades sheared off of the propeller. Why Worry slowed to a halt. Guy Simmons and My Sin eventually worked their way up through the field and took the checkered flag.
Equipped with a new propeller, borrowed from one of the other 725s, Why Worry was pronounced ready for another try in Heat Two. Once again, Cantrell and Vetter led the other starters over the line. My Sin and Notre Dame set out in hot pursuit, while Mercury and So-Long trailed far behind. And again, propeller trouble proved Why Worry's undoing and forced the front-running Cantrell to withdraw after the completion of lap two. My Sin then took over the lead and went on to win the heat and the race.
It is interesting to compare Why Worry's fastest lap of the day to those posted by some of the other boats in the race. Why Worry did 66.894, Notre Dame 66.225, My Sin 70.153, and Miss Canada III 70.012. Even in defeat, Cantrell's unheralded "Haywire" hydro could run with the best of them.
Cooper's Mercury also hailed from Louisville and used Hisso power with eight dual Stromberg carburetors. The craft differed markedly from the Ventnor configuration in that the sponsons were situated largely underneath the hull with less than a foot protruding outward. By comparison, the Ventnor three-pointers had their sponsons all to the outside of the integral hull.
In retrospect, Mercury was ahead of its time in terms of riding characteristics, although no one was aware of that then. The boat would tend to "walk" on its sponson tips and kept wanting to "propride." During an era when all boats were stern-draggers and had propellers that were completely submerged, this was unheard of. So, in deference to popular practice, the crew incorrectly shifted the weight toward the stern rather than toward the bow. This slowed the craft down somewhat for driver Cooper and riding mechanic Charlie Schott by keeping the back end down, because no one knew much about such a radical concept as a semi-submerged propeller. If they had moved the weight forward, Mercury-not Slo-mo-shun IV-might have gone on to become the first successful three-point proprider in the Gold Cup/Unlimited category. And this was ten years before Slo-mo ever wet a sponson!
Owner/driver Marion Cooper had won many 725 Class trophies in 1937 and 1938 at the wheel of Hermes III. Cooper was, for many years, the General Manager of Louisville Motors. One of Marion's employees who worked as a crew member on Cooper's 725 Class boats was Jim Noonan, the father of future UHRA referees Mike and Billy Noonan.
Mercury had mechanical difficulties and failed to finish the 725 Class races at Detroit in 1939, but managed an overall fourth place that same weekend in the Gold Cup main event.
The following year, Cooper and Mercury won the Seagram Trophy on the Ohio River at Evansville, Indiana. They finished the day in a point tie with Cantrell and Why Worry. The victory went to Mercury for having turned a faster heat than Why Worry.
For two hours, Mercury was the fastest unsupercharged Gold Cup contender in the world with a straightaway clocking of 98 miles per hour at Washington, D.C., in 1940. Then, Why Worry went out and did 99.
In one of the very last races to be run before World War II-and gasoline rationing-brought the curtain down on racing activity, Cooper and Mercury journeyed to Florida and won the 1942 Emil Auerbach Memorial Trophy on Biscayne Bay. This race carried with it the 725 Class National Championship.
Hermes IV from Vine Grove, Kentucky, had one of the longest careers in boat racing history, eighteen years. Measuring 20-1/2 feet by 9-1/2 feet, the IV initially used a Marman 16-cylinder engine with four Tillotson carburetors and some high-top pistons. In 1940, Hermes IV was converted to Hispano-Suiza power, which become owner George Davis's trademark.
In previous years, Davis had served as riding mechanic with Marion Cooper in Hermes III. It was with Hermes IV at Detroit in 1939 that Davis first had the opportunity to move over from the mechanic's seat to behind the wheel in a major race.
Constructed by Davis and his partner Turley Carman, Hermes IV was the latest in a series of five Hermes hulls that campaigned from the early 1930s to the late 1940s. The initial craft was a 510 Cubic Inch Class rig, powered by a Curtiss OX-5; all of the rest were 725s. Hermes IV was the first three-pointer in the group; all of her predecessors were step hydroplanes.
Hermes IV finished an overall third in the 1939 race for 725s at Detroit with an average speed of 53.954 for the three heats. George Davis gave the crowd a thrill in Heat Three when he put Hermes IV over the finish line in second place, four seconds ahead of J.S. Brown in King Staten. Davis averaged 55.215 to Brown's 54.657.
The race was run with an early variation of the flag start, rather than a clock start. And the boats ran clockwise, rather than counter-clockwise, around the 3-mile course because their engines turned that way.
In later years, Hermes IV became famous as It's A Wonder with Davis as driver. The name was changed because George's wife Dorris did not like the name Hermes. She once remarked, "It's a wonder it starts or runs. It's so old." So, George renamed his craft It's A Wonder.
In order to run with the modern boats, George had to reverse the engine to enable his craft to make left-hand turns. It's A Wonder is credited with victories at Louisville in 1953 and at Dale Hollow, Tennessee, in 1957. She received the third-place trophy at each of the 1951, 1952, and 1953 Indiana Governor's Cups at Madison.
The Wonder competed mostly in free-for-all races and was sometimes allowed to run in 7-Litre Class events.
Currently owned by Jeff Magnuson of Alfred, Maine, It's A Wonder has been restored to her former glory and is now one of the "stars" of the antique and classic boat circuit across the United States. In 1995 and 1996, the former Hermes IV made exhibition appearances at the Spirit Of Detroit Gold Cup Regatta in tribute to a bygone era in boat racing's legendary past.
One of the most interesting three-point boats to be constructed in 1939 didn't make it to a race until 1940. This was the Ventnor-built Gray Goose III, owned by George Cannon. The craft used not one but three unsupercharged Lycoming engines, the same as used in the 225 Class.
Each engine turned its own shaft and two-bladed propeller. The center motor was installed forward with the two wing motors aft in a hull that was basically a standard Ventnor Gold Cup hydroplane, similar in configuration to My Sin and So-Long.
The total cost of Gray Goose III was probably less than one-fourth of many of the other Gold Cup rigs of that era. Motor Boating Magazine had nothing but praise for Cannon's ingenuity and resourcefulness in trying something different with Gray Goose III.
Unfortunately, the III threw one of her propellers through the hull during a test run and suffered extensive damage. Plans for participation in the 1939 Gold Cup had to be cancelled.
Gray Goose III made a start in the 1940 Gold Cup at Northport, Long Island, with Hugh Gingrass driving but failed to finish due to mechanical difficulties.
After the war, the boat was repowered with a single Allison and renamed Chaz by new owner/driver Chuck Klein. Chaz qualified at the bare minimum of 65 miles per hour for the 1950 Detroit Gold Cup and was trounced in the race by Slo-mo-shun IV, which lapped the entire field in Heat One with Ted Jones driving.
That 1950 APBA Gold Cup effectively signaled the death knell for the old-style three-pointers of the 1930s. The Jones-designed Slo-mo had redefined the state-of-the-art in big-time boat racing. The taildraggers were obsolete and would soon go the way of the bi-plane and the Model-T Ford.
But in their day, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, the three-point hydroplane class of 1939 was the toast of the racing world. They foreshadowed the mighty thunderboats of today in the water sport of kings.
© Fred Farley. For reprint rights to this article, please contact the author at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(Reprinted from the UHRA Thunder Letter No. 331, January 21, 1998)
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