"Wild Bill" Cantrell
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian

Time: Saturday night, August 9, 1980. Place: Jack McGovern’s Music Hall in downtown Seattle. Occasion: the gala Stanley S. Sayres Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame Banquet, honoring the great names of racing’s past and present, on the eve of Seafair’s annual run of the roostertails on Lake Washington.

As the Hall of Fame members - old and new - were individually introduced, the capacity crowd cheered approvingly. By far the most enthusiastic round of applause was reserved for popular "Wild Bill" Cantrell, the 1949 Gold Cup champion, who received a standing ovation.

To an entire generation of race fans, "Wild Bill" is best known for his 22 years association with the Gale Enterprises boats of Joe and Lee Schoenith from Detroit. More recently, Cantrell, now 73 and a resident of Madison, Indiana, has been associated with Graham Heath as co-owner of Miss Kentuckiana Paving that fellow Madisonian Jon Peddie drives.

Pinpointing the exact origin of Bill’s long career is difficult even with Cantrell’s help. He began racing sometime around 1924. As the story goes, he was christened "Wild Bill" when an Outboard he was racing went out of control on the Ohio River and crashed through anchor chains and moored spectator vessels.

In the early days, Cantrell divided his time between cars and boats. As a Depression Era automobile competitor, he at one point, pushed up all of the Hoosier Racing Association’s records for half-mile tracks. In 1949, he drove in the Indianapolis 500, completing 95 laps in the Kennedy Tank Special. One of his earliest boat racing accomplishments occurred when he tied down the 1927 Ohio Valley Championship for Class B Outboards. He eased into the Inboard tanks as a riding mechanic on such famous contenders as the Pal - a Liberty-engined 725 Cubic Inch Class craft -and the original Louisville Kid - a 510 Class rig with a Curtiss OX-S power plant.

Bill carved an enviable reputation for himself on the old Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association circuit during the 1930’s. His fellow racers of that era included the likes of Marion Cooper, Soupy Ciconett, George Davis, Jim Anderson, and Bill Nail. Cantrell won many trophies in boats of the 725 Class such as Big Shot and a series of hulls named Why Worry which utilized the 1917 vintage Hispano-Suiza ("Hisso") aircraft engine for power. The 725 Class was the MVPBA counterpart of the more expensive and more exotic-looking Gold Cup Class of the American Power Boat Association (APBA). In 1941 at Cincinnati, Cantrell pushed the second Why Worry to a never to be exceeded mile straightaway record for unsupercharged Gold Cup Class boats with an average of 99.884 miles an hour - a mark embarrassingly close to the supercharged Gold Cup Class record of 100.987 set by Dan Arena in millionaire Herb Mendelson’s Notre Dame.

After World War II, the Gold Cup Class and 725 Class categories gave way to the Unlimited class when the huge supply of converted aircraft and other types of engines generated by the war became available. "Wild Bill’s" first ride in an Unlimited occurred in 1948 when he landed the seat of the famous original My Sweetie. Owned by Ed Gregory and Ed Schoenherr of Detroit, the Allison-powered projectile was designed by John Hacker to be a single step hydroplane but with the propeller amidships and a buffer step forward and a tunnel in the afterplane. The craft, which was later acquired by Horace Dodge, Jr., utilized a forged steel prop - the first of its kind.

All four of the Unlimited races which Cantrell entered in 1948 were disappointments. The brand new My Sweetie was fast but failed to score in any of the Detroit Memorial, Gold Cup, and Silver Cup events, and could place no higher than sixth in the President’s Cup.

Then came the magical year of 1949 in which "Wild Bill" would achieve the pinnacle of his driving career by winning every race he entered except the Harmsworth Trophy. In a recent interview, Cantrell was asked to identify the one race above all others in his career that stands out as the most memorable. He quickly acknowledged it to be the 1949 A.P.B.A. Gold Cup on the Detroit River.

Ten boats qualified for the event which was run on July 2 that year. My Sweetie was the fastest with a 92.402 average for three laps of the 2 1/2 mile course. Cantrell’s two most formidable rivals were Stand Dollar in Skip-A-Long - the Harmsworth winner - and Dan Arena in Such Crust - the 1948 Season High Point champion. Rounding out the field were Morlan Visel and Al DEath in Hurricane IV, Guy Lombardo and Joe Van Blerck, Jr., in Tempo VI, Chuck Thompson in the original Miss Pepsi, Albin Fallon in the defending Gold Cup champion Miss Great Lakes, Norman Lauterbach in Hot Metal, Cameron Peck in Astraea II, Lou Fageol in the 7-Litre So-long, and a 20 year old Bill Muncey who failed to qualify at the minimum speed of 65 miles an hour with the 225 Class Mi-Son. (This was in the days when an Inboard hydroplane over 10 feet in length could participate in the Gold Cup.)

Arena and Such Crust roared to victory in the opening stanza, setting a new Gold Cup heat record of 74.809 in the process, followed closely by Skip-A-Long with My Sweetie trailing in third. In the Second Heat, Cantrell shattered Arena’s mark with a clocking of 76.964. Skip-ALong took second once again, turning 75.134, with the Crust third at 74.146.

Going into the finale, Cantrell and Arena were tied with 625 points apiece with "Wild Bill" in line for 400 bonus points for the fastest heat providing he finished all three 30 mile heats. Stan Dollar trailed with 600 heat points but possessed an elapsed time edge on both the Sweetie and the Crust and thereby had the inside track on the 400 bonus points for the entry that turned the fastest 90 mile race.

With all of the chips riding on the final 30 mile moment of truth, Cantrell proved his mettle in championship fashion by breaking his newly established heat record with a mark of 78.645 followed by Skip-A-Long at 77.227 and Such Crust at 76.529. In their day, these times were every bit as impressive as the 120 mile an hour competitive speeds of today by Miss Budweiser and Atlas Van Lines. Bill Cantrell had won the Gold Cup competition lap record at the commendable speed of 85.731.

In the years to come, Cantrell would see action in boats such as Hornet, the original Such Crust IV, Such Crust V, Gale IV, and three Gale Vs, Tempo VII, Miss Smirnoff, and the first Gale’s Roostertail. He would win races such as the President’s Cup, Silver Cup, Steel Cup, Detroit Memorial, Indiana Governor’s Cup, Imperial Gold Cup, Red Bank Gold Cup, National Sweepstakes, Unlimited Sweepstakes, Calvert Trophy, A.P.B.A. Unlimited Hydroplane Trophy, St. Clair International Trophy, and the Maple Leaf Trophy. Following his retirement as a driver in 1968, Bill went on to win back as a mechanic and boat builder some of the very same trophies that he originally won as a chauffeur. But always the 1949 performance in the A.P.B.A. Gold Cup with My Sweetie would remain evergreen in his memory. For it was there that he made his claim to immortality in the annals of boat racing history.

Fred Farley. For reprint rights to this article, please contact the author at <fredf@hotmail.com>

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