1928 Harmsworth Trophy
1928 — Wood Defeats Time and British
The history of hydroplane racing on the Detroit River is packed with the stories of exciting races and achievements that have captured the imagination of generations of Detroiters. Today's heroes such as Wild Bill Cantrell, Chuck Thompson, Bill Muncey and Dean Chenoweth blend with figures of the past like Horace Dodge, Bill Horn and the truly remarkable team of Gar Wood and Orlin Johnson.
In 1928, a young British heiress named Marion Barbara Carstairs challenged the Grey Fox, Gar Wood, for the Harmsworth Trophy, symbolic of world speedboating supremacy. Better known as Betty, Carstairs drove motorcycles and ambulances on the battlefields of France during World War I and later speedboats in competition on the French Riviera. A student of ballet who also enjoyed a good cigar, Carstairs felt she would be the one to return the British international trophy to its rightful home.
She ordered three hydroplanes from the famed British builder S. E. Saunders of Cowes, Isle of Wight. Each was to be capable of 80 miles an hour or better. In trial runs the boats did not perform at all to the expectations of Miss Carstairs. Disappointed, she withdrew her challenge. Saunders, however, fearing that the action would mark his reputation, pressured her into reconsidering. One of the boats was totally unacceptable but the other two, Estelle I and Estelle II, showed some promise.
Earlier that year, Gar Wood and Captain L. M. Woolson of the Packard Motor Company were designing an engine that would produce 770 horsepower and be lighter than any existing engine of equivalent power. In April of 1928, the Packard production line was stopped so that three of these engines could be built. After more than six months of development, Wood and the Packard engineers had nurtured the engines to 1000 horsepower each.
At the same time, Miss America V was taken out of mothballs and readied for the race. Built in 1925, the FIVE was powered by two Liberty aircraft engines and probably would have been able to withstand any challenger. But Wood, never satisfied, began building a new Miss America which would be worthy of the new Packard engines.
Hailed as the "most powerful speedboat in world's history" by The Detroit News, the Miss America VI was launched on August 11, 1928 in Algonac, Michigan and gave Wood and Johnson the fastest ride they'd ever had.
Those watching the trials that day would probably have agreed with Jay Smith, president of Chris Smith Boat Company, that the SIX had just about reached the limit in speed.
The following day, Wood and Johnson readied themselves for the run. The engines responded to the touch of the ignition and roared onto the St. Clair River. Showing all the speed and grace of the previous day's run, the SIX seemed almost as eager as her two occupants to go faster and faster. After several runs loafing along at about 75 miles an hour, Wood pointed the craft upstream and signalled Johnson for full throttle.
The faces of the two occupants were distorted by the force of' the wind. Checking the tachometer, Wood noticed a small boat ahead and off to one side. Suddenly there was the hiss of the cold river water hitting the two hot engines. Several hard bounces of the hull into the waves, an ear-splitting roar and the Miss America VI disappeared in a cloud of water and debris.
While Wood was thrown clear of the boat, Johnson was thrown forward onto the hot exhaust stacks; one stack cutting through his life jacket and slashing his throat from ear to ear, another cutting his cheek and breaking his jaw as he hit.
Jay Smith, who had witnessed the accident was speeding toward the scene. The unconscious Johnson was lifted into Smith's boat. Both Wood and Johnson were rushed to shore for medical attention.
With his new boat totally destroyed and his new engines, the only two like them in the world, somewhere on the bottom of the St. Clair River, Wood had only the old FIVE ready to defend against the British challenger.
An article in the August 13 Detroit Free Press began with the heading; "British Race Chances are Good."
Not waiting for the engines to be located, Wood began building the Miss America VII at. 10 a.m. that day. He set a crew of 25 men to work in an all-out effort to be ready for the U. S. Team trials scheduled for August :30 and the first heat of the Harmsworth scheduled for September 1.
The search for the missing engines began almost immediately following the crash. The river in the area of the crash was 60 feet deep with a muddy bottom.
Half the town of Algonac turned out to find the missing engines. Boy scouts, off-duty policemen and the townsfolk joined Wood in the search. After four days of searching, Vance Smith located the engines with a sounding device, buried in six feet of black mud.
A truck which had been standing by during the search rushed the engines to the factory in Detroit where they were completely torn apart and examined closely. Nothing was damaged. Thoroughly cleaned and reassembled, the engines were ready for the Miss America VII. But time was running out.
On Tuesday, August 28, the SEVEN was launched in Algonac — just 15 days after construction began. Among the interested spectators at the event was Betty Carstairs. Wood was satisfied with his new defender. Back onshore after the trial runs, he told reporters that no adjustments were necessary. The boat was running very well. When pressed as to whether the heavier SEVEN was as fast as her predecessor; the ill-fated Miss America VI; Wood replied, "She's plenty fast enough." She had qualified at 63.87 miles an hour.
The race itself was anti climactic. Like Wood's two previous races in 1921 and 1926, his only competition came from his own boats. After having taken the lead at the start, Betty Carstairs dug the bow of the little challenger into the water, pitching both herself and her mechanic Joe Harris into the river. She was unhurt in the accident, but Harris suffered an injured spine and three broken ribs. The little Estelle II sank immediately.
At the finish, Gar Wood beat his brother George, driving the Miss America V, by .44 of a second. The Miss Los Angeles was a distant third and was never figured in the competition.
Once again the Grey Fox of Algonac emerged unbeatable. He had conquered not only the British challenger but had also beaten his own time. In less than three weeks he had launched a new boat, driven it to destruction, built another and had ridden it to glory.
(Reprinted from the 1975 Gar Wood Trophy program)
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