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DETROIT RIVER THUNDER: THE POST-WAR YEARS
By Fred Farley, APBA/HYDRO-PROP Unlimited Historian

In the years following World War II, Detroit, Michigan, reigned supreme as the hub of big-time power boat racing in North America. As many as five Unlimited hydroplane contests a year would be conducted in and around the Motor City. These included the Silver Cup, sponsored by the Detroit Yacht Club, and the Ford Memorial Regatta, sponsored by the Detroit River Racing Association (later the Windmill Pointe Yacht Club). And, for a time, the Windsor (Ontario) Yacht Club presented the Maple Leaf Trophy, also on the Detroit River.

The post-war years of 1948 to 1950 witnessed a boatbuilding boom unprecedented in modern times. More than 30 Unlimited hydroplanes were constructed. Many of these represented Detroit. Because of ever-increasing operating costs, commercial sponsorships of boats became more and more acceptable and necessary. Still, old ideas died hard. One nationally prominent Unlimited writer, in fact, refused to acknowledge the new MISS PEPSI of 1948 in print by anything other than its APBA registration number of G-99.

The late '40s Motor City scene was an exciting time for the sport, which looked and acted amateurish by today's standards. Nevertheless, it still had much to offer in terms of having fun. The major Detroit teams of that era included the likes of Horace Dodge, the Dossin brothers, Albin Fallon's MISS GREAT LAKES, Jack Schafer's SUCH CRUST, and Whitey Hughes's DUKIE.

In addition to the "heavyweights," an intriguing assortment of lower budget race teams surfaced along the banks of the Detroit River in the years just after the War. More often than not, these "River Rats" were ex-servicemen who had grown up watching Gar Wood's MISS AMERICA boats and who knew what an Allison engine was from being in the military...but who didn't necessarily possess the wherewithall to put a viable race boat package in order.

The Motor City "backyard jobs" included EAGER BEAVER, whose owner (Howard Eager) allegedly filled with ping-pong balls to aid in buoyancy. Then there was LET 'ER GO GALLAGHER, a curious contraption that resembled a cross between a conventional race boat and a soapbox derby push-car and was appropriately retitled WHA HOPPEN.

MISS-TER-E was an eccentric-looking Detroit craft, described as a "tri-prow hydro-air plane," badly underpowered with a pair of Gray Fireballs and then a pair of Fageol bus engines. Another curiosity piece, MISS WINDSOR, never could seem to answer the starter's gun but is the earliest known American example of a boat with Packard Rolls-Royce Merlin power. Owner Ted Newkirk supposedly mortgaged his home to finance SHERI-SAN, a multiple-step hydroplane that sank when first placed in the water.

And MISS GROSSE POINTE, the twin-Fageol-powered entry of Al D'Eath, struck the Belle Isle Bridge during the 1948 Detroit Memorial. The father of future MISS BUDWEISER pilot Tom D'Eath, Al used both hands to operate the twin throttles and had to steer with his feet.

Clearly, enthusiasm frequently had to compensate for the lack of competitive finesse in those early days. This was especially apparent at the disastrous 1948 APBA Gold Cup in Detroit when only one boat (MISS GREAT LAKES) out of 22 could go the 90- mile distance--and that one sank at the dock while the driver (Danny Foster) was being presented with the trophy!

Following and as a result of the 1948 Gold Cup, qualification speed trials were written into the rule book to ascertain a craft's fitness to compete. These trials also added greatly to the color and pageantry of the races. The first boat and driver combination to earn the distinction of fastest Gold Cup qualifier were MY SWEETIE and Bill Cantrell--the race winners that year--with a mark of 92.402 around the 2.5-mile course. On race day, "Wild Bill" made his claim to fame by outperforming Stan Dollar in SKIP-A-LONG and Dan Arena in SUCH CRUST.

A two-step Allison-powered craft, the John Hacker-designed MY SWEETIE raised the 30-mile Gold Cup heat record to 78.645. And this was just a few years after a speed in excess of 70 miles per hour was considered almost "impossible." During the first half of the 20th Century, not once had the Gold Cup ever been won by a boat representing a yacht club from west of the Mississippi River.

All of that changed in 1950 when SLO-MO-SHUN IV from Seattle finally turned the trick at Detroit. SLO-MO owner Stan Sayres, driver-designer Ted Jones, and builder Anchor Jensen thoroughly debunked the well-publicized impression that three-point suspension hulls become hopelessly uncontrollable at racing speeds--especially in the corners.

SLO-MO IV wasn't the first hydroplane to "prop-ride" on a semi-submerged propeller. (Jack Schafer's SUCH CRUST II and Morlan Visel's HURRICANE IV had both experimented along those lines.) But SLO-MO-SHUN IV was the first craft to reap championship results in the application of the concept. The days when a hydroplane could win with a fully submerged propeller were numbered.

For the next two decades, the boats had to use a SLO-MO-type design, or they simply weren't competitive. Overnight, competition speeds of over 100 miles per hour and straightaway speeds of over 150 were commonplace. When Sayres was presented with the Gold Cup, following his 1950 Motor City triumph, the cynics wagged that the Cup was "only being loaned" to him. The "loan" proved to be of long duration as Sayres went on to become the first five-time consecutive winning owner of power boating's Holy Grail. Not until 1956 would another Gold Cup contest be staged on the Detroit River.

For sheer longevity, two Detroit River racing dynasties, which began in the early 1950s, merit special praise. These are the GALE boats of Joe and Lee Schoenith and the MISS U.S. team of George Simon.

The Schoeniths debuted in 1950 with the former MISS FROSTIE, a vintage craft that won no races but served as an introduction to the sport. The following year, they commissioned Dan Arena to build the GALE II, a SLO-MO-type three-pointer that was highly successful. With Lee Schoenith and Danny Foster alternating in the cockpit, the "II" went on to win the 1952 and '53 Silver Cup contests and also the 1953 National High Point Championship.

One of the best two-boat teams in racing history was the double entry of Bill Cantrell in the GALE IV and Lee Schoenith in the GALE V during 1954-55. Between the two of them, Bill and Lee won eight races. GALE V was High Point Champion both years and captured the 1955 APBA Gold Cup at Seattle.

One of the Schoenith team's finest hours was actually their second-place performance behind Bill Stead and the MAVERICK in the unforgettable Detroit Silver Cup of 1958. Cantrell and GALE V pushed Stead and MAVERICK every inch of the way for ten dynamic laps in the winner-take-all Final Heat.

Stead, the Nevada cattle rancher, emerged victorious by a narrow margin but only after driving the race of his life.

The Schoeniths finally retired after 26 consecutive seasons of participation in 1975. Their best all-around year would have to be the memorable 1972 campaign. This was when the team won yet another National Championship and triumphed in six out of seven races--including the Gold Cup at Detroit--with Bill Muncey as driver.

The MISS U.S. organization initially appeared in 1953 and remained until 1976, except for a brief period of inactivity during 1971-72. The first craft to carry the colors of the Detroit-based U.S. Equipment Co. into competition was a three-point prop-rider, designed by Dan Arena. In the 1955 Rogers Memorial at Washington, D.C., this MISS U.S. became the very first hydroplane to ever post an overall average race speed in excess of 100 miles per hour with Jack Bartlow as driver.

The George Simon team achieved one of its proudest distinctions in 1962 on Guntersville Lake in Alabama. With Roy Duby at the wheel, the Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered craft set a mile straightaway record for propeller-driven boats at 200.419 miles per hour. The record stood for 38 years.

The MISS U.S. boats won four major races on home waters at Detroit. These were the 1956 Silver Cup with Don Wilson driving, the 1969 UIM World Championship with Bill Muncey, the 1975 Gar Wood Trophy with Tom D'Eath, and--the most memorable of all--the fabulous 1976 APBA Gold Cup. This was when pilot D'Eath held off a gutsy challenge from the Muncey-chauffeured ATLAS VAN LINES in the Final Heat to realize owner Simon's fondest dream after 23 years of trying.

Another respected team of the 1950s and '60s was the popular MISS SUPERTEST organization from Sarnia, Ontario. Owned by J. Gordon Thompson, the SUPERTEST boats appeared on the Detroit River every year from 1952 to 1961. They were the first team to obtain winning results with a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine. With Bob Hayward at the wheel, MISS SUPERTEST III triumphed in the 1959 Detroit Memorial. Then, later in the season, on the same race course, the "III" became the first non-United States winner of the Harmsworth International Trophy in 46 years, after a battle royal in a best-two-out-of-three-heat-series with Bill Stead and the MAVERICK.

Unfortunately, the SUPERTEST story ended in tragedy on September 10, 1961, at the Silver Cup. Pilot Hayward was fatally injured when MISS SUPERTEST II rolled over in the Belle Isle Bridge turn on the first lap of Heat 2-A.

The 1961 season also marked the end of participation in Thunderboat racing by the DYC and the WPYC. But not to worry. 1962 saw the formation of the Spirit Of Detroit Association, which carries on the tradition of Unlimited hydroplane racing in the Motor City to this day.

 

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