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A Brief History of the Gold Cup

By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian

The APBA Gold Cup is to power boat racing what the Super Bowl is to football, what the Kentucky Derby is to horse racing, what the World Series is to baseball, and what the Indianapolis 500 is to automobile racing.

Officially known as the "American Power Boat Association Challenge Cup," it is the ultimate prize that every competitor strives to win at least once.

The Gold Cup's long and fascinating history is one of the great sports stories.

A truly definitive history of the "Golden Goblet" has yet to be written and could fill many volumes. There have been many, many highlights, too numerous to be retold here.

The very first Gold Cup race took place in June 1904 on the Hudson River in New York. In those days, the boats plowed through the water rather than skim over the surface of it. The winning boat, the STANDARD, owned and driven by Carl Riotte, averaged just over 23 miles per hour. Measuring 59 feet in length with an 8-1/2-foot beam, the craft used a 110-horsepower Standard motor that resembled a miniature steam engine with its steel columns and open frame.

For the first--and only--time in Gold Cup history, two races were run in the same calendar year. VINGT-ET-UN II, a displacement boat, driven by Willis Kilmer, won the second Gold Cup in September 1904 using a Simplex engine for power. Kilmer’s best heat was just over 25 miles per hour.

Starting in 1905, a handicap system was utilized which took into account each boat’s power and size. The use of this system enabled CHIP, owned and driven by Jonathon Wainwright, to win on corrected time at about 15 miles per hour--even though CHIP was the next-to-slowest boat in the fleet!

Protests from losing entrants resulted in the scrapping of the controversial handicapping system after 1907. Beginning in 1908, the Gold Cup was a “wide open” race. E.J. Schroeder’s DIXIE II captured the cup that year and posted a fastest heat speed of over 30 miles per hour.

The first hydroplane hull to win the Gold Cup was MIT II in 1911 with J.H. Hayden at the wheel. The hydroplanes with their underside “steps” and their ability to plane over the surface of the water spelled the end of the displacement era.

The first Gold Cup race to be run on the Detroit River was in 1916. This was by virtue of the community-owned MISS DETROIT winning the Cup in 1915 on Manhasset Bay in Upstate New York and earning the right to defend it on home waters.

MISS DETROIT was a single-step hydroplane, equipped with a 250-horsepower Sterling engine. The designer was the distinguished Christopher Columbus Smith of Chris Craft fame. As things developed, MISS DETROIT’s debut was almost an unmitigated disaster.

Scheduled to pilot the Motor City entry in the big race was a prominent Detroit yachtsman who shall remain forever nameless. As the countdown for the first heat got under way, MISS DETROIT’s driver could not be found. A crewmember named Johnny Milot offered to step in as relief pilot.

Milot did not have time to put on any protective gear. He just jumped into the cockpit along side riding mechanic Jack Beebe and headed for the race course.

Being unfamiliar with the course layout, Milot followed the other boats around the buoys for the first few laps. The water was awfully rough and Johnny endured a terrific pounding. By the end of the heat, Beebe was driving after Milot had succumbed to seasickness. But by some miracle, they had managed to finish in first-place.

And at day's end, the heroes of the day were Johnny Milot and Jack Beebe. MISS DETROIT had won the Gold Cup and a racing dynasty had begun.

In the years that followed, Detroit displaced New York as the Boat Racing Capital of North America.

Beginning with the 1917 Gold Cup in Minneapolis, Gar Wood--the sport’s first superstar--rose to prominence. Named after two U.S. Presidents, Garfield Arthur Wood seemingly became the personification of power boat competition in the eyes of the world. He won the 1917 race at the wheel of MISS DETROIT II. This was Wood’s first of five consecutive victories as a driver in “the race of races.”

In 1920, at the wheel of his twin Smith-Liberty-powered MISS AMERICA, Wood averaged a phenomenal 70.412 miles per hour in the 30-mile Final Heat on a 5-mile course. The record would stand until 1946.

In the 1921 Gold Cup, Gar was simply unbeatable and made a shambles of the opposition

For the next two decades, Gold Cup racing was restricted--supposedly for safety but obviously to stop Gar Wood's domination, and also to put the sport into the range of more pocketbooks than had previously been the case. Hydroplane hulls were outlawed and the engine size was limited to 625 cubic inches. Hydroplanes were re-admitted in 1929 and the cubic inch displacement was eventually raised to 732.

A field of thirteen "gentlemen's runabouts" appeared in the 1922 Gold Cup at Detroit. The winner was Jesse Vincent in PACKARD CHRIS CRAFT with a 90-mile race average of 40.253. The race also marked the debut of the Packard Gold Cup engine, which would hold sway for the next fifteen years.

One of the more bizarre chapters in Detroit Gold Cup history occurred at the 1924 contest. Canadian sportsman Harry Greening had apparently won with his RAINBOW IV, which was seen by some as being a hydroplane rather than a displacement hull. The craft's bottom was of lapstrake construction, which was technically permitted by the rules.

The APBA decided, however, that the strakes had been installed for the express purpose of achieving a hydroplane effect. In other words, Greening had followed the letter of the rules but not the spirit of them. As a result, RAINBOW IV was disqualified and Caleb Bragg's BABY BOOTLEGGER was moved from an overall second to first position.

Outraged, Greening returned to Canada and never raced for the Gold Cup again.

The most prominent Gold Cup boat of the 1930s was EL LAGARTO, owned and driven by George Reis of Lake George, New York, which became the cup’s first three-time consecutive winning hull in 1933-34-35. Nicknamed “The Leaping Lizard,” EL LAGARTO, in 1933, turned the fastest heat (60.866) since the cubic inch piston displacement limitation of 1922.

The first Gold Cup victory by a three-point hydroplane occurred in 1939. Unlike the step hydroplanes, the three-pointers rode on the tips of two pontoon-like running surfaces called sponsons and a completely submerged propeller. (Not until the late 1940s would the boats start to "propride.") The concept would forever alter the course of competitive power boating.

MY SIN, a product of the famed Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey, won all three heats of the 1939 race at Detroit with owner Guy Simmons driving. The other three-pointers in attendance were Bill Cantrell's WHY WORRY, Lou Fageol's SO-LONG, Marion Cooper's MERCURY, and George Davis's HERMES IV.

The Ventnor company had popularized the three-point design when they introduced MISS MANTEO II, a successful 225 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane with vestigial sponsons, in 1936.

MY SIN repeated as Gold Cup winner in 1941 and again in 1946 as Guy Lombardo’s TEMPO VI.

After time out for World War II, Gold Cup racing resumed with a rejuvenated format in evidence. The 732 cubic inch piston displacement limitation was abandoned. And the introduction of converted Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, developed for the war effort, produced new enthusiasm for America’s premier power boat racing event.

Although the 1946 race went to the Miller-powered TEMPO VI, Dan Arena’s MISS GOLDEN GATE III, which used an Allison V-12, raised the Gold Cup lap record to over 77 miles per hour on a 3-mile course.

A two-step Allison-powered craft, the John Hacker-designed MY SWEETIE, raised the 30-mile Gold Cup heat record to 78.645 in 1949 with “Wild Bill” Cantrell driving. 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, no boat representing a yacht club from west of the Mississippi River was ever victorious.

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 pretty much 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. And he introduced Gold Cup racing to the Pacific Northwest. Not until 1956 would another Gold Cup contest be staged on the Detroit River.

For pure boat racing, it's hard to top the classic 1954 Gold Cup at Seattle. Indeed, boats ran head-to-head with each other all day long on that memorable August 7.

SLO-MO-SHUN V, driven by Lou Fageol, finished first in all three 30-mile heats. But Lou had to win them the hard way--especially in Heat Two, when SLO-MO-SHUN V, SLO-MO-SHUN IV, and MISS U.S. shared the same roostertail for seven of the eight laps.

SLO-MO-SHUN V was also the first boat to achieve competitive results with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. (All of the Gold Cup winners from 1947 to 1953 used Allison power.) The Rolls was more powerful than the Allison but was more temperamental.

Lee Schoenith and GALE V from Detroit finally broke up the Seattle Yacht Club’s five-year monopoly of the Gold Cup in 1955. GALE V won a disputed decision over Bill Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY, which involved Bonus Points and 4.536 seconds in total elapsed time.

Defending champion Fageol turned a complete backward somersault at 165 miles per hour with SLO-MO-SHUN V, while attempting to qualify for the 1955 race.

For sheer acrimony, nothing tops the protest-ridden 1956 Gold Cup at Detroit, which took 85 days to settle. MISS THRIFTWAY and Muncey were eventually declared the winners (after the cup had initially been presented to the Detroit-based MISS PEPSI and Chuck Thompson) and the race went back to Seattle for 1957.

Following and as a result of the 1956 Gold Cup, the Unlimited Racing Commission (now HYDRO-PROP, Inc.) was formed to administer Unlimited hydroplane activity, instead of the Inboard Racing Commission. All but nominal ties with the parent American Power Boat Association were severed.

Edgar Kaiser's HAWAII KAI III, designed by Ted Jones, was arguably the greatest race boat of the 1950s. With Jack Regas driving, the KAI won five races in a row and the National High Point Championship and raised the mile straightaway record from 178 to 187 miles per hour in 1957.

Following a brief retirement, Regas and HAWAII KAI III came back to save the Gold Cup for Seattle in 1958. (This was after the Bill Muncey-chauffeured MISS THRIFTWAY lost her rudder and crashed into a U.S. Coast Guard utility boat at the start of Heat 2-A.)

The KAI had her work cut out for her that year. The MAVERICK and driver Bill Stead, who represented the Lake Mead Yacht Club of Las Vegas, Nevada, had won their two most recent races in 1958 and qualified fastest with a Gold Cup record of 119.956 for three laps around the lake Washington 3-mile course.

But on race day, August 10, HAWAII KAI III rose to the challenge and beat MAVERICK hands down. This guaranteed a Gold Cup race for Seattle in 1959 as well.

For the first--and only--time in its history, the APBA Gold Cup was declared “No Contest” in 1960. The Lake Mead Yacht Club had won the right to host the race, following MAVERICK’s victory in the 1959 renewal. But high winds churned the lake into an unraceable froth after the completion of only one preliminary heat.

It took three days, but the 1961 Gold Cup--after numerous delays--was finally completed. Bill Muncey and MISS CENTURY 21 emerged victorious in the only Gold Cup race ever run on Pyramid Lake, near Reno, Nevada, and did so without winning a heat MISS CENTURY 21 posted three second-place finishes for a total of 900 points; Don Wilson and MISS U.S. I had two first-places and a “Did Not Finish” for a total of 800 points.

Starting in 1963, the Gold Cup race location was determined by the city with the highest financial bid, rather than by the yacht club of the winning boat. The race format was also changed from three heats of 30 miles to four heats of 15 miles. (NOTE: The current Gold Cup format calls for two heats of 7-1/2 miles and three heats of 12-1/2 miles.)

The high bid in 1963 was by Detroit. In the years since, more Gold Cups have been run on the Detroit River than any other location. Since 1990, all Gold Cup races have been contested in the Motor City.

Ron Musson and MISS BARDAHL established a Gold Cup dynasty in 1963 for owner Ole Bardahl. This was after a battle with second-place Bill Cantrell in GALE V. Musson went on to repeat as Gold Cup winner in 1964 and 1965.

When Musson was fatally injured in the 1966 President’s Cup at Washington, D.C., new MISS BARDAHL driver Billy Schumacher picked up where Ron had left off with victories of his own in 1967 and 1968.

After seven years of trying, MISS BUDWEISER owner Bernie Little garnered his first Gold Cup in 1969 on San Diego’s Mission Bay. (Thirteen more victories would come Little’s way over the next three decades, en route to becoming the winningest Gold Cup owner in history.) MISS BUDWEISER pilot Bill Sterett had to battle rival Dean Chenoweth and MYR’S SPECIAL in 1969 not only for the Gold Cup but also for the National High Point Championship.

In 1971, the community-owned MISS MADISON and driver Jim McCormick made their claim for immortality with a richly sentimental triumph before 110,000 partisan fans on the Ohio River in Madison, Indiana, on that memorable Fourth of July.

The 1971 Gold Cup almost wasn't run in Madison at all. Because of a technicality and a misunderstanding, Madison's smaller-than-usual bid for the race was the only one submitted in time.

Never before had the Gold Cup been run in so small a town (population 13,000).

Down to their last Allison engine, having blown the other in trials, the aging under-financed MISS MADISON ran conservatively in the preliminary heats and then "let it all hang out" in the 15-mile finale. MISS M beat such top-flight Merlin-powered teams as Terry Sterett in ATLAS VAN LINES II, Chenoweth in MISS BUDWEISER, and Schumacher in PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK.

McCormick moved to the inside lane before the start, took the lead coming out of the first turn, and streaked to victory. This was a triumph for the amateur, for the common man--a win that everyone could claim as his own.

Delays, controversy, and rough water marred the running of the 1974 Seattle Gold Cup, which was contested at Sand Point instead of the usual location, south of the Old Floating Bridge.

The on-shore difficulties not withstanding, the race still had much to offer the fans in terms of excitement. George Henley in the "Winged Wonder" PAY ‘n PAK and Howie Benns in the MISS BUDWEISER battled all day long in some of the finest competition ever witnessed in the long history of power boat racing. The outcome was in doubt, right down to the final checkered flag.

PAY ‘n PAK ultimately prevailed and won the cup--but only after a titanic struggle.

The 1976 Gold Cup at Detroit was reminiscent of 1971 when a hometown favorite claimed its own particular piece of the pie. Tom D’Eath held off a gutsy challenge from the Muncey-chauffeured ATLAS VAN LINES (former PAY ‘n PAK) on extremely rough water in the winner-take-all Final Heat.

Designed by Ron Jones, Sr., MISS U.S. was the first Gold Cup winner with a cabover--or forward-cockpit--hull configuration. (A cabover can generally corner better and faster than its rear-cockpit/forward-engine-situated predecessor.) Since 1976, every Gold Cup winner has steered from the front.

Following the death of eight-time Gold Cup winner Bill Muncey in the World Championship Race at Acapulco, Mexico, in 1981, Lee "Chip" Hanauer took over as driver for the ATLAS VAN LINES team, now owned by Fran Muncey (Bill's widow).

Hanauer and crew chief Jim Harvey pulled off a heart-stopper of a victory at Detroit in 1982. The new Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered ATLAS almost blew over during a Final Heat battle with defending champion Dean Chenoweth and the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered MISS BUDWEISER, which boasted much more horsepower than the ATLAS VAN LINES.

After trailing for the first few laps, Chip executed a daring maneuver and ducked inside of Dean. This forced the BUDWEISER to run a wider--and longer--track.

When the roostertails subsided, Hanauer and ATLAS had added a new chapter to American sports legend. This was the first of eleven Gold Cups won by Chip between 1982 and 1999.

Bill would have been proud.

Over the years, quite a few boats have won three APBA Gold Cups. Several of these have even won three Gold Cups in succession. But not until 1987 did any boat ever win four Gold Cups. This amazing craft won in 1984 as ATLAS VAN LINES and in 1985-86-87 as MILLER AMERICAN. The ATLAS/MILLER was also the first Gold Cup winner to utilize turbine power.

Heading into the 1988 race at Evansville, Indiana, Chip Hanauer had an incredible win streak of six consecutive Gold Cups. But for a few brief moments, that victory string appeared to be at an end. Hanauer’s MILLER HIGH LIFE entry suffered hull damage in a collision with another boat and had to be withdrawn.

But then Chip was offered the seat in the other Fran Muncey hydroplane, the MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS, which had been driven in the first two heats by John Prevost. Hanauer stepped in and won the last two heats, including the winner-take-all finale, to claim Gold Cup victory number seven since 1982.

Hometown Detroit driver Mark Tate made a vivid impression with a pair of Gold Cup triumphs in 1991 and 1994 for owner Steve Woomer. In 1991, driving WINSTON EAGLE, Tate outran George Woods in EXECUTONE and Mike Hanson in VALVOLINE MISS MADISON. And in 1994 with the same boat (renamed SMOKIN’ JOE’S), Tate reeled of victories in all five Gold Cup heats.

Only two drivers in the modern era have managed to score back-to-back Gold Cup victories with two different teams. The first was Danny Foster, who won in 1947 with the Dossin brothers' MISS PEPS V and in 1948 with Albin Fallon's MISS GREAT LAKES. The other was Dave Villwock, who tied down his first Gold Cup with PICO AMERICAN DREAM, owned by Fred Leland, in 1996 and his second with Bernie Little’s MISS BUDWEISER in 1997.

Villwock has since claimed three additional Gold Cups for owner Little in 1998, 2000, and 2002. Dave’s racing career almost ended following a serious accident in the 1997 Columbia Cup at the Tri-Cities, Washington. MISS BUDWEISER “blew over” in the Final Heat and Villwock suffered the loss of two fingers on his right hand.

But when the starting gun fired for the 1998 season-opener at Evansville, there was Dave Villwock, back in the MISS BUDWEISER cockpit, maintaining his familiar first-place.

One of the most popular Gold Cup wins in recent years was Mike Hanson’s 2001 triumph with TUBBY’S GRILLED SUBMARINES, owned by Mike and Lori Jones.

The Jones boat had suffered major structural damage the week before at Madison, Indiana. So extensive was the damage that the team’s appearance at the Gold Cup in Detroit seemed unlikely.

But instead of heading for home and missing the most important race of the year, driver Hanson--who is a boat builder by profession--sparked a round-the-clock repair effort. For several days, Mike and his crew hardly slept at all. But when the starting gun fired at Detroit, the boat was ready to race. And what a race it was!

Hanson and TUBBY'S GRILLED SUBMARINES exited the first turn of the Final Heat and pulled away to a decisive lead. The boat, which few had expected to even be there, was on its way to the bank. Greg Hopp and ZNETIX ran a distant second.

The 2001 Gold Cup marked the first-ever victory in the Unlimited Class by the Jones Racing Team. Owner Mike Jones, who was the President of the American Power Boat Association at the time, became the first sitting APBA President to win the APBA's Crown Jewel since Jonathon Wainwright in 1905.

The 2002 race at Detroit marked the fourteenth win by MISS BUDWEISER owner Bernie Little in the Gold Cup series and his fourth with driver Villwock. Little’s previous pilots include Bill Sterett (1969). Dean Chenoweth (1970-73-80-81), Tom D’Eath (1989-90), and Chip Hanauer (1992-93-95).

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