We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
Mr. Farley, I was a fan of the NOTRE DAME boats, which Shirley Mendelson McDonald campaigned between 1962 and 1973. In reading one of your articles on 1930s Gold Cup racing, I noticed that your interpretation of the NOTRE DAME team's early history differs greatly from the version that appears in the official NOTRE DAME press guides. Please explain. - Rick Daniel
Those fans who are familiar with the NOTRE DAME team's history will notice some rather surprising discrepancies between my treatment and the story that appeared in the NOTRE DAME press guides of the 1960s. These discrepancies concern the period from 1935 to 1947 when Herb Mendelson--Shirley Mendelson McDonald's father--ran the team.
The story in the press guides was based entirely on Shirley McDonald's recollection of that bygone era. The information is much the same as that which Shirley gave to a youthful Fred Farley in a 1962 interview on the subject of the early Mendelson boats.
Shirley told Fred and everyone else that her father had campaigned four different NOTRE DAME hulls, when in fact only three had existed. Here's what happened, according to published accounts in YACHTING and MOTORBOATING magazines:
After racing the first boat in 1935 and 1936, Herb Mendelson announced that a new NOTRE DAME would debut in 1937. But as things developed, the new boat wasn't ready in time. So, the old boat was recalled to active duty. The 1935 hull had been extensively modified and Shirley, who was about twelve years old at the time, didn't recognize it as the NOTRE DAME that had raced the two previous years. She thought it was the new boat that her father had promised. This, in her mind, was "Notre Dame II."
Finally, in 1938, the new hull, which had been announced the year before, made an appearance. This is the craft that crashed in trials prior to the Gold Cup. Shirley saw this boat as "Notre Dame III." Mrs. McDonald stated, twenty-four years after the fact, "This boat never raced."
Wrong again! Dan Arena told Fred Farley in 1967 that he (Arena) repaired the damaged NOTRE DAME of 1938 and raced it for Mendelson in 1939. This account is supported by magazine articles of that period. But Shirley McDonald saw the boat that raced in 1939 as "Notre Dame IV."
Arena then built a new boat for Mendelson in 1940. Incredibly, Shirley presumed this hull to be the same NOTRE DAME that had raced in 1939!
Shirley may well have been "her father's constant boat racing companion," as the press guides proudly proclaimed. But she obviously didn't spend much time around the boat shop.
Another frequent claim made by Mrs. McDonald had to do with a highly touted mile straightaway record of 100.987 miles per hour. Her father's last NOTRE DAME set this in 1940 for supercharged Gold Cup Class boats. Shirley told everyone that this record was never broken and still holds good today. But this is another falsehood, as the record in question was eclipsed in 1946 by Guy Lombardo's TEMPO VI, as reported by Mel Crook in YACHTING. Of course, the Mendelson family wasn't active in racing in 1946, which may explain Shirley's ignorance in this instance.
For what it's worth, in 1969, Fred Farley wrote a letter to the NOTRE DAME publicity office and politely pointed out that the 100.987 record no longer stood. But Fred's letter was ignored.
To her dying day, Shirley Mendelson McDonald never retracted any of the mis-information that appeared in the NOTRE DAME team's own official history. This is a classic case of where the "what is" does not equal the "what ought to be."
In this day and age, with all of the exotic materials and advanced technologies available to modern hydroplane teams, it is at times difficult for historians to determine when one boat "stops" and another "starts."
In other words, when is a new boat not a new boat but rather a rebuilt boat? That question is something to ponder and often sparks spirited debate.
But in the years when Herb Mendelson raced, most hydroplanes ended their careers with pretty much the same lumber in them as when they started. It was fairly simple to differentiate between hulls in those days. And for this reason, Shirley McDonald has no excuse for being so profoundly mistaken about the identities of the early NOTRE DAME boats.