We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
The most prominent Gold Cup boat of the 1930s was EL LAGARTO, "The Leaping Lizard of Lake George" (New York). Owned and driven by George Reis, EL LAGARTO was the first three-time consecutive winner of the APBA Gold Cup in 1933, 1934, and 1935.
The popular "Lizard" did much to focus positive attention on powerboat competition during the years between the World Wars.
Owner/driver Reis was a veteran boat racer whose career dated back to 1916 when he took third-place in the Gold Cup at the wheel of A.L. Judson's HAWKEYE.
EL LAGARTO's remarkable career began inauspiciously with an eleventh-place performance in the 1922 Gold Cup at Detroit as MISS MARY II. Designed and built by John Hacker as a V-bottom displacement-type of boat, she measured 25 feet 10 inches in length with a 5-foot 6-inch beam and used a 150-horsepower Peer! less engine.
The Gold Cup boats of 1922 were restricted to the use of monoplanes without any "steps" or shingles" on the underside and a top piston displacement of 625 cubic inches. Prior to 1922, the Gold Cup had been a wide-open event with virtually no limits on hull or engine size.
Reis purchased EL LAGARTO from original owner Ed Grimm in about 1925. He named the craft after his brother's estate in Palm Springs, California, which was named "El Lagarto" because of an abundance of lizards in that vicinity. George installed a rebuilt 621 cubic inch Packard engine and used her as a pleasure craft on Lake George for several years. He occasionally entered her in free-for-all races against such local contenders as JOLLY ROGER, FALCON, and HAWKEYE.
The Gold Cup rules were amended in 1929 to allow hydroplanes with "stepped" hulls to compete for the American Power Boat Association's Crown Jewel.
Reis ordered a single-step hydro from the Purdy ! Boat Company of Port Washington and christened it EL LAGARTITO--"Littl e Lizard."
With Reis at the wheel and his Lake George neighbor Anderson ("Dick") Bowers along side as riding mechanic, EL LAGARTITO was trounced in the 1930 Gold Cup contest at Red Bank, New Jersey, which was won by HOTSY TOTSY, a V-bottomed old-timer that had been "shingled" by owner Vic Kliesrath.
Back to Lake George trekked Reis and Bowers with ideas of fitting a series of shallow hydroplane steps to the bottom of a displacement-type boat.
Early in the summer of 1931, Reis applied five steps to the underside of EL LAGARTO and trotted her out as a trial horse for EL LAGARTITO. With Bowers at the helm of the old boat and Reis handling the new one, they squared off in the middle of the lake for a comparison of speed. There was none. The old "Lizard" ran away from her younger sibling.
Reis retired the $12,000 EL LAGARTITO on the spot. He never campaigned her again. The TITO was eventually sold to E.A. Guggenheim who renamed her MISS SARANAC. Fr! om then on, Reis and Bowers concentrated all of their efforts on the old rig that, for years, had been little more than a runabout, errand boat, and fishing vessel.
When the Gold Cup participants assembled at Lake Montauk for the 1931 race, they were surprised to see EL LAGARTO instead of the one-year-old EL LAGARTITO.
The reason for the change became quickly obvious. EL LAGARTO grabbed the lead in the first heat and showed her transom to the entire field for the first 28 miles, until she dropped a valve and drifted helplessly, while HOTSY TOTSY breezed to an easy repeat victory.
Later in the season, EL LAGARTO triumphed in the National Sweepstakes at Red Bank--her first major win--and then annexed the President's Cup on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.
In 1932, Reis modified the after-shingle. As a result, she ran faster, but the formerly smooth-riding EL LAGARTO became the legendary "Leaping Lizard"--although her porpoising action obvi! ously did the trick. George's explanation as to why his boat was swift er around a race course than its contemporaries was due largely to its controlled air vents.
The 1933 Gold Cup in Detroit is sometimes recalled as "The Year of the Dodge Navy." No fewer than five DELPHINE boats were entered by Horace Dodge, Jr., of the Dodge automotive family and four of these were among the seven actual starters.
EL LAGARTO ironed the Dodge Navy flat with the fastest 30-mile heat speed since the 625 cubic inch piston displacement limitation: 60.866 miles per hour in the first round. Bill Horn, the 1932 champion, made a race of it with DELPHINE IV--and actually outdistanced "The Lizard" in the Final Heat--but lost the Cup on points--1322 to EL LAGARTO's 1361.
By season's end, the team of Reis, Bowers, and EL LAGARTO had claimed the Triple Crown of powerboating: the Gold Cup, the President's Cup, and the National Sweepstakes--a performance every bit as impressive as that which Gar Wood was accomplishing at the time in the Harmswor! th International (Unlimited) Class.
After the close of the 1933 season, the rule makers decided to pep up a category that was being dominated by an eleven-year-old museum piece, resurrected from obscurity. So, they voted to permit superchargers on Gold Cup engines.
Nevertheless, George Reis decided to fight out the 1934 Gold Cup race with his unblown Packard. Defending the title on home waters, EL LAGARTO established a Lake George 30-mile competition record of 58.064. But she really wasn't extended except for a few laps when Bennett Hill was on top with HORNET, which set a terrific pace. But EL LAGARTO took over the lead and claimed the victory. HORNET fell by the wayside and faded to fourth in the overall standings behind "The Lizard," DELPHINE IV with Horn, and IMP with Jack Rutherfurd.
At the 1934 President's Cup, EL LAGARTO leaped along to its third Potomac River triumph in four tries over six other contenders. "The Lizard" averaged 53.776 for th! e 45-mile distance, dominating the first two heats and taking a safe t hird in the final go-around. Rutherfurd's LOUISA took a trio of second-places, while MISS SARANAC (nee EL LAGARTITO) handled by Bob Purdy won the last heat for an overall third.
For the 1935 campaign, the rule makers went to work again and approved the use of power plants up to 732 cubic inches--thereby putting the American Gold Cup Class on a level with the International 12-Litre Class, which was quite popular in Europe at the time.
They further resolved to banish virtually all hull restrictions after the 1935 Gold Cup Regatta. The low weight per horsepower ratio possible under the new rules would soon sound the death knell for such storied old campaigners as EL LAGARTO.
Undaunted, "The Lizard" made it three Gold Cups in a row with her tried and proven 621 cubic inch unsupercharged Packard. She annihilated the hopes of Kliesrath in HOTSY TOTSY II, Horn in DELPHINE IV, and Clell Perry in NOTRE DAME.
And, in the Fall of 1935, EL LAGARTO ran an ! official mile trial of 72.727 miles per hour. This was the highest straightaway speed ever recorded by a Gold Cupper of the 625 cubic inch restricted hull variety.
Reis finally re-powered "The Lizard" for 1936 with a 732 cubic inch 12-cylinder Curtiss aircraft engine. But EL LAGARTO lost the Gold Cup to Englishman Kaye Don, driving Horace Dodge's IMPSHI, after "The Lizard" conked out in Heat One.
At the 1936 President's Cup, EL LAGARTO led in the first heat until an oil line broke and she was passed short of the finish line by NOTRE DAME. In the milling around prior to the start of Heat Two, NOTRE DAME rammed "The Lizard's" starboard side and smashed her so badly that she had to withdraw after completing one lap.
EL LAGARTO was repaired during the winter of 1936-37 and entered the 1937 Gold Cup at Detroit. For three quarters of Heat One, she ran close behind Perry in NOTRE DAME and Harold Wilson in MISS CANADA II until "The Lizard's" oil pump gave ou! t and she was withdrawn from her final race. It was back to home port for the last time for EL LAGARTO.
For the next several decades, Reis kept "The Lizard" as a pleasure boat on Lake George. According to columnist Mel Crook, as late as 1956, she still looked fit and traveled in the 70 mile an hour range.
Reis, who passed away in 1962, estimated that he averaged 2000 miles of running time with EL LAGARTO during each of the first 30 years that he owned her. That adds up to more than 60,000 miles--the equivalent of 2-1/2 times around the Earth at the Equator.
From the standpoint of history, George Reis, Dick Bowers, and "The Lizard" established a standard of excellence that was a tough act to follow.
Not until 1947 did another boat score victories in each of the Gold Cup, President's Cup, and National Sweepstakes events during the same calendar year. That's when Danny Foster turned the trick with the Dossin brothers' MISS PEPS V.
And not until 1965 did another boat (Ole Bardahl's MISS BARDAHL, driven by Ro! n Musson) match EL LAGARTO's feat of winning three successive Gold Cup championships.
Nearly seven decades have elapsed since "The Leaping Lizard of Lake George" last made her competitive presence felt. She is still remembered as a boat that earned her retirement and inspired the following YACHTING MAGAZINE poem, penned in 1936 by Everett B. Morris:
"Faster than fire in a flaming canebreak,
Tougher than her reptile namesake,
Quicker than a frightened rabbit,
A boat that has the winning habit.
George Reis, EL LAGARTO, unbeatable pair,
Benignly blinking in the spotlight's glare."