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Thunderboating - A Personal Memoir - Chapter 4

By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian

In the spring of 1971, I was newly graduated from the University of Washington, unemployed, broke, and recently detached from the Seafair committee.

I didn’t land my first full-time teaching job until 1975. As previously stated, I chose education as a career for the sole purpose of having the summers off to pursue the Thunderboats. By happy happenstance, I happened to enjoy being a teacher. But that’s another story.

My graduation present from my folks was a plane ticket to the 1971 Detroit and Madison races. My return trip to Seattle was by Greyhound bus, which took three days. (Ghastly experience. But that, too, is another story.)

Up until this time, I had never been farther east than Coeur d’Alene. The greatest distances that I had ever traveled to a race were Sacramento (in 1967) and San Diego (in 1970).

The Mid-West hydroplane circuit had always intrigued me. Boats had raced on the Detroit River and the Ohio River for a whole lot longer than they ever had on Lake Washington. (Detroit had hosted its first Gold Cup in 1916; informal races had occurred at Madison as early as 1911.) Seattle was a comparative newcomer.

When I stepped off the airplane at Detroit Metro, I couldn’t believe that I was actually there. I had watched the 1956 Detroit Gold Cup and the 1957 Silver Cup on live television (courtesy of KING-5). But now, after years of anticipation, I had finally arrived in the Motor City--the Mecca of power boat racing in North America.

My decision to visit the Mid-West had been reached during the winter. The occasion was a test run at the Sayres Pits, involving the PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK and the HALLMARK HOMES.

Snow was on the ground. Temperatures were at about the freezing level. The sun was out and shining brightly with not a cloud in the sky. The lake water was a deep blue. It was an absolutely gorgeous--if somewhat nippy--Seattle day. It felt strange, driving down to Lake Washington to see boats run with snow on the ground.

There was an enormous crowd in attendance--and this was a weekday! The big occasion was the debut of a new racing team, the HALLMARK HOMES and owner Tony Mulherin. Phil Cole, the URC Executive Secretary, had flown in from Sacramento to orchestrate the media blitz. Everyone who was anyone in Northwest boat racing was there. And the fans were out in force. A lot of people must have called in sick from work that day!

First, the HALLMARK HOMES and driver Leif Borgersen would go out and make a run. And then the PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK and Billy Schumacher would do likewise. They did this all afternoon. It was non-stop action--almost like a day of qualifying, only this was in mid-winter!

All of the people that I would expect to see at a Seafair Regatta were there. It was great to see my old friends. Hell, even the old enemies looked good!

I didn’t want that day to end. My spirits soared. I don’t ordinarily go out of my way to collect photographs of specific test runs. But I bought some of this one. I wanted to remember this day forever. It’s still my all-time favorite Unlimited test session.

When I headed home from the pits that evening, my hydroplane appetite had been whetted. I wanted to see boats race--and soon! Now that I was no longer committed during June and July to the Seafair program, I was determined to travel to some early-season races in the east--even if I had to hitchhike! I didn’t know then how I was going to finance such a trip. But this was something that I had to do. And I did.

A number of factors led me to choose the races in Detroit and Madison for my 1971 Mid-West junket.

I learned that Gar Wood’s MISS AMERICA IX--the first boat to do 100 miles per hour on the straightaway in 1931--had been restored and was scheduled to make an exhibition run at Detroit. I reasoned that, at some point in my life, I would likely see a Gar Wood boat on display in a museum or somewhere. But how many chances would I ever have to see one actually run? (As it turned out, I had many opportunities in the years ahead to see the various MISS AMERICA boats in action. But I had no way of knowing that in 1971.)

If I was only going to visit Detroit once in my life, then this was the year in which to do it. (Here, too, I was way off the mark. In the decades that followed, I managed to attend dozens of Motor City races.)

I had first become aware of Madison, Indiana, when I listened to the KING Radio broadcast of the 1957 Indiana Governor’s Cup. That was the first year that any of the Seattle boats had ever competed in Madison and the first year that the Seattle media had really paid attention to that particular race site.

In the years that followed, I began to form a mental picture of the Ohio River town of 13,000 that owned its own Unlimited hydroplane, the MISS MADISON, and hosted the Thunderboats every Fourth of July weekend.

The local newspaper, THE MADISON COURIER, I discovered, was a treasure-trove of information on the Unlimiteds, thanks to the efforts of its Sports Editor Graham Taylor. In those days, if MISS MADISON made a test run, it was front-page news in the COURIER.

Starting in 1968, I subscribed to the paper during the racing season. It arrived four or five days late but had ten times more hydro information than the two Seattle newspapers combined.

In the late sixties, several friends of mine from Seattle had attended the Madison Regatta and brought back glowing reports.

Power boat racing tends to do well in small towns where the louder and more commercial aspects of the sport seem muted. That is certainly the case with Madison, “where slower clocks beat happier hours.”

I started to plan my 1971 itinerary. After flying to Detroit, I would take the bus to Madison by way of Cincinnati and then return home via the northern states. But before heading back to Seattle, I would stop over in Vine Grove, Kentucky, near Louisville.

The reason for the Vine Grove visit was to interview an old boat racer named George Davis who lived there. George had been a partner with Marion Cooper in a series of boats named HERMES back in the thirties. One of these, the HERMES IV, built in 1939, had raced in the fifties as IT’S A WONDER, powered by a 1914 vintage Hispano-Suiza engine. The WONDER had won the third-place trophy at each of the first three Indiana Governor’s Cup races in 1951, 1952, and 1953 with Davis driving.

I had corresponded with George for several years and wanted very much to meet him in person. I had first read about him in Bob Brinton’s UNLIMITED HYDROPLANE NEWS. He was a close friend of Unlimited drivers Bill Cantrell, Guy Lombardo, and Jim McCormick. George sounded like a really colorful character. And he certainly was. In time, Davis would become like a second father to me.

It was important that the 1971 Mid-West trip go well. I figured that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was almost 27 at the time. It had taken me twice as long to get through college, mainly for reasons of health. I had finally reached a point in my life that most people reach a lot sooner. By comparison, my brother Tom started college three years after I did and finished two years ahead of me.

Tom had already stepped out into the real world. Now, it was my turn. That 1971 Detroit/Madison trip would be a long-delayed rite of passage.

I had followed boat racing now for twenty years. In a sense, my life began with the 1951 Seattle Gold Cup, because my continuous memory starts there. I retain only fleeting recollections of what happened in my first seven years as the first-born son of Daniel and Amanda Farley.

Up until 1971, I possessed only a West Coast orientation to the sport. Now it was time for the inevitable next step.

I represented a monthly newspaper called RACE BOAT & INDUSTRY NEWS at Detroit and Madison. That was my official excuse for being there. RACE BOAT was a California-based “rag” that specialized in drag boats. I never received a dime from RB&IN. But I had a whole page every month to say whatever I wanted about Unlimiteds. And it was a chance to sharpen my skills as a journalist. Photographer Rich Ormbrek was my partner in this venture, which lasted almost fifteen years.

During the racing season, I would write reports on the various races for RB&IN. And during the off-season, I would fill the column space with history articles, which became my stock in trade. I was the only reporter for a national publication to write about Unlimited history on a regular basis. This led to my appointment in 1973 as APBA Unlimited Historian.

I arrived in Detroit and didn’t know a soul. My old friend Phil Jursek had departed the Thunderboat scene. My lone contact in the Motor City was hydro fan Steve Garey, whom I had never met but with whom I had swapped letters for a couple of years. Steve had a fondness for Unlimited history, as his correspondence to me indicated. I was looking forward to meeting him.

I stayed that first year at a YMCA on East Jefferson. It was located in a very rough neighborhood. But it was within walking distance of the Horace Dodge Pits.

Over the years, I had seen many photographs of the race area at Detroit. Every time that I turned around, I would see some landmark that I recognized. Now I could see where the landmarks were in relation to each other. The experience was like putting together the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Once I had checked into the YMCA, I headed out on foot to the general vicinity of the Detroit River and soon found the pits.

Now I had truly arrived. I had never traveled this far from my Bellevue, Washington, home to attend a boat race. I couldn’t have been more overwhelmed by it all if I had been attending a race in Australia. This was truly one of the highlights of my life.

That first visit to the Detroit Pits lasted until well after dark. As I walked back to the YMCA, the realization came that this was a very dangerous section of the city. The race area was a haven of safety in a crime-infested asphalt jungle.

This was just four years after the Motor City riots of 1967. The scars of that fearsome conflict were still visible in the form of burned out buildings. I learned quickly that a white man simply doesn’t set foot in that area after nightfall. I resolved that, if I ever again visited Detroit, I would stay elsewhere than downtown. (In most of my post-1971 visits, I have stayed up north in St. Clair Shores.)

I’ve been told that the eastside of Detroit, where the race is run, used to be one of the prettiest and most affluent sections of the city, back in the twenties during the Gar Wood era. How times have changed!

But no matter how grim the Motor City may presently be, Detroit is home to a lot of wonderful people. My pen pal Steve Garey introduced me to members of the UNLIMITEDS DETROIT fan club, which Steve had co-founded in 1969. I had once belonged to a similar fan organization in Seattle but had become disillusioned with it.

The UNLIMITEDS DETROIT people really impressed me. Many of the UD members that I met on that first trip east remain my friends to this day. In addition to Steve, these include Ray Dong, Hank Kosciuszko, Don Nicholson, Bernie Schwartz, Jim and Jeff Dunn, and others. They represent friendships that have truly stood the test of time.

Most people are lucky if they have two or three really good friends in the course of their lives. In boat racing, I’ve had dozens--and a lot of those are people from the environs of Detroit and Madison. In the friendship department, my cup truly runneth over.

I’m often asked why I travel such great distances year after year to attend Unlimited races in the Mid-West. My answer is simple. It’s the people.

One of my first reactions to the race courses at Detroit and especially Madison was how narrow they are in comparison to Lake Washington. I thought, “My God! Do they actually run boats here? I was expecting a river, but all I see is this drainage ditch.”

While in Detroit that first year, I got to visit a lot of the landmarks that I had heard about. These included The Roostertail restaurant, the fashionable (at the time) nightspot, owned by the Schoenith family, which overlooks The Roostertail turn of the race course.

I dined at Sindbad’s, the famed “greasy coveralls” watering hole that is both a place and a myth in hydroplane circles. One particular (unnamed) boat racer could ALWAYS be found at Sindbad’s. (He must have owned a lease on one of the bar stools!)

As luck would have it, I also got to visit the legendary Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle. For much of the 20th Century, the DYC was the undisputed hub of power boat racing in North America. The place positively exudes history. I couldn’t have been more awestruck if I had visited the White House or the Statue of Liberty or the Library of Congress. I was truly in my element.

The Detroit Yacht Club was the scene of a gala memorial banquet in 1971 that honored the recently deceased Gar Wood. This was on the 50th anniversary of Gar’s election as DYC Commodore. Steve Garey had an extra ticket to the event and gave it to me. I’ll always be grateful to Steve for that.

Attending the Gar Wood banquet overshadowed all of the other wonderful things that happened to me that week. It turned out to be even more memorable than watching MISS AMERICA IX make its celebrated run or seeing Dean Chenoweth win the Horace E. Dodge Cup with MISS BUDWEISER.

One moment in particular stands out that still brings moisture to my eyes. After the banquet, Steve and I worked our way through the dispersing crowd to the head table. There sat Orlin Johnson, Gar Wood’s crew chief and riding mechanic, and also George Wood, Gar’s younger brother. Most people had forgotten that George was the winning driver of MISS AMERICA VIII in the 1931 Harmsworth Trophy on the Detroit River. But Steve and I knew.

For a moment I couldn’t bring myself to speak. Then I said, “Mr. Wood, I wasn’t alive when you won the Harmsworth. But please accept my belated congratulations on your victory.”

I shall never forget the look of gratitude in his eyes. He smiled, shook my hand, and gave me his autograph. It was a moment that I will always cherish.

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