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Thunderboating - A Personal Memoir - Chapter 7

By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian

As a first-time visitor to the city of Madison, I began to get acquainted with the townspeople. Don Wallis was the President of Madison Regatta, Inc., in addition to being the Publisher of THE MADISON COURIER. He and Graham Taylor went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, despite the heavy burden of putting on the race in addition to publishing the newspaper.

As the representative of RACE BOAT & INDUSTRY NEWS, I really was the low man on the totem pole in comparison to the other media people in attendance. But Don and Graham extended to me the same courtesy that they accorded the representatives of the Associated Press and ABC WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS.

Wilbur and Mary Heitz couldn’t have been nicer to a shy, awkward newcomer. Who would have thought that Wib, Mary, and I would later work many races together as URC officials.

On my first walk along the riverbank, several days before the race, I ran into my Vine Grove, Kentucky, pen pal George Davis. From the moment that we first shook hands, we became the best of friends.

He was a fascinating individual. Totally unpretentious, down to earth, a man of definite opinions, outspoken, at times obstinate, but also gracious, kind, and the epitome of a southern gentleman--that was George “It’s A Wonder” Davis.

Given half a chance and a vacant ear, Davis would impart to the listener all manner of colorful anecdotes about politics, local history, country western music, tobacco farming, boat racing, fly fishing, his love for the Hispano-Suiza engine, and the state of health of all his Vine Grove neighbors. And his whiskey and cola concoctions were legendary.

George, in many ways, didn’t quite fit into the 20th Century. He was more of a 19th Century man, his roots being more in the 1800s than the 1900s. Davis tended to come across like a character out of GONE WITH THE WIND. The son of a blacksmith, George as a youngster wanted nothing more than to follow in his father's footsteps. But the invention of the automobile shattered that dream. I'm sure that Davis would have been happier in that earlier era when life was a lot less complicated.

George love anything mechanical. His twin passions were aviation and boat racing. He served with distinction in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Stationed in Greenland, he flew 37 combat missions as a navigator aboard a B-17 over the North Sea. He carried the scar of a shrapnel wound on the back of his neck.

As a hydroplane competitor, Davis never quite made the big time. To him, racing was strictly a hobby. Come Monday morning, he always had to be back on the job as a civilian mechanic at Godman Field at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Consequently, he had to limit himself to races that were close to home, such as Madison and Louisville.

And although he was never a big winner in power boat racing, he rubbed shoulders with the greats and the near-greats and could tell fascinating stories about them. George was a close personal friend of people like Graham Heath, Ed Cooper, Sr., Guy Lombardo, Henry Lauterbach, and many more. He dated a teenaged Shirley McDonald back in the thirties, drove a 225 Cubic Inch Class rig for the actor Robert Stack in the forties, and introduced a rookie Jim McCormick to 280 Cubic Inch Class racing in the early sixties.

Davis was at the top of his form when he raced the HERMES boat in the 510 and 725 Cubic Inch Classes, starting in the early thirties. When the new-fangled three-pointers came along in the late thirties, George was on the cutting edge of that new technology. His HERMES IV was one of the first boats in the world with sponsons on it. He belonged to the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association, which was the blue-collar counterpart to the American Power Boat Association.

And although Davis was an APBA member for decades and proud of it, his heart was rooted in the old MVPBA. They were his kind of people, which included the likes of Bill Cantrell and Marion Cooper with whom he raced the 725s.

The MVPBA, which later became a part of the APBA, offered boat racing at the grassroots level. The pre-war MVPBA circuit was the perfect venue for a person such as George Davis. In the 510 and 725 Classes, one needn’t have been especially affluent to be competitive. All that was needed for a man of ordinary income to participate was some carpentry skills, some willing friends, and a little cash to purchase the lumber for a boat and an engine.

Davis told me that he and his fellow 725 Class racers didn’t care to be professional. But they needed to run where cash prizes were offered. That’s because it was no easy task to campaign a hydroplane during the Great Depression. At the various race sites, the 725 Class teams would split the prize money equally among themselves. That way, everyone had enough cash to make it to the next race.

George’s trademark was the Hispano-Suiza (“Hisso”) engine, the perky little V-8 that had seen service in the Spad aircraft during World War I. The Hisso later became the basis for both the Allison and the Rolls-Royce Merlin. Davis was the last man to drive a Hisso-powered craft in competition. He did this when he won a free-for-all race against some 266 Class boats at Dale Hollow, Tennessee, in 1957 with IT’S A WONDER.

When I first met him, he had been retired from race driving for four years. His last ride was in the 280 Class MY TENNESSEE GAL (named after his wife Dorris) at the 1967 Marine Derby Regatta in Louisville.

George’s driving career spanned nearly four decades. He had attended the first major race at Madison in 1929, before the bridge was built. The man had quite literally seen it all.

He confirmed that there had indeed been an Indiana Governor’s Cup in 1951 and had the third-place trophy to prove it. He and I discussed at length as to why the race tended to be overlooked in the Madison Regatta’s own official history.

I concluded that this was because the race was originally set up for classes 7-Litre and above. When only two boats of that description (GALE II and IT’S A WONDER) showed up in 1951, the race committee “stepped up” several boats from the smaller classes to fill out the field.

The point was made, however, that should one of the little boats be fortunate enough to win, its owner could not count this victory as one of the three “legs” on the trophy for the retirement of same. (As per the Governor’s Cup rules, an owner could retire the trophy by winning it three times.)

This ultimately proved to be the case, when Marion Cooper’s 225 Class HORNET emerged as the winner of the race in question, which consisted of a single heat of 15 miles on a 3-mile course.

In other words, had Cooper continued as an owner in Governor’s Cup competition with a larger class of boat and with the intention of retiring the trophy and had he again been victorious, his 1951 accomplishment would not have applied.

The local committee tended to perpetuate the list of those past winners whose owners had a chance of retiring the trophy. As a result, the 1951 race became lost in the sands of time.

I published my findings on the first Indiana Governor’s Cup in 1972. That initial report was loudly denounced by some, including URC Executive Secretary Phil Cole who had been the race announcer at Madison in 1951. Phil tried to tell me that the race was unsanctioned by the APBA and thereby invalid.

This charge is totally false as contradictions to it can be found in THE MADISON COURIER, the Madison Regatta official program, the APBA PROPELLER, and a letter to George Davis from race chairman Birl Hill.

And just because boats smaller than 7-Litre were allowed to compete in no way invalidates the final result. “Stepping up” is a common procedure and fully in accordance with APBA rules. (The same thing happened at Seattle that same year when only SLO-MO-SHUN IV and SLO-MO-SHUN V showed up to contest the Seafair Trophy--a race that was run a week after the Gold Cup, when all of the out-of-town Unlimiteds had gone home.)

In all fairness to those with fading memories, it must be conceded that the schedule on Saturday at the 1951 Madison Regatta for stock and utility outboards was indeed without benefit of sanction. But the inboard races run on Sunday, which included the Indiana Governor’s Cup, had the full blessing of the American Power Boat Association.

A lot of people didn’t agree with my findings, but I received enthusiastic support from Paul Steinhardt, John Knoebel, and past-Madison Regatta President Bob Snelling. Bob had for years advocated that the 1951 race be recognized. But his arguments had fallen on deaf ears.

One of my first acts as APBA Unlimited Historian was to proclaim HORNET’s 1951 victory as genuine and to restore Marion Cooper to his rightful place on the honor roll of past-winners of the Indiana Governor’s Cup.

This marked the first time that I had researched and successfully challenged a so-called historical fact, where the “what is” did not equal the “what ought to be.” It felt good to have finally set the record straight on this matter. In so doing, I knew that I had found my true calling.

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