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The Saga of "Wild Bill" Cantrell

By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian

Time: Saturday night, August 9, 1980. Place: Jack McGovern’s Music Hall in downtown Seattle. Occasion: the gala Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame Banquet, honoring the great names of racing’s past and present, on the eve of Seafair’s annual run of the roostertails on Lake Washington.

As the Hall of Fame members--old and new--were individually introduced, the capacity crowd cheered approvingly. By far the most enthusiastic round of applause was reserved for popular "Wild Bill" Cantrell, the 1949 Gold Cup champion, who received a standing ovation.

To an entire generation of race fans, "Wild Bill" was best known for his 22-year association with the Gale Enterprises boats of Joe and Lee Schoenith from Detroit. In later years, Cantrell moved to Madison, Indiana, where he campaigned for a number of years the former MY GYPSY hydroplane with fellow Madisonian Graham Heath. And until his death in 1996, Cantrell served as a consultant for the COOPER’S EXPRESS team, owned by Ed Cooper, Sr., and Ed Cooper, Jr., of Madison and Evansville, Indiana.

Born in West Point, Kentucky, in 1908, he spent much of his early life in nearby Louisville. Not much is known of Bill’s childhood, except that his family experienced dire poverty. But this didn’t prevent him from rising above his humble circumstances to achieve the pinnacle of fame in his chosen field of power boat competition.

Pinpointing the exact origin of Bill’s long career in boat racing is difficult even with Cantrell’s help. He began competing sometime around 1924. As the story goes, he was christened "Wild Bill" when an Outboard he was racing went out of control on the Ohio River and crashed through anchor chains and moored spectator vessels.

In the early days, Cantrell divided his time between cars and boats. As a Depression Era dirt track competitor, he at one point pushed up all of the Hoosier Racing Association’s records for half-mile tracks. At an automobile race in Evansville, Indiana, in 1941, he suffered a broken neck, an injury that later precluded him from military service during World War II.

In 1948 and 1949, Bill drove in the Indianapolis 500. He completed 161 laps in 1948 with the FAGEOL/TWIN COACH SPECIAL and finished 95 laps in 1949 with the KENNEDY TANK SPECIAL. Cantrell appreciated being invited to compete at Indy and enjoyed going fast there, but the boats were always his first love.

One of his earliest boat racing accomplishments occurred when he won the 1927 Ohio Valley Championship for Class B Outboards. He eased into the Inboard tanks as a riding mechanic on such famous contenders as the PAL--a Liberty-powered 725 Cubic Inch Class craft--and the original LOUISVILLE KID--a 510 Cubic Inch Class rig with a Curtiss OX-5 power plant.

“They put a jacket and a helmet on me and I’d get in there and pump air for the fuel to get up to the carburetor. One day, one of the guys didn’t show up and I got a chance to ride in the GEE WHIZ, a little 151 Cubic Inch boat, in Springfield, Illinois. Then I got a chance to drive it, and that was it.”

When not racing, Cantrell worked a “regular job” as a marine supply dealer in the Louisville area. He also picked up a few dollars on the side as a professional wrestler. A lifelong bachelor, “Wild Bill” enjoyed the company of the fair sex but was truly “married” to the boats.

He carved an enviable reputation for himself on the old Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association circuit during the 1930s. His fellow racers of that era included the likes of Marion Cooper, Soupy Ciconett, Jim Vetter, Cam Fischer, George Davis, Warnie Anderson, and Bill Nall.

Cantrell won many trophies in boats of the 725 Class, including BIG SHOT and a series of hulls named WHY WORRY. The 725s utilized the 1914 vintage Hispano-Suiza ("Hisso") aircraft engine for power. The 725 Class was the MVPBA counterpart of the American Power Boat Association’s Gold Cup Class.

The Ventnor-designed WHY WORRY of 1939 was originally a 225 Class hull, beefed up to handle a V-8 Hisso. The boat would prove to be the most significant in the long history of 725 Class racing.

About the only part of WHY WORRY that wasn't homebuilt was the bare hull itself. In certain places, baling wire was used in the craft. The gears dated back to 1925, and a second-hand automobile wheel with wire cable constituted the steering mechanism.

As the story goes, the engine cost Cantrell $175. When he discovered that the type of pistons that he needed would cost $700, he did the work himself at a cost of $3.50 per piston.

The three-point WHY WORRY was the successor to a successful namesake, which had finished third in the 725 Class races at Detroit in 1937 and 1938 with Cantrell driving. A Hisso-powered single-step hydroplane, the first WHY WORRY had won the top prize at the 1936 Madison Regatta and also the 1937 Calvert Trophy in Louisville.

The old WHY WORRY was capable of straightaway speeds of up to 61 miles per hour.

For years, the 725s were demeaned as the "Haywire Class" in comparison to the more prestigious Gold Cup Class rigs. In winning the 725 Class race, run in conjunction with the 1939 Detroit Gold Cup, WHY WORRY made a stunning impression. She won all three heats decisively and posted an overall average of 62.186.

WHY WORRY's performance in the 725 Class race could not be overlooked. Clearly, the under-financed craft from Louisville had speed credentials that warranted her inclusion in the Gold Cup main event. This had never happened before.

Indeed, WHY WORRY's average speed in Heat Three was 66.325. This compared favorably to ALAGI's 66.080 mark in the 1938 Gold Cup, and NOTRE DAME's 68.645 in the 1937 race. No longer could the 725s be rejected out of hand as the "Haywire Class."

Cantrell was ripe for a shot at the big time. The MVPBA’s most celebrated personality, "Wild Bill" would become a Gold Cup legend.

On the eve of the 1939 race, the 725 Class contestants consolidated their equipment and entered their two best boats: Cantrell's WHY WORRY and Marion Cooper's MERCURY.

Six boats--each with a crew of two--made a start in Heat One. Vibrating with incredible speed, Cantrell and riding mechanic Jim Vetter led the field over the starting line. WHY WORRY sprinted around the first turn and powered down the backstretch, followed by NOTRE DAME, SO-LONG, MY SIN, MISS CANADA III, and MERCURY. For the first time in Gold Cup history, a three-pointer was controlling the race. Also, for the first time, a low-budget 725 Class rig, representing the underdog Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association, was holding its own against the pride of the American Power Boat Association.

WHY WORRY finished the first lap in first place with Dan Arena and NOTRE DAME challenging. Then the craft from Louisville leaped out of the water with such force that all of the blades sheared off of the propeller. WHY WORRY slowed to a halt. Guy Simmons and MY SIN eventually worked their way up through the field and took the checkered flag.

Equipped with a new propeller, borrowed from one of the other 725s, WHY WORRY was pronounced ready for another try in Heat Two. Once again, Cantrell and Vetter led the other starters over the line. MY SIN and NOTRE DAME set out in hot pursuit, while MERCURY and SO-LONG trailed far behind. And again, propeller trouble proved WHY WORRY's undoing and forced the front-running Cantrell to withdraw after the completion of lap two. MY SIN then took over the lead and went on to win the heat and the race.

It is interesting to compare WHY WORRY's fastest lap of the day to those posted by some of the other boats in the race. WHY WORRY did 66.894, NOTRE DAME 66.225, MY SIN 70.153, and MISS CANADA III 70.012. Even in defeat, Cantrell's unheralded "Haywire" hydro could run with the best of them.

In 1941 at Cincinnati, Cantrell pushed the third WHY WORRY--another Ventnor three-pointer--to a never to be exceeded mile straightaway record for unsupercharged Gold Cup Class boats with an average of 99.884 miles per hour--a mark embarrassingly close to the supercharged Gold Cup Class record of 100.987 set by Dan Arena in millionaire Herb Mendelson’s NOTRE DAME.

After World War II, the Gold Cup Class and 725 Class categories gave way to the Unlimited Class when the huge supply of converted aircraft and other types of engines generated by the war became available.

"Wild Bill’s" first ride in an Unlimited occurred in 1948 when he was hired to drive the famous original MY SWEETIE, owned by Ed Gregory and Ed Schoenherr of Detroit. Co-owner Gregory had handled the boat in its debut race--the Ford Memorial Regatta--but quickly concluded that an experienced professional driver was needed.

The Allison-powered MY SWEETIE was designed by John Hacker to be a single step hydroplane but with the propeller amidships and a buffer step forward and a tunnel in the afterplane. The craft utilized a forged steel propeller--the first of its kind.

All three of the Unlimited races which Cantrell entered in 1948 were disappointments. The brand new MY SWEETIE was fast but failed to score in either the Gold Cup or the Silver Cup, and could place no higher than sixth in the President’s Cup.

Then came the magical year of 1949 in which "Wild Bill" would make his claim to fame by winning every race that he entered except the Harmsworth Trophy. In a 1971 interview with this writer, Cantrell was asked to identify the one race above all others in his career that stood out as the most memorable. He quickly acknowledged it to be the 1949 APBA Gold Cup on the Detroit River.

Ten boats qualified for the event that was scheduled for July 2 of that year. MY SWEETIE was the fastest with a 92.402 average for three laps of the 2-1/2-mile course. Cantrell’s two most formidable rivals were Stan Dollar in SKIP-A-LONG--the 1949 Harmsworth winner--and Dan Arena in SUCH CRUST I--the 1948 Season High Point champion.

Rounding out the field were Morlan Visel in HURRICANE IV, Guy Lombardo in TEMPO VI, Chuck Thompson in the original MISS PEPSI, Albin Fallon in the defending Gold Cup champion MISS GREAT LAKES, Norman Lauterbach in HOT METAL, Cameron Peck in ASTRAEA II, and Lou Fageol in the 7-Litre Class SO-LONG.

Also in the field was 20-year-old Bill Muncey, who would go on to win eight Gold Cups between 1956 and 1979. Muncey failed to qualify at the minimum speed of 65 miles per hour with his 225 Cubic Inch Class MI-SON. (This was in the days when any inboard hydroplane over 10 feet in length could theoretically participate in the Gold Cup.)

Arena and SUCH CRUST roared to victory in the opening stanza and set a Gold Cup heat record of 74.809 in the process, followed closely by SKIP-A-LONG with MY SWEETIE trailing in third. The SWEETIE had an early lead until Cantrell’s foot accelerator broke on lap two, which slowed the boat almost to a halt for a few seconds. Bill reached under the dashboard, grabbed the fuel control rod, and managed to finish ahead of fourth-place TEMPO VI by steering with one hand and feeding the proper amounts of fuel with the other.

In the Second Heat, Cantrell shattered Arena’s mark with a clocking of 76.964. SKIP-A-LONG took second once again, turning 75.134, with the CRUST third at 74.146.

Heading into the finale, Cantrell and Arena were tied with 625 points apiece with "Wild Bill" in line for 400 bonus points for the fastest heat providing he finished all three 30-mile heats. Stan Dollar trailed with 600 heat points but possessed an elapsed time edge on both the SWEETIE and the CRUST and thereby had the inside track on the 400 bonus points for the entry that turned the fastest 90-mile race.

With all of the chips riding on the final 30-mile moment of truth, Cantrell proved his mettle in championship fashion. He broke his newly established heat record with a mark of 78.645, followed by SKIP-A-LONG at 77.227 and SUCH CRUST at 76.529.

Bill Cantrell had won the Gold Cup--his most cherished goal after 25 years of boat racing. “Wild Bill” had also set a Gold Cup competition lap record at the commendable speed of 85.731.

Cantrell’s long-time friend and fellow boat racer George Davis recalled this incident that occurred at the 1949 Gold Cup when Bill brought MY SWEETIE back to the dock to receive the trophy. “When he came in by the judges’ stand, Bill got out of the cockpit and kissed the deck of that boat! Then he pulled his old dollar watch out to see what time it was” to note his moment of triumph.

In the years to come, Cantrell would see action in boats such as HORNET, the original SUCH CRUST IV, SUCH CRUST V, GALE IV, the three GALE Vs, TEMPO VII, MISS SMIRNOFF, and the first GALE’S ROOSTERTAIL. He would win races such as the President’s Cup, Silver Cup, Steel Cup, Detroit Memorial, Indiana Governor’s Cup, Imperial Gold Cup, Red Bank Gold Cup, National Sweepstakes, Unlimited Sweepstakes, Calvert Trophy, APBA Unlimited Hydroplane Trophy, St.Clair International Trophy, and Maple Leaf Trophy.

Shortly after the Gold Cup victory, Horace Dodge, Jr., of the Dodge automotive family, entered the ownership picture of MY SWEETIE. Bill continued as driver and went on to win the 1949 National High Point Championship. (He won a second High Point Driver crown in 1963 with GALE V.)

Cantrell stayed with Dodge for three seasons before going to work for Jack Schafer’s SUCH CRUST team during 1952 and 1953.

At the 1952 Seattle Gold Cup with SUCH CRUST IV, “Wild Bill” came perilously close to meeting his Maker. After a third-place finish in Heat One, the boat caught fire and exploded in the south turn during Heat Two. A Coast Guard patrolman pulled an unconscious Cantrell off of the flaming CRUST. The boat burned to the water line. And Bill spent 46 days recuperating in a Seattle hospital.

Undaunted, Cantrell was back in the saddle in 1953 and had one of his best years. With Bill in SUCH CRUST V and his good friend Chuck Thompson in SUCH CRUST III, the Schafer team finished second and third behind GALE II in the National Points Championship. It was a very competitive season with each of the five High Point races being won by a different boat. Cantrell’s highlight was a victory on the Ohio River in the Imperial Gold Cup at New Martinsville, West Virginia.

Schafer, Cantrell, and Thompson unfortunately were unable to build upon their solid 1953 performance. The sponsoring Schafer Bakeries experienced financial difficulties and went into receivership. The SUCH CRUST racing team had to close its doors for a couple of years, and Bill Cantrell was out of a job. But not for long.

The moment Lee Schoenith learned that Cantrell was unemployed, he hired him on the spot. From 1954 to 1975, Bill drew his paycheck from Gale Enterprises of Detroit.

One of the most successful two-boat teams in Unlimited history consisted of Cantrell in GALE IV and Schoenith in GALE V during the 1954 and 1955 seasons. Between the two of them, Bill and Lee won eight races. GALE V was National High Point Champion both years and GALE IV finished runner-up in 1954. Cantrell’s victories included the 1954 President’s Cup, the 1954 Indiana Governor’s Cup, and the 1955 Detroit Memorial.

At the 1954 Seattle Gold Cup, Bill was jockeying for a starting position prior to Heat Two when GALE IV experienced a rudder problem. The boat went out of control, ran up on the shore, and came to rest in a rose garden! No one suffered injury, but Cantrell was mighty embarrassed. The incident has since achieved mythic stature in Seattle hydroplane lore, along with Bill’s classic comment: “That’s the first time I ever walked home from a boat race!”

Cantrell was always a favorite with the kids. Even at the height of the Seattle-Detroit rivalry, “Wild Bill” (who drove a Detroit boat) could do no wrong in the eyes of his youthful Seattle fans--and he had many.

At the 1961 Seattle race, Cantrell spotted one particular youngster, age 7, standing outside the hot pit fence. The boy was gazing longingly at the GALE V. But he lacked the required pit pass that would have allowed him to get up close to the boat. Bill reached over the fence, picked the kid up, and gave him a personalized pit tour.

Years later, Cantrell met that same youngster again. He was Chip Hanauer, the boat racing superstar, who treasured the memory of that once-in-a-lifetime pit tour, conducted by his hero.

When the definitive volume on 1950s Unlimited hydroplane racing is eventually written, mention must necessarily be made of the exciting 1958 Silver Cup on the Detroit River. For fans of Bill Cantrell, the race contained a tidal wave of drama. Although Cantrell and GALE V finished second to Bill Stead and MAVERICK on that memorable day, many hydroplane historians regard the race--and especially the winner-take-all Final Heat--as “Wild Bill’s” finest hour as a race driver.

For ten heart-stopping laps around that squash-shaped 3-mile course, Stead and Cantrell ran head-to-head and gave it everything they had. These two past-masters of the sport really showed what Unlimited racing is all about. At the finish line, it was MAVERICK the winner at 105.481 and GALE V second at 105.229. The fastest lap of the contest was by Cantrell at 109.290.

If one were to choose a video of one particular heat to put in a time capsule that shows 1950s Unlimited action at its best, the Final Heat of the 1958 Silver Cup would be an eloquent testimonial.

Bill’s last victory was the 1964 President’s Cup in Washington, D.C., with MISS SMIRNOFF. The race was one of the finest that Cantrell ever drove. He had to defeat one of the most competitive fields in Unlimited hydroplane history, which included Buddy Byers in MISS MADISON, Chuck Thompson in TAHOE MISS, Ron Musson in MISS BARDAHL, Don Wilson in MISS U.S. 5, and Rex Manchester in NOTRE DAME.

The year 1966 was a season of death for Unlimited hydroplane racing. Four of the sport’s finest--Musson, Manchester, Wilson, and Thompson--were stricken from the list of the living in races for the President’s Cup at Washington and the Gold Cup at Detroit.

When Cantrell suffered burned hands in the 1966 Suncoast Cup at Tampa, Florida, his friend Thompson replaced him at the wheel of SMIRNOFF. Chuck won his first two Gold Cup heats and was heavily favored in Heat Three, when SMIRNOFF took a bad bounce and disintegrated moments after the start in the run down to the first turn. The boat was destroyed and Thompson never regained consciousness.

The initial reaction to Chuck’s death was panic. The Detroit race committee announced that the remaining Gold Cup heats would be canceled and the race declared “No Contest.” The sport’s critics pontificated that Chuck Thompson had died for a brand name, that the entire schedule of 1966 races should be abandoned, and that anyone who participated in motor sports of any description was a lunatic. But in time, cooler heads prevailed.

In the pits at Detroit, Bill Cantrell spoke movingly and forcefully that now was not the time to quit--even after four deaths. “We’re now at a pinnacle where the sport is going to go under or up.” Cantrell reminded his comrades that Unlimited racing, together with Indianapolis racing, was a professional endeavour. And professionals needed to act accordingly.

The Unlimited people took Cantrell's words to heart. The remaining Gold Cup heats were re-scheduled for the following day with Mira Slovak emerging as the winner with Bill Harrah’s TAHOE MISS. The ensuing races on the 1966 calendar went on as planned with a full field of participating boats.

The sport had suffered a gut-wrenching blow. But it fired back every bit as strong as before with plenty of competitive action for the fans.

An injury accident at Madison, Indiana, in 1965 with MISS SMIRNOFF essentially ended Bill’s driving career. An illegally moving MISS LAPEER left a side-ways wake at the start of Heat Two. The SMIRNOFF fell into the “hole” left by the LAPEER, and Cantrell was pitched into the water.

Photographer Bob Carver was taking pictures from inside the race course in a patrol boat that day when “Wild Bill” encountered the wake. In Carver’s words, “I could hear him cussing in that distinctive Kentucky drawl of his as he sailed right over me.”

Cantrell suffered eight cracked ribs in the mishap and was paralyzed on the left side for about three months.

Over the next three years, Bill drove in a few more races and managed a second-place in the 1966 Tri-Cities Atomic Cup with SMIRNOFF. But physically he was never quite the same.

Cantrell’s last appearance in competition was at the 1968 Diamond Cup in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at age 60 as a relief driver for Jerry Schoenith in GALE’S ROOSTERTAIL. “When I came up for the start, I wasn’t afraid to go fast, but I didn’t want to go fast.”

When Bill returned to the dock after a second-place finish in Heat 2-A, he announced to a radio interviewer, “This is my last race.” It was the end of the line for one of the sport’s most colorful campaigners after a 44-year racing career.

Following his retirement from competition, Cantrell went on to win back as a shore mechanic and boat builder some of the very same trophies that he originally won as a chauffeur. But always the 1949 performance in the APBA Gold Cup with MY SWEETIE would remain evergreen in his memory. For it was there that he truly achieved the “big time” in the water sport of kings.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Bill constructed many Unlimited hulls for Gale Enterprises and also for other teams. These included the 1964 MISS SMIRNOFF, the 1965 GALE’S ROOSTERTAIL, the 1966 NY GYPSY, the 1968 bat-winged SMIRNOFF, the 1971 ATLAS VAN LINES, and the 1972 MISS MADISON.

In 1968, the MY GYPSY team hired a top drag boat racer--Tommy “Tucker” Fults--as their driver. Fults was lacking in experience around a closed course. So MY GYPSY crew chief Graham Heath arranged for Cantrell to give Tommy some driving lessons on the Detroit River.

According to Graham, “The first day, Bill more or less led him around. It was the same the next day with Cantrell showing him the ropes. Then, on the third day, Tommy got the hang of it real fast and was outrunning Bill. He was doing some serious racing with Cantrell. Bill was a veteran and knew all the angles. And he taught those angles to Tommy."

Cantrell was frequently called upon to give advice to various Unlimited teams, including MISS MADISON. When COOPER’S EXPRESS won the 1989 Tri-Cities Columbia Cup, co-owner Ed Cooper, Jr., at the awards banquet, reserved his highest praise for his two mentors, Bill Cantrell and Graham Heath. “They taught me everything I know. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

For those fans that never had an opportunity to watch Cantrell doing what he loved best, they have but to tune in to the movie MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION on late-night television. The motion picture, filmed in 1953, shows the HURRICANE IV Unlimited hydroplane throwing a spectacular roostertail of spray. That’s “Wild Bill” doubling for the star, Rock Hudson, in the first five minutes of the show.

In 1977, “Wild Bill” retired to southern Indiana, where he spent his last nineteen years. A working man all his life, Cantrell became partners with his friend Heath in the C & H Machine Shop on Wilson Avenue in Madison. In 1985, he was selected Grand Marshal of the Madison Regatta Parade.

Bill would occasionally grumble at the increasing commercialism of Unlimited racing and lament the disappearance of the amateur tradition. “It’s no longer a sport. It’s a business,” he observed in an interview with reporter David Taylor.

Although long absent from the competitive arena, the racing world did not forget “Wild Bill” Cantrell. The UNLIMITEDS DETROIT fan club from the Motor City voted him and Bill Muncey as the club’s two all-time favorite drivers.

In 1992, Cantrell received one of his highest honors when he was elected to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Michigan. Other inductees into that prestigious hall include Muncey (1989), Gar Wood (1990), Dean Chenoweth (1991), Ron Musson (1993), Bernie Little (1994), Chip Hanauer (1995), Betty Cook (1996), Bob Nordskog (1997), Carl Kiekhaefer (1998), Bill Seebold (1999), and Mira Slovak (2001).

At the 1996 Madison Regatta, six months following his death, the Governor’s Cup race course was officially named the Bill Cantrell Memorial Race Course. His ashes were scattered on the waters where Cantrell had competed as far back as 1929, when he handled a vintage outboard hydroplane named FALLS CITY BABY.

Bill had won the major trophy at Madison in 1934 and 1935 with BIG SHOT, in 1936 with WHY WORRY, and in 1954 with GALE IV.

APBA President Steve David presided over the ceremony, which included a moment of silence in honor of “Wild Bill”--a fitting tribute to one of racing’s most popular and most respected champions.

NOTE: The author is indebted to David Greene and David Taylor, both of the APBA Unlimited Historical Committee, who contributed to this article.

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