Fastest Man Afloat
To the close-knit speedboat fraternity of Detroit, the stumpy, graying figure of one Stanley St. Clair Sayres is like something out of a recurrent bad dream. Four years ago Mr. Sayres, an obscure automobile salesman from Seattle, Wash., came to Detroit with a strange contraption which, on the record, would go faster on water than anything ever built. He stayed for a couple of weeks, causing consternation. When he departed he took with him two world's championships which for years were practically the private property of Detroit's wealthy racing class-and he also forced upon all and sundry who want to win them back again an annual pilgrimage to the far Northwest as humiliating as it has proved futile.
A fortnight ago the frustrated Detroiters suffered a double indignity. In their fifth year of travail they finally succeeded in beating a Sayres boat. But with victory came no success. Another Sayres creation roared over the Gold Cup course on Seattle's Lake Washington to score one of his more convincing wins. The Seattle designer's most modern entry set a new speed record for the event with an average of 99.108 mph and a new lap record of 104.773 mph. Its point total of 2,000 was exactly 368 more than the combined totals of all other boats in the race.
The boats that have done so much to change speedboat racing are extraordinary, triangular-shaped craft known as Slo-Mo-Shun IV and Slo-Mo-Shun V. The latter, this year's winner, is a refinement of the first. But it was Slo-Mo-Shun IV that stirred a revolution when it was introduced in the summer of 1950. With it, Sayres won the two highest prizes in North American racing, the Gold Cup and the Harmsworth Trophy, and sent speedboat enthusiasts scurrying to drawing boards in search of new models. Since then the Harmsworth has not been challenged, but the Gold Cup, an annual three-heat 90-Miler over a course varying between 3 and 3¾ miles, has been on five occasions, all with the same result.
The obscure history of these peculiar craft, which have beaten the best that wealth and racing know-how have to offer, goes back, in fits and starts, for more than three decades. In fact, there might never have been a Slo-Mo if there hadn't been an accident to an outboard hydroplane on Lake McKay in Oregon in 1926. The shop mechanic who owned that anonymous craft turned it over and swam ashore in deep disgust. "I'm through with speedboat racing," he announced to anyone who would listen. "They go too damn fast."
Stan Sayres happened to be on the lake shore on that day, and he acquired the hydroplane forthwith. Motorboat racing was a new field for him; heretofore he'd been strictly an automobile man. A World War I aircraft machinegun mechanic who ran an auto agency in Pendleton, Ore., he had done some road-racing and dirt-track competition in which he showed not only an aptitude for winning but also for putting together unusual combinations of cars. Once, for example, he beat a Stutz Bearcat in a 15-mile race with a Maxwell-Ford-Franklin hybrid, averaging better than 54 mph on a half-mile dirt track. That was scorching in those days, and seemed about as fast as Sayres would ever want to go but it was nothing to what he was to do in racing boats.
He drove the outboard for five years, and in the process of living with it and racing it he stepped it up to 80 mph. Then he moved to Seattle and went boatless for the next six years while making a broken-down auto agency solvent. It wasn't until 1937 that he got a boat again-this time a secondhand inboard racer with a 225-cubic inch engine and a three-point hull that would do better than 91 mph. He got so enthusiastic about its speed that Mrs. Sayres, wearying of the endless dinner-table talks on the subject, suggested the obvious name: Slow Motion. Sayres streamlined that down to Slo-Mo-Shun, and so the first of a proud succession was christened.
Slo-Mo, as it later came be called, was fun to drive but unexciting, for lack of competition. She burned and sank in 1941, and Slo-Mo II came into being, a boat of similar lines and power. By 1946, Sayres had learned enough about engines and hull designs to put some of his own ideas into Slo-Mo III, which had a souped-up auto engine displacing 266 cubic inches. Slo-Mo III was hot-she could do 96 mph-but she could never do better than second place in the local closed-course competitions because she couldn't accelerate fast enough to make her speed count.
This, of course, was strictly bush-league racing, and Sayres was a bush-league driver who had never even won an important race. When he decided to go after the big-time trophies in Detroit he caused so little stir it is doubtful if the powerboat brotherhood even knew lie was interested. They had dominated the Gold Cup and the Harmsworth 'Trophy for so many years that outside entrants were not of any great importance. Automobile manufacturers' sons and wealthy executives for the most part, they could feel with reason that they had the ultrahigh-speed class sewed up.
The atmosphere of indifference was fine by Sayres, who wanted nothing more than peace and quiet as he concentrated his thoughts and energy on Slo-Mo-Shun IV. Into this boat Sayres put the fruit of all his years of racing and thinking about hulls and engines. She was radically different-flat, triangular, designed to rise and ride on two tiny sponsons which, with the propeller and a bit of the bottom of her main strut, were the only parts to come in contact with the water. For power she was given an Allison aircraft engine with 1,500 horses-almost enough to make her get up and fly. But through 1948 sand 1949, while Slo-Mo IV was abuilding, the main question still was whether she would swim.
Anchor Jensen, a Seattle boatbuilder who was even less well known in racing circles than Stan Sayres, did the actual construction. A crew of unpaid, unknown but enthusiastic experts helped to install the engine. They didn't know it then, but they were starting on a project which was to involve 30,000 unpaid man-hours of labor in the next four years.
In early 1950, Slo-Mo IV was tried out for the first time on Lake Washington. To the lakeside residents, she was a spectacular but unloved sight a roaring skate of a craft that spouted a 30-foot roosterlike tail of water in its wake and scared the daylights out of rowboaters and sailing crews as it zipped past. Sayres's popularity was not increased; neither was his fame in racing circles.
One two-mile run changed all that. On June 26, 1950, Sayres called for official checkers, put on a crash helmet and calmly ran down a one-mile course and back again at 160.323 mph, a new world's record for anything afloat.
News of the record had barely penetrated the Detroit boating strongholds when Sayres showed up in person with his outlandish craft and his amateur crew. On July 22, Slo-Mo IV resolved whatever doubts the previously complacent Detroiters might have had. She did a 30-mile heat in the Gold Cup at 80.892 mph, a new record, and took the race itself at 78.216, also a new mark. Even the six-knot current, ground swells and floating bottles of the Detroit River didn't faze her unbelievable speed and acceleration. All that other owners saw of Ted Jones, the driver, was the back of his head, for 90 miles.
A week later, after testing and checking the boat, Sayres handed a driver's helmet to Lou Fageol and sat back while Fageol took Slo-Mo IV through the 80 miles of the Harmsworth race. Total average speed: 95.903 mph, a record.
In Detroit, there were grim faces.
The Gold Cup and the Harmsworth Trophy had been taken about as far away as they could possibly go within the limits of the continental U.S.A. And it was obvious that it was going to take some doing to get them back again. The trend at Detroit that winter was toward rebuilding-mostly along the lines of Slo-Mo IV.
As for Stan Sayres, he found his life changed radically. When he returned to Seattle with the Gold Cup and the Harmsworth Trophy tucked under his arms, the city promptly fell on his neck. Seattle was trying hard to build up a summer tourist attraction under the name of "Seattle Seafair," and Stanley Sayres the Speedboat King was just what the promotion needed. The Gold Cup was a made-to-order centerpiece for a summer-long show, and Sayres himself rapidly became an institution. Before he knew it, he found himself making speeches, displaying Slo-Mos at fundraising rallies and most surprising of all receiving the benefits of a newspaper campaign designed to keep the Slo-Mos at the top of the U.S. speedboat class.
The logic of this latter undertaking was a simple one:
To keep Seattle on the racing map, Seattle had to keep the Gold Cup, and Sayres had to go on turning out Slo-Mos. Thus it happened that Seattle undertook to contribute a goodly share of the expenses involved in manufacturing ultra-fast boats $27,500 in 1952, a large share of the $62,000 needed in 1953 and much of the $45,000 operating costs in 1954. Sayres himself had certain reservations about this. "I wonder," he took to musing, "what will happen if I ever lose a race!"
Meanwhile he went ahead and built Slo-Mo V, to be ready for the Detroiters' attempted comeback in 1951. For this, he planned to use a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, a piece of news which cheered Detroit. The Merlin had been tried before, but nobody had succeeded in getting it to work properly. In closed-course races, an engine has to be flexible enough to shift rapidly from full-throttle acceleration to sudden deceleration and back again, something not required of the airplanes for which the Merlin was built. But Sayres had studied the problem, and figured he knew a way out. It looked as though he did.
From the competition's viewpoint, 1951 was a worse year than the preceding one. Slo-Mo V, after a trial run in Pendleton, ran away in the Gold Cup, tearing around Lake Washington at 90.871 mph to beat the previous year's record.
But troubles soon began to plague Sayres's newest craft, and the 1952 cup race proved the value of a two-boat team, if nothing else. Slo-Mo V was leading the first heat when her cylinder block cracked. Slo-Mo IV also failed to finish when she lost her propeller. For a while the cup seemed to be on its way back to Detroit. The Slo-Mo crew, however, made a lightning switch of propellers between heats and had Slo-Mo IV ready when the next heats began. To the horrified chagrin of his competitors, Sayres's older boat proceeded to run away from the field in the last two heats and hold the trophy in Seattle.
So far, nobody had built a boat that could touch the Slo-Mos; but 1953 brought more trouble. Three days before the Gold Cup, Slo-Mo V whipped a broken propeller through her bottom, sending Lou Fageol out of the cockpit in record time while the crazily spinning shaft reached for the seat of his trousers. The boat was beached in time to save her from a total loss, but even round-the-clock work couldn't fix the $5,000 damage in time for the race. It was up to Slo-Mo IV again, and Joe Taggart and Lou Fageol brought her home once more at 92.571 mph for a third race record.
Meanwhile, Slo-Mo V continued to balk. In the Silver Cup at Detroit she developed trouble in an early lap and retired. During trials at Martinsville, W. Va. she blew up and seemed gone for good. Only in the President's Cup at Washington, D.C. did the boat show to any advantage. She stayed patched long enough to win that one.
But Stan Sayres is a stubborn man. He studied the Merlin some more and made some changes, and in 1954 he showed up with the same combination the Merlin in Slo-Mo V and the Allison in Slo-Mo IV. In this, his fifth year as the boss man of the fastest motorboats in the world, he faced his biggest challenge. By the time the year was well under way, more than a dozen boats were scheduled for the Gold Cup and every one of them looked almost exactly like a Slo-Mo. One Californian auto racer, in fact, announced his intention of getting the cup ,"even if I have to spend a million to do it." Sayres takes him seriously; the Californian has the million and Sayres doesn't.
With this kind of competition, Slo-Mos and racing now dominate Sayres's life completely. What started as a personal hobby, has now been publicly accepted by the entire city of Seattle. People there now speak of "our boats." This gives Stan Sayres a warm feeling of oneness with his community, but it has ended privacy for him and his family. From May to September the Sayres residence is a hotel, with anywhere from 10 to 20 extra mouths to feed at every meal in the racing weeks crew members, manufacturer's representatives, friends and even, now and then, complete strangers.
Once Madeleine Sayres asked her husband to introduce her to a man whom she had seen around for several days. Sayres didn't know him either. But to the guest it was simple. "I've always been interested in boats," he said, "and I just wanted to watch while you got ready for the race." Yes, he assured them, the food ,was fine, and he'd love to meet members of the family, any time.
The inevitable fringe of lunatics and gamblers also has put in its appearance. Calls demanding information "the real inside dope" became so frequent and insistent that Sayres had to resort to an unlisted phone. Night prowlers showed up so often that it became necessary to round up volunteers to patrol the grounds for weeks before a race. And the guest list swelled to the point where a catering organization lad to be brought in at race time.
Sometimes, but not often, there have been complaints from neighbors, but Sayres has grown relaxed about them. The only calls he has had recently were from an elderly lady who threatened to get the seagoing police if Sayres didn't stop ruining her bulkhead with his wake (an easy one, since a Slo-Mo at 100 mph leaves less wake than a rowboat) and from a minister who inquired if the Slo-Mos would be running on a certain Sunday afternoon: Expecting trouble, Sayres admitted that they probably would.
"Well, I just wondered," said the minister, "if you'd mind having one of them come in close to my house. I have some guests, and I'd like to be sure that they see them."
Not only the boats but the Sayreses' home has become a prime attraction for the curious. Their wide-windowed house is just an hour's pleasant cruise from most of Seattle's boat moorings, where several thousand boats tie up. So any sunny summer afternoon is likely to bring a procession around the point, with all heads turned toward the house and the Slo-Mo sheds. "If the water were any deeper," Sayres said recently, "I think they'd come right through the windows. It's a little embarrassing when you go for a drink of water in your undershirt and see three boatloads of people looking in."
These, however, are minor anxieties compared to the big irritation in Stan Sayres's life. He is now 57 years old, and out of 16 races or tries for records in the boats which he created he has driven in only four twice on exhibitions, twice on straightaway speed runs. The boss man wants to run a boat: himself, but his blood pressure, his family, his friends and his business associates just won't let him.
"All of them," he admits, "say the same thing: I can drive all I want in testing or even on speed runs, but not in races.
"Still, I could drive the Harmsworth if they have it this year. That's a longer course and the boats don't jam up the way they do in the Gold Cup. Maybe. . . ."
(Reprinted from Sports Illustrated, 1954)
History Home Page
This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010 .
Your comments and suggestions are appreciated. Email us at email@example.com
© Leslie Field, 2001