Speedboat Kings :
Over 100 Miles an Hour [1931]

Ch.1 The World's Classic - The Harmsworth Trophy
Ch.2 The First Hydroplane - Smith, Ryan & Blackton 1911-12
Ch.3 The Dream Boat-Miss Detroit I - Miss Detroit I & II and the Gold Cups 1915-17
Ch.4 The Teddy Bears in Full Dress - Miss Detroit III and the 1918 Gold Cup
Ch.5 Gar Wood Wins The Harmsworth [1920]
Ch.6 Sheldon Clark, Gar Wood and the 1921 Harmsworth Race
Ch.7 150-Mile Race - Gar Wood and the International Sweepstakes Races 1923-26
Ch.8 The French Challenge - 1926 Harmsworth Trophy
Ch.9 Miss America VI Cracks Up - Barbara Carstairs and the 1928 Harmsworth Trophy Race
Ch.10 Marion Barbara Carstairs - The 1929 and 1930 Harmsworth Races
Ch.11 Segrave Is Killed [1930]
Ch.12 Over 100 Miles an Hour [1931]
Ch.13 Kaye Don - [1931 Harmsworth Trophy Race, Pt.1]
Ch.14 Sinking of Miss England II [1931] - [1931 Harmsworth Trophy Pt.2 & 1932 Water Speed Record Attempt]
Ch.15 Miss America X - 8 Tons of Dynamite [1932]
Ch.16 Johnson Saves The Teddy Bears [1932 Harmsworth Trophy]
Ch.17 Hubert Scott-Paine
Ch.18 Sir Malcolm Campbell [1939]

It looked like a bad spot for Wood. He had his Miss America IX. That was his best boat powered with two 1,060 horsepower engines that turned a three-bladed propeller 3,600 revolutions a minute. They were the fastest engines in America.

The English had 4,000 horsepower turning a two-bladed propeller 12,000 revolutions a minute.

Wood needed more power, more speed. What was the answer?

Wood again had the answer in his brain. Superchargers. That was it. Superchargers that would compress the gas, give his engines quicker explosion, whirl his propellers seven hundred more revolutions a minute.

Wood got in touch with Louis Schwitzer, president of the Schwitzer-Cummins Company, Indianapolis, Indiana, and told him he wanted four superchargers, two for each of his Packard engines.

The superchargers were shipped to the Packard plant in Detroit. So were the Packard engines in Miss America IX. Wood toyed with these superchargers for weeks until they were ready to be placed on the engines. He increased each engine from 1,060 horsepower to 1,400 horsepower. (These engines were first built to develop only 770 horsepower.)

With that done, Wood started on the hull. He now had 2,000 horsepower. He needed a longer hull to take the power. So Wood increased the overall length of his boat-above the waterline only using the same hull. Remember that. It's important in the light of subsequent events.

He shipped the boat to Florida for an attack on the world record -98.76 miles per hour set by Segrave.

Indian River was to be the scene of Wood's triumph. But he had to tear down those engines twice on the banks of the river and build them up again before he guided his boat to the new record.

Finally, he was ready on March 20, 1931. The official timers and judges were there-Charles F. Chapman, chairman of the race committee of the American Powerboat Association, to sanction the American record, and C. W. Chase, Jr., of Miami Beach, representing the Yachtsmen's Association of America, to sanction the world record.

Up and down the river they went for the final spurt. A floating bottle, a stick of wood, anything could smash through that boat at that speed and tear it to pieces.

One mile at open throttle. The engine poured out clouds of black smoke. At 2700 revolutions the carburetor flooded, the needle valve chattered. They took the boat in. Wood and Johnson made adjustments, took it out on the river again.

This time it meant a new world record-102.256 miles per hour.

Thus Gar Wood was the first man in the world to average over 100 miles an hour in a boat.

In the speed trials Wood made two important discoveries: First, that above ninety miles an hour his Miss America IX (thirty feet long), rode on only three or four square feet of water surface.

The second discovery was more important than that. It reversed all previous scientific theory. The old theory had been that resistance increases as the square of the velocity. Wood made the startling discovery that this was wrong; that it was unscientific. In fact, Wood found that its opposite - resistance decreases as seed increases -was true.

Wood had turned the old theory upside down.

In 1910, the experts had said that there was a limit to speed on water.

Now, in 1931, Wood learned that, since resistance decreased as speed increased, there was no limit to speed on water. That's why Wood started talking 150-mile-an-hour boats. When he first mentioned it the world thought that the vibration of his boats was affecting his judgment. But Wood knows-from the theories he works out at high speeds.

But Wood wasn't satisfied with his boat. He knew it had more stomach than that.

Word came to him a few days later that Kaye Don had officially driven his Miss England II to another new world record of 103.49 miles per hour at Buenos Aires, Argentina. And then, two months later, the young Briton took his record-holder to the classic shores of Lake Garda, Italy, and in the splendid setting of that beautiful Larian lake dashed over the water at 110.223 miles per hour.

That was on July 9, 1931.

The Harmsworth race was to be held the first week in September.

Wood shipped his boat to Algonac, Michigan, to get ready. He had made almost as much speed with 2,800 horsepower as Kaye Don had made with 4,000 horsepower. His boat was 2000 pounds lighter than the English boat.

The first thing his men did after coming back from Miami was to put on a heavier bow rudder. "We've got more weight aft because of the superchargers," Wood said. "We'll need more up ahead."

In Miami, for the mile trials, the weight of the bow rudder was not so important as now. It was just a straightaway dash, no turns. They had used a smaller rudder. But for the hairpin turns of the Harmsworth course on the Detroit River he needed balance to be safe, to keep the boat from tipping or skidding at 100 miles an hour.

So the men installed a larger bow rudder.

"Now," Wood said, "leave this boat alone. She's ready. If we tamper with her something might happen."

The boat was cradled. A few days before the race Wood and Johnson took it out on the St. Clair River at Algonac. It was out of balance. It hopped all over the river. They couldn't hold it true to the surface.

Not knowing what the trouble was they took the boat in, moved the engines back several inches, took it out again. There was no change.

These men were at their wits' end. The boat had planed at Miami. Why didn't it plane now? They were desperate, frantic. The race was just two or three days away. They had to be ready.

They added one and one-half inches to the stern. They made other changes with no results. They even shaved off some of the forward planking. Then-they chopped off the stern addition, working day and night. That didn't help. Finally they put the engines back into their original place, several inches ahead.

Still, the boat bucked and kangarooed.

Then Nap Lisee thought of that bow rudder they had put on several months before, the larger rudder. "Let's take it off and put the smaller one on," he said.

They did. When that was finished they took the boat out. Wood's men stood on the dock watching, their hearts in their mouth. They had done what they could, working feverishly against time. The only thing left was to tear down the boat and build it up again. They'd done that before too, many times. They didn't care about that. But now there wasn't time. The boat would have to stand.

Before it was out on the river fifteen seconds these men knew. It planed beautifully, the bow lay flat to the water. Wood and Johnson, in the cockpit, even tried to make her jerk and buck. But they couldn't. It slid along like an arrow-straight, even. That larger bow rudder had thrown the boat off balance. They were glad, these men. They had worked like galley slaves. But their work showed at last. The boat was ready.

They had another day to work on Wood's other boat, Miss America VIII, tuning up the engines, reconditioning the hull, bracing it to make it sturdy. And it's a good thing they did. Wood needed that boat, as events proved.

Wood's two boats were at Detroit the day before the race, Friday, Sept. 3, 1931. That was time enough. These men just needed a few practice spins, to find the buoys, to feel the course, to practice the turns and make last minute adjustments. But on Saturday, the day of the race, the river was too rough for one-hundred-mile-an hour boats. The officials postponed the first heat until Monday, September 6. (No Harmsworth races are run on Sunday.)

That was good for Wood. He could use those two extra days, getting ready.

Wood and Johnson took the Miss America IX around the course on Sunday. As they took the westerly buoy and were started up the back stretch the port engine backfired. A burst of flame shot above the hull. The flooring was on fire. Johnson acted fast. He grabbed the fire extinguisher, put out the flames. Miss America IX was towed to Grayhaven, Wood's home above the easterly buoys of the course.

They found that the aluminum manifold casing on one of the port side superchargers had cracked. The defective casing had caused the port engine to backfire.

Things looked pretty black for Wood. He needed a new manifold casing. It was Sunday. The Packard plant was closed. Wood turned to M. J. Steele, Packard engineer, who had charge of these engines for Packard. Wood didn't need to tell Steele. He knew. Steele took the cracked casing, jumped into his car and raced to the plant. "We'll try, Gar," he said. "We'll try our darndest."

And he did. He called in his draftsmen and his mechanics. The casing had to be made completely-from the blueprints right down the line. The Packard men worked the remainder of Sunday and Sunday night, and Monday. A new steel casing was built and put on the superchargers Monday, the day of the first heat.

Wood now was ready. He and Orlin Johnson in Miss America IX; George Wood and Vance Smith guiding Miss America VIII.

Kaye Don, too, was ready. And Don's mechanics, Dick Garner and Roy Platford.

It was England vs. America, Kaye Don vs. Gar Wood, Rolls-Royce against Packard.

Death ships aiming straight for the starting line. The flag . . . the ball . . . the gun . . . across the line at 100 miles an hour.

The real drama of that race is found behind the backdrop.

Let's go backstage and see what happened . . .

(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.12)


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Leslie Field, 2000