Speedboat Kings :
Johnson Saves The Teddy Bears 
[1932 Harmsworth Trophy]
The 1932 race for the Trophy on Lake St. Clair was run at seven o'clock in the morning. The officials-Otto Barthel, of the Yachtsmen's Association of America, holding the American vote, and Harry B. Greening, of Hamilton, Ontario, holding the two English votes-agreed on the change. They felt that the water would be smoother at sunrise than at sundown.
It wasn't. At least not for the first heat.
Always in the background of my memory will hang the dim tapestry of those miserable hours before the race started. When I stepped out into that dark morning at five o'clock, I felt sure there would be no race, no spectators, nothing. A pitiless cold rain was driving down and I knew that the course would be a sea of whitecaps. I felt like I was a lone figure of the night, standing thin and gaunt and cold against the black sky.
I stepped into my car and drove down to the lake. I can't quite tell the feeling that swept through me at what I saw-probably a thousand stabbing, bobbing, disappearing lights out across the lake moving in an almost endless string toward a common goal, the Harmsworth course.
I knew what that meant. And I was amazed. They were the boats-canoes, rowboats, dingeys, cockleshells, sailboats, cruisers, yachts, runabouts-loaded to the gunwales with part of the race-mad crowds that throng to see these races every year. From a black wind-broken sky the rains came. And through that dim night the drenched pageant moved across an angry sea like a specter.
I couldn't help but fear for the safety of those people. They'd never get out into the higher waters of the lake without a wholesale tragedy. And we, the officials, the members of the race committee, were responsible. We had changed the course to Lake St. Clair to avoid possible disaster. And here before my eyes were one thousand crowded, storm-tossed boats converging upon the Harmsworth course from all directions. This possibly was disaster of a more wholesale kind than we had ever dreamed. There wasn't anything we could do. Not now. And yet I couldn't help feel a tiny catch in the throat. It was ghastly testimony of the hold these races have on the popular mind. I was a little proud that I had had a small hand in staging this giant spectacle.
I don't know how it was done. It seems miraculous now that not one fatality occurred. But when dawn broke and the curtain went up for the first act of this Harmsworth drama in 1932 they were there1,000 boats anchored around the rim of the course, waiting. Many of them were so loaded down with their human cargoes that the dangerous deep water was even now licking over the gunwales.
Not only that. When the first faint streaks of light began to pick their way out of the East, we saw the shoreline banked solid with humanity for miles. They had driven, walked, pedaled and skated their way to the race through all that cold September rain. And they were there now, a black, solid mass, drenched to the skin, but waiting for the starting gun of another Harmsworth battle.
What sporting event in the world had ever seized on a people's fancy like this?
That is one of the reasons I feel justified in writing this book. It is a small but important part of neglected American history.
The news chronicle of the race went something like this, briefly:
Kaye Don, driving his Miss England III, beat Gar Wood across the line at the starting gun and stayed ahead for four laps. Wood was apparently loafing in the rough mater of Lake St. Clair, saving his boat. Then, near the end of the fourth lap, Wood started to give his boat the power, feeling that he could catch Don almost at will.
When the Miss America X was about two hundred yards at Don's stern, the English driver became surprised and excited, jammed down on the throttle to his starboard engine, loosened the throttle connection and loped the remaining distance on one engine. Wood Passed Don at the beginning o f the fifth and last lap and stayed ahead, winning the first heat.
The newspapers quoted Wood as follows; "We ran the race just as me had planned it."
In the second heat Wood led Don almost the entire distance, giving the invader the privilege o f crossing the starting line ahead of him, but passing Don before they reached the first northerly buoy and staying in the lead, keeping the famous Trophy in America.
That's the story that went out to the world. That's the picture that a half-million spectators saw, lining the lake shore and packed on 1,000 boats anchored near the course.
But was it that simple? Let's see.
After the first heat of the race, the crowds went home mumbling that it was just about impossible for anyone to beat Wood. They had come down to the race to see him get beaten at last. But now they said his "luck" was uncanny.
But let's go backstage again, into Wood's boatwell at Algonac and at Grayhaven, and see if Wood's luck had anything to do with the outcome of the race. This is where these races are won. Not on the race course, but in Wood's boatwell. And in the Packard plant.
Nine days before the race Wood and Johnson had the TENTH out on the St. Clair River for a test run. Remember now, the 6,400 horsepower of the engines had never been "let out." Johnson knew that some morning when dawn spread her glass film over the water of the river, Wood would give him the sign. And they'd have the throttles out, all the way. Morning after morning Johnson was waiting for that sign. He knew-and hoped-it would come. It always does.
And then it came-nine days before the race. Johnson didn't hesitate. He was glad. These men would ride a cannon ball if they could hold on.
But this time the engines couldn't take it. The connecting rods snapped under the strain of all that supercharging. All four engines had to be ripped out of that boat and taken to the Packard plantnine days before the race. New sturdier rods had to be made for each of the four engines and to do that the engines had to be all torn apart. (The broken connecting rods had been originally designed to "take" only seven hundred horsepower. In the test run they had taken 1,600 horsepower. That's why they snapped when Johnson pulled open the throttles.)
Right here men of lesser mettle would have surrendered the Trophy to the English without a battle. It didn't look like they could design and manufacture new connecting rods, practically rebuild four giant engines, hook the two banks together again in tandem, and set them back into the hull in nine short days.
But they did. For six days and six nights Wood's men and the Packard engineers worked. For six days and six nights they didn't get home for one meal. For six days and six nights they caught what snatches of sleep they could, beside the engines. They wouldn't quit. On the third day before the race the engines were ready. They were rushed back to Algonac. It was a full two-days' job to set them back into the hull.
For nine solid days these men had worked-Wood and Johnson among them. No one but Wood's men and the Packard men knew about this. Few, very few, know it to this day. This isn't luck. It's work.
Johnson and Vance Smith drove the Miss America X from Algonac across Lake St. Clair to Wood's Grayhaven home at Detroit the day before the race. Vance Smith was at the wheel; Johnson, as usual, at the throttles. A strong east wind was cutting diagonally across the bow of the boat, sifting the strong benzol gases into the cockpit on Johnson's side. About half-way across the lake Vance turned to look at Johnson. His head and one arm were leaning over the side as though he were studying something there in the water. His left hand was clutching the throttle.
Vance was anxious. Was there something wrong with the boat? Why didn't Johnson move? Vance tapped his riding mate on the shoulder. Still Johnson didn't move. He was out, cold-unconscious from the sharp benzol gases that the diagonal wind was sweeping to Johnson's side of the cockpit.
Vance turned the TENTH sharply to the left, headed the bow straight into the wind so that Johnson would get the clean fresh air on his side of the boat. Then Vance stood up in that bounding boat and worked on Johnson. He thought the man was dead. His body was limp, nerveless, senseless.
For ten minutes Vance worked on his man out there alone in the middle of Lake St. Clair. Not another boat was in sight. And he worked fast. "Come on, kid," he kept saying. "They can't do without you in this race. Orlin. Orlin, for hell's sake, man. Come on."
Vance couldn't hear his own words over the roar of the engines. But he could see Johnson breathing. He knew the man was living. And he was getting the air now. The gases were sweeping the other way.
It was ten minutes before Johnson spoke. He said, "What happened, Vance? Where are we?" Then, he smiled. "Guess I was out, eh?"
That wasn't the only trouble these men had. The TENTH was out of line. They knew it before they started across the lake. When the TENTH is planing at the correct angle there isn't a more beautiful sight in all racing or in all speedboating. It's like a true, swift arrow sprung from a strong, accurate bow, aiming straight for its mark. Hardly a ripple leaves the lower edge of the transom; just two very thin lines of wake, as thin and as sharp as a surgeon's blade. That's because the boat rides very high on her step.
But now, they knew the boat was out of line. It was giving them a severe jolting across the lake. When they arrived at Grayhaven, Wood and his men were waiting. They went to work stripping off the metal plane on the forward step and inserting wedges. In other words they were tipping the adjustable forward plane with wedges to obtain the correct planing angle. They inserted a few wedges, fastened on the metal plane again, and took the boat out on the river. They did that almost a dozen times, with no results.
Wood and Johnson went into the race with an unbalanced boat, on a course trimmed with whitecaps, in a driving rain. It was all they could do. The course was too rough for racing boats. But the English wanted to race, so the race was run.
Don led Wood over the starting line while Johnson was busy repairing a broken gas pipe. They were twenty seconds late going across. Already Don had a commanding lead.
And Don kept the lead for four laps. Wood and Johnson could not gain. They didn't dare open up the throttles in a boat that was out of line. The high seas would break it in two. Besides, the rain, even at sixty miles an hour, hit them full in the face like bullets.
Don was far, far in the lead. The crowd, the judges, everyone was ready to concede the race to Don.
But something happened. Maybe it was this "luck" that has been riding in Wood's boats with his two Teddy Bears. Maybe it wasn't. I don't know. At any rate, Don was on the fourth lap between the two southerly buoys, about two miles in the lead.
Then it happened. The TENTH straightened out. The boat had suddenly, almost miraculously, sprung itself into line. It was planing beautifully. The jarring of the high seas had sprung her. Wood and Johnson were completely surprised.
They started after Don. But something else happened. Just as Johnson pulled open the throttles, Wood was flooded with benzol. The fuel was spraying from a broken overflow benzol pipe beside Wood.
When Johnson saw what was happening, he cut down the throttle again. They couldn't go on like that. Johnson jumped up and made what carburetor adjustments he could in that bounding boat. Then he sat down again, holding the throttles down to about fifty miles an hour.
And all this time the rain was pelting down like lead bullets. And Wood's face and hands were burning like acid from the spraying benzol.
Johnson didn't know what to do. He couldn't pull open the throttles. If he did, the engines were in danger of backfiring. And Wood would have been a human torch, because the backfire pop-off valves were only six inches from Wood's knees. Wood knew that too. He knew that if those engines ever backfired-as they often do when Johnson pulled open the throttles-he'd burn up like paper. In fact, the whole boat would have been blown to pieces.
But there was Don, gaining on them every second.
When Wood thought of Don, he acted. He gave Johnson the signal for open throttle. "To hell with the benzol," he told himself. "Give her the gun, Orlin. Let's go."
When Johnson got the signal he thought Wood had gone mad. But he didn't hesitate. He pulled open the throttles. The Miss America X spurted ahead like a rocket. Just as the boat leaped, Johnson caught the figure of the two Teddy Bears flying past. The wire holding them to the engines had snapped.
Johnson made a dive for them and just got his fingers on the flying wire in time. The Teddy Bears were saved. Wood said after the race, "I could have kissed Johnson when he saved those Teddy Bears."
The Miss America X was closing in on Don, swiftly. Don, meanwhile, didn't know what was happening. When he turned around suddenly and saw Wood only two hundred yards behind him, he was surprised.
Don controls his fuel with his right foot. By pressing forward he feeds fuel to both engines. By shifting his foot to the right or to the left he cuts down either the port or the starboard engine. Don jammed his foot down on the throttle to the starboard engine. The throttle control jerked loose, the port engine froze.
Dick Garner, one of Don's mechanics, went aft and tried to hold the throttle connection. He was badly burned and had to be taken to the hospital immediately after the race.
Don's port engine was crippled. But he tried gamely to keep ahead of Wood. Every time he'd press his foot control the engine stacks would belch smoke and fire. Don's world record-holder was limping badly, crippled, out of the race.
Wood and Johnson passed Don at the beginning of the fifth and last lap. They stayed there, in the lead. At the closing gun they were over two miles ahead.
After Don crossed the finish line he immediately headed the bow of his boat toward the Henry B. Joy boatwell, and started to call wildly for a tow. His boat was sinking. The stern was dangerously low in the water.
Don and his mechanics stood upright on the bow of the boat ready to jump into the lake, while Don kept calling for pails to bail his boat out. The Miss England III was docked, bailed out and strung up in her cradle. Don and his men took off their riding clothes, dressed, and walked out.
About four o'clock the next morning the mechanics came back and started to "touch up" the engines.
Meanwhile, I had gone over to Wood's home at Grayhaven, where Wood had taken his Miss America X. Wood and his men were working in his yard that night under strong floodlights. His boat was strewn all over the yard. His engines were all apart and the men were measuring the pistons, the rings, everything. A few of the men were rebuilding the broken transom. It had ripped off in the race. They were building it sturdier this time.
All this is routine with Wood and his men. All Saturday night, Sunday and Sunday night they worked, checking every inch of those engines and the hull. Wood was making an aluminum visor to protect his and Johnson's face from the rain and the wind. Johnson was working on the carburetors; Lisee was checking over every possible strain in the hull; John Brewer, Frank Kalvelage, Joseph Schaeffer, Vance Smith and M. J. Steele, of Packard, were there, working fast. And Earl Twining, too, of the Champion Spark Plug Company.
The second race was won before Wood put his Miss America X into the water again. It was won in Wood's yard under floodlights.
What happened in the second heat of the race?
Don didn't get around one lap of the course. The broken piston tore through the cylinder wall with a deafening roar. The boat was disabled and towed off the lake. Wood and Johnson went on to finish the heat and keep the Trophy.
A half-million Americans and Canadians were stunned. Here was an English boat that had traveled one hundred and twenty miles an hour in England during the summer. It was the finest piece of engineering ever produced by British minds. And yet, there it was, limping off the course after traveling scarcely seven miles before these amazed throngs. They still said, these people, that Wood was lucky. But they didn't know the hell Wood and his men had gone through for the past twelve days.
Besides, Wood's Miss America X had never been run over the measured mile against time. No one knew the speed of the boatexcept Wood and Johnson. The race did not tell the real story because they had averaged only seventy-eight miles an hour.
But when the story that Wood was "lucky" clung to the popular mind, Wood decided to attack the mile record of Miss England III -119.81 miles an hour.
The measured mile was laid out on the St. Clair River, just north of Algonac. On September 20, 1932, Wood and Johnson took the new boat across at 124.86 miles an hour, the average for two runs, one upstream and one downstream. That was a new official world record.
One remarkable fact about the mile run stands out in bold relief. The Miss America X went faster with the current than against it. That is unusual. Johnson says that when the Miss Americas are running against the current and against the wind there is less wetted surface. The air rushes under the bow and lifts the boat higher on her step. The boat, therefore, with less wetted surface, travels faster, even though it is running against the wind and current.
But on the day of the record run the results were just the reverse. The boat did the nautical mile downstream, with the current and with the wind, in 33.05 seconds; while the run upstream was slower 33.32 seconds.
I said to Johnson, "How do you account for that?"
He answered, "I don't know. It never happened to us before."
After the record, Wood took Paul Gallico, famous sports writer, for a ride in the Miss America X. When they came back to the boatwell, Wood turned to Gallico and said, "Well, Paul, how was the ride?"
Gallico swept the riding helmet from his head and answered, nervously, "It's like riding to Mars on the tail of a comet."
(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.16)
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