Speedboat Kings :
Gar Wood and the International Sweepstakes Races 1923-26
On Memorial Day in May, 1922, a group of sportsmen sat in the stadium of the Indianapolis Speedway, Indianapolis, Indiana, watching the gruelling 500-mile automobile race. Among them were Edsel Ford, Carl Fisher, Harry B. Greening, of Hamilton, Ont., Charles F. Chapman and Gar Wood.
W. D. "Eddie" Edenburn, in his famous starter's coat and the inevitable cigar funneling from the corner of his mouth, had just thrown down the red flag and the racing cars were on their way.
Wood saw that this race compressed the experiences of 100,000 miles of an ordinary automobile's life into a few hours. High speeds bring out weaknesses in metals and equipment surprisingly fast. Automobile races meant development of the automobile industry. Front wheel brakes; light, swiftly detachable wire wheels; streamlining-all these came from racing cars.
Before Sir Henry Segrave piloted his Golden Arrow across the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1929, the tire manufacturer had told him that he could build tires that would last Segrave only twenty-five seconds at open throttle-231 miles an hour.
These same tires would last 100,000 miles under ordinary driving conditions. When Segrave went two miles his tires were threadbare. The tire manufacturer had shrunk up the life span of automobile tires into the swift space of a few moments.
These things were in Wood's inventive mind as he sat there watching these racing devils roar down the stretch. Automobiles were developing far faster than boats. It was due to these road tests, to this crowding of power.
[Gar] Wood was thinking of something else, too-the Gold Cup Trophy, which is the blue ribbon of American speedboating. Wood had held the Trophy for five years, 1917 to 1921. Officials of the American Powerboat Association felt they had to do something about a condition that was ruining the sport-Wood's complete domination of American powerboating. Besides, they wanted the Trophy returned to New York.
They met in New York City during the winter of 1921-22, just a few months before the Indianapolis automobile race, and changed the rules. They limited the entries only to displacement boats over twenty-five feet long and powered with motors of not more than 625 cubic inch piston displacement.
In one bold stroke they had ruled out of competition Wood's unlimited hydroplanes. Engines of unlimited power, they said, were expensive. Not many men could buy them and keep up with the terrific pace Wood and the sons of Chris Smith had set. In five years they had stepped up the speed of these Gold Cup boats from fifty to eighty miles an hour.
The officials also claimed that hydroplanes could never be made practical for the public and with the coming of hydroplanes there had been a serious lack of development in displacement boats. A displacement boat rides through the water. There is a strong suction at the stern that keeps it balanced, safe. With hydroplanes this is not possible. Hydroplanes are racing boats only, built for speed. They ride on top of the water, eliminate the suction and drag at the stern, are faster.
So the officials changed the rules.
Gar Wood wasn't pleased with the change. It looked like they were trying to take the Gold Cup Trophy from him by making rules instead of making boats. "I'm being robbed," he said. The new rules cut down his speed. After a man has traveled eighty miles an hour a mere forty palls on him.
Charles F. Chapman, chairman of the race committee of the American Powerboat Association, had had a strong hand in changing the Gold Cup rules. He was sitting next to Gar Wood at the Indianapolis Speedway. Wood turned to him, said, "So you've thrown my anchors overboard, eh, Chappy?"
Chapman turned to look at Wood, "How's that, Gar?"
"You've changed the Gold Cup rule. How can anyone get speed out of a displacement boat and a peanut engine. Let's promote a long boat race in Detroit, an international sweepstakes with unlimited power. Something like this," he suggested, pointing to the automobile race. "We've got to develop engines, boats."
Chapman was agreeable. That conversation was the beginning of the Yachtsmen's Association of America, which is now  the official authority in America for all world speed records and international races, including the Harmsworth race.
This group of sportsmen came back to Detroit and with Edsel Ford, chairman, W. D. Edenburn, W. S. Gilbreath, Fred R. Still, William E. Metzger, A. I. McLeod and the author, drew up the rules. Wood was made our first commodore; Chapman became chairman of the race committee; the author [J. Lee Barrett] was appointed secretary.
But again the technical experts found it necessary to limit the horsepower of the competing boats so that the race would have a popular appeal. Again Wood's fastest boats were ruled out.
Before we could stage the race we needed purse money. Colonel Sidney D. Waldon and Thomas P. Henry, president of the American Automobile Association, headed our finance committee. Waldon, then vice president of the Packard Motor Car Company, went to Henry Ford.
Ford was interested. His son, Edsel, had been experimenting with some converted Liberty engines. Walden pointed to the Indianapolis automobile races as a laboratory of engine development. "We want the same thing in the marine field," he said. "We want to develop boat engines."
Waldon walked out of Ford's office that day with a check for $5,000. That was the beginning of our $25,000 purse of the International Sweepstakes.
The first race was held on the Detroit River in 1923.
It was obvious that none of these fast boats could possibly run 500 miles, the distance covered on the Indianapolis automobile track. So our race committee set the distance at 150 miles - fifty times around a three-mile lap. There were those of us who were skeptical. We didn't believe any high-speed boat could live for 150 miles. It was impossible. And some of us said so. But not the boat builders, the engine builders, the drivers or the mechanics. They were game, as always, and these men were the ones who took the punishment.
I asked Orlin Johnson one day what it feels like to ride in these fast boats.
"Well," he said, "some day take the springs and the tires off your automobile, take the car over to the nearest railroad track and put it across the ties at fifty miles an hour. That's what it feels like."
And these men, Johnson among them, were ready now to ride 150 miles in the race. No race in all history was a more severe test for men, engines and hulls. Fifteen boats competed for the purse; eight boats finished. That's the important thing-that eight American-built boats could possibly finish a 150-mile race at fifty miles an hour. But that's what happened.
Of the boats that did not finish, one, Edsel Ford's Greyhound, Jr., went 111 miles before the engine broke down; John Stroh's boat traveled 69 miles when the propeller twisted and broke off; the Curtis Nick-Nack, owned by H. Birge and George Hall, of Buffalo, covered 63 miles before their clutch broke; Col. Vincent's Miss Packard was driven 57 miles by Joseph Boyer; Webb Jay's boat went 27 miles; a boat owned by Walter Plummer, Jr., and one of Gar Wood's boats, the Bruin, were out on the first lap.
Gar Wood and his men built two boats for the race-the Teddy and the Bruin, named after Wood's two Teddy Bears. Mrs. Wood put one of the Teddy Bears in the Teddy; the other in the Bruin. It was the first and only time the mascot pair were ever broken up. The Teddy Bears were divorced.
The Bruin won the pole position in the qualifying trials held the day before the race. Phil Wood and James Galloway, driver and mechanic, were on the dock of the Detroit Yacht Club after the trials. Johnson, who was George Wood's mechanic in the Teddy, came up to them with some bad news. But before he could tell it Phil Wood turned to Johnson and said, "Guess we beat you this time, Johnson," meaning for the pole position.
Johnson said, "Yes, with only twenty gallons of gas in your boat. Why didn't you fill up the tanks like we did?" (George Wood and Johnson had run the trial with loaded gas tanks). Johnson hesitated a moment then he told Phil, "Anyway," he said, "you won't be in the race, neither of you."
Phil jumped up. "Why? Why not?"
Because your boat's full of water. Go take a look." And it was. The Bruin was at least half full of water. It was leaking badly-the day before the race.
Napoleon Lisee, Wood's hull designer, had built the Bruin of light veneer plywood, with 5/16" planking. That was a mistake. When Wood's men were working on the English Harmsworth challenger, Maple Leaf VII, two years before they noticed how this plywood which the English had used was broken up after the trial runs. It doesn't "give" under a jarring; it "breaks." They went back to Algonac after the 1921 race and tested this wood under the microscope. There were tiny fissures all through the wood.
But Lisee was game for trying it in a boat. It was lighter and his chief problem had always been to keep the weight down. So he started to build two Sweepstakes boats, the Teddy and the Bruin, with plywood veneer.
Johnson said to him, "Don't build my boat (meaning the Teddy) with that stuff. If you do, I won't ride in it."
So Lisee built the Teddy stronger, with 5/8" planking, while the Bruin was built of plywood with only 5/16" planking. But the Bruin was too light. The qualifying trials had proved it. It was leaking badly. Phil Wood and Galloway went to Gar Wood, told him.
Wood ordered his men to cover the bottom of the Bruin with copper sheeting. They towed the leaky Bruin to Grayhaven and riveted the entire bottom with copper. On the first lap of the race the copper sheeting tore off. The Bruin was disabled.
Meanwhile the Smiths had built three boats for Colonel J. G. Vincent, vice president of the Packard Motor Car Company-the Packard Chriscraft II, Packard Chriscraft III, and Miss Packard. Each of these boats was powered with Packard engines.
Col. Vincent, piloting the Packard Chriscraft II, led the way for thirty-two laps (almost 100 miles). Not one of the 400,000 spectators on the Detroit River could deny that it was a remarkable performance. For almost 100 miles it set the pace and stayed there. But suddenly a tiny pin came out of the governor on the distributor head. It put six cylinders out of order. The other six kept the boat going. But George Wood and Orlin Johnson passed them in the Teddy. Vincent finished the race with only half his engine power. And he finished second. His other boat finished third. Gar Wood's Teddy finished first.
But there was trouble. Just after the Teddy had taken the lead W. D. "Eddie" Edenburn, one of the judges, noticed that the Teddy was running without her hatches. The air pressure through the scoop on the bow had ripped off the hatches and had sent them bulleting past George Wood's head like a cannon ball.
It was a hard and fast rule of the Yachtsmen's Association of America-and they all understood it-that a boat had to complete the race with all its equipment in order to become eligible for the prize money. Gar Wood was standing there in the judges' nest, watching the race. Edenburn turned to him. "That boat can't go on without her hatches, Gar," he said. "We've got to flag her in."
At that moment the Teddy was only one-half mile in the lead. Edenburn ordered the flag-bearer to flag in the Teddy to pick up her hatches (the hatches had already been brought to the dock by one of Wood's men).
Wood heard Edenburn's order. He protested.
But Fred Still, chairman of the regatta committee, said to Wood, "It's against the rules. We've got to flag her in."
So Gar Wood himself took the flag and waved it to his men, signalling them to come in.
Johnson, holding out the throttles in the cockpit of the Teddy, saw the flag but he said later, "I wasn't going to stop that boat. I saw Mr. Wood waving the flag. Of course I did. But Mr. Wood isn't one of the judges and the judges are running the race, aren't they?"
So the Teddy kept going . . . 130 miles . . . 131 . . . 132. On the forty-fifth lap, two miles in the lead, George Wood and Johnson stopped the Teddy at the pit, picked up the hatches and roared away again. They kept the lead, winning the first prize in the first race for the International Sweepstakes.
Wood was jubilant over the victory of his boat. He stood on the dock of the Detroit Yacht Club holding up his two Teddy Bears, Teddy and Bruin, and saying, "I knew they'd win; I knew it."
Then the fireworks started. Someone walked up to Wood and said, "Did you know Vincent is going to protest the race?"
Wood stiffened. "He is? What for?" he asked.
Wood went up to Chris Smith, who was just then coming down the dock toward him with his daughter, Catherine. "Did you hear, Chris, that Vincent is going to protest?"
Chris didn't hesitate. "If he doesn't, he should," Wood's old friend told him. Chris was serious. He and his sons had built Vincent's boats.
Suddenly, Wood caught sight of Vincent climbing out of his boat at the end of the dock. He called to him. "Is that right, Colonel -you going to protest?"
"It's in the rules," Vincent called back. But I could see the twinkle in Vincent's eyes.
That night the annual post-regatta meeting was held in the dining room of the Detroit Yacht Club. The judges, the crews, the boat owners, the boat builders and the officials were all there. And they were all thinking of the same thing-Teddy's hatches. All, except Vincent. But the speakers carefully avoided any mention of them or of Vincent's "rumored" protest.
It came Wood's turn to talk. He stood up beside Colonel Vincent and faced the crowd. You could almost hear a watch tick in that dining room. An imperious steamer hooted out on the river. Wood introduced Orlin Johnson, mechanic of the Teddy; his brother, George Wood, driver of the winning boat; James Galloway, engineer of his plant; and his brother, Phil Wood, driver of the unlucky Bruin.
After they had stood up and taken their bow, Wood faced the crowd again. "These men," he said, "have raced the finest and fastest boats in history. In spite of what they had against them they turned out the winning boat. No one can take that from them-no one."
Some of the crowd, including Paul Strassburg, thought Wood had struck a match to a stick of dynamite. But the dynamite didn't explode. The powder was spray-wet. The race committee named Wood the winner. That settled things because the race committee is supreme, unless the decision is protested.
After the meeting Vincent explained his views to me. He said, "I could have filed a protest, Lee-from a practical standpoint. But, technically, Mr. Wood was right. The rule says that a competing boat must complete the race with all its equipment. Well, Mr. Wood lost his hatches on the thirty-fourth lap. But he recovered them again on the forty-fifth and finished."
But for one whole year Paul Strassburg remembered vividly the near-storm over Gar Wood's hatch covers. In the 1924 race he was driving Horace Dodge's Baby Delphine III. Only Gar Wood's Miss Detroit VII (the reconditioned Teddy), and L. Gordon Hammersley's Cigarette, Jr., were ahead of him, the former leading. Behind Strassburg, in fourth place, was R. C. Dahlinger, driving Edsel Ford's "999."
Suddenly, as Strassburg was taking the bridge turn on the thirteenth lap, one of his hatch covers blew off. Strassburg stopped his boat but had difficulty reaching the floating cover. Finally, in desperation, he jumped into the river, recovered the lost equipment and was hauled overboard by his mechanic.
Then his long memory began to act. He called to his mechanic, above the roar of the engines, "Lie on that hatch cover and keep it down till we get around to the pit."
The mechanic immediately clamped his body over the hatches while the Baby Delphine III raced on.
Meanwhile, however, Edsel Ford's "999" had passed them. Along the straightaway on the back stretch, just as it was passing Edsel Ford's home on the westward run, flames shot through the hatches of the "999." The boat was traveling close to sixty miles an hour. R. C. Dahlinger, pilot, and James Smith, mechanic, leaped into the river for their lives. Strassburg and the other drivers in the race swept wide of the burning craft. The mass of flames continued to float around in the boat lane. None of the rescue boats could approach near enough to tow it off the course.
Gar Wood's Miss Detroit VII won the race in a photo finish, beating Hammersley's Cigarette, Jr., by two seconds. It was the last time Wood won this Sweepstakes race, which was held for five consecutive years. It was abandoned chiefly because of the resumption of the Harmsworth races in 1928.
In the 1926 race, Victor Kliesrath was driving Carl Fisher's Rowdy. Bill Purdy was his mechanic. The race was run in a gale and a very high sea. At the end of the thirteenth lap Purdy was so seasick he had to be taken to the pit. At the pit Captain L. M. Woolson, Packard engine designer, jumped into the boat to handle the engines. Before long the legs of the crew were swollen blue from a jarring, bounding boat. But they kept going-in the lead, ahead of six other suicide boats.
Then, suddenly, after they had gone about fifty miles, Woolson noticed a plank torn out of the bottom of the Rowdy. They were traveling close to a mile a minute. But, strangely enough, no water was pouring into the boat. It was shooting across the bottom near their feet at a dizzy pace.
They could never run another hundred miles like that. And yet they didn't dare stop the boat. If they did it would sink. The water would pour in if they even slackened their pace. So they had to keep going.
Woolson kept the throttles out for one hundred miles in a mad sea, with a plank torn out of the boat. At the finish line Kliesrath, driving, the throttles still out, swung the boat toward shore. They dove through a maze of watercraft and broke it up on the sand. The crew needed first aid treatment immediately. They had to be lifted to their feet.
The Rowdy had cost Carl Fisher $30,000. But they won the race. To these men, that was the important thing.
(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.7)
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