History of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing
APBA Unlimited Historian
Power boats of one description or another have existed since as
early as 1887. That was the year when Gottlieb Daimler hitched a
crude petrol motor to the rear of a rowboat and putt-putted a
few miles per hour on the River Seine in Paris.
first power boat race of any importance was the 1903 British
International ("Harmsworth") Trophy at Queenstown, Ireland. An
English boat defeated a French vessel at a speed of around 19
land miles per hour.
Gold Cup race, first contested in 1904, was America's answer to
the highly touted Harmsworth Trophy. Carl Riotte's STANDARD,
powered by a 6-cylinder 110-horsepower Standard motor, won
history's first Gold Cup at a speed of 23 miles per hour. A
century later, the fabled Gold Cup remains power boating's most
coveted prize--the Crown Jewel of Unlimited hydroplane racing.
The step on Miss Detroit III
The First Step
until around 1910, boats built for racing subscribed to the only
known theory of water speed, plowing through rather than
skimming over the surface. All of that changed with the
appearance of the first "step" hydroplanes.
"fast-steppers" skimmed over the surface of the water with a
notch or "step" located approximately amidships on the underside
of the hull. The "step" allowed the boat to plane over the water
with much less friction than was possible with the old-style
displacement craft. The "step" hydros were often hard to handle,
and they rode like bucking broncos. But they were fast. The
"steppers" could run in some of the roughest water
imaginable--the ocean, large rivers, or large lakes.
Garfield Arthur Wood and Christopher Columbus Smith probably did
more to refine the "step" hydroplane concept than anyone else.
Wood and Smith collaborated on MISS DETROIT III in 1917. They
were the first to try a lightweight aircraft engine adapted for
marine use in a race boat. The engine in question was a
1650-cubc-inch V-4 Curtiss power plant. MISS DETROIT III
achieved victory in the 1917 Gold Cup on the Mississippi River
at Minneapolis. Three years later, Wood's MISS AMERICA I set a
long-standing Gold Cup heat record of 70.412 miles per hour on a
Detroit III - a replica built by Mike Michaud
From 1910 to 1936, the "step" hydroplane reigned supreme as the
undisputed king of big-time power boat racing. This was
especially true in the area of Harmsworth competition. The
British International ("Harmsworth") Trophy was the bronze
plaque traditionally emblematic of the speedboat championship of
the world. The Harmsworth was technically a race between nations
rather than individual boats. During the years between the World
Wars, the two countries that usually battled for possession of
the Harmsworth Trophy were the United States and Great Britain. MISS AMERICA I journeyed to England in 1920 and won the race
hands down, powered by a pair of Smith-Liberty engines. Wood
found that by adding a second engine--and by lengthening the
hull accordingly--he had the fastest boat in the world.
the time MISS AMERICA X came along in 1932, Wood had upped the
ante to four giant engines. These were V-12 Packards, rated at
7600 horsepower, installed two-by-two in a mahogany hull, 38
feet in length. MISS AMERICA X had great difficulty in
cornering, but she was the first to average over 124 mph on a
mile straightaway course. The Gar Wood team was never beaten in
Harmsworth competition and retired undefeated after 1933. Their
strongest challenger was MISS ENGLAND II in 1931. With Kaye Don
driving, MISS ENGLAND II lost the race to MISS AMERICA VIII but
posted the fastest lap ever turned on a closed course at 93
miles per hour, a record that would stand unchallenged in
Unlimited hydroplane racing until 1949.
Miss America VII -
a replica built by Geoffrey Magnuson
late-1930s witnessed the birth of a radically different concept
in competitive power boat designs--the three-point hydroplane,
which would forever alter the course of boat racing history.
first successful three-pointers were the product of the famed
Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey. The father and son
design team of Adolph and Arno Apel introduced a craft named
MISS MANTEO II at the 1936 President's Cup Regatta in
Washington, D.C. A 225 Cubic Inch Class competitor, MISS MANTEO
II dominated the 225 Class action at Washington and posted
speeds that were embarrassingly close to those turned by the
larger and more powerful Gold Cup style hydros.
What the Apels did with MISS MANTEO II was to take the "step,"
split it in two, and put them on the opposite sides of the hull.
These pontoon-like running surfaces were called sponsons. This
greatly increased the footprint of the boat. MISS MANTEO II was
wider and less prone to tipping over than a "step" hydroplane.
It's A Wonder
- original hull restored by
More importantly, from the standpoint of speed, a three-point
hydroplane trapped air in the "tunnel" between the sponsons and
had a great deal more "lift" than had been possible with the
"step" boats. Even though the propeller was completely submerged
in those early days, there was still a lot less friction with
the water. And the three-pointer could also corner a lot better
and faster. The
decade of the 1940s dawned with the Apels' three-point concept
solidly ensconced. More and more owners of Unlimited Class
equipment invested in hulls with sponsons on them. The
time-honored "step" hydroplane would soon go the way of the
biplane and the Model-T Ford. The
three-point revolution of the late 1930s effectively split
big-time power boating into two separate categories. The
three-pointers metamorphosed into the prop-riding Thunderboats
of today, while the "fast-steppers" evolved into the deep-vee
Offshore racers that rose to prominence in the 1950s.
To increase speed, five steps/shingles were
recently added to Bill John's
Gar Wood Speedster -
the three-pointers had one handicap, it was there inability to
perform in rough ocean-like chop. They were too lightly
constructed and too delicately balanced. Truth to tell, the
sponson boats could do their spectacular thing only on small
protected bodies of water.
The Modern Era
Unlimited hydroplane racing entered its modern era after World
War II. This was when the huge supply of converted aircraft and
other types of power sources developed for the war effort became
generally available. The first boat to make use of a
contemporary engine was a big wild-riding yellow craft named
MISS GOLDEN GATE III, owned and driven by Dan Arena and equipped
by a substantially stock Allison V-1710 motor, which had been
salvaged from a World War II fighter airplane.
Arena failed to finish the 1946 Gold Cup race on the Detroit
River but clearly labeled his rig as the boat of the future.
MISS GOLDEN GATE III bettered the existing competition lap
record of 72 miles per hour no less than seven times and set a
new standard of over 77 miles per hour.
the next four decades, the V-12 Allison and Rolls Royce Merlin
were the engines of choice in Unlimited hydroplane racing. (An
Allison engine is still being used today by the Ed Cooper U-3
Racing Team, which won the 2003 APBA Gold Cup at Detroit with
Mitch Evans driving.)
Unlimited--or Thunderboat--Class quickly established itself as
the "show" category of power boating in North America, drawing
more spectators than any other racing division. The first true
national circuit for the Unlimiteds came into being in 1947.
MISS PEPS V, owned by the Dossin brothers of Detroit and driven
by Danny Foster, emerged as the first National High Point
Champion with victories in three out of four races entered with
an Allison engine.
one famous name is to be singled out above all others as having
exerted the greatest influence on post-World War II Unlimited
hydroplane racing, that name is unquestionably Tudor Owen
("Ted") Jones from Seattle, Wash. A boat racer since 1927, Ted
designed and drove SLO-MO-SHUN IV, the first propriding
Thunderboat to run successfully. He piloted the IV to victory in
all three heats of the 1950 Gold Cup on the Detroit River.
This was in the days when the Gold Cup race location was
determined by the yacht club of the winning boat. Jones and the
SLO-MO-SHUN IV represented the Seattle Yacht Club and thus were
allowed to defend the cup on home waters in 1951. This was the
start of a hydroplane tradition on Seattle's Lake Washington
that continues to this day.
Between 1950 and 1966, Jones-designed Unlimiteds won 75 major
races, including fourteen Gold Cups, and claimed an
unprecedented ten consecutive National High Point Championships.
In addition to SLO-MO, Ted designed SHANTY I, MAVERICK, MISS
THRIFTWAY, MISS BARDAHL, MISS WAHOO, HAWAII KAI III, and others.
world didn't know much about Tudor Owen Jones prior to June 26,
1950. But Ted took care of that in his own inimitable way. That
was when SLO-MO IV set a mile straightaway record of 160.323
miles per hour on Lake Washington near Sand Point, which raised
the former standard by nearly 19 miles per hour. With owner Stan
Sayres driving and Jones along side as riding mechanic, the IV
had toppled Sir Malcolm Campbell's world mark of 141.740,
established in England in 1939 with BLUEBIRD K4. The era of the
three-point suspension design of hydroplane had most assuredly
Measuring 28-1/2 feet in length with an Allison engine, SLO-MO-SHUN
IV was not the first Unlimited hydroplane to "propride" on a
semi-submerged propeller. But she was the first to reap
championship results in the application of the concept. The days
when a Thunderboat could win by plowing through the water with a
fully submerged propeller were numbered. For the next twenty
years, boats had to pretty much use a SLO-MO-type of design to
Ted's equally renowned son, Ron Jones, Sr., has continued the
family's hydroplane designing tradition. Ron pioneered the
modern cabover (forward-cockpit) hull concept in the 1960s and
was the first to install an F-16 fighter plane safety canopy on
an Unlimited hydroplane in 1986. Ron designed Gold Cup-winning
hulls for the MISS BUDWEISER, the PAY & PAK, and the MISS U.S.
racing teams. He also produced the first Lycoming
turbine-powered craft (Pam Clapp's U-95) to start in a heat of
Unlimited competition in 1974.
The Professional Era
Unlimited sport entered its professional era in the 1960s. Under
the leadership of Commissioner J. Lee Schoenith, prize money
became the rule rather than the exception. From 1963 onward, the
Gold Cup race location was determined by the city with the
highest financial bid rather than the yacht club of the winning
Also in 1963, MISS U.S. owner George Simon won a landmark tax
ruling from the IRS, which upheld Simons contention that
Unlimited racing is a valid business expense (within specified
guidelines) and thereby tax deductible. Simon demonstrated that
his volume of business had increased substantially during the
years that he was involved in racing and with no other change in
normal business promotion.
This opened the door to major corporate involvement in Unlimited
racing. In 1964, Bernie Little introduced the first in his long
line of MISS BUDWEISER hydroplanes, sponsored by Anheuser-Busch.
The MISS BUDWEISER team went on to win 141 races between 1966
and 2004 with drivers Bill Brow, Bill Sterett, Dean Chenoweth,
Howie Benns, Mickey Remund, Jim Kropfeld, Tom D'Eath, Scott
Pierce, Chip Hanauer, and Dave Villwock, among others.
Another successful commercially sponsored team was Bill Muncey's
ATLAS VAN LINES, which won 24 out of 34 races entered between
1976 and 1979 with Jim Lucero as crew chief.
Jet Turbine Power
biggest news in the last twenty years has been the dominance of
jet turbine power. Since 1984, the vast majority of races have
been won by boats that used the Lycoming T-55 L-7C engine,
originally intended for use in the Vietnam era Chinook
helicopter. Lap speeds have increased from the 140 to the 170
mile an hour range.
first truly successful turbine hydroplane was the Jim
Lucero/Dixon Smith-designed ATLAS VAN LINES/MILLER AMERICAN,
which won a record four consecutive Gold Cup races between 1984
and 1987 with Chip Hanauer as driver.
Unlimited Class is water racing's greatest show. Its history
contains many, many highlights, too numerous to be retold here.
It is impossible to describe the thrill that comes from seeing a
fleet of giant boats contending for position, throwing
impressive roostertails, and vibrating with truly awesome speed
as they compete for the world's most sought-after motor boat
Special thanks to Fred Farley !!!
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