Vintage Race Boat Shop

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G-88  IT'S A WONDER

 

1930's Ventnor 725 Class Hydroplane

Owner/Driver - Jeff Magnuson

First - an introduction by Bill John

 

Fred Farley is the APBA Unlimited Historian, and is a prolific writer of articles about the colorful characters and events of unlimited hydroplane racing.  Fred recently published a story about George Davis, who owned and drove a hydro called "It's a Wonder" which is now owned and driven by Jeff Magnuson. This historic vintage hydroplane has been well maintained and will be running strong this summer at our Wolfeboro Vintage Race Boat Regatta. I first met Fred several years ago at the San Diego Unlimited Hydroplane races and he has graciously given me permission to reprint any of his excellent articles. So sit back, get comfortable, and spend some time reading about George Davis, for he was quite a character !!!

     

   

 

Click here for Page 2 - Current project photos !!!

 


George "IT'S A WONDER" Davis
By Fred Farley -
 APBA Unlimited Historian

 

The world of boat racing lost a devoted friend, Mr. George Neff Davis, on November 3, 1979, who passed away following a brief illness in his hometown of Vine Grove, Kentucky. He would have been 71 on December 27. George Davis was known to a generation of boat racers as an enthusiastic fan who, together with his wife Doris, was a familiar face wherever the Unlimited hydroplanes would gather for a Mid-West regatta. He was always visible at race sites such as Madison, Owensboro, Evansville, Dayton, or Detroit.

A veteran of more than half of a century of race boating, George never strayed far from the sport that he loved. Even while on duty with the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, he found the time to drive. While stationed in California, he campaigned a 225 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane, owned by the actor Robert Stack.

Given half a chance and a ready ear, Davis would eagerly impart colorful anecdotes about racing's classic past. George caught race fever himself in about 1927. Sidetracked on his way to an automobile race, he wound up instead at a hydroplane race on the Ohio River at Louisville. His attention was attracted by a vintage Hispano-Suiza-powered craft named MISS BETTY and he was hooked for life.

"I started about the time Bill Cantrell started," Davis recalled in a 1971 interview with this writer. "In my early days, I rode as mechanic in two-man boats. That was the rule then."

A long-time associate of future MISS MADISON pilot Marion Cooper, Davis had many fond recollections of his years as a Depression era  boat racer on the old Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association circuit.

"I rode with Marion Cooper for eight years in the 725 Cubic Inch Class. Before that, I rode for six or seven years with his brother George Alex Cooper in the 510 Class.

The 725 Class was the Southern equivalent of the APBA Gold Cup Class during the 1930s. There was a considerable fleet of them around the Cincinnati and Louisville area. The MVPBA was absorbed into the APBA in the 1940s.

"We didn't care to be professional, but we had to go to races where we would get a little traveling money, because back then it was pretty rough financing boats. We worked hard and did all of our own work. Of course, we had a lot of community help like the MISS MADISON of today. When we would go to a race, we would leave Louisville and the majority of us would all go together. And, if one would break down, one would help the other."

In summing up the riding mechanic phase of his career, Davis philosophized without bitterness, "I was like Orlin Johnson. We riding mechanics were never given any credit. We just took the beating and, after one race, just went to work getting ready for the next.

"My main duty was to be the eyes of the driver and to keep the proper amount of air in the gas tank to feed the engine. Then I had the job of closing the balers, checking the instruments, and giving the driver-who had his hands full of the wheel-the signal. I didn't have to throttle it like Orlin Johnson did for Gar Wood in the MISS AMERICAs because we had foot accelerators. The main thing was to learn how to ride it and hold in and not be thrown out. That was a great duty, too!

"When Marion Cooper drove, we had signals. I could guide him with my hand. I'd tell him to come off or to get on it, or I'd point to an instrument that was going bad. If things went too badly, I'd give him the sign to pull over into the infield and stop. Also, I was more or less his eyes on the left side to keep anybody from sneaking up in front. A good mechanic could do a lot of things in there when he was riding along.

"Marion's brother George would always want me to get down and not sit up in the sitting position in order to streamline the boat when we rode in the little 510 Class HERMES. He also would lay over and gain some speed that way.

"An additional duty that I had was to take an oil can before we started and lubricate all the overhead rocker arms. Then I had to prime the engine with gasoline. You didn't want to lose that priming can or you couldn't win a race."

Davis and his friend Turley Carman built a total of five HERMES boats, all but the first being 725s. The initial HERMES was a step hydroplane, powered by a Curtiss OX-5 engine.

When the Ohio River overflowed its banks during the disastrous flood of 1937, Davis fired up the little HERMES and sped to the rescue of nearby Louisville residents who were stranded on the rooftops of their homes.

George's first big winner was HERMES III, which used a 1914 vintage Hispano-Suiza ("Hisso") engine that developed 240 horsepower and used a three-bladed brass propeller that turned 3600 rpm. The narrow 22-foot craft featured a sharp curving bow and a deep notch, or step, across the bottom amidships.

The purpose of the step was to reduce the large area in contact with the water. The step configuration was the design that won the majority of power boat races during the years between the World Wars.

HERMES III had a 15-gallon fuel tank and used one gallon of fuel every three-quarters of a mile. The boat could do about 60 miles per hour flat out.

On July 4, 1938, Davis and Marion Cooper won both heats of the Evansville Jaycees Regatta on the Ohio River in Evansville, Indiana, with HERMES III. Their overall average speed was 55.589. Second-place went to Bill Mennen in WHO CARES, followed by Bill Cantrell in WHY WORRY, Chuck Wilkenson in PIN BRAIN II, and Ray Vetter in WARNIE. Prize money was sparse by today's standards, with $100 in cash and a $65 watch going to the winner.

In those days, the Motor City of Detroit reigned supreme as the hub of organized power boat racing in North America. Three times the 725 Class boats were invited by the Detroit Yacht Club to participate in a special event offered in conjunction with the APBA Gold Cup race for the more expensive and more exotic-looking Gold Cup Class contenders.

George remembered well an incident that occurred while he and Marion Cooper were en route to the 1937 Detroit race. "We were towing HERMES III. I was over on the right-hand side and I'd pull a rope to put the brakes on if we got in a close place. If the car brakes wouldn't hold, then I'd pull the rope which would pull a lever and that would work the brakes.

"We were going along in the early morning and Cooper said, 'Whose boat is that passing us?' And we looked over to the right and there was our boat running along side us plowing through a cornfield. We found out that our trailer hitch had broken on one side. We got some baling wire and wired it back on and got out of there real quick."

George Davis, Marion Cooper, and HERMES III took first-place at Detroit in 1937. This was in spite of a hair-raising collision with another boat in the first heat. They finished second at Detroit in the 1938 race.

One of the other boats in attendance at Detroit in 1938 attracted George's attention. This was the brand new MY SIN, owned by industrialist Guy Simmons. MY SIN was radically different from her contemporaries. A product of the famed Ventnor Boat Works of Ventnor, New Jersey, she was a three-pointer with a couple of pontoon-like running surfaces called sponsons.

The three-point design had been tried off and on for years, but had not achieved much success until only recently.

MY SIN had to be scratched from the 1938 Gold Cup due to mechanical difficulties. But Davis nevertheless saw enough to recognize the boat's potential. He went home to Vine Grove and, that winter, essentially incorporated MY SIN's design concept into the new HERMES IV.

Measuring 20 feet 6 inches by 9 feet 6 inches and powered by a Marman 16-cylinder engine, HERMES IV was one of a pioneering group of early three-point hydroplanes that forever altered the course of racing history. George Davis established himself with HERMES IV as one of the sport's leading innovators of his day, by operating on the cutting edge of the new technology.

This was at a time when many of the sport's leading players were solidly ensconced in the step hydroplane tradition and scorned the upstart three-pointers. These included Gar Wood of MISS AMERICA fame, Herb Mendelson of NOTRE DAME, Harold Wilson of MISS CANADA III, and Horace Dodge, Jr., of DELPHINE IV.

It was with HERMES IV that Davis first had the opportunity to move over from the mechanic's seat to behind the wheel in a major race. THE NEW YORK TIMES dutifully reported George's 53.954 mile an hour third-place in the 725 Class race at the 1939 Gold Cup Regatta on the Detroit River.

The Marman engine was equipped with four Tilotson carburetors and some high-top pistons. The following year, Davis re-powered the craft with his trademark 719 cubic inch Hispano-Suiza engine.

Race drivers in the MVPBA classes followed a much different script than do their present day counterparts. "Back in those days, we didn't run the course left-handed like they do today. We had to run it right-handed because our engines turned that way. So, when I started running with the modern boats, I had to reverse the engine. I changed the gear to take care of the torque of the turn of the turn of the boat.

"We also had flag starts without any blackout clock. I think the flag starts were the most fun. They really worked out the best because it worked for everybody. They all lined up on the one boat and they all had the same chance."

When asked to describe his particular race strategy, George chose his words carefully. "When I started a race, I had a lot of friends. But I kept my friends on the bank. I didn't try to abuse anybody. And I didn't want anybody to abuse me. I liked to run and I liked to run straight. I knew the old-timers, but I always would worry about a new fella. In racing, you have to keep your eyes real sharp and always know where every boat is on the course at all times. Because if you don't, they'll sneak up on you."

If the saying that "Behind every successful man you'll find a woman" is true, then Dorris Davis must take the credit in this case. When George married after coming home from the service in 1945, his bride did not like the name HERMES. She once remarked, "It's a wonder it starts or runs. It's so old." So, George renamed his craft IT'S A WONDER.

When asked if IT'S A WONDER was his favorite boat of all time, Davis replied, "It was about as easy riding a boat as any that I had. As well as a good riding boat, it was a crowd pleaser because I was always the underdog. I had a lot of fun and the crowd always went along with me. And that made it real nice. I ran it a little bit longer than usual-eighteen years-and there wasn't any money to be made. But, in that boat particularly, I had the most fun and enjoyment."

Most of the races in which George participated after the war don't count in modern records. Many of them were multi-class free-for-all affairs-a format of racing that has long since vanished from the Unlimited scene.

"Nobody ever lost more races or made more friends" was a favorite self-description of Davis's that really wasn't true-the part about the "lost races" that is.

George won three first-place trophies in post-World War II APBA racing. These included the 1947 Marine Derby at Louisville with HERMES V (another Hisso-powered 725), the 1953 Marine Derby with IT'S A WONDER, and the 1957 Dale Hollow Regatta in Tennessee with IT'S A WONDER.

The last man to ever use a Hisso engine in Unlimited competition, Davis was hampered by a modest budget and the necessity of having to forego all but those races scheduled close to home in deference to his job as a civilian aircraft mechanic at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

One of George's favorite recollections was his 1953 Marine Derby performance. IT'S A WONDER was then the oldest inboard hydroplane registered with the APBA and was allowed to compete in the 7-Litre Class event by a vote of the other drivers in the race in spite of the 719 cubic inches in her 39-year-old engine.

The field included a couple of nationally ranked 7-Litres from Pittsburgh-the GANGWAY and the WILDCATTER, owned by the father-and-son driving team of Burnett Bartley, Sr., and Burnett Bartley, Jr.

"We had an awful good day of racing," Davis recalled, "and I won the first-place trophy. We had a real close race-real close. They were all running real fast. Burnett Bartley, Sr., was driving GANGWAY and he didn't know it but his sponson went right over the top of my sponson. And I thought I was gone.

"I came around for the start and he was running real fast. So, we went down to the first buoy. He didn't see it and passed it up. I was lucky enough to see it. Then I made my turn and, before he got around and got straightened out, I had half a lap on him.

"The reason I won was because he and I had the start of the day. It was a timed start on a clock. That was after the days of the flag starts."

Late in his career, George became a member of the prestigious Gulf 100 Mile An Hour Club with a 102.273 clocking in 1955 in a mile trial at Melbourne, Kentucky, with Marion Cooper's 266 Cubic Inch Class HORNET. Other inductees that year included Bill Muncey, Jack Regas, Russ Schleeh, Jack Bartlow, and also Walt Kade-the man whose driving style Davis most likened to his own.

George had previously had IT'S A WONDER up to an unofficial 127 miles per hour. And on one occasion, he tested Joe Schoenith's second GALE V at better than 150.

Every driver has his superstitions. And George Davis was no exception. His lucky number was 8. So, to double his luck, he requested the APBA racing number of G-88 for IT'S A WONDER. Judging by the number of trophies that he displayed in the living room of his home, it would be safe to assume that Fate indeed smiled on George and his red-and-white-painted charger. At Madison, Indiana, he received the third-place trophy in each of the first three Indiana Governor's Cup contests in 1951, 1952, and 1953. He also took a second-place in the 1954 Louisville Marine Derby.

Following the retirement from competition of IT'S A WONDER after the 1957 campaign, Davis concentrated for the next decade on a 280 Cubic Inch Class rig, the MY TENNESSEE GAL, named after his wife and patterned after Marion Cooper's 266 Class TENNESSEE KID. "I had quite a lot of fun with that boat. I ran real good. We would always finish. And it was a safe hull."

After suffering internal injuries in a job-related accident in 1961, George decided that he couldn't physically do justice to the full-time task of driving a race boat. In 1962, he recruited Tom D'Eath, the future Gold Cup-winning Unlimited driver of MISS U.S. and MISS BUDWEISER, to pinch-hit for him in the cockpit of MY TENNESSEE GAL. Other drivers included Tom's brother, Roger D'Eath, Jim Miller, Lou Balas, Al Woody, Davey Thomas, and Burt Ross.

The final appearance in competition by George Davis after a 40-year racing career occurred at Louisville in 1967 at age 58 with MY TENNESSEE GAL. He took a bad bounce at the start of the first heat of 280s and hurt himself. Despite considerable pain, George continued in the race, finished the heat, and picked up 127 points for a fifth place finish at 51.195 miles per hour. He returned to the pit area spitting up blood. But he didn't tell Dorris about it.

For the next heat, Davis recruited future LONG GONE pilot Bill Hodge to drive in relief. Then George decided to call it a career and put the GAL up for sale.

His days of active racing a memory, Davis remained a dedicated follower of the hydroplane sport for the remaining twelve years of his life. He would occasionally grumble about the increasing commercialism of powerboat competition and lament the disappearance of the "sportsman" variety of participant. But the races themselves were still his real love. You couldn't keep him away! When the 5-minute would fire, there wasn't anyone on the riverbank more focused on the racing action than George "It's A Wonder" Davis.

From time to time, he would lend a hand as a boat crewmember, inspector, course judge, pit tour guide, or freelance journalist. And he loved to tell stories. A few of them have been preserved for posterity.

On the day that "Wild Bill" Cantrell won the 1949 APBA Gold Cup at Detroit with MY SWEETIE, Davis witnessed his friend's triumphant return to the pit area after the Final Heat: "Bill got out of the cockpit and kissed the deck of that boat. Then he took his old dollar watch out to see what time it was" to note his moment of triumph.

Another Cantrell moment occurred back in the 725 Class days: "One time, Bill couldn't get the engine in his WHY WORRY started. So, he motioned to an outboard motor guy to come over.  Then, he just picked the little outboard engine up, dumped the gasoline out of the tank into his carburetor intake, handed the engine back to the fella, cranked the WHY WORRY, and went on. I can't recall where it was, but that was just one of those things that he did. Quick thinking!"

There was also the story about an unpublicized "race" back in the 1950s between Marion Cooper and a youthful Bill Muncey.  This occurred not on the Ohio River or the Detroit River but on dry land. It seems that the Kentucky veteran Cooper and the Motor City rookie Muncey had earlier exchanged angry words with one another after Bill had allegedly cut Marion off in a 225 Class race. This was in the days before Muncey had made it big with the Unlimiteds.

Davis was a passenger in Cooper's car when Marion and Bill met up unexpectedly on the road home and spontaneously opted to continue their heated debate in the form of a drag race-with screeching tires and clouds of dust substituting for roostertails. According to George, things got pretty hairy as the two rivals accelerated their way across the Mid-West countryside. Even after more than a quarter century, the memory of the incident was still crystal clear to Davis who declined to comment on whether Cooper or Muncey was the "winner."

And then there was the memorable 1971 Gold Cup that Jim McCormick won with the MISS MADISON before the hometown crowd in Madison, Indiana. George had been a mentor of McCormick's during Jim's 280 Class career. After the Final Heat, McCormick hugged Davis as if they were father and son, and declared, "I couldn't have done it without you." George wept unashamedly on this, his protégé's, day of days.

Davis had some definite opinions about the future of boat racing. "I think the hulls of today are all wrong. There's nobody improving any hulls. They're running the tricycle  backwards right now. The sponsons are in front. The man that came the closest to the boat we need today was that fella John Cobb who had the jet-powered CRUSADER. He had the two sponsons in the back and he had a point in front. Now this may sound funny, but you need a bow rudder. Then you need to pull the boat necessitating two sponsons in the back. Then, it will run like a tricycle and you can turn it. But, when you were a kid, you couldn't back up very fast on a tricycle, could you? Well, that's the principle."

George Davis was much more than an avid boat racer. Living in a land "where slower clocks beat happier hours," he was a faithful friend, a good neighbor, a concerned citizen, and a true Southern gentleman. And his whiskey and cola concoctions were legendary.

In 1961, Davis was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel by Kentucky Governor Bert Combs. George was deeply proud of that distinction and later (in 1974) arranged to have it likewise conferred on a number of his favorite people. And, for that honor, the writer of this memorial records his gratitude.

Although a non-churchgoer, Davis staunchly believed in an afterlife and in the Christian tenet of looking out for the welfare of one's neighbor. And, before stepping into a race boat, George "would always make sure that everything was right with the man upstairs."

The door of the Davis home was always open to the people of the boat racing world. This writer made nine visits to Vine Grove between 1971 and 1979, and was pleased to discover that good old-fashioned Southern hospitality was alive and well at 312 Maple Street.

 

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