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
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
George "IT'S A
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
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
interview with this writer. "In my early days, I rode as mechanic in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
to note his moment of triumph.
Another Cantrell moment occurred back in the 725 Class days: "One time,
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
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
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
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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