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A History of Power Boat Racing

on Lake Winnipesaukee

 By Mark Howard

Owner/driver - Scotty

 

1928 - Boat Racing Picks Up The Pace

 

Runabouts jockey for an edge at the start of a race in Wolfeboro, NH

The boating season started out a difficult one as ice-out damage to docks and moorings around the lake was one of the worst on record. One writer described the “spasmodic weather conditions” raising all sorts of havoc with both new and old docks and wharves all across the lake. Many small, private landings were completely destroyed while even larger landings were substantially damaged. Birch Island’s public landing was still in the process of being rebuilt as late as 30 June. When the wind, rain and waves weren’t howling, the fog could be so thick it would last all day. The early spring seemed to be an endless cycle of heavy weather, followed by a few days of dead silence and fog, only to see the heavy weather return. Unfortunately, the rest of the boating season’s weather would parallel this early weather pattern.

 

The Weirs officially opened for business on May 29, with over one thousand people attending the festivities. Terry Page and his Atlantic Orchestra were present, courtesy of Jim Irwin who also took the opportunity to commission what he called “Chris-Craft Row” on the south side of the Winnipesaukee Gardens. He had 12 new boats on display and hoped the new models would draw in customers. To make buying a boat easier, ads were taken out in the local papers hawking the incredible new opportunity to buy a Chris-Craft out of income. This brand new idea for a recreational boat allowed people to place only 40% of the purchase price down and then equal payments on the remaining balance for 12 months. The ads stressed how no other boat company could offer such generous terms, the closing line read “A year to pay – A lifetime to enjoy!”.

 

Two challenges were received by the Winnipesaukee Power Boat Association (WPBA), one from the Portland Yacht Club and the other from the Narragansett Bay Regatta Association. Both organizations challenged the “New Hampshire Navy” to match races. The Portland Yacht club proposed match races to be held on Casco Bay while the Narragansett Regatta would be held in Newport, RI. These races were tentatively scheduled for late July and the middle of August. Many WPBA members on Lake Winnipesaukee promised to attend, with Commodore Dunsford promising to take his speed boat RAINBOW IV to both challenges.

 

There were over 35 new runabouts expected to make an appearance on the lake. All major models were offered, as well as locally designed and produced craft. By the end of June, the officers of the WPBA were formally elected and once again, Sam Dunsford was made Commodore, Glenroy Scott; Vice Commodore, Jim Irwin; Secretary and Nat Goodhue; Treasurer. The remaining board of judges for the season had not been decided, but was finalized in time for the July 4th opening races. A major addition the WPBA hoped to introduce was a new judges barge that would be a significant improvement over the old barge. Judges would be able to view the races from a double-decker, and it was hoped this new craft would offer more amenities to the racers as well as judges. [photo] While the barge served primarily as a judging platform, it had many other useful purposes. Racers and other boaters could tie up and grab a lunch or snacks. Remembering that prohibition was in full swing at this time, having a barge anchored in the middle of a bay, far away from any law enforcement, made it a breeze to open up a speakeasy for the afternoon.

 

Local papers were all abuzz with news of fast boats expected to make their appearance, with the high horse powered models making most of the splash. The two boats that drew the most attention were custom models powered by Liberty engines. One had raced the previous year, but only in Alton Bay. DEUCES WILD was a custom runabout powered by a 400 hp Liberty engine. She was considered a real dark horse as she had only been seen once, but the rumors were flying about how this year might see much more of her running all across the lake. The second boat that drew attention was the custom twin Liberty powered racer that was being built for W.A. Corby by Gar Wood. This hydroplane would be fashioned after the ‘Miss America’ series Gar Wood raced, and had Gar’s personal guarantee of reaching a minimum of 80 mph. Powered by two 500 hp Liberty engines, Corby was anxious to keep his claim as owning the fastest boat on the lake. He had won the Commodore’s free-for-all trophy the previous year in his Gar Wood JAYEE II, and didn’t want to leave anything to chance. This new racer was scheduled to be delivered at the end of July and would include representatives from Gar Wood to help tune and properly rig the boat, to insure the guaranteed speed would be reached. As the world record at the time was 87.75 mph, the papers commented how the addition of this boat on the lake might help bring national championship races to Winnipesaukee.

 

An entirely new class of race boats, known as “Pelican” race boats, was scheduled to make their debut. They were 16 feet long, and were powered by a purposely-built Ford engine called “Fronty” engines. Sam Dunsford personally oversaw the building of theses engines, as he had close contacts at Ford due to his business interests supplying electrical parts. The boats were designed by John Hacker and were meant to be built by individual racers, or other, local boat builders. It was hoped their “Fronty” engine could propel them up to 50 mph. Eight such boats were registered for the racing season by the end of June and it was expected up to twelve more boats of this type would be racing by the end of August.

 

At the other end of the boating spectrum were small, inexpensive one-person outboards powered by 5-20 hp engines. These boats were making headlines all over the lakes region and were expected to be a big part of the racing scene. They were tiller-steered by the driver sitting or kneeling amidships. The boats were well within the financial reach of the average boater, and were expected, as a class, to make the biggest improvements over the previous year’s racing. A plethora of models were offered, along with over a dozen different motors. They were not only inexpensive to buy, but inexpensive to operate and could provide hours of fun. With hindsight, modern historians mark 1928 as the beginning of outboard racing’s Golden Age. Major manufacturers like Elto, Johnson and Evinrude would introduce new engines, many models specifically targeted the racing crowd. The manufacturers formed the National Outboard Association (NOA) and by the end of 1928, membership stood at over 5000 people all over the country.

Runabouts jockey for an edge at the start of a race in Wolfeboro, NH

Racing began in earnest on the lake over the July 4th holiday. All three major locations, Alton Bay, Wolfeboro and the Weirs held racing matches. The lakes region would be joined this weekend by a special guest, the US Navy’s airship Los Angeles. She was traveling all over New Hampshire over the holiday and spent most of the weekend circling the lake. Nat Goodhue of Wolfeboro won the first race of the season in a Chris-Craft with Jim Erwin coming in second. Fred Johnson made a strong third in his custom built PSYCHE runabout. Sam Dunsford could not make the first races of the season as the Packard factory was still overhauling his ‘Gold Cup’ engine. He wasn’t scheduled to get the engine back until the 14th of July, but that date would slip into August. Elmer Folsom, Dunsford’s mechanic, would end up working overtime to install the engine back in RAINBOW IV. As fate would have it, RAINBOW IV would be lucky to make any races over the 1928 season. The following weekend Glenroy Scott driving his 1925 heavily customized Ditchburn runabout, WILDCAT, managed to finish second overall in the point standings. The Hall-Scott ‘Special’ six cylinder engine proved more than a match for the other competitors.

 

On Sunday the 15th of July, Lake Winnisquam held it’s first series of races with up to 7,500 people watching from the shore. The main attractions were boats built by the Laconia Car Company. This company was a major employer in Laconia and specialized in building railroad cars, but decided in late 1927 they should try to branch out into other business opportunities and building small racing boats seemed like a good place to start. The races were held over a one-mile triangular course laid out between the Winnisquam Bridge and Mohawk Point, keeping the racing action well within view of the spectators. Racing was performed exclusively by various outboard powered models between 5 and 20 hp. The winner of the afternoon’s racing was A.A. Doherty driving his Pen Yan outboard BABY BUZZ. Other racers drove Hacker designed racers, Aquafliers and even a Cute Craft.

Racing at the Weirs had to be postponed a week from July 21 & 22 as the bodies of two vacationers who drowned while canoeing were being recovered. While several racers departed for Portland, ME, to take up the challenge the Portland Yacht Club had issued, other racers were selected to take on racers from Lake Sunapee. Teams of six boats were selected to represent each lake and these team members raced, as a team, against the opposing lake. These match races helped build and sustain interest in the local area as many people, not just full time residents, had strong feelings of loyalty toward their particular region.

 

As the summer moved into August, it was hoped RAINBOW IV would finally be back in commission. The completion of her racing engine overhaul from the Packard factory had been delayed, and Dunsford was unable to race in the style to which he was accustomed. He chose to use one of his Chris-Craft runabouts, BABS II, and scored many points in the weekends he was able to race, but was not able to directly challenge the other purpose-built racers. Throughout the racing held in July, Glenroy Scott driving WILDCAT had built up a formidable lead in points. He not only regularly finished in the top three positions, but also managed to participate in almost every weekend’s racing. By the third week in August, he had accumulated over 600 points. The point lead over his nearest rival, Fred Johnson, was considered insurmountable and the racing season was conceded by all to belong to Scott. Still, the boating events were far from over.

 

A most unique event was planned that was hoped would hold spectators interests. A local aviator, Bob Fogg, flying his Waco seaplane would attempt to ‘bomb’ Jim Irwin driving one of his Chris-Crafts. The event mirrored one that had been held in England weeks earlier, and it was hoped the addition would create a higher level of excitement around the lake. The course started in the Weirs, at Endicott Rock, and ran toward the Cummings Light House on Meredith Neck, a distance of approximately 1.5 miles. Once Irwin reached Meredith Neck, he would turn around and race back toward Endicott Rock. Irwin had to maintain a ‘reasonably’ straight course between the two points, while Fogg was given freedom of the sky. His ‘bombs’ were ~2 pound sacks of flour that were expected to burst open on contact with the boat, but, it was hoped, not harm Irwin should one hit him on the head. The proposed date was Sunday, the 12th at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. As the course ran directly in front of the Winnipesaukee Gardens, a capacity crowd was expected to attend.

 

The contest was held and as expected, the crowds were enormous. A throng lined the course, with every possible spot on the Gardens and beyond filled with thousands of cheering spectators. Commentators couldn’t be sure which man was being cheered the most, Fogg in his seaplane or Irwin in his runabout. Fogg flew at an average altitude of 20 – 40 feet in a crisscross fashion over the Chris-Craft as Irwin attempted to get to Meredith Neck and back as fast as possible. Although Irwin was running flat out in his runabout, the Waco was moving at around 100 mph and the speed differential was so great, Fogg had no choice but to try to weave a course back and forth over Irwin. After every pass, Fogg would pull up to a few hundred feet and bank over as hard as he dared, then come diving down onto Irwin. At the finish, Irwin was declared the winner of the contest as he received only one direct hit, with two that came dangerously close, out all the bombing attempts Fogg made. All who were present agreed they had never seen anything like it.

 

By September, the racing season was winding down but there remained three notable races to be run. The Commodores Cup, the Wright Trophy Race and a special outboards only race called the Winnipesaukee Outboard Marathon. This last race was sponsored by the outboard motor and boat dealers across the lake and was intended to highlight the capabilities and reliability of outboard engines. The race had no entry fee, would be held rain or shine, and was 50 miles long with a prize of $100 to the winner. Starting in Wolfeboro Bay, the course ran to Glendale, through the Locke Island Channel, past the “Witches”, down to Alton Bay, then back to Wolfeboro. Thirty-four boats had entered, but only seventeen actually started the race and only six managed to finish. While this sounds at odds with the main purpose of the race, the race organizers were actually pleased as the lake experienced very rough water conditions. Some of the boats were reported leaping out of the water by over two feet. Even the eventual winner, Elbridge Robie in an Elto Quad powered 14 ft ‘Pigeon’ boat, had to unplug his drain while underway in order to empty the cockpit of all the water that cascaded in when he jumped the Mount Washington’s wake. Robie’s average speed was 34 ½ mph and people commented that for someone who was new to the lake, his performance and skill at driving was extraordinary.

 

Elbridge Robie at the helm of his Elto Quad powered boat  

The Commodore’s Cup was postponed due to heavy rain on the scheduled weekend so was held on the 8th of September. The postponement was a shame as many racers who traveled from Portland, ME and Newport, RI had to return home and so could not participate. Most notable of the visiting racers was Mr. Philip James, winner of the Portland Yacht Club races in his custom built Liberty powered racer MISS BARBETTE. The Commodore’s Cup race was restricted to craft that could travel faster than 45 mph. It was not intended to accommodate all racers, but was meant to be the premier race for the season, highlighting the fastest boats on the lake and around the region. The course was a 2.5 mile oval, and racers would drive the course for 10 laps. Robert Peterson driving his RIP IV won the previous year’s race, and bearing in mind any racer who could win the race three consecutive years would permanently keep the beautiful trophy, Peterson was expected to mount a stiff defense. His boat was a locally built hydroplane designed by John Hacker. A 500 hp Liberty engine powered her and the previous season had seen her virtually walk away from all competitors. Her only issue, which Peterson had been working all season to correct, was her poor handling in turns. The main two competitors were Sam Dunsford in RAINBOW IV, Glenroy Scott in WILDCAT. In the end, the race was no contest as RIP IV easily won. Her speed down the straightaway was estimated at nearly 70 mph and no boat could keep up with her. With her exhaust stacks pointing straight up in the air, she made a very impressive sight as she tore around the course. The handling issues Peterson experienced the previous year had all been ironed out. 

MISS BARBETTE, from Portland, ME visits Lake Winnipesaukee 

The following day all the same boats entered the Wright Trophy Race, along with other specially prepared and powered runabouts. This race was 65 miles long and was meant to highlight the sea keeping abilities of the various hull designs and overall endurance. The course was open to all racers in any boat, but there was a time limit of 2.5 hours after which the race would be ended. The track the racers followed was identical to the Mount Washington, and along the way the racers progress would be telegraphed to officials at the Weirs, the race start and end point. As the race was meant to be a test of endurance, only heavy rain could force a cancellation. On the appointed day, the weather was rough, but thousands of people crammed into the Weirs to watch this race. The day’s racing program started in the morning with smaller classes racing around a closed course and later in the afternoon, the main event was run. Peterson in RIP IV took the lead by the time the boats entered Alton Bay, and remained in front for the run back to the Weirs. Unfortunately, Peterson and his mechanic had misunderstood the course and rules, and so went off in a direction not authorized. By that time, he was so far in front of the other competitors, none could see the mistake, and the onlookers from the shore could only stand back and watch in amazement as Peterson headed in the wrong direction. That opened up the race to the second fastest boat, JAYEE II driven by the owner’s daughter, Justine Corby. JAYEE II was a heavily customized Gar Wood runabout powered by a Liberty V-12. Corby’s father was unable to get his custom Gar Wood race boat in time for the season and so sat out the race in favor of his daughter. She had a distinguished racing record around the lake and the boat, while not the fastest when compared to RIP IV, could still run over 60 mph down a straightaway. The end of the race declared JAYEE II the winner. All agreed RIP IV would have won, but for her extracurricular excursion. 

 

Although many enjoyed the racing activities, all the fast and loud boating across the lake and throughout New Hampshire had a negative effect, one that remains in the news today. People complained about the noise and speed the boats made as they made their way across the lake. A boater on Lake Sunapee was charged with running an outboard engine too loud and the Concord based judge overseeing the case traveled to Sunapee for his own sake to listen to the offending motor.  The case made front page, headline news in the main NH papers and writers spoke of the future of outboards in NH being in the balance. The case dragged on through the summer and was finally dismissed in September. In Wolfeboro, the Granite State News published a poem in August that spoke not only to the noise of the boats, but the speed they were traveling. Quoting a few lines:

 

                        Twas’ left for white men, civilized

                        This Holy Eden to profane

                        With gibbering, spluttering, roaring Noise

                        With whiz – and jazz – and speed insane

 

These issues of speed and noise have been with us for decades only to wane and ebb as the nature of the vacationers and the boats they use change. Changing tastes, fashions, desires and goals all contribute to the way people use boats, then as now. Today, owners and drivers of fast power boats are again in the spotlight for making too much noise and speed. One more gas hike might well send these people back to sailboats, just as it did back in the 70’s. What seems like a crisis today is forgotten, only to be resurrected decades later.

 

As the 1928 racing season came to a close, attention turned to more serious matters, the presidential election between Herbert Hoover and Alfred Smith. Hoover won in a landslide with 444 electoral votes.

 

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