Normally, the Detroit River is an unpretentious stretch of water with a no-nonsense approach to its job of hauling Great Lakes freight and keeping apart Canada and the U.S. But for the next 11 days the Detroit River will be the most glamorous stream in the world, a fickle Cinderella with a flock of millionaires quite literally sitting up nights thinking of ways to woo her.
She will become the battleground of the unlimited hydroplanes—the sleek, bellowing heavyweights of powerboat racing—as they scramble to settle the annual question of which is the fastest and toughest in the world. This weekend one unlimited each from the U.S. and Canada will battle for the Harmsworth Trophy, symbol of international supremacy for the power men. And the following weekend a score of unlimiteds will struggle for the Gold Cup, an ornate bauble with a peculiarly haunting charm that has changed landlubber businessmen into wild-eyed enthusiasts willing to lay out $35,000 for a boat and crew to take up the chase.
While all this is going on, the Detroit River will not just lie there and be run over. She will control the outcome of both the Harmsworth and Gold Cup as much as horsepower. The surface looks normal enough. But to the hydroplane driver the river is a contrary, wind-swept stream as rough as a mountain trail. Basically, an unlimited is a hybrid of an airplane and a skipping stone, and any schoolboy knows you run into trouble skipping stones on rough water. The owner with the prop pitch and hull angle that best appeal to the river will have a tremendous advantage.
For three years Canadian J. Gordon Thompson and his son Jim have done their best to tickle the river's fancy with one idea in mind: beating the U.S. on August 25 and 27 for the Harmsworth Trophy, an 85-pound piece of bronze donated in 1903 by Sir Alfred Harmsworth, later known as Newspaper Publisher Lord Northcliffe. The Harmsworth, U.S. property since 1920, was last defended in 1950 by Seattle's Stan Sayres and his Slo-Mo-Shun IV.
August 26, 1956
"The Harmsworth is the world's most distinguished powerboat race," the elder Thompson says, explaining why he has jumped into the maddening whirl of the unlimiteds. "Canada didn't have a boat to race. We felt she should."
The Thompsons have poured thousands into their Miss Supertest II, a rugged 7,000-pound unlimited powered by a massive Rolls-Royce Griffon engine rated at 2,000 hp. "She feels like she's got 5,000 horses," says Test Driver Danny Foster. "They must have bigger horses in England than we do." Last weekend, her horses raring to go, Miss Supertest II tore a narrow, foot-long gash in her hull during a trial spin on the St. Clair River. But Hydro Builder Les Staudacher (SI, April 23) soon had her patched and ready to battle for the Harmsworth.
To defend the Harmsworth against Miss Supertest II, the Yachtsmen's Association of America this week will pick a single American unlimited. The leading contender is the flashy red, white and blue Shanty I, so far the hottest boat of the season. Designed by Ted Jones and owned by Bill Waggoner, a displaced Texan campaigning out of Seattle, Shanty I is driven by Air Force Colonel Russ Schleeh, a tall, lean pilot who has artfully switched from jets to unlimiteds. Because of their boating inexperience, Schleeh and a number of other Seattle drivers were once jestingly referred to as "plumbers" by a columnist. Schleeh took the appellation to heart. When he buzzed Shanty I over the bathtub-smooth waters of Lake Washington earlier this month to win the Seafair, Schleeh had a rubber "plumber's friend" in the cockpit. "It's a hell of a note," mused Seattle's Bill Rhodes, owner of Miss Thriflway, "when an old cowpoke from Texas hires a plumber for a driver and wins everything in sight."
Waggoner and Rhodes will be part of the Seattle squad of seven unlimiteds which will invade Detroit for the Gold Cup on September 1. Defending will be Joe Schoenith, a wiry, affable electrical contractor who has four mechanics working 16 hours a day seven days a week in his air-conditioned machine shop tuning up his three Gales—the IV, V and VI, the last an 8,000-pound monster powered by two Allisons. Backing Schoenith's three aces for Detroit will be Such Crust III of Bakeryman Jack Schafer, Bud Saile's Miss Wayne, and Miss U. S. II, owned by George Simon, winner of the Silver Cup last weekend while small-craft warnings flew over the petulant Detroit River.
While 20 owners of unlimiteds were signing up this summer for the Gold Cup, the man who started the postwar boom in unlimited hydroplanes minded his own counsel in Seattle. But no one who knew Stan Sayres thought he could long stay on the outside looking in. Last week Sayres finally acknowledged that his Slo-Mo-Shun IV—"The Old Lady"—will be in Detroit. "Once you're chump enough to get in this thing," he chuckled, "I guess you're chump enough to stay in."