Race day isn't what it was back when special trains of private railroad cars and flatbeds rigged with bleacher seats made their way to New London. In the '20s, scalpers could get as much as $50 a ticket. In those days some 100,000 spectators came to the race. About one-tenth of that number shows up now, and $16 will get you a splendid seat and a lavish box lunch at Red Top, where old Elis and Crimson intermingle.
On race day from Red Top, you will see the stunning committee boat, the Aphrodite, which was once owned by the financier and publisher Jock Whitney. You will also find Tom Mendenhall, a retired Yale professor of history and former president of Smith College, who is writing a history of the race. "History never repeats itself," Mendenhall likes to say in his mock-fussbudget manner. "Historians only repeat each other."
In fact, Mendenhall has the role of race chronicler pretty much to himself. Back in his study on Martha's Vineyard, under the watch of the musty books and monographs on naval history, he recently completed Volume I (to 1924).
Mendenhall, 78, began working on the history in the late '30s, becoming more earnest in 1975 after his retirement as president of Smith. His work has been slowed by the difficulty of sorting out such arcana as the 1882 Eelgrass Controversy. "The mysterious eelgrass!" Mendenhall says, warming up. "Supposedly located on the east side, at the third mile upstream. If you drew that lane, you were going to be appreciably slowed up. People tried to go out and cut the grass down, but that wasn't considered cricket."
From 1963 through 1980, Yale lost all 18 races, so for a time the Eli athletic department replaced the team's sashed singlets with blue T-shirts. Since then no school has won more than four consecutive times. However, the lions-and-Christians period didn't diminish the value of the experience. "People thought this thing was dead in the early '70s, when everything since Aristotle was being questioned," says Nick Bancroft, an old Crimson on the race committee and a fourth-generation oarsmen. "When you think about the time and money involved, there does seem to be some superfluity to it. But when you question the people who have actually done it, they say it's the most important thing they did in college."