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Rich Triumph at a Ripe Age
William F. Nolan
February 04, 1963
Gar Wood always wanted to build and race the fastest powerboats in the world. Finally, when nearing 40, he realized his ambition
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February 04, 1963

Rich Triumph At A Ripe Age

Gar Wood always wanted to build and race the fastest powerboats in the world. Finally, when nearing 40, he realized his ambition

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Within 14 days, despite the fact that he had to fish the sunken engines from 90 feet of water, Gar designed and constructed a new racer, Miss America VII. Then, smothered in bandages (with Johnson beside him, his head in a cast), he beat his competition on the Detroit River and kept the Harmsworth Trophy.

A determined bid

A frustrated England became fiercely determined to win back the trophy- but Wood successfully defended it in 1929 and 1930 with even faster boats. In 1931 an all-out effort, sponsored by the British government and spearheaded by Lord Wakefield, sent the auto-racing veteran Kaye Don against Wood in the very fast Miss England II.

"We met him with two boats," says Wood. "My brother George handled Miss America VIII while I took over with Miss America IX. That was some race!"

The first of three heats had gone to Don, with Wood trailing close in his wake. In the second heat, knowing that every inch of water was an advantage, both pilots jumped the starter's signal and throttled toward the first turn, with Wood slightly ahead. In a wild bid for the lead, Don attempted to cut across Wood's wake to the inside at the turn. But the Englishman had misjudged.

"That six-ton hull of his just seemed to leap up, straight out of the water," says Wood. "Don was hurled clear before she sank, and he survived. They disqualified me for that jump start since we'd both exceeded our 'leeway' of five seconds. But my brother won with our other boat, so we still held the trophy."

By 1932, however, Wood realized that he could not hope to maintain the trophy for another season unless a super-fast craft could be developed. England was sending Don back with a giant speedboat reputed to house 6,000 hp. The U.S. newspapers were pessimistic: "Wood stands alone against an Empire which has spent millions to defeat him. How long can such an unequal battle last?"

With characteristic zeal, Wood plunged into the construction of his most revolutionary boat, Miss America X, which would contain no less than four giant supercharged 12-cylinder aircraft engines with "pistons as large as paving blocks." Wood was determined to pack an estimated 6,500 hp into a 38-foot racing hull-and he developed a unique method of smoothly distributing this vast power by having each pair of side-mounted engines turning on a single shaft. Special gearboxes were built, and when Don arrived in the U.S., Miss America X was ready to meet him.

Wood was 51, silver-haired, his eyes furrowed with sun wrinkles, his skin wind-weathered; he was too old, the experts said, to handle 6,500 raging sea horses. Wood admitted that "at 100 mph the water is like a goldarn concrete slab," but he shrugged aside the dangers and climbed briskly behind the racing wheel. When the contest was over, England had once more bowed to the incredible American.

"In 1933 they tried me again," he says, "but Miss America got the job done then too. She was mighty fast!"

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