They all laughed when Garfield Arthur Wood challenged England for the Harmsworth Trophy in 1920. Wood was nearly 40, an age at which few sportsmen are found behind the wheel of an unlimited hydroplane. Besides, the English had held the international trophy (powerboating's top prize) since 1912 and were favored by everyone to keep it—perhaps forever.
Everyone but Gar Wood, who was unimpressed by his own years or the reputation of the English. He brought two boats of his own design—Miss Detroit IV (for heavy seas) and Miss America I (a faster craft, good only on smooth water)—to Osborne Bay, England, the site of the race. His practice runs in the slower boat over the choppy bay water made the British feel even more confident. But on race day the bay calmed down. Wood drove his Miss America I and won by more than a mile.
Iowa-born, in December of 1880, Wood spent much of his youth on the water. His father, "Cap'n Walt," ran a battered ferry over Lake Osakis, in Minnesota, and whenever young Gar could break away from his chores on their small backwoods farm he served as chief crewman. "We were a prolific clan," says Wood. "I had nine brothers and three sisters. We were all brought up on the Bible, and none of us ever smoked or drank. 'Goldarn' was the strongest cuss-word we ever used!"
Wood's ambition, from early childhood, was to build and race the fastest boats in the world—and he recalls gutting the family alarm clock to power a toy craft he'd designed. ("I got a licking, but the boat ran fine.")
In 1893, at 13, he became the official operator of a government launch in Duluth for the simple reason that no one else could keep the "new-fangled" internal combustion gasoline engine in running order. Wood entered and won his first motorboat race (at 32 mph) in 1911 on the Mississippi, and within two years was racing a boat of his own make. A sudden influx of money turned his long-dreamed-of venture into reality.
Gar's leap from poverty to wealth began on land when he was working as an auto mechanic. "One afternoon," he says, "I watched a truck driver sweating and cussing as he hand-cranked his truck bed in order to dump a load of coal. I could see he needed power to do the job properly, so I got me an idea."
Wood's idea, on which he risked all of his $200 savings, resulted in a hydraulic truck hoist which proved an instant and overwhelming success. Swamped with orders. Gar opened his own plant in Detroit in 1914, and eventually became the nation's largest manufacturer of truck equipment, later branching out to include road-building and automobile accessories. This flourishing business provided the capital he needed to build his own racing boats, and after the end of World War I he purchased several aircraft engines with the intention of converting them to marine use.
Ignoring warnings that "an aircraft engine will pound a boat to pieces," he installed a reworked 12-cylinder Curtiss in his Miss Detroit III and won the 1919 Gold Cup race. In 1921, a year after his international triumph in England, he built the Car Junior II, and challenged the Havana Special, one of the country's fastest trains, to a race along the Atlantic seafront from Miami to New York. Encouraged by cheering crowds along the route, Wood beat the train by several minutes. He ended the year with his first victorious defense of the Harmsworth Trophy with Miss America II.
Three years later the man they now called "The Water King" defeated the Twentieth Century Limited in a race down the Hudson. And in 1926 he again turned back all overseas opposition for the Harmsworth.
Accepting a fresh challenge in 1928, Wood set out to test-run his latest speedster, Miss America VI, on the Detroit River. His two mascots went with him on the run (a pair of helmeted and goggled toy Teddy bears he always carried for luck). At full throttle, slashing the waves at over 100 mph, the boat abruptly exploded and disintegrated, pitching out Wood and his racing companion, Orlin Johnson. Wood recalls: "I felt myself sinking down-and I could see tanks, pieces of splintered planks whirling around me. I almost blacked out, but managed to claw my way to the surface and grab a gas tank. Orlin floated up unconscious, his jaw smashed."