"I went back there to shoot with them," Gates recalls, "and to see what the program was all about. Here were all these young kids, 19, 20, 21 years old, doing nothing but shooting for three hours each morning, breaking for a leisurely lunch at an NCO club, then shooting a couple of hours more in the afternoon. All at taxpayers' expense. I've got nothing against that because we never would have done anything in European competition without this program—it's what has kept the U.S. in the international game. But when these Young Turks began to patronize me, to make cracks about my age, they didn't know what they were turning on. Nothing stimulates me like that kind of challenge. I decided to show these smart kids that the old man could lick the best of them. That became my sole and absolute desire: to beat these military hot shots, to beat the government, to beat Uncle Sam at this game."
Gates came close on his first real try, at the Grand American in 1971. In addition to winning the Class AA Trap Championship of America and two other titles, he tied with Spec 5 Doug Elson, a 23-year-old Army shooter, for first place in the International. A local sports-writer reported, "In a fantastic exhibition of shooting skills, Elgin Gates took on the world's greatest trapshooters and mowed them down like sitting ducks.... The home grounds of the Grand American National championships have never seen anything quite like it and may never again. When the smoke cleared away. Gates had smashed 1,008 clay targets without a miss."
In the shootoff with Elson, Gates' 1,009th bird, unfortunately, eluded him. The consolation prize was a trophy naming him "civilian champion" in the international event. Talk about being patronized. Gates was more determined than ever to beat the military. The next year he did, the first civilian to win the International since the event was begun in 1967. Last year, competing for the first time since '72, he won again, an unprecedented second in a row. The odds against a triple crown this year are long but, considering how Gates thrives on challenges, it would take a brave bettor to go against him.
Gates was born in Salt Creek, Wyo. on Nov. 7, 1922, the second son of an oil-line contractor who managed to move his family at the rate of once a year for the first 15 of Gates' life. "All the moving around made me a loner," Elgin says, "which was good because without a bunch of childhood friends to fall back on I had to rely on myself."
The longest he remembers staying in any one spot was the two years he spent at Flagstaff, Ariz., where he managed to win high school letters in track, tennis and archery.
After graduation Gates took a job as a busboy in the hotel run by the Fred Harvey chain at Grand Canyon, Ariz. where his future wife Dolly worked in the laundry. At night Gates played bass fiddle in the hotel band. Dolly and Elgin eloped to Flagstaff one night that summer, then drove all night to get back to their jobs by Monday morning. They spent their honeymoon in the woods because they were housed separately in the hotel's men's and women's dormitories.
"We worked for room and board and $1 a day," Gates recalls, "and we were glad to get it. Playing in the band was worth another $10 a month. But those were hard times and anyone with a job was lucky."
When the hotel closed in the fall the newlyweds moved to Las Vegas and then to Needles, where Elgin worked in his brother's gas station. Later, when World War II began, he moved to Los Angeles and spent the next two years as a welder before joining the Army in 1943. With the mustering-out pay he collected in 1945 Gates moved back to Needles with his wife and two baby daughters and opened a sporting-goods store. To promote the outboard engines he sold, Elgin began racing, first locally and then in state and national events.
"I was always a good mechanic," Gates says, "and I made some modifications in the Mercuries I was racing that made them go faster."
They went so much faster that E.C. Kiekhaefer, then president of what is now Mercury Marine, brought Gates to the factory in Wisconsin to explain his improvements to the company's engineers. Kiekhaefer was so impressed by Gates' mechanical innovations that he made him a technical consultant and awarded him the Mercury distributorship for the Northwest. A year later Gates was switched to Southern California, Arizona and Nevada, and soon he was both affluent and. in racing circles, famous. By 1956, when he retired, he had won 463 trophies and set 26 U.S. world and international speed records racing all classes of outboard hydroplanes.