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To the close-knit speedboat fraternity of Detroit, the stumpy, graying figure of one Stanley St. Clair Sayres is like something out of a recurrent bad dream. Four years ago Mr. Sayres, an obscure automobile salesman from Seattle, Wash., came to Detroit with a strange contraption which, on the record, would go faster on water than anything ever built. He stayed for a couple of weeks, causing consternation. When he departed he took with him two world's championships which for years were practically the private property of Detroit's wealthy racing class?and he also forced upon all and sundry who want to win them back again an annual pilgrimage to the far Northwest as humiliating as it has proved futile.
A fortnight ago the frustrated Detroiters suffered a double indignity. In their fifth year of travail they finally succeeded in beating a Sayres boat. But with victory came no success. Another Sayres creation roared over the Gold Cup course on Seattle's Lake Washington to score one of his more convincing wins. The Seattle designer's most modern entry set a new speed record for the event with an average of 99.108 mph and a new lap record of 104.773 mph. Its point total of 2,000 was exactly 368 more than the combined totals of all other boats in the race.
The boats that have done so much to change speedboat racing are extraordinary, triangular-shaped craft known as Slo-Mo-Shun IV and Slo-Mo-Shun V. The latter, this year's winner, is a refinement of the first. But it was Slo-Mo-Shun IV that stirred a revolution when it was introduced in the summer of 1950. With it, Sayres won the two highest prizes in North American racing, the Gold Cup and the Harmsworth Trophy, and sent speedboat enthusiasts scurrying to drawing boards in search of new models. Since then the Harmsworth has not been challenged, but the Gold Cup, an annual three-heat 90-Miler over a course varying between 3 and 3? miles, has been on five occasions, all with the same result.
The obscure history of these peculiar craft, which have beaten the best that wealth and racing know-how have to offer, goes back, in fits and starts, for more than three decades. In fact, there might never have been a Slo-Mo if there hadn't been an accident to an outboard hydroplane on Lake McKay in Oregon in 1926. The shop mechanic who owned that anonymous craft turned it over and swam ashore in deep disgust. "I'm through with speedboat racing," he announced to anyone who would listen. "They go too damn fast."
Stan Sayres happened to be on the lake shore on that day, and he acquired the hydroplane forthwith. Motorboat racing was a new field for him; heretofore he'd been strictly an automobile man. A World War I aircraft machine-gun mechanic who ran an auto agency in Pendleton, Ore., he had done some road-racing and dirt-track competition in which he showed not only an aptitude for winning but also for putting together unusual combinations of cars. Once, for example, he beat a Stutz Bearcat in a 15-mile race with a Maxwell-Ford-Franklin hybrid, averaging better than 54 mph on a half-mile dirt track. That was scorching in those days, and seemed about as fast as Sayres would ever want to go?but it was nothing to what he was to do in racing boats.
He drove the outboard for five years, and in the process of living with it and racing it he stepped it up to 80 mph. Then he moved to Seattle and went boatless for the next six years while making a broken-down auto agency solvent. It wasn't until 1937 that he got a boat again?this time a secondhand inboard racer with a 225-cubic-inch engine and a three-point hull that would do better than 91 mph. He got so enthusiastic about its speed that Mrs. Sayres, wearying of the endless dinner-table talks on the subject, suggested the obvious name: Slow Motion. Sayres streamlined that down to Slo-Mo-Shun, and so the first of a proud succession was christened.
Slo-Mo, as it later came be be called, was fun to drive but unexciting, for lack of competition. She burned and sank in 1941, and Slo-Mo II came into being, a boat of similar lines and power. By 1946, Sayres had learned enough about engines and hull designs to put some of his own ideas into Slo-Mo III, which had a souped-up auto engine displacing 266 cubic inches. Slo-Mo III was hot?she could do 96 mph?but she could never do better than second place in the local closed-course competitions because she couldn't accelerate fast enough to make her speed count.
This, of course, was strictly bush-league racing, and Sayres was a bush-league driver who had never even won an important race. When he decided to go after the big-time trophies in Detroit he caused so little stir it is doubtful if the powerboat brotherhood even knew he was interested. They had dominated the Gold Cup and the Harmsworth Trophy for so many years that outside entrants were not of any great importance. Automobile manufacturers' sons and wealthy executives for the most part, they could feel with reason that they had the ultrahigh-speed class sewed up.
The atmosphere of indifference was fine by Sayres, who wanted nothing more than peace and quiet as he concentrated his thoughts and energy on Slo-Mo-Shun IV. Into this boat Sayres put the fruit of all his years of racing and thinking about hulls and engines. She was radically different?flat, triangular, designed to rise and ride on two tiny sponsons which, with the propeller and a bit of the bottom of her main strut, were the only parts to come in contact with the water. For power she was given an Allison aircraft engine with 1,500 horses?almost enough to make her get up and fly. But through 1948 and 1949, while Slo-Mo IV was a building, the main question still was whether she would swim.
Anchor Jensen, a Seattle boatbuilder who was even less well known in racing circles than Stan Sayres, did the actual construction. A crew of unpaid, unknown but enthusiastic experts helped to install the engine. They didn't know it then, but they were starting on a project which was to involve 30,000 unpaid man-hours of labor in the next four years.