Ever since Slo-Mo-Shun IV, a daringly new kind of Gold Cup hydroplane, made her bellowing debut five years ago, Seattle has been the capital of the noisy, spume-hung realm of marine speed, and Stanley M. Sayres, her wealthy owner, has been its undisputed monarch. Slo-Mo was the first of the monster "prop-riders"—aerodynamic curves were built into her hull, her engine was pushed forward to keep her stern high, and at racing speeds she became partially airborne and skimmed with but a few square inches of forward sponsons and only the lower half of her propeller arc in the water. Alarmingly free of drag, she hit a world record of 178 mph; with her newer sister, Slo-Mo-Shun V, she has kept the Gold Cup year after year against all assaults.
But last Sunday, while a quarter of a million hopeful partisans crowded up along miles of Seattle's sun-drenched, fir-framed Lake Washington, the reign of Stanley Sayres and the Slo-Mos came to a dramatic end and the Gold Cup went back to Detroit. It was blinding speed which did the bright red Slo-Mos in—speed which made the 1955 Gold Cup the most hair-raising as well as the most curious on record. Slo-Mo V hit a gust of wind at 165 mph while qualifying, became completely airborne, looped 50 feet above the water and was wrecked; Slo-Mo IV fell out two laps short of home and victory with a blazing engine, leaving a hot new Seattle boat, orange-hulled Miss Thriftway, winner of two of the race's three heats.
But it was poker-faced teamwork by frustrated Detroit owners which won the race. Just before the last heat they held a hurried shoreside conference and agreed to send trailing, twin-engined Such Crust III out as a blocker for their only hope, Gale V, which had been second in the first heat, second in the second and which eventually was third in the final 30 miles. They had good reason: under Gold Cup rules the boat with the fastest average for the full 90 miles gets a 400-point bonus.
The jubilant Seattle crowds started home, certain that Miss Thriftway, owned by Willard Rhodes, Northwest grocery executive, had guaranteed another Gold Cup race on Lake Washington next year. But Miss Tkriftway had run one slow heat—the first—and in the third Such Crust had blocked her on the turns for laps, slowing her time. An hour after the race was over the timers made a startling announcement: Gale V, owned by Joe Schoenith, Detroit electric supply contractor, and driven by his chunky 28-year-old son Lee, had run the 90 miles 4:53 seconds faster than the new Seattle boat and was the winner.
Gale V had never been in real contention with either Slo-Mo or Miss Thriftway as they gave thundering expression to the enmity which now exists between Designer Ted Jones (creator of both boats) and his former friend and confidant, Stanley Sayres. Slo-Mo had left the winner behind in setting a new lap record of 107 mph and a new heat record of 103:159. But Gale V, though she had trailed throughout the race, nevertheless ran the 90 miles faster than it had ever been run before: an average 99.526 mph.
Her record time gave statistical expression to the fierceness with which the battle was fought, and in a way her curious victory seemed only fitting. Seldom if ever in the history of the Gold Cup had race day approached amid such an atmosphere of tension, danger, acrimony, vaulting ambition and vaulting local pride. From the day the gleaming, deadly big hydroplanes—the heavyweights of speedboat competition—were trucked into Seattle it was evident that in 1955, for the first time, the Slo-Mos were in for a genuine fight. Designer Jones had lent his genius to the construction of three new boats, well built on Slo-Mo lines and principles—his own boat Rebel Suh, Miss Thriftway and Guy Lombardo's new Tempo VII. He was grimly bent on humbling Sayres—Rebel and Thrift-way operated and were serviced as a team and during the year he had also lent a hand at modifying many of the Detroit boats, among them Gale V. The Detroit owners were also sick to death of humble pie. They were humanly envious of the fact that Greater Seattle, Inc.—an organization which has annually promoted tourist-pulling, carnival-like Seafair Week in conjunction with the Gold Cup races—has contributed more than $30,000 a year toward the maintenance and operation of Sayres's Slo-Mos.
Almost from the first day of tests and warmups it was also evident that speeds were due to rise to startling levels. Both Slo-Mos had new Rolls Royce aircraft engines rated at 1,650 horsepower. Most of the other boats were powered by 16-cylinder Allisons, rated at 1,150. But in both cases engines were hopped to the bursting point—the Allisons, designed to turn 2,800 rpm in an airplane, were being pushed to 3,500 rpm and sometimes close to 4,000 by tremendous supercharging and were delivering 2,000 hp and providing up to 170 mph in the stretches.
It seemed almost certain that there would be a big field—perhaps as many as 12 boats. Referee Melvin Crook of Montclair, N.J., a New York businessman and an editor of Yachting magazine, felt a nerve-straining concern for the safety of drivers as he watched daring, lighthearted
qualify Lombardo's Tempo VII at a record 116.8 mph and then saw bespectacled Joe Taggart of Canton, Ohio top him in the Slo-Mo-IV with 117.391. Both men were coming into the turns at 130 mph. Steering an all but airborne Gold Cupper is not merely a matter of turning the steering wheel—enormous torque pulls them eternally to the outside and after they begin their swing it is often necessary to fight them with throttle and an opposite rudder to keep them on course.
The key to Referee Crook's worry was Slo-Mo V and her passionately competitive driver, Lou Fageol. In earlier Gold Cups, Fageol had made a practice of retreating north under the narrow approach arch of Seattle's famed Floating Bridge before heats, lurking there hidden by the concrete bastions of the bridge itself and then hurtling into view at 150 mph, zooming past boats milling toward the starting line and taking the lead with rocket-like authority. Twice this "flying start" had almost caused disaster, but the Detroit owners talked openly of setting up a defensive block to stop it. In midweek Referee Crook banned it. Stan Sayres, a man in whom shyness and arrogance are curiously combined, hit the ceiling.
He invited Crook to dinner at his handsome lawn-bordered Hunts Point home—a house which sits just above a lake-shore boathouse and machine shop in which the Slo-Mos are kenneled. For hours, with Driver Fageol and Seattle Yacht Club officers, he insisted that the ruling be rescinded. Crook refused. Next day Crook was told by a high-placed Seattle citizen that if he continued to refuse, Sayres would pull out his boat (an allegation Sayres later denied with vehemence). The morning after that, rebelling at the pressure, Crook resigned. He was replaced with Stanley Donogh, an executive of Sears Roebuck in Seattle. Donogh announced he would rescind the rule. Six Detroit owners and then New York's Guy Lombardo threatened to walk out on the race themselves.