The biggest single-arena sporting event in the world is the Gold Cup Race for unlimited hydroplanes at Seattle. This weekend, August 10 and 11, half a million people will be massed around Lake Washington, where the race is held, crowding around the mechanics' pits ashore, lining the famous floating bridge north of the course, jamming hundreds of boats moored gunwale to gunwale in every available inch of space, dotting the shoreline and the hillsides for miles around. What they will see will remain forever unforgettable to them: the world's largest and fastest racing boats—such as the two shown above: Seattle's Thriftway Too (top) and Miss Thriftway—skittering down the straightaways at better than 100 mph, careening through turns on a few square inches of hull that give them precarious hold on the water, all but airborne under the roaring pressure of fighter plane engines driving their propellers so fast that tons of water are spun 500 feet behind in giant rooster tails of spray. In all the world of sports, there is no sight that can quite compare with it.
To fully understand and appreciate what will be happening this weekend at Seattle, it is worth going back three weeks to a previous race for unlimited hydroplanes: the Mapes Cup race at Lake Tahoe. There, in the prism-clear water trapped 6,000 feet up in a ring of mountains at the California-Nevada border, some major actors in Seattle's coming drama thundered through their heats before the blue backdrop of the Sierras, giving spectators a thorough opportunity to study their performance and assess their chances in the climactic race to come.
Of all the people who watched the race at Lake Tahoe, none studied the roaring, rooster-tailing craft with a more expert eye than an unassuming, quiet-voiced man who stood throughout on the official barge. Lou Fageol had come all the way from Kent, Ohio to see the big boats do their stuff, and with more reason than the average fan. Until two years ago, Fageol himself was at the wheel of one of the best and fastest of the unlimiteds, and he was among the very best and fastest drivers of them all.
Five feet 8 inches tall, weighing 150 pounds, Fageol hardly seems a likely fellow for the job of jockeying an unlimited through a standard 30-mile heat. Just take a quick look at the records, however, and you'll find, along with an impressive list of Fageol victories, an entry reading: Fastest Gold Cup Lap, 108.663 mph; driver, Lou Fageol; boat, Slo-Mo-Shun V; owner, Stanley Sayres, Seattle, 1951.
Those were the great days of Fageol's association with Stan Sayres (SI, Aug. 23, 1954)—from 1950 to 1954, when Sayres's Slo-Mo-Shun IV and Slo-Mo-Shun V dominated Gold Cup competition, humbling year after year the entries sent out by archrival Detroit. Sayres died in 1956, having seen both his hydroplanes smashed, his two best drivers badly hurt and Detroit in possession of the Gold Cup; but he bequeathed Seattle, and all the rest of the West, for that matter, a flaming desire to keep the Gold Cup Race for the West's own.
That desire was evident on Lake Tahoe. No less than eight Seattle boats were on the water. Some of these were built by well-provided Westerners who, loyal to Sayres's memory, had come under the flag of the Seattle Yacht Club, Sayres's former outfit. Willard Rhodes of Seattle and the Thriftway grocery chain built Miss Thriftway two years ago, and last year she became the first non-Sayres winner of the Gold Cup out of Seattle. This year Rhodes had a second boat: Thriftway Too. Bill Waggoner, of oil and ranching and Arizona, also had two on hand: Shanty I, last year's high-point boat, and Maverick. "I'm just a little oilman," said Waggoner, who has about $300 million in the kitty, "and there's nothing cheap about having unlimited hydroplanes that I ever found, but I manage to keep them in gas."
Then there was Edgar Kaiser, son of Henry J. and now top executive in that empire, who brought out the Hawaii Kai. Bill Boeing Jr., heir to Boeing of airplane fame, was represented by his Miss Wahoo.
These were the big contenders who could most easily afford the $35,000 it costs to have a top designer-builder team like Ted Jones and Les Staudacher furnish them with an unlimited hydroplane, and who could also pony up the $20,000 it takes to campaign for a season in the unlimited circuit. But there are less expensive ways of getting into the Valhalla of motorboat racing, too. For instance, a group of Seattle hydrophiles, syndicated as Rooster Tails, Inc., rebuilt the gutted Slo-Mo V as Miss Seattle, and a Seattle boatbuilder named Norm Christiansen started a hull in his cellar, hoisted it into his backyard, completed it there and named it Miss Bardahlafter a well-known manufacturer of engine lubricants. The vacuum left by Stan Sayres has been well filled.
Against these eight Seattle boats at Lake Tahoe, the Detroiters sent a couple of advance scouts, Gale V and Gale VI, owned by Joseph Schoenith, Detroit electrical contractor, with orders to see what Seattle had to offer.
By the time heat 1B had started, Lou Fageol was comfortably seated near the rail of the barge. Squinting out into the course, he studiously ignored its natural beauties in favor of the huge pink body of Hawaii Kai III, 30 feet and 5,000 pounds of hull, his favorite boat on the course. "Beautiful," said Fageol quietly, as the Hawaii Kai slammed around the far turn. "A boat like that is enough to make me go back to driving."