A busty Italian engine was squeezed into an American racing boat last month, and the merger made partners out of Briggs Cunningham, who supplied the engine, and Sam Griffith, who put ii in the boat. It was and is a notable partnership and to practicing boat racers a portentous one. Cunningham is the onetime prince of lost causes who changed his luck by sailing Columbia to a stunning victory in the 1958 America's Cup (earlier he had spent millions building beautiful autos that didn't win at Le Mans). Griffith has fractured a few hundred bones of his own, racing powerboats to record speeds and into pieces around Miami and New York.
The engine is a 5.6-liter specially built 530-horsepower Maserati, all magnesium and aluminum. The hull is a slinky 19-foot Lauterbach three-point hydroplane. The combined potential is probably the fastest of all limited-class racing boats (qualifying as a 900-kilogram). Cunningham and Griffith considered this, along with their assets, liabilities and gray hair, and decided that while they'd love to get it moving, they'd just as soon not be in it when it did.
Griffith, who once pitched himself from a stricken World War II bomber and landed in the only river within 200 miles (his parachute didn't open), knows his limitations. The fastest boat he ever raced was a hopped-up 266-cubic-inch hydroplane, in which he ruptured his spleen in 1952. He now sells yachts and races by whim. Recently he took the Maserati on a 120-mile-an-hour spin across a Miami rock pit. "I'm 51 years old," he said afterward, "too old for this baby. It scares me green."
Cunningham is 54 and still flits around the international countryside because, he said, he just likes to race. "I don't go as fast anymore, that's all." He had seen a Maserati win on land at Sebring and had followed its trials on water in Europe. Upon acquiring a Maserati distributorship six months ago, he called Griffith and farmed out two engines, and waited to get the result. "Auto racing is one thing," he said, "boat racing quite another. Boat racing is dangerous. Boat racing is for the birds."
The "bird" who will drive the Maserati is Don (Red) Wilson of Palm Beach. He just happened to own the Lauterbach in which the Maserati nested, and he races powerboats as if he thought them indestructible. He has proved otherwise often enough, but, at 29, Wilson is not as philosophical as the other two. He has been fished out of the Potomac unconscious, smashed into at 100 mph in Miami and severely burned when trapped in a Gold Cup boat in Seattle, but he has also been the top qualifier in the past three cup races and won every Gold Cup heat he ever finished (without finishing quite as many as it takes for the grand prize). He describes 190 miles an hour as "sort of leaving your feelings." He is freckled and unpretentious and prospers as a Palm Beach car dealer.
When Griffith got out and Wilson in, the Maserati did 140. A boatbuilder described the sight as "frightening—a narrow, streamlined thing full of engine. It needn't have had a bottom. It ran three feet off the water." Wilson said it was stable and handled well. He predicted he would soon have it up to 165.
This would surely beat anything under the Gold Cup (unlimited) class. The Union of International Motorboating recently advanced the 800-kilogram class to 900 kilos, and in the projected campaign this winter Wilson will go against these and a veteran fleet of American 7-liter drivers. The 900-kilo record is 150 mph; the 7-liter is 151.
In its first closed-course race, the Maserati did 88 mph in trials for the Orange Bowl Grand Prix, a U.S. record for a mile-and-a-half course. Bad weather canceled the rest of the regatta. The engines, however, have remained in Wilson's care. He feels the Lauterbach hull is superior to the higher-angled Italian rigs, which are geared for acceleration and have been known to do cartwheels at 150 mph. He wants now to prove it. "It's his boat, and his life," said Cunningham. "I told him to go ahead."