Thunder On The River:


The Gold Cup, Powerboat Racing’s Most Famous Trophy,

Approaches A Century of Linkage To World’s Motor Capitol



Executone Boat demonstrates the melding of aerodynamic and hydrodynamic design disciplines.

Photo: Jim Smith


        As Oakland County International Airport celebrates its rightful place in aviation history and the accomplishments of pioneers in the air -- Charles A. Lindbergh among them -- there’s another event across town on the Detroit River celebrating exploits on the water: The Detroit Gold Cup Hydroplane Races.


The Indianapolis 500 and the LeMans 24-Hour Endurance Race have rich motorsports histories, but neither is as old or more famous to its fans as the American Power Boat Association (APBA) Gold Cup. 


The Gold Cup, run the weekend of August 24, is the oldest, continuously awarded (with the exception of 1928, due to a hull rule change, and the World War II years 1942 through 1945) motor sports trophy in the world.   It was first presented in 1904 on the Hudson River in New York to C. C. Riote and his boat, “Standard,” which averaged a blistering 23.6 mph.  The site of each year’s race was determined by the winner of the previous year.


    The first Detroit entry to win the Gold Cup was “Miss Detroit” driven by J. Milot and J. Beebe, who averaged 48.5 mph in 1915.  The following year, an Algonac, MI, boat builder by the name of Christopher Columbus Smith drove a single step hydroplane of his own design to victory in New York.  The triumph by Chris’ craft led him to establish a very successful boat building company: Chris Craft. 


With Detroit’s automobile industry at full strength after World War I, powerful new engines, like the famous Liberty aeromotor, were being designed and built, and Detroit boat racer Gar Wood built just the boats for them.  Wood won the Gold Cup five straight times from 1917 through 1921 and established the city as the unlimited hydroplane racing capital of the world. 


His 1918 winner, “Miss Detroit III,” was the first of 13 winners with Detroit Yacht Club sponsorship.


The “Roaring” ‘20s…

During the prohibition years of the 1920s, in which the infamous “Purple Gang” held sway locally, the race was won three straight times by Caleb Bragg, who drove a boat named “Baby Bootlegger” in 1924 and 1925.  Horace Dodge, Jr., owned the 1932 winner, “Delphine IV,” and the 1936 winner, “Impshi.”


Prelude To The Torpedo Boats

Concurrent with the military’s taking advantage of the accelerated development of engines, airframes and understanding of aerodynamic principles accorded them through private concerns participating in the extremely popular air races (Roscoe Turner and Cleveland becoming household names in the early ‘30s) the U.S. Navy took no small interest in the powerboat developmental efforts of Gar Wood and others.  By the time war broke out in 1939, the famed PT (Patrol Torpedo, U.S.) MTB (Motor Torpedo Boats, Britain) and the lethal Schnellboote or E-Boats, fielded by Germany, were quite advanced – and fast.


The election of John F. Kennedy as President in 1960 brought the exploits of the PT-109, while operating out of Rendova, Solomon Islands, in the Pacific Theater of Operations, to the fore, thus making it the most famous torpedo boat in the world.

PT-174 at high speed near Rendova Base, Solomon Islands, 1944.  These Elco produced boats were ’80 long and powered by 3 Packard 12-cylinder engines with a combined output of 4,500hp.  She could make 41 knots.

Photo: Naval Historical Center


The Italians also contributed significantly through their quite effective use of this ocean-going weapon, designated MAS boats, during WWI.  And, had it not been for short sighted officers in the Austrian Navy (which had suffered great losses at the hands of Italian MAS boat commanders like Luigi Rizzo) a 32 knot air cushion Hydroplane –very advanced for its time in 1915 -- carrying 18 inch torpedoes, would have given them an extraordinary technological advantage.

Capt. Luigi Rizzo’s MAS.15 depicted after his famous attack on the Austrian Dreadnought Szent Istvan, June, 1918

Artwork courtesy of Marina Militare Italiana

Post War

 Bandleader Guy Lombardo won the first post war race in 1946.  S. S. Sayres and his famous “Slo-Mo-Shun” boats won four straight times, from 1951 through 1954, three of them driven by Lou Fageol. 


The heart of some of the most famous fighter aircraft in WWII, inclusive of P-51 (early variants) P-38 and P-40, a turbocharged Allison V-12 awaits installation into Miss U.S.

Photo: Hank Kosciuczko


After World War II, however, Seattle, WA, had become the boat building capital of the country, a hotbed of hydroplane boat design and construction, and a consistent site for the Gold Cup.  In 1962, promoters were eager to move the race around the country, and the APBA initiated an open bid/presentation process for other sites.




Detroit Mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh met with local business leaders and formed the Spirit of Detroit Association, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to preserving and perpetuating hydroplane racing on the Detroit River.  The group was successful in attracting the Cup for 11 races between 1963 and 1992. 


        Meanwhile, Detroit's Lee Schoenith, driving “Gale V” owned by his father, Joseph, became the first winner to break the 100 mph average speed

with 102.5 mph in 1955. 

First winning boat to break the 100 mph average speed barrier, Gale V

Photo: Hank Kosciuczko Collection


        The following year, 1956, marked the beginning of the Bill Muncey legend.  Muncey, a Detroiter, won the Gold Cup eight times over a span of 23 years, and the victories seemed to come in bunches:  1956-1957; 1961-1962; a lone win in 1972, then three straight in 1977, 1978 and 1979. 


        Ron Musson won three straight Cups in 1963, 1964 and 1965.  Detroit's Tom D'Eath also won three times: 1976 and two straight in 1989 and 1990.    


Thanks to those three wins by D’Eath, two by Canton’s Mark Tate, five by Dave Willock (including 2002) and an incredible 11 wins by legendary Chip Hanauer (seven straight from 1982 to 1988), only one other driver has won the Gold Cup since 1982: Mike Hanson in 2001.  Hanauer’s winning average speed in 1995 nearly broke the 150 mph barrier – 149.653 mph.


Hydroplane Capitol

In 1988, the Spirit of Detroit Association began a campaign to move the Gold Cup to Detroit on a permanent basis.  At that time, Detroit was the oldest continuing unlimited hydroplane race site in the world, had the best race facilities, drew the largest crowds and had hosted more Gold Cups than any other city.

Looking more like waterborne UFOs, 3 boats negotiate the famed “Roostertail” turn.

Photo: APBA



In 1992, the APBA Board of Directors named Detroit the permanent home of the Gold Cup.

        Chrysler and Jeep became the title sponsors for six years, from 1996 to 2001. Subsequently, The Chrysler Jeep Superstores Advertising Association became the title sponsor in 2002 and continues today, with participation from DaimlerChrysler, AG.


        A new structure developed in 2003 with Detroit native and three-time Gold Cup champion driver Tom D’Eath forming the Detroit River Regatta Association to produce the event.  The also newly formed The Boat Racing Company was enlisted to handle the mechanics of race operations.  It is led by John D. Gysin II, whose family has a decades long tradition of Detroit River powerboat racing, and includes a dedicated group of experienced Gold Cup volunteers.

The Detroit International Water Speedway, an oval course just north of the Belle Isle Bridge between the Roostertail Restaurant and the Detroit Yacht Club one of the oldest clubs in the world, is unquestionably the most famous powerboat racecourse on the planet.

Detroit Jewel: Miss Budweiser flashes past the 135 year old Detroit Yacht Club; one of the oldest in the world and the largest in North America

Photo: Detroit Yacht Club


Now in its 99th year, the Gold Cup, with the whine of turbines having all but replaced the roar of reciprocating aircraft engines as the propulsion method of choice, will celebrate a full century of powerboat racing in 2004, something no other motor sports trophy in the world can claim.


Continuing a grand tradition, The 2003 Chrysler Jeep Superstores Detroit APBA Gold Cup features unlimited hydroplane boats with 3,000 horsepower engines reaching top speeds of more than 200 mph – nearly the takeoff velocity of the supersonic Concorde -- and covering the length of a football field in less than one second.


Miss DYC, official boat of The Detroit Yacht Club, at speed.  The Club recently honored Jim Schebil, President of Chrysler Jeep Superstores Advertising Association, hydroplane champion Tom D’Eath and Commodore Tom McInnes, for duplicating the efforts of former Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh 42 years before: they helped save the Gold Cup Races for the city.

Photo: Detroit Yacht Club


On one weekend in Detroit, aerospace and hydrospace technology design disciplines share the historical and performance limelight.  And if you look hard enough, with no little help from the imagination, you might even see “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh and Gar Wood shaking hands…


Bob Stockton with Myron D. Stokes

Publisher’s note:  Bob Stockton, a motorsports public relations veteran who spent a decade with Goodyear during one of the most intensive racing technology developmental periods between 1965 and 1975 – inclusive of Ford’s legendary debut at Le Mans with the famous GT40s – will have his hands full the weekend of August 24, 2003.  He and the rest of the Bassett & Bassett communications team have PR oversight of this year’s Gold Cup Hydroplane races.


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