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One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Published By: Jonathan Lee

Written by Mark Rotharmel

Whomever coined the phrase, “You can never go back”, clearly never attended – or participated – in a vintage powerboat regatta.

Like many people I know, I’m somewhat nostalgic about my past, particularly the 70’s and 80’s when I traveled from town to town, and ultimately country to country, in pursuit of checkered flags… or so I once believed.

When a racer is asked why they choose to live life on the circuit, most site the thrill of competition or “winning” as primary motivators. While indeed they are, it wasn’t until the end of my career that I finally came to terms with my own true reasons for driving very fast boats.

First, the drive itself presented an emotional high, a conquering of fears and a resulting confidence. Whatever one’s endeavours, pre-event jitters come with the package and successfully managing fear is necessary to survive, especially when a mistake or technical issue can snap a tunnel boat over backwards at 150 mph.

The second, and perhaps most important reason, was to share my passion with like-minded people. Thinking back on the diverse cast of characters that I raced with and against, we didn’t necessarily have much in common, yet became close friends and acquaintances. While some continue to stay in touch, opportunities to meet are limited.

To my knowledge, a national boat racing reunion had never been seriously discussed, but last summer, thanks to some highly creative and ambitious members of The Canadian Antique and Classic Boat Show Society, a plan was devised to bring a vintage boat racing event to ACBS’s 33rd Annual Boat Festival and Show in Gravenhurst, Ontario - and what a time it was!

Appropriately named “The Greatest Race Boat Show in Canadian History”, over 150 vintage racing craft and some very quick, immaculately restored speedboats arrived at Muskoka Wharf to be part of this unprecedented four-day festival held in early July (4th to 7th).

Kicking off the celebration was Thursday’s “Movie Night” at the Gravenhurst Opera House, hosted by Jim Thomson, owner /builder of the famous Rolls Royce powered Miss Supertest hydroplanes. Earlier that day, Miss Supertest III arrived on a flatbed trailer, an incredible site to witness. This very special boat came with quite a following too. Weekend guests included John Lyons, initiator/promoter of the recently printed Miss Supertest postage stamp, and Taylor | Sprule Corporation’s Ivan Novotny, the graphic artist who designed it. 

Following the Supertest Story, a film that included rare footage of both Jim and his driver, the late Bob Hayward who was tragically killed while racing Miss Supertest II in 1961, came two more presentations: A documentary filmed on Australia’s Ken Warby, the World’s Fastest Man on Water (325 mph) and a live interview with Miss Budweiser’s daring Unlimited Hydroplane Champion, Tom D’Eath. It was truly an evening to remember.

Friday, during daylight hours, was all about organizing race boats. One by one they rolled into town and were placed in either a dry pit area, for static display, or one of several wet pit locations where they would be launched by trailer or craned into the water on Saturday.

Friday evening’s “Reception for Champions” was a sentimental favorite. Most of the event’s committee members, led by Boat Show co-chairs Rita Adams and Rick McGraw, were on hand to introduce ten Canadian boat racing Hall of Famers – Spike Burns, Norm Woods, Jim Thompson, Ted Abel, Bill Hodgson, Fred Wolf, Ron France, Ted Gryguc, Jamie Auld and the writer. We all received individualized participation plaques and mingled with friends, family, fans and weekend volunteers, including Jan and Gary Getson who had worked diligently for months, researching the various HOF’s and tracking down contact information.

Following an outstanding party, our “V” team (I’m still in denial about that “Vintage” word) headed over for a late dinner at the Wharf where some tall tales continued. At this point we were mere hours away from race day – the main event - Saturday July 6.

Saturday’s 8:00 am driver’s meeting was another step back in time. Two of the sport’s former Canadian Boating Federation referees were present, Ted Abel and Bill Jennings, offering direction to a newer group of vintage racing officials. The questions asked and the answers provided were identical to those I remember from decades past, but this time there was a difference. 

Many of the drivers in the room had never raced – they were collectors/ restorers of these powerful machines. Vintage Racing is not really racing; it is a demonstration of speed and a tribute to our sport in days gone by. The challenge however, is knowing when to go fast, and when to back off the throttle. There are no prizes. Everybody wins when you put on a good show, the equipment doesn’t break and the crowd is pleased. 

Like any form of motor racing where multiple categories are scheduled, it’s up to the organizers to keep the program running smoothly. Down time was limited to a single break over the lunch hour. Opening ceremonies featured the famous “Canadiana Grand Prix” hydroplane circling the bay and soon after came the official restoration debut of the late Harold and Lorna Wilson’s Miss Canada IV, now owned by Muskoka cottager Bobby Genovese and driven by Hall of Famer, Norm Woods.

As per rules set out by the governing bodies – the Canadian Boating Federation (CBF) and the American Powerboat Racing Association (APBA)- vintage racing itineraries are set up to ensure each boat gets two opportunities to demonstrate their rig each day. Unlike most sanctioned events, Gravenhurst was a one day affair – Sunday was reserved for other activities:  a Sea Flea Festival, Children’s Cardboard Boat Races and a BMX /FMX Stunt Show. Given Saturday’s high temperatures and Sunday’s rain, the decision to focus on a single racing day turned out to be a blessing.

Big, loud engines and long, high rooster tails have a way of drawing a crowd - nearly 5000 tickets were collected at the gate and the docks were filled to capacity. Watching three-point inboard hydroplanes dance like a spiders down the straightaway, then sending up massive, powerful walls of water as they slide through a turn, can send shivers up your spine.

Dave Richardson, APBA’s Vintage Chairman, owns a 1976, 7 Litre Grand Prix hydro named “Lauterbach Special GP 200”, a fan favorite on the circuit. Reduced to 800-plus horsepower from its record-setting days sporting 1000 ponies, the boat is quick. Richardson knows and respects what he has under him, accelerating at a steady pace until the boat gets aired out, then feathers the throttle to keep his ride safe.

At Gravenhurst, Canadiana Grand Prix - owned by Marv Hart, The Irishmen – owned by Bill and Judy Fisk, and Xanadu – owned by Bob Hampton, are Richardson’s closest rivals. To thousands of fans on shore, there appeared to be a supreme side-by-side battle, similar to that when Nascar drivers drive three-wide into a turn at Daytona. That’s what this sport is about – looking fast, but driving at a controlled speed. Those on the tour know the deal and self-discipline is expected. These may be race boats, but their racing days are over.
Other classes taking to the water included Jersey Speed Skiffs, various 260 and 280 Hydros – better known today as Five Litre Inboards, and some vintage kneel-down Stock and Modified Outboard Racing Hydros. Since Gravenhurst’s event spanned 100 years of racing, demonstrations were put on by present day T850 (CC), 70 hp V-Bottom runabouts, outboard powered Drag Boats, a single aluminum flame-throwing turbine jet entry and a custom offshore boat owned by another great Canadian champion, Lorne Leibel.

I may be somewhat prejudiced (just a bit), but to me, there’s nothing like watching a delicate, 1250 LB, 18-foot mega-horsepower tunnel boat fly clear and free of the water’s surface at 125 mph plus. Now associated with US teammates, Tennessee’s Roger Hinsdale and my 1970’s Mercury racing teammate Rich Luhrs from New Jersey, Gravenhurst presented me with an opportunity to climb back into an open-cockpit Molinari, very similar to one I raced (and now own as a static piece) in 1981.

Hinsdale had previously let me drive his own Molinari/V6 Evinrude CCC at the 2012 Clayton, New York Antique Race Boat Regatta – which just so happened to be the first time I’d been back in a true race tunnel since the early 90’s. I recall being somewhat nervous before the start, but whatever anxiety I had disappeared quickly. Half way through my session I felt competitive again.

Roger is a good friend of Jim Bedette, a passionate collector and race boat enthusiast who hails from New York State. Bedette owns a nameless 1978 blue and red Molinari #754, but couldn’t make the Gravenhurst show. 

To make a long story short, Roger, a retired IBM engineer, mechanic and selfless promoter of the sport, spent most of 2013 rebuilding Bedette’s boat and engine after being riddled with electrical challenges at its début in Tavares, Florida last winter. Hinsdale was pegged to drive the boat in Heat #1. I would take over the wheel for Heat # 2.

At Gravenhurst, the outboards were summoned bright and early to the course. As tight and cramped as the outboard pits were, the trailers were quickly backed into the water. Roger was last in - and while the rest of the class sat patiently awaiting his Molinari to float free, Roger was desperately attempting to keep the engine running for it’s pre-race warm up.  It would cough, start, sputter and stop.

Speculating that it was a fuel issue, I decided to pull the boat from the water and we’d work it out on the trailer. Within seconds, Hinsdale leaped out of the cockpit, we popped the boat’s rear cowling and realized that a fuel valve was shut off.  Problem solved. Back in the water within minutes, Roger sped away to join the fleet, on their way around the corner for the start of Heat 1.

At the end of his 10-lap run, Hinsdale returned to the pits, overjoyed with his run in the Molinari. Roger’s “thing” is not so much the drive itself, but assessing if the motor is running properly and developing enough horsepower to let the boat run straight and true, devoid of handling problems. I was just happy to see the boat come back without a challenge. 

After our team prepped for our final heat, there was plenty of time to walk the docks and talk to people.  Since this was, after all, an ACBS event, quite a number of members had boats tied to the piers – most of which were beautifully restored wooden hulls. On display were Ditchburns, Chris Crafts, Shepherds, Dukes and a host of replica woodies built by Clarion, Hacker, Peter Breen and other local and legendary craftsmen. Of course, when one is about to do something whereby a certain degree of risk attached, it’s hard to stand by and enjoy the scenery. After a quick bite, it was my turn to suit up.
At 2:00 p.m., I wedged myself into the cockpit and was backed down the ramp. The engine fired immediately and felt strong when I burped the throttle. Soon after, the green flag was raised and while heading onto the course, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my former racing days. The smell of wood, fiberglass and racing fuel seemed all so familiar.

Having driven a similar Molinari one year earlier, my confidence level was high. Getting a feel for the windy but acceptably lumpy racecourse on lap one, the boat's feedback was excellent and it handled without any porpoise or challenges. The boat seemed very well balanced and with extra lift built into the tunnel, performed like a champion.

Due to a mix-up back in the pits, the five-litre hydros, which were scheduled to run immediately after our outboard class was finished, were somehow released in error. I was a half way down the back straight when they pulled onto the course – which turned into another form of entertainment, especially for me. Alas, I now could give chase to some inboard powered contenders!

Holding my completive spirit in check, I reminded myself that this was not a race.  Today, the throttle goes both ways. Backing off while driving through the windy sections, I could plant the throttle running downwind. Turning just as tight and fast as the boat would safely allow, I really enjoyed my drive. 

What I’d discovered at the end of my professional racing career had once again been confirmed. If you drive well, come back safely and enjoy the ride, you win.

Can’t wait until I do it again.