To most of the people who saw Willard Rhodes's boat Miss Thriftway (above) successfully defend her title in the Gold Cup at Seattle, the victory was one more score for Seattle in the bitter hydroplane rivalry with Detroit. But for me Miss Thriftway's record-setting performance was more a token of victory in my long struggle to prove that the Rolls-Royce engine is superior to the Allison as a power plant for today's incredibly fast unlimited speedboats.
The late Stan Sayres and I were the first to put a Rolls-Royce in a hydro when we tried one in the old Slo-Mo-Shun V (SI, Aug. 12). We won the 1954 Gold Cup with it. But even after that a lot of people still argued for the Allisons. And I'll admit the arguments looked awfully strong three weeks ago when Bill Boeing's Allison-powered Miss Wahoo beat four Rolls-Royce boats at Lake Tahoe. As far as I'm concerned, however, Miss Thriftway's triumph in this last Gold Cup was the solid clincher for the Rolls.
Before the Gold Cup began I put my money on two Rolls boats. One was Thriftway, driven by the daring but intelligent Bill Muncey. The other was Hawaii Kai III, operated by the old Sayres Slo-Mo crew and driven by Jack Regas. The Allison boats I was betting against were W. T. (Bill) Waggoner's two splendid hydros Shanty I and Maverick. As it turned out, the race was a clear test between the two types of engines.
By the running of the final heat, Thriftway's point advantage was almost unassailable. She went into the final heat with 800 points, against 700 for Shanty I. But, in addition, she had only to finish within two minutes of Shanty I to gain 400 bonus points for fastest total elapsed time.
As the finalists bore down on the starter's clock, Hawaii Kai (its engine replaced and out to make a show) led the pack with a tremendous burst of acceleration. Close behind were Maverick, Breathless II and Gale V. Muncey brought Thriftway up from the outside—a perfect tactical position, beyond the dangerous spray that could wash him out of almost certain victory.
In an instant, the race was all but over. Colonel Russ Schleeh, the courageous, course-wise driver of Shanty I, made a fatal error in coming up on the inside. Kai, Maverick, Breathless, Gale and Thriftway forced Schleeh to turn inside the No. 3 buoy to avoid a crash. According to Gold Cup rules, the colonel had to circle the buoy before giving lonely chase from far behind. And with that, his only chance of victory—a record-breaking heat for 400 bonus points—had vanished.
At this point, Muncey could have finished last and won. However, he allowed himself to become involved in a personal duel with Driver Roy Duby of Gale V for third place. His early lap times of 102-103 miles per hour were very much faster than he needed. They were, in fact, fast enough to cause disastrous engine failure.
Hawaii Kai, almost contemptuous in its lost cause, set a blazing pace as the front runner for nine laps, then dropped out. This was the near tragedy of the day. With a ruptured gas tank and fuel spilling throughout the boat, Regas kept up his torrid pace until engine failure mercifully took him out of the race. Some half-million spectators were unaware that Jack Regas was riding a time bomb. He alone must explain why he did it.
Muncey brought Miss Thriftway home in second place, with a heat speed of 98.137, a short distance back of Maverick, but well ahead of Shanty I, which gamely fought from seventh to third under the determined foot of Colonel Russ Schleeh. Short Circuit (the former Tempo VII) finished a poor fourth, followed by Breathless II, and far back was Gale V.
Speed, ever-increasing speed, marked the 50th Gold Cup run over the three-mile course. Miss Thriftway set a new mark for the 90-mile run of 101.979 miles per hour. Mira Slovak, the steady but opportunistic driver of Bill Boeling's Miss Wahoo, traveled the fastest lap in all heats at 113.804, with Hawaii Kai only a few boat-lengths behind, with 113.089. The newly raised qualifying time of 95 miles per hour proved no barrier to the 15 boats. Miss Wahoo, Maverick and Hawaii Kai all qualified over 110 miles per hour, Maverick at 117.054.
By a postrace Gold Cup ruling last week, hydroplane officials ruled out complete engine changes in one-day races. This is an obvious move in the right direction, to prevent affluent owners from beating down their opposition with spare engines, spare parts and unlimited resources. The ruling strengthens my belief that the Rolls-Royce engine, with its superior staying power, will replace the souped-up Allisons now in use. The ruling clearly is a return to the original Gold Cup concept, that boat and engine must go the full 90 miles. It is a constructive move against merely bolting "hot rod" engines together for the purpose of winning a single heat.
Miss Thriftway won her Gold Cup with the same Rolls-Royce engine that went 90 miles at Lake Tahoe only three weeks before. Both Maverick and Shanty I, to take opposite examples, underwent complete engine changes before the final Gold Cup heat. So did several other Allison-powered contenders. The "hot" fuels used in these engines, involving mixtures of nitro-methane and alcohol, result in a dreadful and expensive engine attrition, not to mention the danger of a tragic fire or explosion. I can foresee a time, not distant, when the drivers themselves will force on conservative owners a change to the Rolls-Royce engine. Bill Boeing, in spite of his victory at Tahoe, plans to replace his Allisons with Rolls-Royces in the near future. And it certainly is no secret that Russ Schleeh and Bill Stead, Waggoner's two drivers, have put him on notice that if he wants to win future races, he will have to put more power under their feet. As yet Waggoner hasn't shown any signs of wanting to change engines. But his only alternative is to dream up another way of getting more power out of the Allison engine. If he manages to do that, he will have solved quite a problem.
HUDDLED IN COCKPIT OF ROLLS-ROYCE-POWERED "MISS THRIFTWAY," BILL MUNCEY SURGES TO GOLD CUP WIN IN WASHINGTON