The ultimate enthusiast in a benchmark age of performance and panache.
By Tim Clark — June 2002
In 1924, when Gar Wood and his mechanic, Orlin Johnson, arrived at the starting line for the Fisher-Allison Trophy Race on the Niagara River at Buffalo, they were dressed in evening wear--white ties, tail coats, the works. According to Anthony Mollica, author of Gar Wood Boats: Classics of a Golden Era, Wood even wore an opera hat fitted with a chinstrap. They won all three heats and were awarded the trophy looking dapper, if somewhat disheveled.
Wood's motivation for this particular publicity stunt was manifold and in all likelihood can be traced back two years, to when the committee overseeing the American Power Boat Association's (APBA) Gold Cup Races instituted sweeping changes in the rules governing the competition. Prior to 1922 Wood--teamed up with Christopher Columbus Smith, the eventual founder of Chris-Craft--had won five straight Gold Cups under rules that left the design of the boats and the engines that powered them virtually unregulated. Wood's deep pockets were matched by his unparalleled fervor for extreme performance, and every year following his first Gold Cup victory in 1917, he relentlessly upped the ante with bigger engines and brawnier boats. By 1921, with entries falling off because of the great cost of facing Wood and with the Eastern boat-racing establishment supremely resentful of upstart Midwesterners dominating the sport, something had to be done.
So the legend goes, with much truth in it. But there was a parallel rationale on the part of the APBA organizers, and it's clear in the rules themselves: All boats competing in 1922 would have to have a minimum of 25 feet of waterline length, and only displacement or semidisplacement hulls were allowed. Engines could not exceed 625 cubic inches in displacement, had to have wet exhaust, and had to be enclosed under hatches. Finally, every boat in competition was required to have seating capacity for four people. In short, the APBA throttled down competition to a level that produced boats that nonracers could cope with. They had, in fact, deliberately legislated the development of stylish speedboats--"gentleman's runabouts" that, as Wood playfully demonstrated, could be piloted in a tux.
This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.