Part 3: Having lorded over the Gold Cup for years, Wood relished the new challenge.
By Tim Clark — June 2002
He hit the mother lode at the close of World War I when he was able to buy surplus Packard Liberty aircraft engines "by the boxcar load at literally pennies on the dollar," says Mollica. The end of the war also allowed resumption of the Harmsworth, the unlimited British International Trophy races that were a de facto world championship. Having lorded over the Gold Cup for years, Wood relished the new challenge. Anticipating the possibility of rough seas on the race course near the Isle of Wight, but hoping for a calm day, Wood took two challengers to the 1920 event: for heavy weather, the beefy 38-foot Miss Detroit V, with a pair of Liberty V-12s; and for a mill pond, the aforementioned Miss America, 10 feet shorter but also sporting a pair of Libertys, for a total of 1,000 hp.
Wood was in luck. The day was calm, and the lighter boat triumphed. But as proof of Smith's and Lisee's superior boatbuilding, it was her agility and not her brute power that won the day. According to racer J. Lee Barrett's 1939 account quoted by Rodengen, Miss America's engines missed on several cylinders throughout the race, but because she was steered with a rudder mounted at her forefoot, she cornered far more tightly than the competition. Before the race the British had scoffed at the bow rudder; the following year their challenger had one.
By the time he retired from racing in 1933, Wood had won the Harmsworth nine times with a succession of boats that culminated in the 1933 winner Miss America X. By then he was shipping an obscene quantity of horsepower. In 1931 he'd become the first man to break 100 mph on a straightaway when Miss America IX took him to 102.2 mph with the help of twin Packard 3A-2500s. According to Packard historian E.K. Muller, writing at the Seattle Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum Web site, these engines were supercharged by Schwitzer-Cummins to a whopping 1,600 hp each, double their original rating. In Miss America X he used four of them, ramped up again by Schwitzer-Cummins to a total of 7,600 hp divided between two props. His successful defense of the Harmsworth was no trouble that year, nor was boosting his world-record straightaway speed to 124.9 mph.
So just what was Wood doing back in 1924 pottering around the course of a limited sweepstakes in a precious little runabout called Baby Gar? Selling boats, that's what. By then it was clear to him that the 1922 rules change had ushered in a new era in American boating. Chris Smith had recognized it and ended his partnership with Wood in 1923 to start Chris-Craft. Mollica notes that by 1924 Wood was already building exquisite 33-footers for persuasive clients such as William Randolph Hearst and P.K. Wrigley. Now he was ready to go into steady production. He may have been frustrated with limited racing, but a little publicity for Gar Wood Inc. couldn't hurt, especially if it poked some fun at the APBA. And, you know, there was always the Harmsworth.
This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.