A History of Power Boat Racing

on Lake Winnipesaukee

By Mark Howard

Owner/driver - Scotty


The 1920's and the 1926 Irwin Cup


In the mid 1920’s, a few boating enthusiasts decided to generate some excitement on Lake Winnipesaukee by establishing a Winnipesaukee speed boat championship. Boaters, of course, had been racing each other since their boats had been traveling around the lake but most races had been impromptu and poorly documented. The history of boat racing in the early 20’s is still under research, but for now, our story starts in June of 1926 when a local businessman, James R. Irwin of the Weirs, donated a prize cup to be awarded at the end of the boating season. This beautiful silver cup stood two and a half feet high and had at its base, a motor boat in action. The prize, called the Irwin cup, would be awarded to the fastest boat that completed six, 2 ½ mile laps over a triangular course. Points were awarded to all entrants with a maximum of 200 points awarded for 1st place. At the end of the season, the owner with the greatest number of points would be awarded the cup. Further, if any owner could win a series of races three times over the summer, he would be able to keep the cup permanently. The races were scheduled to be run at Weirs Bay three times every two weeks starting on the July 4th weekend, but were extended to include a forth race that was scheduled to be run over the Labor Day holidays.

 Although difficult to imagine today, the lakes region of the mid 1920’s was a fairly isolated area. New Hampshire’s total population in 1920 was 440,000 with only 36,000 recorded in both Carroll & Belknap Counties. Travel in and out of the area was primarily by train as most roads were simple one or two lanes and unimproved. Travel during the winter months was very difficult and attempted only by the hearty. Only the western portion of the lake, specifically Weirs, Lakeport, Laconia, and Alton Bay, had any sort of substantial buildup. The eastern shore of the lake, from Meredith clockwise around to Alton, had no connecting paved road. Travel around the east side of the lake was accomplished over rough dirt roads. Rail service was available into Wolfeboro, but was both slow and laborious, requiring layovers and train changes. People who lived in Concord, Manchester or Nashua had no direct route they could take to the eastern shore of Lake Winnipesaukee and instead were required to take the railroad east to Rochester or even Portsmouth before they could head north into Wolfeboro. Route #28 from Alton to Wolfeboro wouldn’t be paved until late 1929. The boat race organizers were hoping the scheduled races would draw people into the region but knew great efforts would have to be made to insure easy travel in and out of the area.

 To help people attend the Weirs races, Irwin, along with city officials and other local businessmen, worked closely with the local Boston & Maine railroad executives to finalize plans for advancing their mutual interests. Funds were raised for a series of band concerts that were given every Sunday through Labor Day. Music hours were scheduled from 2-3 and 4-5 in the afternoon. The band that regularly performed was the 387th Infantry Band stationed in Laconia and other plans were put in place to help provide amusements for the expected crowds. Railroad officials scheduled special excursion trains that left Boston at 8 o’clock and ended up at the Weirs at 11:20. The trains came to the Weirs not only from Boston, but also Lynn and Lowell, as well as southern NH. Local hotels scheduled special meals to coincide with the arrival of all excursionists.

 People started arriving at the Weirs before the holiday weekend to enjoy an extended time in the lakes region, many courtesy of the special Boston & Maine RR service. By Saturday afternoon, hotels, camping grounds and boarding houses were all full to capacity with weekenders and other vacationers. Monday, 5 July, started early at the Winnipesaukee Gardens for the thousands of spectators that packed the Weirs. The Infantry band was busy entertaining the crowds that were estimated at over 6,000 strong and the race judges were setting up their official barge. By 10:00, the last of the speed trials were held and all handicaps were set. Spectators arrived by land, and by boat. Every type of craft from canoes to cruisers were milling about the Weirs to witness the afternoon’s racing program. At 1:00 in the afternoon, the steamer Mt. Washington left the Weirs and a few hours later, the afternoon’s racing events began in earnest. The first race was an outboard motor race that started sharply at 3:30. The second race was a semi-speedboat event, with older boats that raced between 15-30 mph. The third race was for the Irwin cup, and was the crowning event of the afternoon. Boats were expected to reach up to 55 mph and represented some of the fastest on any lake in New England. This third and final race began at 4:22 in the afternoon and the starter’s flag was dropped by the Mayor of Laconia, the Honorable George Stevens.

 Only four contestants made it for this final race, the fifth scheduled contestant was Sam Dunsford who had already entered one of his other boats, Babs II, driven by a friend. Dunsford was saving himself to drive his new racing boat, Rainbow IV, which was delivered to the Weirs earlier in the morning. Dunsford had been racing on the water for a number of years and with the growing success of his business supplying the burgeoning automobile industry with electrical parts, was in a position to spend serious money on his favorite hobby. Rainbow IV was a perfect ‘step up’. Built in 1924, she had a most distinguished, if controversial, racing career, having won the 1924 Gold Cup race, only to be disqualified by the APBA. The Gold Cup races were seen as among the greatest of all international powerboat racing events and the chance to buy a racer like this, one designed by the noted designer George Crouch, must have been irresistible. As a racer, Rainbow IV held numerous records, including a 24 hour speed record set in October the previous year, in Canada, while powered by a Liberty V-12. Dunsford bought Rainbow IV from Harry Greening and had a Packard Gold Cup engine installed. To Dunsford’s considerable dismay, she could not be readied in time for the inaugural Irwin cup race.

 The race started well, with all four contestants close together but after six laps around the triangular course, twenty eight minutes after the start, RIP III, a Chris-Craft driven by owner Robert Peterson, crossed the finish line and carried away the honors. Wildcat, a Ditchburn designed and built boat driven by Glenroy Scott came in second and Babs II, Dunsford’s Chris-Craft driven by Arthur Smith, came in third. The forth boat, Jean L driven by Frank Lane was forced to withdraw on the second lap due to a broken rudder. The head race official was Jim Irwin and his daughter Eleanor presented a metal shield to Robert Peterson signifying the win.

 The second race in the series was held two weeks later on July 18th, again at Weirs Bay, on a triangular course laid out by Jim Irwin and Sam Dunsford. Dunsford’s mechanic, Elmer Folsom, had worked around the clock over the previous two weeks while located on Dunsford’s estate on Tuftonboro Neck. By race time, Folsom had Rainbow IV’s Packard engine ready and the crowd was very excited. Rainbow IV’s reputation as a fast, record holding boat was well publicized and known. Her running style was also very distinctive as her surface piercing propeller threw up a spray almost 20 feet in the air when she was at speed. When Dunsford, accompanied by his trusty mechanic Folsom, finally rounded Governor’s Island a few minutes before the races were to begin and came in full view of the assembled throng, there was much cheering and horn blowing. She was clearly the favorite. However, there were a number of competitors who took up the challenge including the first race winner, Robert Peterson in RIP III. Also racing were Jean L, Wildcat and Babs II. The crowds were again estimated at over 6,000 people on land and over 100 craft of all sizes were surrounding the edges of the bay. Rainbow IV did not disappoint as she easily won the race with an average speed of 50 mph. Dunsford and Folsom were given a standing ovation. Jean L and Wildcat were second and third respectively. Both Babs II and RIP III were disqualified as they ran faster in the race than in the trials.

 On Sunday, August 1st, the third series of races were held, again in Weirs Bay around the same type of triangular course the previous two races were held. Many new boats from Alton and Wolfeboro joined in the competition. The races were open to all and the attention paid to the whole event combined with a strong marketing effort helped push the Irwin cup starting field to 11 strong. Flyers were distributed to all the local towns and anyone who owned a boat was heartily encouraged to show their support for the lakes region. Reading through the literature of the time, boat owners were encouraged to support the local area, and were clearly told they had it in their power to make the event a time to remember. The race winner was Nilly driven by Eben Parsons from Alton Bay. Rainbow IV came in second with Wildcat in third. Alice came in fourth driven by Carl Cram, also from Alton Bay. Thousands of spectators lined the shore with hundreds boats and crafts lining the sides of the bay.

 After three races of tight competition, the standings were very close. None of the boats won more than once and each of the three leading contestants had enough points to win the cup if they could win the last race. The point standings were:

Rainbow IV                   350 points

RIP III                          300 points

Wildcat                          225 points

Babs I                            220 points

Nilly                               200 points

Jean L                           100 points

Babs II                            66 points

Alice                               25 points

Echo Jr.                          20 points

The last race of the series was run on Sunday, 12 September. As before, the race was held in Weirs Bay. A full starting lineup of race boats was on display ready for the race. Although postponed for a week, there was no fall-off in attendance. The Boston & Maine RR came through again by assisting thousands of fans who dotted the shore. Hundreds of others attended in their own boats in the spectator fleet. 23 minutes and 27 seconds after the start, Sam Dunsford, driving his Rainbow IV, won in a convincing fashion. He picked up 200 more points giving him a total of 550 points for the racing season and won the beautiful Irwin cup. RIP III took second place with Wildcat in third.

 With the racing season over, all participants agreed the season was very successful and plans were made to expand the racing in future years. Local media and businesses were complimentary in the way the boat racing generated interest in the whole area and helped to attract vacationers into the lakes region. All agreed the races provided the largest attraction around the lake and were easily the fastest in the New England area. The racers agreed amongst themselves they should plan for a more extensive series of speed boat races. This necessitated forming a boat association that could formally sponsor the racing events. Membership would be open to anyone in the lakes region and application blanks were handed out to all who expressed an interest.

 This formal association would provide structure and organization to the regions racing events. It was hoped it would not only make it easier to plan the racing regattas, but could also represent Lake Winnipesaukee in other competitions outside the region. Looking towards the future, this was a critical factor. For, in the minds of all the racers, it was known the Gold Cup racing committee dictated competitors could not enter as an individual, but must be sponsored by an association. In June 1927, the Winnipesaukee Power Boat Association (WPBA) was born, complete with a meeting place, the Oakbirch Inn in Alton Bay and its own burgee. Key members of the Winnipesaukee boat racing community were selected to lead the club. Jim Irwin was elected as Secretary and Nathaniel Goodhue, from Wolfeboro, was elected as Treasurer. Heading the club and entire Winnipesaukee racing effort, and granted the title of ‘Commodore’, was a wealthy industrialist from Concord, Samuel Dunsford. 

Click here for the next Chapter - 1927


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