Reflections from a Riding Mechanic - 2002

2002 Detroit APBA Gold Cup

Bill John - owner/driver

Donnie McLean - riding mechanic

It was an extremely hot July morning as we said our good-byes to close vintage racing friends in Madison, Indiana and headed north to Detroit, Michigan, our second stop on the 2002 APBA Vintage Race Boat Circuit, The Detroit Gold Cup!  Full of anticipation, we started across the Ohio river and reflected on the great event just completed in Madison.  From the the Madison Bridge, we could look back and see the now empty, almost eerie looking waterfront that had been a flurry of activity, wall to wall with race boats, cranes, and crowded with crew and spectators.  The bridge crosses from Indiana to Kentucky directly over the race course, with one of it’s main supports right in the center of the course.  From here we had a bird’s eye view of the place, and knew  for sure we would return, but our focus was now on Detroit, the place to be to see the best and the fastest.  Even better to be a part of the show.


The APBA Detroit Gold Cup is an annual, unlimited hydroplane event held on the Detroit River, right in front of the historic Detroit Yacht Club, the home of Gar Wood. Unlimited hydroplane teams from all over the country have competed for this most prestigious award in power boat racing for the past ninety nine years. It was first run in 1904. In fact, it was run twice in 1904, and since then has been the most consistently awarded motor sports trophy. Since 1904 there have only been six years that it wasn’t run, and four of them were during World War II.   In the early years the APBA Gold Cup traveled all over the country. The winner would take the trophy to his home town where it would be defended the following year. In more recent times, starting in 1990, the APBA Gold Cup race has been held in Detroit every year. 


The American Power Boat Association (APBA), headquartered in Detroit, was formed in 1903, and continues to this day as the most widely recognized power boat racing organization in the world. Now in it’s 100th year, the APBA enjoys a rich heritage, and a very interesting history, which is where we come in. In addition to the many current professional racing classes, there is also a growing number of members in the APBA Vintage and Historic Division.  Many vintage members own and maintain race boats from the past, and bring them to APBA events to run exhibition heats in a race-like setting. But as Geoff Magnusson  says, "we’re not really racing, it just looks that way!"


Several years ago, while in my office, a knock came at the door. It was our Manager of Information Systems, Bill John. It seems he had somehow uncovered one of my deep dark secrets, I was a hotrodder, that’s right a motor head, speed and noise, and always looking for a way to go a little faster (legally of course).  Bill was too, but I didn’t realize it right then. As time went on however, I became more involved with his ongoing “Obsession” project. Little did I know then, that as a result I would be taken right into the midst of a boat racing dream world. 


I had always been a fan of power boat racing, and had watched the APBA Gold Cup on TV many times. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I would be ever actually be there, on the Detroit River, in front of the Belle Isle Bridge, the place that I’d seen so many times on television. But then it happened.


One day Bill John again came into my office, this time acting just like a kid on Christmas day. He had just received an invitation to participate in the Detroit Gold Cup, from the APBA Vintage and Historic chairman, Tom D’Eath, and he wanted to know if I could go with him, as a crew member. Well let me tell you, I was pretty happy to say yes! I would worry about conflicting schedules, vacations and other possible problems later. I was going to the Detroit Gold Cup as Obsession’s riding mechanic! And now, several years after that first trip to Detroit in 1999, we were going again, just as we have each year since, and just as happy to be a part of part of this historic event!


The riding mechanic is a very important position.  In modern closed course racing, only the Jersey Speed Skiffs, Cracker Boxes and Inflatables have riding mechanics, and of course the off shore racers have two and sometimes three crew members on board.  All the other APBA classes are driver-only type race boats.  In the APBA Vintage Category the rule is that any boat that seats two or more, must have a riding mechanic on board in order to run. When on the race course, the riding mechanic is the "eyes and ears" for the driver, spotting the other boats, and is an essential part of our safety program. We stress this safety aspect at all Vintage driver meetings, and encourage active participation from the riding mechanics. Bill and I approach these events as a team. Preparedness is very important in our Vintage category, because we are becoming a more significant part of the show.  We feel a responsibility to be able to run as frequently, and for as long as needed, with no down time during a heat.  Our strategy is to always run hard, put on a good safe show, and never come in on the hook - at the end of a tow rope.


In all the years we’ve been racing, I mean going around a course “looking like we’re racing”, we’ve only had one close call with possible DITWS (dead in the water syndrome), and of course it happened at the Detroit Gold Cup.  It was in 2000, and the New Hampshire Navy was there in force, Jerry Davidson brought Miss Severn, Norm Gavin brought Adieu, Geoff Magnusson brought Miss America VII and Arab VI, Bill Mehan brought Tip Back, and Arnie Rubenstein brought Wood Too.  It was Sunday morning, the big day of the final heats, and up until then we had good weather and flat water. There were literally hundreds of thousands of spectators on both sides of the Detroit River waiting to see the finals, and witness the winning of the APBA Gold Cup, But the weather was not cooperating. The wind was blowing and the flags were out so straight, they may as well have been pressed and starched. The water conditions were terrible, way to rough for the hydroplanes, or speed skiffs. Even the inflatables wouldn’t run. What to do? Use the Vintage boats to buy some time and hopefully hold the crowd. We got the word from our leader Tom D'Eath, so we saddled up and headed out for what turned out to be our longest Vintage heat to date. 


As we pulled out onto the historic Gold Cup course, we formed a half chevron formation and ran our first parade lap.  The crowd always seems to enjoy this first parade lap, as it provides a good opportunity to photograph so many Vintage boats running close together.  But man was it rough! Everybody was cruising hard at between 45 and 50 MPH, but after a few laps, Bill and I started mixing it up with Arnie and his son Phil in Wood Too.  Wood Too is also a Gar Wood Speedster, and very similar in appearance to Obsession.  When schedules allow us to run together, we always put on a good show. And even with that bad weather, this time was no different.


We ran for nearly an hour, long enough to burn thirty gallons of fuel, the good stuff,  93 octane.  But it was so rough that we were taking on quite a bit of water over the bow, and at times right into the cockpit. So much in fact that when we decelerated for the turns, the bilge water would rush forward from the stern, and wash over the floor boards around our ankles.  As a riding mechanic, in addition to spotting  for other boats, I also worry about any damage we could be doing to the boat, and how to fix it.  But what I was most concerned about this time,  was actually running out of gas.  As I mentioned earlier, we take great pride in never having been towed in, and we wanted to keep it that way.  So Bill and I both watched as the gas gauge went below a quarter tank, and then to actually bouncing on empty.  Then Bill hollered “one more lap”, I gave a thumbs up response, and we both winced as we passed the pit entrance for another two and a half mile lap. Unbelievably, we made it all the way around, and back in. But our leader, Tom D’Eath, met us at the dock, and asked “Did they black flag you?”  No we responded “We’re out of gas!” He then screamed “Go get more and get back out there!” So we refueled, and continued running until our time slot was up. Then the weather got better, and bit by bit the semi finals were completed. Then the Gold Cup final heat was run a little after 7:00 that evening. What a sight to see those beautiful unlimited hydroplanes running in the sunset, and made even  better as Tom called the race for us, as if he were out there applying his own strategy at 250 MPH !!!


Tom D’Eath is not only our APBA Vintage and Historic chairman, he’s a true racing legend, having  won the APBA Detroit Gold Cup three times himself. That’s right, not just once but three times!  Two times in Miss Budweiser, and once in George Simon’s Miss U.S.. He has won the Gold Cup in both piston and turbine powered boats.  Tom is also one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. He’s our leader and friend. His wife, Judy is always there too, and is a great help to all of us. We always look forward to seeing both of them.


There are definitely high points to each event we participate in, but sometimes there are problems as well. Usually the not so happy moments fade away, but as special as the Gold Cup is, the most unforgettable bad time happened to us in Detroit. No one got hurt, and the boat by some miracle wasn’t damaged. It was our first trip to the Detroit Gold Cup. In those days we didn’t crane launch Obsession, and to our surprise, there was not a launch ramp at the Detroit Yacht Club, or anywhere near the Belle Isle pits. That’s when we met Tom Stebbins, a volunteer who ended up being the first person to ride in Obsession on the Detroit River, and a great friend from then on. Tom heard that we were looking for a place to launch the boat, and  just climbed in the truck, telling me to scoot over, and that he knew where to to launch the boat. He took us to a public launch ramp across the river. There it was, the biggest boat ramp I’ve ever seen. Ten beautiful concrete ramps, side by side, and docks between every other one, and set in a small protected inlet. There were high steel sea walls all around, and a narrow opening to the Detroit River. It was a week day and the place was empty. Launching was a breeze, Tom rode back with Bill in the boat, and I drove the truck back. We had a great week, some of which I’ll touch on later. But it was now Sunday afternoon, and time to load up and head home. What a surprise when we got back to that boat ramp! Bill got there first with the boat, and I arrived about ten minutes later with the truck and trailer. The once quiet little inlet was now a churning sea of jet skis and fiberglass boats, going every direction and literally bouncing off the steel sea walls. Man it was total chaos, and they were using metal boat hooks to fend themselves off other boat and the sea walls. But they may as well have been crow bars as far as we were concerned. Bill stood on the aft deck of his beautiful mahogany Obsession, and was doing a good job of fending off the weekenders. But to our disbelief, no one seemed to be leaving and more jet skis were being launched. It really was a scary and serious situation, and Bill was all over the boat frantically fending off many near collisions. I quickly got the trailer into position and we somehow managed to get Obsession safely out of the water without a scratch. I said no one got hurt, but looking back, I’m sure Bill collected a few bumps and bruises, not to mention a near cardiac arrest. It really was awful !


We continued trailer launching for another year without incident. But at the next Detroit Gold Cup we decided two things regarding boat launching. First, we would use the same boat ramp again, but wait until Monday to leave, to avoid the weekend chaos. Second, that we just had to start crane launching - ASAP. This was the year that Norm Gavin brought Adieu, and a new set of lifting slings.  That Sunday, Arnie Rubenstein used Norm’s slings, and Bill and I both watched in amazement, as Wood Too was hoisted out of the water, and right over some huge trees and onto its waiting trailer out on the street, in a matter on minutes! That was all it took for us, we saw the light, our future was crane launching! So we asked Norm where he got his lifting slings. He asked if we were going to Clayton that year, and sure enough, at Clayton, Norm gave us a set of lifting slings just like his - perhaps the most cherished tools in our arsenal. Thanks Norm! We first tested our new slings at Clayton that year, when we hoisted Obsession out of the water. It was a pretty easy lift, with no trees to go over, and the boat was never more than a few feet higher than the trailer.


This was the last out of town stop for us on the APBA Vintage Race boat Circuit in 2000. We still had the Wolfeboro Regatta to go but would already be in the water for that one. The Detroit Gold Cup would be the first stop in 2001, and the first time for lifting the boat to any great height or distance with our new slings.


After a great Wolfeboro Regatta, a long winter, and a lot of work getting ready, we pulled Obsession in the Wolfeboro 4th of July Parade, secured everything for the road and headed to Detroit for the Gold Cup - 2001. Our Vintage family was growing and once again we were on our way to boat racing’s mecca,  for a reunion with good friends and a lot of running time on the historic Detroit River. After 19 hours on the road we pulled into the Bell Isle pits, and found a spot to park the boat and trailer, right next to a crane. As part of our normal plan, we were a day early. To our surprise, our crane operator was there too, we met and found out that we weren’t the only ones new to crane launching. His name was Mike, he had never lifted boats before, and we admitted that we were also new at this. But Mike had done all kinds of construction lifting, even in very confined areas, and years ago, I had worked for an outfit in Florida framing houses and had a good bit of experience “flying” or setting roof trusses. So it seemed that we would be just fine. A good man in the crane, and another on the tether line, what else could you want?


In anticipation of crane launching, Bill and I had done a lot of work to reinforce the lifting posts on Obsession. The lifting slings were brand new, and each sling was rated for more than the boat’s weight of 3,300 pounds. Mike offered to put us in the water that same afternoon, so of course, that is just what we did. Now I must tell you, this lift in Detroit was much different than our first easy lift at Clayton. This one was scary, over eighty feet from Obsession’s trailer to the dock, and we had to go over those huge trees, the same ones that we had watched Wood Too go over, the year before. So we took a deep breath, and started hoisting the boat off the trailer. Mike was very good, but my tether was way too short, and Bill was taking pictures. He was as happy as a clam, and I was sweating bullets! The mechanics of the lift were just like setting trusses, and I’m sure the onlookers thought we were old hands at this, but I’ll never forget that first big lift. Man, was I glad when Obsession settled into the water that day.

That afternoon, we gave boat rides to the entire crew of the Miss Budweiser. What a thrill that was. Later that evening, after some more media boat rides,  Mike was still waiting for us, and we found that lifting back onto the trailer was a little more challenging. But we quickly worked out a method for that too. With Bill at the stern, myself at the bow, and with a good crane operator, we could land Obsession within an inch of the same spot every time. The whole process takes only minutes, making logistics much easier for us. Dock space is no longer a problem, and we are able to inspect the boat after each run. In addition, we are able to share the boat with more spectators, on the trailer, in the pits. Many people have never seen a mahogany Gar Wood Speedster. 


Now with several years of Detroit Gold Cup experience, one might think it would become “old hat”.  Just the opposite is true. Looking back, it is amazing to me the things we’ve learned, the friendships we’ve made, and the untold numbers of people we’ve been able to share the boat with. Our first year in Detroit, we managed to talk our way into the use of a boat well at the Detroit Yacht Club (DYC). Pretty cool, but we were separated from the other vintage boats, causing communication problems. No problem, our new friends Hal and Helena Leduc gave us one of their radios for the weekend, and we never missed a heat. We also created a lot of excitement at the DYC, in our “front and center” boat well. We gave over ninety boat rides in three afternoons, and let me tell you, that’s a lot of rides, one person at a time. People were lined up for rides, right down the dock and right past the DYC outdoor restaurant and bar. Bill had to stop occasionally for rest and something to drink, and I actually got hoarse from talking to so many people. Bill probably has far more time on the Detroit APBA Gold Cup race course than any driver, and I must be close to having more time out there than any riding mechanic !!!

As I mentioned earlier, The Detroit Gold Cup is more than just a trophy, it’s an event. As far as I’m concerned, and I know I speak for Bill as well, it’s really all about the people, and I suppose that’s why we do it year after year. So there we were, headed to the 2002 Detroit APBA Gold Cup. One thing would be different this time though, we were not staying in a hotel as we had in the past. Our accommodations this year would be a forty-five foot enclosed transport trailer owned by “Super Dave” Yeager, and adopted by our group as “Vintage Central”, a great place for the vintage family to meet, and for us traveling gypsies to stay. Needless to say, there was always a lot of bench racing going on at “Vintage Central”.  It had been the meeting place for us in Madison too.                 


Well we finally made it, back in the Detroit Belle Isle pits area once again. As usual, we were early, and parked the boat in the same spot as the year before. Bill and Judy Fisk were to arrive with “The Irishman” a Vintage grand prix hydro, the same night or early the next morning. We secured the boat,  went to the DYC  for a late supper and called it a day.  Vintage Central wouldn’t be there until the next day, so we slept in the truck. Everything was okay and sleep was not a problem, that is, until about four o’clock in the morning. Now I’m not a worry wart by any means, but when we’re on the road, I’ve always got the boat in the back of my mind. And the Belle Isle pits are in a quiet part of the city park, adjacent to the DYC, and we were the only ones there. But sometime around four o’clock in the morning, I was wakened by some weird noise, that seemed would never stop. Then it dawned on me what it was, the creaking and groaning of a tandem axle boat trailer moving slowly over uneven ground. Was someone actually stealing Obsession? But how could they, we always padlock the trailer tongue! So I sat straight up, not knowing what to expect, and there they were, Bill and Judy Fisk parking the Irishman right next to Obsession. What a relief! I later asked Bill Fisk to at least  be considerate enough to grease the Irishman’s trailer.


As the day progressed, the boats started to arrive. It was Thursday and some wouldn’t be there until the next day. But Thursday is always a fun media day at the Detroit Gold Cup. It starts when a large river boat named "Diamond Jack" picks up the press and other VIPs at the Dodge pits and then anchors just inside the race course by the famous Roostertail turn. Then each class or category of race boats, take turns, running hot laps around the race course, and putting on a great show for the press. Tom D’Eath announces our Vintage portion of the program, and does a great job. The 2002 Detroit Gold Cup was under way, and by mid day on Friday all the vintage boats were there, cause for great celebration.


The Detroit Gold Cup is by invitation only for our APBA vintage category. We are part of a program including everything from unlimited hydroplanes, several classes of limited hydroplanes, speed skiffs and inflateables. The schedule is very tight and often changes with little warning. So we have to stay close by our boats, and be ready to run at a moment's notice. This puts us in a position to display our vintage boats in the pits, and answer what seems to be endless questions. Some of the younger folks have never seen boats like these before, and can’t believe how well they run. Then there are the folks who remember the boats back when they were current competitors. Many old-timers thought they would never see the “old boats” run again, and are thankful that the APBA Vintage category is bringing them out for everyone to enjoy.


As a riding mechanic I get the unique opportunity of  involving the crowd while we’re running. I am able to connect with them as we “fly by”, something that’s difficult for a driver to do at full throttle. It has been my trade mark to wave the DYC burgee when running close to the crowds. What a blast, especially while running close to the screaming fans at the famous DYC T-Dock !!!!


 A good way to end a great day though, is getting together with the vintage family at “Vintage Central”, to  wind down and listen as Tom D’Eath holds court. Tom is a living legend to us all, and he has brought us all together through his excellent leadership in our APBA Vintage and Historic Category. He is also always ready and willing to lend an extra hand, or offer some much needed advice.


Tom Morgan,  renowned story teller and Grand National Hydro owner/driver, also joined us last year at Detroit. Tom is close to joining our vintage ranks, and he had us just howling as we tried to separate fact from fiction in his countless stories. He is also the only one daring to run a big block Ford in his very fast hydro, but he keeps breaking it. And after a Saturday night excursion to Jacks, Tom also raced a six foot long Hydromite, on dry land, powered by Gar Wood and Orlin Johnson (Bill John and yours truly).


The Detroit Gold Cup is a collage of experiences, some planned, and some not so planned, and always ends with us watching the run for the APBA Gold Cup, personally narrated by Tom D'Eath. Then after all the yelling and screaming, there are many heartfelt goodbyes to friends, some that will be seen at the next stop on our APBA Vintage Race Boat Circuit, and others not for another year. The road home to NH is always long, but getting back to Lake Winnipesaukee and our beautiful wooden boats is always welcomed. Last year we traveled more than five thousand miles and participated at five vintage regattas and our local boat show.

Next year (2003) will be extra special for us. The APBA Vintage Race Boat Circuit will begin in June with the Detroit Gold Cup, and finish up right here at Wolfeboro in September, with our third Wolfeboro Race Boat Regatta. I hope to see on the Vintage Race Boat Circuit this summer, please come join us and enjoy our vintage race boats.

Donnie McLean - riding mechanic

Vintage Race Boat Shop


This article is dedicated to the memory of Orlin Johnson, riding mechanic for Gar Wood.

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