Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Persistence - the Rudolph Wehr story

The Oxford dictionary defines persistence as “the continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty.” Throughout the long history of American automobile racing, few men have personified persistence as did Rudolph K. B. Wehr, who brought unique cars to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway six times during the 18-year period between 1922 and 1940, yet of all the cars that Wehr designed and built, none never ever qualified for the 500-mile race.

Born in Hungary around 1882, Rudolph Wehr attended the University of Budapest before he immigrated to the United States and took a job as a mechanic and chauffeur for J. W. O’Bannon, a wealthy New York bookbinder. A chauffeur's job was dangerous in those early days of automobile travel. Late one night in early August 1910 as Wehr drove his employer and R.L. Gilmore, a real estate investor home to Manhattan from Westchester County they stopped for what appeared to be a pair of stranded motorists but soon revealed themselves to be armed robbers. The New York Times newspaper reported that the robbers relieved the Good Samaritans of a total of $55 ($1,375 today) before they fled into the night.

While still employed by O’Bannon, Wehr began to experiment in his free time with rotary valves. Wehr eventually started the Wehr Motor Company in a shop on New York City’s Upper West Side and built his first working prototype of a rotary valve engine during 1916.
Most automobile engines use spring loaded poppet style valves; in the nineteen twenties there was development of the production “sleeve valve” engine, but Wehr seems to be one of the few men who ever attempted to develop a rotary valve racing engine.  A rotary valve works by the rotation of a plug with passages inside a cylinder that regulates the flow of liquid or gas.  Typically used in brass musical instruments, a rotary valve can also be used as a metering device to regulate the flow of a product.

On June 1 1918, Wehr raced his “Wehr Special” which was described by the New York Sun newspaper as “a car of his own make” in a non-championship AAA-sanctioned 100-mile race promoted by William Wellman. The race held on the great 2-mile Sheepshead Bay board track in Brooklyn New York once the site of a failed thoroughbred track was for the Harkness Auto Handicap Trophy, named in honor of the track’s principal investor, Standard Oil heir Harry Harkness. The race was originally been scheduled for Decoration Day, Thursday May 30, but had to be postponed twice due to misty conditions that created a wet track surface. The sport’s top cars and drivers of the day were on hand for this race which was held during the time that the Indianapolis 500-mile race was suspended due to the Great War.

Ralph DePalma's 1918 Packard at Sheepshead Bay 
Photo from the Bain Collection in the Library of Congress Collection. Photographer unknown 

Reports in Motor Age and Automotive Industries magazines explained that as a handicap event the cars started the race based on the lineup established by starter and handicapper Fred J. Wagner. The fastest car, as determined by Wagner, started last or “scratch” and then chased down and passed the earlier starters.  The New York Tribune newspaper stated that “henceforth handicap racing will prevail in the automotive realm, as the virtual unknown having hypothetically at least as much chance for victory as the world’s champion.” 

Rudolph Wehr and his car started first, followed by Percy Ford’s unidentified machine one minute later, and then so on through the fifteen starters that included Ira Vail’s Hudson, Tommy Milton and Eddie Hearne in Duesenbergs, and Barney Oldfield in the formerly enclosed cockpit Miller-built ‘Golden Submarine.’ The pattern continued until Wagner released the two fastest cars, Ralph DePalma’s cream-colored #4 Packard powered by a 12-cylinder 299-cubic inch aircraft engine, five minutes behind Wehr, and Louis Chevrolet’s #3 Frontenac that started “scratch,” six minutes after Wehr.

Ralph DePalma won the Harkness Auto Handicap race with the mighty Packard, and finished the 100-mile distance in 58 minutes and 21 seconds at an average speed of 102.8 miles per hour (MPH), just ten seconds ahead of Tommy Milton, with Oldfield third in the ‘Golden Submarine.’ Louis Chevrolet lost his chance for victory when he was forced to make three pit stops and finished a distant seventh. The published results of the race list Wehr in last place without details or explanation.  

Wehr's earliest patent design for 
use of two rotary valves per cylinder 

Rudolph, who was not yet a United States citizen and technically still a subject of the King of Hungary, applied for his first United States patent to protect his idea for the use rotary valves with internal combustion engines in June 1917, and in July 1918 he was issued patent #1273433.  On May 2 1919 now a United States citizen, Rudolph submitted for a patent his idea of a combined rotary intake and exhaust valve cylinder head for an internal combustion engine and received patent #1347978 on June 27 1920.  

Wehr's 1922 patent application drawing
for a single valve

The first try- the 1922 Indianapolis ‘500’

On May 21 1922, the New York Times newspaper reported that three men, Rudolph Wehr, Joseph H. Lehman and L.P. Come had entered a “mystery car in the big sweepstakes” to be held on Memorial Day in Indianapolis. During the interview in their “little office in a grimy shop or the upper west side they somewhat reluctantly disclosed some of the details.” Wehr explained his years of study on the use of rotary valves in an automobile engine, which he claimed was 25% lighter in weight, with 100 fewer parts, that resulted in increased efficiency and less fuel consumption.

Wehr’s partner Lehmann, who was an electrical equipment manufacturer, had invented an alternating electric current ignition system which meant according to Lehman “higher speed, a twin spark working from a single break” and the elimination of the pitting of the spark point.   The shadowy Mr. Come, said to be managing their affairs, stated that the car was due to be shipped to Indianapolis the next day. 

The three men refused to discuss the speed of the car beyond stating that it had been tested on “lonely roads about New York ….at over 110 miles per hour.”   The Times article closed by simply stating that “Frank E. Davidson will be the pilot,” although AAA records also list Wehr as the driver. Davidson was later identified in subsequent press reports as “an engineer” “famed dirt track racer,” and at times the owner of the machine.

The #28 “D’Wehr Special” was a curiosity as it was the only car entered in the Indianapolis race that took advantage of the new for 1922 AAA (American Automobile Association) racing rules. The New York Times article stated that the 120-cubic inch engine’s cylinders had a “bore of 2-5/16 inches with a stroke of 4 ¾ inches,” which through calculation means Wehr built it as a six-cylinder engine. 

Since 1920, AAA rules had allowed entries with an engine that displaced from 123 cubic inches up to 183 cubic inches a minimum car weight of 1650 pounds less gas oil or ballast.   New AAA 122-cubic inch single-seat rules were set to go into effect for the 1923 ‘500,’ but in the meantime, the 1922 AAA rules package contained “weight breaks” for cars whose engines displaced less than two liters (122 cubic inches).

A 1922 Indianapolis entry with an engine of less than 122 cubic inches but more than 1-1/2 liters (91.5 cubic inches) was allowed a minimum weight of 1400 pounds, while a car equipped with an engine that displaced less than 91.5 cubic inches would be allowed to weight as little as 1200 pounds, but for the 1922 Indianapolis ‘500,’ no such small engine cars were entered; the D’Wehr featured the smallest engine among the 1922 Indianapolis entries.   

Frank Davidson in the single-seat D'Wehr Specail
photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection 
IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies

With an engine that only displaced 122 cubic inches the “D’Wehr Special” was also allowed to compete without a “mechanician” (riding mechanic). Frank Davidson rode alone with a rear view mirror, which harkened back to Ray Harroun and the 1911 Marmon ‘Wasp.’  With the new AAA rules package, the riding mechanic required since 1912, would become optional with the 1923 running Indianapolis ‘500’ and remain an option until 1930 when the “mechanician” again became mandatory. 

Fifteen years later, a May 16 1937 Indianapolis Star article related what allegedly happened after the “D’Wehr Special” arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 22, 1922. “When they took it out on the track, it simply would not go fast enough. Wehr was almost in despair when Ralph DePalma, then at his peak, driving for the Duesenberg team, happened along and volunteered a solution. "When I go out to qualify," he told Wehr, "have your driver get on the track at the same time, get in my 'tow' and you'll get in with me."

According to the 1937 Star article, “Davidson followed these instructions, and DePalma roared down the straightaway at more than one hundred miles an hour.  So did the rotary valve racer, but only for a brief stretch. The pace was more than the engine could stand, and it threw rods all over the track.” Reportedly Wehr’s reaction was “I’ll be back,” an utterance that predated Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film statement by more than 60 years.  Davidson and the “D’Wehr Special” was one of only two cars on the grounds that failed to qualify for the 27-car 1922 starting field.

A basic problem for rotary valves come from the pressures in the cylinder of an internal combustion engine are high, due to both the compression stroke and the explosion of the fuel-air mixture. This produces large forces on the valve system, but with the poppet valve system those forces simply push the valve tighter against its seat, and have no effect at all on the valve-actuating mechanism.

Rudolph Wehr did not return to the Speedway with another rotary valve entry until 1931, and in the meantime he had moved his base of operations to the Los Angeles area and had five more patents to his name. During his lifetime, Rudolph Wehr obtained ten United States patents, all related to rotary valves, with the last issued in 1945.

The 1931 Indianapolis ‘500’

For his 1931 Indianapolis 500 ‘entry’, Wehr built a 170-cubic inch displacement engine that was apparently based on the block of a Miller 122-cubic inch engine fitted with a rotary valve head in a revamped Miller 122 chassis widened to accommodate a two-man cockpit.  Wehr’s driver was none other than Raffaele “Ralph” DePalma, whom news reports called “the grand old Roman of the auto racing world,” and the 1915 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner in a four-cylinder Mercedes. DePalma had raced at the Speedway before the bricks were set, but his racing career had gone into steep decline after the 1923 Packard Motor Car Company fiasco. Ralph now 48 years old, had last raced in the ‘International 500-mile Sweepstakes’ in 1925.   

In a bizarre decision, DePalma and the team drove the “Wehr-Miller Special” to Speedway Indiana from the West Coast as part of a caravan that arrived in Indianapolis on Sunday May 24, as reported in the following day’s Indianapolis Star. There were five people and two cars reported in the DePalma party. Riding with Ralph in the racing car was Ralph Powers, while following in a touring car, also fitted with a Wehr rotary valve head engine, was Rudolph Wehr, accompanied by Harvey Heller, the pattern maker for the Wehr Motor Company, and Frank J. Fabian, described as an “old time racing mechanic,” who had worked with Fred Duesenberg and Ira Vail during their golden racing years.

In order to generate interest in his moribund career and probably generate some much needed cash DePalma contributed a story about a 1917 Providence Rhode Island race  with “his oldest and greatest rival”  Barney Oldfield to the Western Newspaper Union’s (WNU) nationwide syndicated sports column series entitled My Greatest Thrill in Sport. Other WNU columns in the series featured stories by such sports luminaries as football coach John W. Heisman, swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, and boxers Jack Dempsey and “Gentleman Jim” Corbett.   Unfortunately, DePalma’s column appeared nationwide on May 22, while DePalma was still enroute to the Speedway.

The Star reported “Wind-blown and sun-burned, Ralph DePalma, racing hero of a million Americans for a score of years, got into the speedway grounds as dusk was falling Sunday evening. He had driven his Miller-Wehr racing car from Los Angeles to Indianapolis since last Tuesday” (May 19). The Star reporter wrote that DePalma’s “golf hose were once gray, but were now spattered with dust and grease. His gray slip-on sweater looked like it might have belonged to a longshoreman, it was that bedraggled.”

The unidentified Star reporter colorfully noted that DePalma’s “gray hair, now thinning on the sides to leave a fairway down the middle, was brushed or blown back from his forehead. His hands were grease-grimed and his face, forehead and hands were the color of an aborigine.” And the ‘Wehr-Miller Special’ was described as “a companion piece to its master, for it too was greasy and muddy. One does not amble from the west coast to Indianapolis without leaving some travel stains on master and servant ....”

The article continued “No sooner had he parked his car in the the alley of the long line of garages than he called for some fresh spark plugs and with a wrench himself went to work at making the change from old ones to new. DePalma then had all the appearance, in fact, of a racing driver, but it was tough seeing DePalma wheeling a racing car into the grounds instead of rolling in aboard a Packard. It was like seeing a scion of a noble line getting back to bedrock from whence started his family.”

This must have been a trying personal period for Ralph DePalma, as sixteen years after his “500’ victory, DePalma was reportedly nearly broke. His wife, Clara, had been granted a divorce in Los Angeles Superior Court after nearly 22 years of marriage on April 2 on grounds of desertion and Ralph agreed to pay her $25 a week in alimony (nearly $400 in 2016). DePalma later filed for personal bankruptcy in a Los Angeles courtroom in August 1931 and cited $10,000 in assets, mostly real estate, and over $50,000 in liabilities.
The May 25, 1931 Indianapolis Star article closed by stating “Anyhow, DePalma is now here with his racing car, which is one of his own. It Is Miller-built, fitted with the Wehr rotary valve type of head. Ralph says that he breezed it up to as high as 100 miles an hour (MPH) during his trip east. DePalma is expected to give his car a trial Monday and if things go well, he will attempt qualification either late Monday or more possibly Tuesday.”

In 1931, the Speedway scheduled three weeks of practice sessions before time trials commenced for five consecutive days beginning on May 23, so Wehr and DePalma had cut their schedule close by arriving on the evening of May 24, after nineteen cars were already qualified for the starting field. It was reported on Tuesday morning that “the journey was too much for it (referring to the Wehr entry), and the engine needed much readjustment before it could even attempt to qualify.”  

On Wednesday May 27 the ‘Wehr-Miller Special’ did not show sufficient speed in practice, as the 1930 requirement was a 90 MPH minimum speed average for four laps. DePalma nonetheless got in line to attempt a time trial but the American Automobile Association (AAA) race stewards ruled that DePalma could not complete his attempt to "crowd.” or bump. his way into the 40-car starting field as the ‘Wehr-Miller Special’ was not in motion when the sun set which officially ended qualifications. This sad end with the Wehr entry marked Ralph DePalma’s final appearance as a driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

1932 Legion Ascot Speedway

In May 1932, Wehr who lived with his wife Theresa in a five-unit apartment building at 318 West 84th Place in Los Angeles, and Frank Fabian bought a Miller AAA ‘big car’ chassis which according to Michael Ferner’s research was originally built in 1930. As the #40 ‘Billy Arnold Special’ it was driven by Ernest “Ernie” Triplett in late 1930 and throughout the 1931 season during which Triplett won his first AAA Pacific Coast championship.

Photo of the Jack Buxton, Frank Fabian, and the Rotary Valve Special
photo appeared in John Lucero's  Legion Ascot Speedway

The ‘big car’ came to Wehr and Fabian without an engine, which was not a problem as Wehr still had the Wehr-Miller hybrid engine that now displaced 183 cubic inches.  The #29 car, dubbed the “Rotary Valve Special” was driven early in in the 1932 season at Legion Ascot and other AA Pacific Coast events by Jack Buxton and later in the year by former Legion Ascot ‘Class B’ driver Bill Hart, neither with great success and after the end of the season the rolling car was sold to Clarence Tarbot who installed a Cragar engine. 
Buxton, a Canadian by birth who lived in Los Angeles, was the 1928 National Auto Racing Association (NARA) (frequently listed in error as the AAA Southwest) champion also well known for his detailed pencil sketches of fellow Legion Ascot drivers and visitors, which appeared in the race programs and in issues of the Coast Auto Racing newspaper. Buxton died on May 13 1935 in the Palmdale California hospital following a passenger car roll-over accident near the village of Little Rock in northern Los Angeles County. 

We will continue with the second and final chapter of the story of Rudolph Wehr’s dogged persistence with the application of rotary valves on racing engines in a few days.  

Friday, April 22, 2016

From mechanic to driver to death
the Ray "Red" Cariens story

All photographs courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Studies 

Raymond Lloyd “Red” Cariens, the third of eight children born to George and Lura Belle Cariens, was born on a farm near the village of Cisne Illinois on December 20, 1899. As a young man, Ray trained as an apprentice mechanic at the Hudson/Essex factory in Detroit, and then he lied about his age enlisted in the United States Army Air Force and worked as an aircraft mechanic at Wilbur Wright Field near Dayton Ohio.  

According to an article in the August 9 1924 edition of the Altoona Mirror newspaper, Cariens first raced as Eddie Pullen’s riding mechanic in the factory Hudson at one of the five American Automobile Association (AAA) races held on the Beverley Hills board track during the 1920 season.  Cariens then reportedly worked in the Duesenberg Motors engine plant in Elizabethtown New Jersey perhaps on the Jimmy Murphy/Tommy Milton Daytona Beach land speed record car before the plant was closed and Duesenberg relocated operations to Indianapolis.

Driver Joe Thomas and "mechanician" R.L. "Red" Cariens
pose in their 1921 Duesenberg entry 

During 1921, the red-headed Cariens rode with in the 1921 Indianapolis ‘500’ with driver Joe Thomas in the factory Duesenberg 183-cubic inch straight eight powered machine which had been qualified by Joe Boyer. 'Red' miraculously escaped injury when the Duesenberg’s  and it crashed after the steering failed during the pair's 25th lap. Thomas and Cariens then finished eighth in the 100-mile AAA ‘Universal Trophy Race’ held June 18 1921 at the Uniontown (Pennsylvania) board track, and a few weeks later on July 4, Cariens also rode along as Joe Thomas captured a third place finish at the 2-mile long wooden Pacific Coast Speedway Tacoma Washington.  

At the start of the 1922 AAA season, Cariens, sometimes called “Big Foot” because of his size 14 feet, now used Los Angeles as his home base, and continued to work as a mechanic for the Duesenberg racing team. While in California he rode with Jerry Wonderlich on April 16 in the ‘Golden State Motor Derby’ at San Carlos and again on Thursday April 27 in the ‘Raisin Day Classic’ on the wooden one-mile Fresno Speedway. The pair finished sixth in both races which were dominated by the Duesenberg team. 

During May 1922 Cariens joined the Cliff Durant-Harry A. Miller factory team, a timely move as the Miller racing cars were soon to become the hottest vehicles in AAA racing. In September 1922 “Red” rode with Bennett Hill at the inaugural race at the Kansas City board track, but is listed in AAA records as “Leslie” Cariens.   The pair started on the pole and finished the tragic 300-mile event marred by the loss of Roscoe Sarles in sixth place.   

For 1923, riding mechanics became optional by AAA championship racing rules, and of course no one used them. Early in the season “Red” Cariens worked as a mechanic on Bennett Hill’s red #3 Miller but when the circuit moved east, he joined the Durant team and primarily worked on Harry Hartz’ second place '500' finisher, but chances are with seven Durant team cars entered at Indianapolis , Cariens worked on every one of the Durant Miller entries at one time or another during the month of May 1923.  Cariens continued to work as a mechanic on Hartz’ trio of Miller race cars throughout 1923 and the early 1924 AAA season.

Fall 1924 was a pivotal season for Ray Cariens, as he transitioned from his role as “the world’s best race car mechanic “(according to the writer for the Altoona Mirror) and became a race car driver.   Cariens debuted in the 200-lap “Fall Classic” held on the 1 ¼ -mile Altoona Pennsylvania high-banked board track, one of the country’s most deadly.  

Ira Vail 

Cariens' car owner was driver Ira Vail, who had first raced his new ivory-colored Miller double overhead camshaft (DOHC) 8 cylinders in-line 122 cubic inch engine chassis #2431 at the 1924 season opening race at Beverly Hills. Vail finished eighth in the car at Indianapolis and ninth in the AAA circuit’s first 1924 season visit to Altoona three months earlier. At the previous AAA race in Kansas City, Vail qualified the car but turned it over to rookie driver Lou Wilson for the race.

Ray Cariens started from the pole at Altoona on Labor Day 1924 and then ran into mechanical difficulties but hung on to finish in eighth place, 14 laps behind winner Jimmy Murphy in a race that saw Joe Boyer lose his life.  Two weeks later Murphy himself would lose his life in a crash on the "Moody Mile" at Syracuse New York.   At the end of the 1924 season, Vail sold the Miller and Cariens was out of a ride, and 'Red' closed out the year working as a mechanic for Bennett Hill.

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1925, Cariens was nominated to drive the red #3 Miller ‘122’ rear-drive chassis #2403 owned by Bennett Hill, who had great success with the car during 1924 with six top five finishes. Hill won the 1924 AAA season-ending 250-mile race at Culver City Speedway with a startling average speed of over 126 MPH after a supercharger had been added to the Miller engine to compete with the newest Miller ‘122’ race cars.  

In a continuation of a long-running Indianapolis tradition, Bennett Hill gave up his regular ride for one that he felt had a better chance of winning at the Speedway.  At the time of Jimmy Murphy’s death Harry A. Miller Engineering was building two front-drive cars that Murphy had ordered.  The two cars were subsequently known as “Front Drive # 1” for use at Indianapolis and the board tracks, and ‘Front Drive #2” that was designed and built specifically to set land speed records and which used outboard front brakes located inside the disc wheels to reduce the frontal area. After Murphy’s death, Harry A. Miller had completed both cars and entered them himself for the 1925 Indianapolis ‘500.’

Bennett Hill in 1924

Veteran Dave Lewis drove ‘Front Drive #1,” while Hill drove the red #21 “Front Drive #2.” After qualifying, the diminutive Hill was apparently spooked by its handling and Harry Miller withdrew the car from the race on the eve of the ‘500.’ Hill returned to drive his rear-drive Miller ‘122’ which Cariens had qualified for the field in 21st starting position with an average of 104.16 MPH. Ray Cariens was out of the ‘500,’ though he did relieve Hill from lap 57 to lap 68 before the car was retired with a broken rear spring. After his car was eliminated, Hill relieved Dave Lewis and drove the last 26 laps on the way to “Front Drive #1’s” second place finish. 

It is unclear precisely what Ray Cariens did after the 1925 ‘500,’ but presumably he continued to work as a mechanic, probably for Bennett Hill. On October 3, at the Fresno 1-mile board track “Red” drove Tommy Milton’s #14 Miller ‘122’ which earlier had rear wheel brakes and truss rods to stiffen the frame added for Indianapolis. Cariens replaced driver Norm Batten who had been injured in the car in a crash during the Syracuse race weeks earlier.  The Fresno track owned by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors had nearly burned down in September of the previous year, and only by working day and night had a team of 200 carpenters rebuilt the track and grandstand in time for the 1924 ‘San Joaquin Valley Classic.’

The sixth annual “San Joaquin Valley 150-mile Auto Classic’  held on October 3, 1925 featured some of the top drivers of the time – Peter DePaolo, Leon Duray, ‘Doc’ Shattuck, and Bennett Hill and drew a crowd estimated by officials to be 30,000 people.  Cariens started on the front row of the Fresno eight-car field alongside veteran Jerry Wonderlich, with whom he had ridden just three years earlier.  The 150-mile race was completed is less than hour and half, with the victory going to Kansas’ Fred Comer for his first and only career AAA win with Cariens finishing in third place.

After he won the race at the circuit's October 26  stop at Laurel (Baltimore) Maryland, Bob McDonough crashed the Milton Miller at Charlotte on November 11, so Cariens was back in the car for the season-ending race scheduled for Thanksgiving Day at “the fastest track in the West” Culver City Speedway.  The race was re-scheduled to Sunday November 29 at the request of the drivers, and “Red” and Jerry Wonderlich again started side-by side, but this time they made up the third row in the 15-car field, as four drivers had withdrawn before the race for reasons unknown.   

A view of racing at the Culver City Speedway

Pole-sitter Earl Cooper, who had posted a lap of 141 ½ MPH in qualifying around the 1 ¼ mile track, shot into the lead with Ralph Hepburn and Leon Duray in hot pursuit as the leaders averaged 135 MPH over the first ten laps, before fourth place Earl Devore retired on lap 23 with a broken valve. Tragedy struck on the next lap when Wonderlich’s #10 car blew a tire as he raced down the backstretch in front of grandstand ‘B’, and Jerry’s car first careened up the 45-degree banking, then slid nose down towards the five-foot high inner wall.

Cariens who was close behind, swerved the #14 to avoid Wonderlich’s car, brushed Hepburn’s passing machine, spun twice, then the Miller smashed backwards into the inner wall which was backfilled with dirt.  After the impact, Ray’s car overturned and he was thrown onto the track surface. Meantime, Wonderlich’s car, perhaps 100-200 feet behind, crashed nose-first into the inner wall but stayed upright, though Jerry suffered scratches on his face and a stiff neck. The entire crash sequence was captured by photographer Ted Wilson, and the photos can be viewed at

One of Wilson’s graphic photographs shows the unconscious Ray Cariens lying on the track face down minus his shoes and cloth helmet but still wearing his trademark white gloves while another photograph depicts Cariens’ overturned car facing the wrong way on the track.  While the race continued, eventually won by Frank Elliott at a new world’s record average speed of over 127.87 MPH, Ray was removed to the Angelus Hospital, 10 miles away where he was initially given an “even chance at recovery.”

Newspapers the following day reported that Cariens remained unconscious in “very critical” condition. Ray “Red” Cariens, just days away from celebrating his 26th birthday, passed away just before midnight December 2 with his death attributed to a basal skull fracture and internal injuries.  Cariens’ body was transported to West Branch Iowa where his mother had relocated after his father George’s death in 1919. 

Ray rests in the Cariens family plot in the Municipal Cemetery alongside his mother, father, two brothers, and two sisters.  In those days, race cars were durable, and a fatality meant little to car owners; for example, the car that Frank Elliott used to win at Culver City in November 1925 had been the same car in which Jimmy Murphy lost his life.

Tommy Milton sold his Miller ‘122’  after the  damage to the fuel tank, hood, and cowling of the car from Ray’s fatal crash at Culver City was repaired. The car was re-numbered #15 for the 1926 and was driven by owner Peter Kreis for the first four AAA races while his new car was finished, then the Miller '122' was sold to Illinois garage owner Henry Kohlert. 

Peter Kreis bought a new Miller 91-cubic inch supercharged and intercooled front-drive machine which was delivered in time for the 1926 Indianapolis 500-mile race and easily qualified for the starting field in 20th position. Peter became ill with the flu days before the race and was replaced by a brash young rookie named Frank Lockhart, who drove Kreis’ car to victory in the rain-shortened 1926 Indianapolis 500-mile race.

Kohlert entered the former Milton Miller 122 at the “Elgin Piston Pin Special” for Legion Ascot Speedway veteran Fred Lecklider at Indianapolis in 1927, and then crashed the car during the race himself while driving in relief. The following year, Kohlert entered the “Elgin Piston Pin Special” for a young rookie, future 1935 ‘500’ winner Kelly Petillo who crashed the car in practice.  

Kohlert abd his crew reapired the damage to the Miller, and Henry squeezed into the field on the final day of time trials and finished in 13th place. Kohler then sold the car to a pair of Pittsburgh businessmen who raced it in the 1929 Indianapolis 500. The car disappeared with the dawning of the Rickenbacker “Junk Formula” era, as historian Michael Ferner believes the Milton Miller was cut up to build a two-man chassis.  

Ray "Red" Cariens quickly advanced up the racing ladder as every young man would have dreamed of as he advanced from a mechanic on the sidelines to become a riding mechanic and then ultimately a race driver. Surprisingly, given their hazardous nature ,"Red" was the only driver to die in a board track during the 1925 AAA season.    

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Lee Wallard Story 

A smiling Lee Wallard poses for a photograph 
at Funk's Speedway (today known as Winchester Speedway)
on July 25 1948 

Leland R. “Lee” Wallard was born on September 7, 1910 in Altamont New York a small village west of Albany. Not much is known of Lee’s early life, but he began his racing career in the mid-1930’s at the ½- mile dirt track Altamont-Schenectady Fairgrounds Speedway racing midgets and ‘big cars.’  Lee told an interviewer that he had suffered a broken leg twice during 1947, a broken pelvis in 1941, a broken collarbone in 1940, and back injuries several times.
Lee made his first American Automobile Association (AAA) championship appearance September 1, 1941 at the Syracuse “Moody Mile” driving the #38 ‘Kimmel Special’ that featured an Voelker all-aluminum double overhead camshaft (DOHC) V-12 engine in a 1935 Miller-Ford chassis. Lee qualified twelfth but the ‘Kimmel Special’ dropped out after just 43 of the 100 laps.    

Lee Wallard poses with his car and crew at Funk's Speedway July 25 1948
Cheif Mechanic Henry Meyer stands behind and to the right of Wallard

How we confirmed that this photo was taken at Funk's Speedway
Thanks to the enlargement skills of Bart Stevens

Just over three months later Wallard’s racing career was interrupted by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, as Lee enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent the war years working in Alaska as a bulldozer operator and helped build airfields and roads. After the war, Lee drove several different cars through the 1946 and 1947 season before his regular ride for the next three years on the tough AAA Midwestern ‘big car’ circuit became the ‘Iddings Special,’ built by National Sprint Car Hall of Fame chief mechanic Henry Meyer and owned by John and Howard Iddings, who ran an auto glass shop in Greenville Ohio. 

The restored Iddings Special
owned by Bob Pavlovich 

Lee passed his Indianapolis Motor Speedway rookie test in 1948 in the ancient G&M Duesenberg entry, then on the final day of qualifying May 28, the 35-year old rookie bumped his way into the field with the fifth fastest time in the field. Wallard was the fastest rookie in the 33-car starting field behind the wheel of the #91 ‘Iddings Special,’ Meyers’ stretched wheelbase sprint car fitted with a 232 cubic inch Offenhauser engine. Wallard started from the 28th position and finished in seventh place; with his completion of the full race distance at 109.77 miles per hour (MPH), he earned admittance into the revered Champion Spark Plug 100-mile per hour club. 

Wallard followed up his fine ‘500’ finish with top ten finishes in the ‘Iddings Special’ in the next two races at Langhorne, Pennsylvania and the ‘Milwaukee Mile,’ and then he was victorious in the Labor Day 100-mile race at DuQuoin, Illinois. By finishing in the top ten in seven of the nine championship races he ran on the 1948 AAA schedule, Wallard finished sixth in the standings. In the 1949 AAA championship season, Lee Wallard, Henry Meyer and the Iddings team competed in eleven events, with six top ten finishes to finish eighth in the standings. 

For the 1950 International 500-mile Sweepstakes, Lee Wallard received the opportunity of a lifetime, a ride in the Belanger ’99,’ known on the AAA circuit as the “Little Jewel.” The #99 Belanger machine had started life in 1949 as a stretched wheelbase Kurtis midget chassis fitted with an experimental 107-cubic inch supercharged engine owned by Meyer & Drake Inc. who the suppliers of Offenhauser engines and parts 

After Tony Bettenhausen qualified the Meyer & Drake ‘house car’ on the front row and won two races in easy fashion at DuQuoin Illinois and Detroit Michigan, other car owners, Offenhauser engine customers, revolted and demanded that Lou Meyer and Dale Drake sell the car. The little Kurtis was subsequently sold to Crown Point Indiana car and tractor dealer Murrell Belanger, who repainted the red car his trademark racing colors of dark blue with gold trim.

At the Speedway in 1950, neither Kenny Eaton nor Emil Andres were able to qualify the ‘baby’ Belanger car for the starting field; then Duane Carter missed the field at Milwaukee, and Harry Turner was too slow at Langhorne. After crashes by Carter at Springfield, Illinois and Chuck Stevenson in the second Milwaukee race, Belanger’s chief mechanic, George Salih, assisted by ‘Frenchy’ Sirois removed the experimental supercharged Offenhauser engine, replaced it with an undersized 241-cubic inch Offenhauser engine and reinforced the chassis.  

Tony Bettenhausen re-took the controls of the Belanger #99 at the Syracuse race and won the pole position but finished 12th. After a rear end failure eliminated the car early at Detroit, Tony started first and won the second Springfield 100-mile race, then qualified and finished second at Phoenix. Tony added his second win of the 1950 AAA season in the “‘Little Gem” at the Bay Meadows thoroughbred track near San Francisco, California.

In 1951 both Tony Bettenhausen and Duane Carter had turned down the chance to race the “Little Jewel” in the ‘500,’ and Lee Wallard got the chance of a lifetime to drive Murrell Belanger’s #99 at the Speedway.  Both Tony and Duane instead chose to race the Blue Crown Spark Plug Deidt front-wheel drive machines. Given the fact that Tony Bettenhausen had won four races wins two seasons in the stretched Kurtis midget, it is reasonable to question why both Tony and Duane Carter would pass on driving it in the ‘500.’ 

Contemporary thinking in 1951 suggested that a driver’s best chance at ‘500’ victory came behind the wheel of a front-wheel drive machine.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of only two paved ovals on the 1951 AAA schedule, and the only track over 1-1/4 miles in length. One of car owner Lou Moore’s ‘Blue Crown Spark Plug Special’ Deidt front-wheel drive machines had won the ‘500’ three straight times from 1947-1949 and finished second in 1950.

For the start of the 1951 ‘500’, Lee Wallard in the Belanger #99 started beside Dennis ‘Duke’ Nalon in the front wheel drive Novi-powered “Purelube Special” on the front row.  Wallard led the first lap, then the Belanger ‘99’ led five times and ran the race’s fastest lap which was just two miles an hour slower than Wallard had qualified. Despite the fact that the little car suffered a broken exhaust pipe and broken shock absorber mount, Wallard dominated the latter stages of the race as he led the final 119 laps and 158 laps total. 
Wallard won the most prestigious race in the world in just his fourth start and was the third oldest ‘500’ winner at age 39 years 264 days, as for the first time the ‘500’ race winner took the checkered flag in under four hours.  The press hailed Lee Wallard as the “Cinderella Man’ for his surprising victory in the face of adversity.   

After picking up the check for $63,212.00 the following evening at the Victory Banquet held at the downtown Indianapolis Murat Temple, Lee and his wife Esther headed east in their new white with red trim 1951 Chrysler New Yorker convertible to make some television appearances in New York, but first Wallard had a stop to make in Pennsylvania to honor a previous commitment. 
Floyd “Sam” Nunis promoted nearly all the East Coast AAA races in the days when “promotion” meant a lot of ingenuity and hard work.  Nunis, whose headquarters were in a Reading hotel, annually staged the “Sam Nunis Sweepstakes” for AAA big cars (sprint cars) at the ½-mile dirt Reading Fairgrounds Speedway and paid top Indianapolis competitors substantial appearance money to race in his eponymous event.

On June 3, 1951, in front of a crowd of over 18,000 people, Wallard timed in sixth fast at 26.92 seconds in a car borrowed from his old friend Mark Light. After he won the third heat, on the final lap of the 30-lap feature, while running fifth, the car’s fuel line broke and the car blew into flame as Wallard drove through turn four. Fearing an explosion in front of the packed grandstand, Wallard bravely stood up in the seat, leaned against the head rest and steered the car to a safe stop inside turn one. Wallard leaped from the car with his shirt and pants ablaze; he rolled on the ground and bystanders smothered him with blankets. 

Lee Wallard was burned over half his body, just four days after he won the biggest race in the world, and he was transported to the Reading Hospital for treatment, which included applications of salt-water soaks, bandages and ointment.  A local newspaper article the next day predicted Wallard would be hospitalized for “at least two weeks.” Lee remained in the Reading Hospital for 121 days and underwent 37 skin grafts before being released to return to his home in Altamont, New York where he remained for many more months.  

Following the ‘500’, Tony Bettenhausen returned to the seat of the Belanger ‘Little Gem’ for the balance of the 1951 AAA season and compiled an amazing record. He won the next two races after Indy, at Milwaukee and Langhorne, followed by two second-place finishes at Darlington and Williams Grove. Tony went on to win six of the next eight races before recording his worst finish of the year at Phoenix when a tire blew. He closed out the season with a second place finish at Bay Meadows.  He recorded four pole positions to go along with eight victories, and won the championship by 700 points over Henry Banks.   

In early 1952, Wallard had recovered enough from his injuries to work as a bartender at ‘Lee Wallard’s Restaurant & Bar’ on Route 20 in Guilderland New York, near his home, and he also spent time with an air conditioning business near his new winter home in St. Petersburg Florida.  Wallard briefly visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May 1952 and but racing in the ‘500’ was of course out of the question.

Lee Wallard tried out the Belanger Special
during May 1954. Photo courtesy of the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the 
Center for Digital Studies at the IUPUI
University Library 

The dark blue 1951 winning car crashed by Tony Bettenhausen in practice for the 1952 ‘500’ was rebuilt for 1954 and Murrell Belanger entered the #99 Kurtis for Lee Wallard’s triumphant comeback.  Wallard diligently trained in preparation, but after he ran practice laps at 135 MPH, he found that the combination of the loss of muscle mass in his arms and legs, his intolerance to heat, and the pain from the scar tissue was too much.  After Wallard formally retired on Monday May 18, third year driver Jerry Hoyt replaced Wallard and drove the Belanger “Little Jewel” in the 1954 ‘500.’

In retirement, Lee worked as a field service representative for the Ford Motor Company aviation engine division represented the Champion Spark Plug Highway Safety Team that toured American high schools and lectured on driving safety, and ran his bar/restaurant and air conditioner businesses.  

In early October 1963, Lee suffered a heart attack at his home in Tampa Florida. After being admitted to the Bay Pines Veterans Hospital in Saint Petersburg, he passed away on November 28, 1963, at only 53 years of age survived by his wife of nineteen years, who remarried and two teenage daughters.   The physical toll of his injuries brought his life to an end a mere 12 years after he won the Indianapolis 500, which makes Lee Wallard one of the truly tragic figures in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.        

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A brief history of automotive engines in postwar unlimited hydroplane boat racing 

The modern era of unlimited hydroplane racing series started in 1946 and the “3-point” prop-riding hydroplanes were perfected during the nineteen fifties  The hydroplane hull rode on a cushion of air trapped between the two side “sponsons" and the bottom half of the propeller, which were all that touched the water. Through the nineteen fifties and sixties unlimited hydroplane boats were front-engine and mid-engine “cabover” design came into vogue during the nineteen seventies.    

factory photo of the Allison engine

Following the Second World War, surplus V-12 aircraft engines were readily available and inexpensive and so the majority of the post-war unlimited hydroplane boats built were powered by these engines. There were two types of engines- the Allison, 70,000 of which were built by the Allison division of General Motors, which was founded by Speedway founder James A. Allison.  The Allison engine powered the Curtis P-40 "Warhawk", the Lockheed P-38 and the North American P-51 "Mustang" fighter planes during World War 2.

The other type of engine used in unlimited hydroplane boat racing was the Merlin, built by Packard and Rolls-Royce. The Rolls-Royce version which had served as the powerplant for most of the British fighter planes such as the Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire, while the Packard version was used in later P-40's  and P-51 Mustangs.    

Both the Allison and Rolls-Royce engines are liquid-cooled with a V-12 layout of two banks of six cylinders and a total displacement from the factory of 1,710 cubic inches for the Allison and 1,650 cubic inches for the Merlin. Each cylinder has two exhaust and two intake valves actuated by single overhead camshafts and ignited by a pair of spark plugs fired by a pair of magnetos. The Allison engine features a single-stage, one-speed supercharger while the Merlin has a two-stage, two-speed supercharger.

Compared to aircraft use, the engines were installed backwards in the hull, and raced with the supercharger turned upside down from the factory position. The typical Allison G engine in a highly-stressed hydroplane application produced over 3000 horsepower at approximately 3000 revolutions per minute (RPM) in short bursts, but required frequent rebuilds. Both the Allison and Merlin engines made extensive use of aluminum throughout; from the factory an Allison engine weighed 1650 pounds while the Merlin weighed an additional 250 pounds.

For the first two decades after the Second World War ended, the Allison and Rolls-Royce surplus aircraft engines were inexpensive but as time passed, parts and engines became scarcer, costs grew and some teams began to experiment with automotive engines for their hydroplanes. Automotive engines had been used in other classes of inboard boat racing since the early 1930s with the introduction of the Ford V8 and later the V8-60 engine. Later, the flathead fords were replaced by the light and powerful Chevrolet small-block and big-block V8 engines.

The earliest automotive-powered unlimited hydroplane was Seattle contractor Lyle Parks’ U-7 “Miss Skyway” of 1956, which was powered a pair of stock 265-cubic inch 1956 Chevrolet Corvette engines mounted side-by side in front of the driver that fed power through a rubber v-belt drive system to the propeller shaft. With perhaps a maximum of 500 horsepower, the “rubber band” boat, sponsored by the Skyway Luggage Company, proved to be woefully underpowered in trials at the Seattle Seafair Regatta and the hull sported an Allison engine in 1958. 

The first truly successful automotive powered unlimited hydroplane race boat was the U-77 “Miss Chrysler Crew” owned by Owensboro Kentucky construction magnate William Sterett. Sterett with no previous boat racing experience, bought a 426-cubic inch Chrysler Hemi powered 7-liter hydroplane after attending a race and then went on to win the APBA National Championship in that class back-to-back in 1965 & 1966.

During the 1966 season, Sterett debuted an Unlimited Hydroplane entry that was a 40% larger version of his championship winning H-1 “Miss Crazy Thing” powered by two Keith Black–built supercharged fuel-injected 426-cubic inch Chrysler Hemi engines. Both engines which faced forward, fed the 14-inch propeller through a Casale gear drive. Sterett picked up sponsorship from the Chrysler Corporation marine division and his new hydroplane was dubbed U-77 “Miss Chrysler Crew.”

The Sterett team experienced teething problems through 1966 with a single heat race win and their first race of 1967 was a disappointment when “Miss Chrysler Crew” failed to finish any of the heat races in Tampa, Florida. Three weeks later on the Detroit River. “Miss Chrysler Crew” won all three heat races and the 1967 UIM World Championship Regatta.   By the end of the season, Sterett and replacement driver Mira Slovak in “Miss Chrysler Crew” together scored enough points to finish second to Bill Schumacher in Ole Bardahl’s “Miss Bardahl” in the American Power Boat Association (APBA) points in 1967.

Despite the success, the Chrysler Corporation dropped their sponsorship at the end of the season and Sterett hired on as the driver of Florida beer distributor Bernie Little's all-conquering “Miss Budweiser” Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered hydroplane. Sterett won the 1969 APBA National Championship with four victories in seven races and retired. In the meantime “Miss Chrysler Crew” was re-fitted with a conventional aircraft engine before it was bought by George Walther and inexplicably left to rot behind his West Carrolton Ohio race shop, where the author saw it during the nineteen seventies and eighties.

Apparently due to the success of the “Miss Chrysler Crew” two new automotive powered hydroplanes debuted in 1970.  Dave Heerensperger, the owner of the Pay ‘n Pak Northwest home improvement store chain, debuted his “Pride of Pay n’ Pak” with twin supercharged Chrysler Hemi engines mounted behind the driver in a new “cabover” design.  Arizona lawyer, boat owner and driver Bob Fendler introduced his similarly powered and “cabover” design U-29 Atlas Van Lines sponsored hydroplane designed by Jim Lucero that same season. These two boats were not competitive and both were quickly converted to conventional aircraft-style engines.

In 1976 at San Diego,  El Monte California  machine shop owner Walter Knudsen debuted his “cabover” U-14 “Miss O’Neal & Knudsen” powered by a pair of methanol fueled Ford 427-cubic-inch, fuel-injected SOHC  (single overhead camshaft) engines built by Indianapolis engine builder Louis “Sonny” Meyer Jr. The 28-foot long boat, shorter and lighter than a typical hydroplane, driven by veteran pilot Jack Schafer Junior, showed up annually at San Diego through 1982, but was never fast enough to qualify for the heat races.  

In 1974 famed Indianapolis race car owner and steel wheel magnate George Walther, father of ‘500’ and boat racer David “Salt” Walther funded a “cabover” design to twin supercharged Chrysler powered U-77 “Dayton Walther Special” hydroplane designed and built by Seattle boat builder Ron Jones. The boat was incomplete when Walther sold the hull to Bernie Little who changed the design from twin Chrysler engines to a conventional V-12 Merlin engine, and raced it as the U-12 “Miss Budweiser” through the late nineteen seventies.

In 1979, a mysterious twin-engine boat known as U-5 “Candyman” appeared at the APBA Gold Cup in Madison Indiana. The team engine builder Leon “Bubba” Wilton fell off “Candyman” and broke his leg. The boat’s owner Carroll Kern without an engine builder then withdrew. If any readers know more information about U-5 "Candyman," please contact the author.

a press-kit photo of the Aronow Unlimited
from the author's collection
An “All-Star” effort appeared during the 1980 APBA racing season – the U-9 “Aronow/Halter Special,” funded by Don Aronow and Harold ‘Hal” Halter and designed by Gary Garbrecht, all big names in the marine industry.

Aronow, born in Brooklyn New York in 1927 founded Formula Marine in 1962, sold it to corporate interests, and then started Donzi Marine in 1964 and likewise sold the company off to a conglomerate. Aronow founded yet another boat company, Magnum Marine, and with a series of Magnum boats powered by a pair of 450-horsepower Holman-Moody built 427-cubic inch Ford engines won three straight United States and two world offshore racing championships. After he sold off Magnum Marine, Aronow started the “Cigarette” brand of offshore boats, with which he became world famous. Cigarette customers included Roger Penske, Mark Donohue, and President George Herbert Walker Bush and the Shah of Iran.

Aronow’s partner in the hydroplane venture, Hal Halter, had made a fortune after he founded his eponymous ship-building firm in New Orleans in the early nineteen fifties. In the nineteen seventies, Halter Marine supplied half of the world’s crew and re-supply boats for the offshore oil industry. Halter was moving into the offshore powerboat business, and  in 1978, Halter bought the Cigarette Racing Team from Don Aronow while Aronow started a new boat building company which he called USA Racing Team.  

Boat designer Gary Garbrecht started working in 1962 as a driver and research engineer for Elmer “Carl” Keikhaefer’s outboard engine company.  Before Kiekheafer retired in 1969, he put Garbrecht in charge of the Mercury outboard motor factory racing team, which he ran until 1979. During the time Garbrecht ran the Mercury racing program, he hired and nurtured the careers of Bill Seebold and Earl Bentz, who each won two world championships in outboard Mercury-powered Formula 1 “tunnel” boats. When Mercury Marine’s parent company cut back racing participation in 1980, Gary Garbrecht left and launched Second Effort, a high performance engineering company.

The hydroplane boat hull designed by Garbrecht drew heavily on the design of Formula 1 “tunnel” outboard boats, and was the first “tunnel hull” hydroplane design. Although it was 30 feet long, two feet longer than conventional hydroplane, the hull weighed just 1000 pounds. As if the hull design was not radical enough, for power Garbrecht specified a pair of longitudinally-mounted turbocharged 161-cubic inch displacement Cosworth DFX Indianapolis car engines tuned for the applications. The engines were slightly offset with 8-foot long drive shafts connected to Mercury stern drives.  

Author's photo of  the Cosworth DFX engine
 on display at the Museum of American Speed

Methanol-burning all-aluminum Cosworth DFX V-8 engines powered the Indianapolis 500-mile race winner over a period of ten consecutive years from 1978 through 1987 with 81 consecutive IndyCar (CART & USAC) race wins between 1981 and 1986 and a total of 153 IndyCar victories. Each Cosworth hydroplane engine was valued at $42,000, with the rated output of 800 horsepower at 9000 RPM.

The U-9 “Aronow/Halter Special” debuted at the APBA Gold Cup race held on the Ohio River adjacent to Madison Indiana over the July 4th weekend in 1980. Nashville Tennessee’s Earl Bentz an experienced outboard racer nonetheless was a rookie driving an unlimited inboard hydroplane.  Bentz’ first flying lap around the 2 ½ mile course was recorded as 111.111 MPH, the second lap 111.801 MPH and the third lap the best at 113.780 MPH.

As the “Aronow/Halter Special” began it’s the fourth timed lap, smoke began trailing from one of the Cosworth engine, and Bentz pulled off course into the infield. After the tunnel hull hydroplane was towed back to shore, the crew discovered that an oil line had come loose and one of the Cosworth engines was damaged beyond repair and without spare engines (a curious oversight), the “Aronow/Halter Special” was a scratch from the Gold Cup races.

The official qualifying time for the “Aronow/Halter Special,” the average of its two best laps, was 112.790 MPH, the fifth fastest of the eight boats at Madison, but 12 miles per hour slower than the pole-winning U-1 “Atlas Van Lines” owned and driven by Bill Muncey. The beige and brown colored boat appeared fast enough (175 MPH) in a straight line, but the engines “bogged” in the turns, which the “experts” attributed to the Cosworth’s lack of torque.

a photo of the Aronow fitted with two hemi engines
from the book  What were they thinking?
When the boat re-appeared in 1981, known as the U-19 “Aronow Unlimited,” the Cosworth engines had been replaced by a pair of fuel-injected supercharged aluminum 402-cubic inch displacement Keith Block Hemi-style engines. The pickle-fork hull was faster in a straight line than the previous year, at nearly 180 MPH, but the engines still “bogged” in the turns, which the “experts” now blamed on the hull design. The hemi-powered “Aronow Unlimited” was plagued for the next two seasons by mechanical failures and infrequent appearances driven by North Carolina driver George “Buck” Thornton who replaced the retired Bentz. .

The “Aronow Unlimited” qualified for the 1981 Columbia Cup in Washington State at 106.636 MPH but broke one of the stern drives during the second heat race. It posted a faster qualifying speed of 116.249 MPH at Mission Bay in San Diego, but after one of the engines failed in time trials, it did not start the heat races. In 1983, the “Aronow Unlimited” posted a qualifying speed of 123.636 MPH at the Columbia Cup but again broke a stern drive in time trials.

For 1983, the Aronow boat was reworked powered with four V-8 Johnson outboard motors and entered as U-19 "Don Aronow and Gary Garbrecht's USA Racing Team.” While the boat was slower in a straight line than before, it carried better corner speed, and driven by outboard champion “Jimbo” McConnell, it placed second in the UIM World Championship Race held on Clear Lake near Houston, Texas. The boat subsequently dropped off the APBA unlimited hydroplane racing circuit and its current whereabouts are unknown. Aronow was murdered in 1987 by Ben Kramer who had purchased the USA Racing Team business from Aronow.

Also in 1987, Jerry Schoenith of the famed Detroit unlimited hydroplane racing family started the Automotive Thunderboat Association for 28-foot long boats retrofitted with automotive engines, but the series only lasted one season.  In 1991, the APBA Unlimited Racing Commission created an “Unlimited Reciprocating Class” for boats powered by multiple automotive engines, but only “UR” boat showed up to race during the 1992 season and the "UR" experiment ended.
drawing of a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine

The thundering piston engines which lasted in hydroplane racing until the late 1980’s with experimentation with fuel injection, fuel additives, nitrous oxide, added turbochargers and multiple speed gearboxes. Some teams used the Rolls-Royce “Griffon,” a relatively rare 2,240-cubic inch aircraft V-12 that featured a two-stage, three-speed supercharger.  Eventually though these monster engines were replaced by the “whoosh” of a turbine engine. Modern hydroplane race boats are powered by a single Lycoming T55 L7C turbine engine originally used in Chinook helicopters connected to single speed reduction gearboxes.

The modern turbine produced 650 horsepower from the factory and weighs just 830 pounds and runs on Jet-A (kerosene) fuel, although H1 Unlimited rules still allow the use of a single aircraft-type engine of 2250 cubic inches displacement or any number of automobile-type engines are allowed, no one has experimented with automotive type engines in the class since 1993.

photo courtesy of H1 Unlimited

In a way, one can say that the change in hydroplane racing occurred mirrored exactly by a few years what Andy Granatelli had hoped would happen at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the 1967 and 1968 500-mile races, as modern turbine engines replaced old technology. As the old ‘railbirds” did with the day-glo red STP “whooshmobiles,” hydroplane purists complain that the modern hydroplanes lack the thundering exhaust sound that marked the glory days.