THE OAKLAND BOYS, Part Three
by Andy Muntz
Five young men, Dan Arena, Danny Foster, Lou Fageol, Stanley Dollar and Edgar Kaiser, grew up together near Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, and though they lived more than two thousand miles from the nearest Gold Cup race, would all make an impact on Gold Cup racing history.
Arena had been the first. He burst upon the scene in 1938 as a no-name youngster with a home-built boat and, in the span of only a few years, became the driver for one of the sport’s top race teams, designed a new record breaking boat for that team and built another new boat that introduced the sport to the power of Allison engines. But,despite his success, Arena would not experience a victory in a Gold Cup race. That distinction would instead be left to his four friends, starting with Danny Foster.
Foster sat beside Arena during that Gold Cup in 1938 when the two young racers captured the attention of boatracing fans with their improbable second place finish. Arena was back the following year as the pilot of Notre Dame, but Foster would not return to the cockpit of a Gold Cup boat for another eight years. Instead, he raced midget race cars, earned his pilot’s license and went into the Army, first as a test pilot and eventually flying a C-46 transport that flew “The Hump,” the dangerous route through the Himalayan Mountains between India and China that was used to deliver supplies to the Chinese Army during World War II.
He returned to Oakland in July 1946, just in time to help Arena install the Allison engine in the new Miss Golden Gate III. Foster also was in the pits to help Arena finish second in the Gold Cup later that summer; and, when Arena sold the boat to Albin Fallon after the race, he became part of the deal. Fallon wanted Foster to stay behind and drive the boat in the President’s Cup. “Well,” he explained in an interview published in the Unlimited NewsJournal in December 1984, “I told Arena I had nothing to do — I was just on leave.”
Foster’s ride in Washington, D.C., with the boat renamed Miss Great Lakes, erased all doubt that the Allison engine would be a commanding force for years to come. In the first heat, he crossed the starting line in fourth place and passed all the others before he reached the first turn. Guy Lombardo jumped to an early lead in the second heat and managed to hold off Great Lakes for two laps, but Foster eventually surged ahead and took the checkered flag with a new heat record of over 71 miles per hour. Finally, in the third heat, Foster led from start to finish. “We just had a ball with that thing,” he said
Three brothers, the proprietors of a family business called Dossin’s Food Products, had developed an interest in hydroplane racing during this time and figured the sport might be a good way to advertise their Pepsi-Cola distribution business. So, the following winter, Foster approached the Dossin brothers with a proposition. He would purchase the old So Long, the boat his friend Lou Fageol had raced before the war, and would put an Allison engine in it.
The Dossins thought it was a great idea, so Foster went to work. The only problem was, the engine was too big to fit in the 22-foot hull. To make room for the monster, Foster had put the cockpit inside an aluminum container that dangled several feet over the water behind the hull. When the aluminum cowling was in place over the engine, the hydroplane looked like a racecar had parked on its rear deck.
The 1947 Gold Cup was held on Jamaica Bay, Long Island, and like the event the year before, it attracted a large field of contestants — 21 in all.
But, unlike the previous year, only seven boats made it to the starting line, including four from Detroit. Ironically, of those four, three had direct ties to faraway Oakland: Notre Dame was driven by Dan Arena, Miss Great Lakes was built by Arena and the Dossin brothers’ Miss Peps V, formerly owned by Lou Fageol, was rebuilt and driven by Danny Foster.
The racecourse itself proved to be treacherous. A breeze blowing against the tide had kicked up a steep chop that caused the drivers to lay off the throttle much of the way around the course, lest the rough water turn their hulls to kindling. In fact, that’s what happened to defending Gold Cup champion Guy Lombardo. Only two laps into the first heat, the waves had punched a large hole in the sponson of his Tempo VI, which put Lombardo out of contention for the rest of the day. Arena, meanwhile, won the first heat in Notre Dame, but a flooded supercharger housing caused him to miss the second heat and allowed Foster an easy wire-to-wire victory. Foster then drove Peps V at a steady pace during the final, ended up crossing the finish line in first place and won the Gold Cup.
Foster made it two Gold Cups in a row the following year under similar circumstances. With a strong breeze blowing against the Detroit River’s current, 21 of the 22 boats that entered the 1948 race were forced out of the running, mostly because their hulls had fallen apart as they crashed through the waves. Mel Crook of Yachting Magazine described the event as “a mass destruction of floating equipment rivaling the scuttling at Scapa Flow." Meanwhile, the lone survivor was Foster behind the wheel of Miss Great Lakes. The boat lasted long enough to cross the finish line of the final heat and then began to sink when it returned to the pits.
Fellow Oakland native Lou Fageol also had
entered that fateful 1948 Gold Cup, but was counted among the casualties. Following his
less-than-stellar accomplishments in the 1939 and 1940 Gold Cup races, Fageol had turned his attention toward the family business and became president of the Fageol Twin Coach Company, makers of twin-engined passenger buses.
He also was interested in a new class of
Fageol got his first ride in an unlimited-class hydroplane in 1949 when he was asked to drive a new Arena-designed boat named Such Crust II in the Silver Cup.
limited inboard hydros called the 7-litre class,
which happened to use the same engine found
in a Twin Coach bus. He entered a 7-litre boat
named So Long Jr. in the 1946 Gold Cup and
another 7-litre boat named So Long was among the battered contestants in the 1948 race.
The boat handled so rough, however, that the riding mechanic, Ray Taverner, demanded that Fageol make a quick stop at the press dock after the fifth lap so he could get out of the thing. Driving the team’s other boat, Such Crust, two weeks later at the President’s Cup, Fageol managed a second place finish before the race was canceled by poor weather.
The big news in 1950 was the appearance of
the revolutionary Slo-mo-shun IV from Seattle,
which set a world straightaway speed record
earlier in the summer and then, with designer
Ted Jones at the helm, easily won the Gold Cup race on the Detroit River.
While that was going on, defending champion Bill Cantrell was nursing injuries he had suffered while driving another boat a few days before. Cantrell drove his My Sweetie to a second place finish in the first heat, but was so sore afterward that had to be lifted from the cockpit. So, Fageol completed the day’s work. The same thing happened a week later in the Detroit Memorial Race. Cantrell won the first and second heats in My Sweetie, then Fageol wrapped it up with another victory in the final heat.
Then came Fageol’s golden opportunity. Slo-mo-
shun IV stayed in Detroit after the Gold Cup so it
could be entered in the coveted Harmsworth Trophy
more than a month later. But, driver Ted Jones injured his wrist during a test run on the Detroit River the day before qualification runs were set to begin, which meant the team suddenly needed a new driver. Jones and team owner Stan Sayres considered a couple of the top drivers for the job, including Danny Foster, but the only one available was Lou Fageol, who Jones knew to be mild mannered on shore but with little fear on the racecourse. Sayres talked to him briefly and hired him on the spot.
Fageol won the Harmsworth Trophy easily, beating his friend Dan Arena in Such Crust by a large distance, and became the first to average more than 100 miles per hour in a race.
A couple of days later, he drove the boat again in the Silver Cup and turned a first lap of an astonishing 106 miles per hour in the first heat.
A year later, the entire Gold Cup fleet made its way across the country to Seattle and, when they arrived, were met by a second Stan Sayres entry, the new Slo-mo-shun V with Lou Fageol at the steering wheel. Fageol then stunned the others with something called a “flying start.” As the clock ticked down toward the start of the first heat, he drove the Slo-mo V off the racecourse and under the western approach to the nearby floating bridge, turned around on the other side, pushed his foot hard onto the throttle and came flying out from under the bridge; the boat’s white roostertail soaring high into the air.
The Slo-mo V hit the starting line just as the gun fired and it flew toward the south turn, out-accelerating all except the Miss Pepsi. Chuck Thompson, driving Pepsi, held a position just to the rear and to the right of the Slo-mo V and stayed there for most of the next four laps, pushing Fageol to turn one lap at a record-breaking 108.633 miles per hour. But, during the fourth time around the buoys, the Miss Pepsi’s engines sputtered, coughed and went silent, which left the heat victory to the Slo-mo V.
Fageol began the second heat like he had the first, and Thompson did likewise by grabbing a spot at the heels of the Slo-mo V. But this time the battle was short-lived. A crankshaft broke on the Miss Pepsi before it had even reached the first turn. That left Hornet, the second place finisher in the first heat, as the only boat with a chance to catch the Slo-mo V. Danny Foster, driving Hornet, tried valiantly to keep up with his friend, but he couldn’t close the gap and left Fageol with a second comfortable victory.
That was all that was needed. Just two laps into the final heat, the Quicksilver, driven by Orth Mathiot, suddenly leaped into the air, disintegrated into a geyser of spray as it hit the surface of Lake Washington and sank to the bottom — leaving behind only a few splinters of gray plywood, a seat cushion and one shoe with a sock still inside.
Race officials quickly stopped the race and declared Fageol the winner, but there was little celebrating for his Gold Cup victory. Divers found Mathiot’s body two hours later and didn’t recover the remains of his riding mechanic, Thompson Whittaker, until the following day.