When ‘in the pits’ meant excitement and adventure
A few weeks ago in her lower Methow Valley column, Joanna Bastian wrote about Dale Burnison, an exceptional woodworker. What caught my eye and memory was that he was once a hydroplane racer. This was in the old days, which came after my own old days.
Harking back to the late 1940s in the town of Red Bank, N.J., I was about 12 years old, and the high point of every summer was the National Sweepstakes Regatta on the Navesink River.
The regatta had races of just about every small watercraft, from sailboats to Gold Cup-class racers and all between: outboard “flying shingles,” Jersey skiffs, and several classes of hydros, but at the top of the heap was the Gold Cup class, big boats with aircraft engines available as surplus at the end of World War II. Each class raced against one another until the finale, when the winners of each class raced in a free-for-all.
It was thrilling to stand at the fence outside the pits where the boats either resided in the water or were lifted to shore with a crane, where major mechanical work was done as well as cleaning the boats’ exteriors.
From outside the fence, kids would solicit the owners or drivers to volunteer as boat cleaners. I was one of those, and going down the line had little success until I came to a mechanic standing by the fence. I still remember his name, Ralph Greiner, the mechanic for Barracuda, racing number F-77, a pearl-white three-point hydro owned and raced by Lou Butler, owner of the Ohio Porcelain Company in Zanesville.
Ralph and I must have hit it off, and on the first day of the four-day event he got me a pit pass, a treasured item giving free access to all the boats (“Don’t touch that, kid”), and the heroic drivers. That led to my first face-to-face encounter with a national celebrity, who was not only a boat racer, but also a bandleader of renown. Guy Lombardo raced a series of boats named Tempo, frequent winners at the five major boat racing events in the country. If the name is unfamiliar, he was a top dance bandleader in that era and dedicated racer.
I was walking down pit row toward the refreshment stand, and as I passed Lombardo near his boat, he motioned me over. “Are you going to the refreshment stand, kid?” he asked. I gulped and said I was. He handed me some folded money and asked me if I would get a dozen Cokes for him and the crew, and get whatever I wanted for myself. I did, giving myself a bonus hamburger, and delivered the goods to his mechanic.
The Gold Cup boats of those days were slender, single-hulled craft, most with Allison aircraft engines. There was talk of Seattle out west, where three-point hydroplanes were tearing up the courses with a radical new design. I think the legendary Bill Muncey was racing at that time.
“My” boat, Barracuda, was powered by a 225 horsepower Mercury auto engine (later, 355 horsepower), with three carburetors and a church organ-like collection of exhaust pipes. When they tuned the engine up with the boat on its trailer, and no water to dilute the sound, it was a heavenly chorus.
I did this for three regattas, became a regular correspondent with Greiner, the mechanic, and got a Christmas card from Lou Butler for years. My first paycheck (I expected none) was $10, and more followed the next two years.
But the biggest thrill for me came the day Greiner let me hook the crane to the boat and, standing on the deck holding onto the cable before God and my envious friends, rise into the air, be swung over the dock and onto the boat’s trailer. It was my personal stardom.
I was briefly interested in hydros and Seafair when I moved to Washington in 1961, but that eventually waned. Job, family and other distractions took precedence. My mind still can go back to the crane ride and the Lombardo adventure, but what is most memorable in mind and nostrils is the perfume of a mix of castor oil and high-test fuel, and the blatting ear-splitting music of revved-up engines.