The more than a century long history of the APBA Gold Cup had three distinctive eras when it came to determining where the race was held: The early years when the race went to the yacht club where the previous year’s winner was registered, the middle years when the Gold Cup went to the city and race committee who placed the highest bid, and the modern era where the Gold Cup is contested at Detroit every year. This article will concentrate on the middle era of Gold Cup racing. The intention here is not to write a comprehensive history of the Gold Cup races during these years, but instead to discuss the procedure of bidding to host the Gold Cup and its overall effect on the sport. The procedure no doubt had some positive effects. The traditional race sites all got a chance to host the year’s biggest race on a number of occasions during this era. This procedure was also indirectly responsible for the setting of what was arguably the most memorable moment in Unlimited Hydroplane racing for the twentieth century. Overall, however, the process of hosting the Gold Cup going to the highest bidder largely had negative effects and having one set host for the Gold Cup is a better way to go.
As the 1950’s progressed, the number of Unlimited owners steadily increased as more people with extra money to burn were ordering up thunderboats to be built and going racing. This increased involvement in the sport, however, led the Internal Revenue Service to look into the sport’s expenditures to see if it truly qualified as a business investment. The sport, which was still very much representative of its amateur roots, found itself needing to professionalize and modernize on many fronts and in a short amount of time. The first and most obvious change was the creation of the Unlimited Racing Commission in 1957, which quite literally put the Unlimiteds in a class of their own and broke the sport away from the more amateur sportsman minded Inboard Racing Commission. Other changes spoke to the more professional mindset of the newly formed URC, such as the new emphasis on prize money from race sites and sponsors for the race boats, both of which were exceptions in the past but were now becoming expectations. The URC also brought emphasis on a true “national” tour. In the past it was not uncommon for boats to not venture far from home for races and skip those races that took place farther away from their homeport (with the exception of the Gold Cup). In fact, there was a couple times in which official Unlimited races took place in different cities on the same weekend. Although it was still common for boats to skip some of the smaller races in the early years of the URC, as the 1960’s progressed it was expected that the major teams would be at all races on the schedule as the National High Point title supplanted the Gold Cup in terms of prestige.
The formation of the URC in 1957 brought many changes Unlimited Hydroplane racing, but for the first few years the Gold Cup host was awarded by the old format of giving the Gold Cup to the winner’s “home” city continued. That began to change in 1960. The previous year’s winner was the Maverick who was registered with the Lake Mead Yacht Club outside of Las Vegas. The affiliation, however, wasn’t worth much more than the proverbial paper it was written on. Maverick was a Seattle based boat, built by Seattle based master boatbuilder Ted Jones. Furthermore the Maverick was actually registered with the Seattle Yacht Club until 1957 when owner Bill Waggoner had a falling out with the SYC and transferred the Maverick’s registration to the Lake Mead Yacht Club.
As if a boat owner bringing the year’s biggest race to his “home” race that actually wasn’t the home of the boat didn’t do enough to violate the spirit of the rules at the time, the 1960 Gold Cup race held in Las Vegas was a disaster. Many questioned the ability of Lake Mead Cup Regatta to hold a major event. There had been Unlimited races the previous two years on Lake Mead, but they were both sparsely attended and had low boat counts. Weather was an issue at both previous events. Furthermore, Chuck Hickling, who drove the Tempest in the event, openly questioned if the prize money for the event actually existed. In Heat 1B Bill Cantrell flipped the Gale V and the heat was stopped. The planned rerun, along with heat 1-C never happened due to high winds on the lake. The next day was more of the same as high winds made it impossible to race on Lake Mead, and for the first time in its history the Gold Cup was declared a no contest (of course, this would happen again in 2008 when high winds on the Detroit River once again forced the organizers to declare no contest on the race). The facetious manner in which the Lake Mead Yacht Club won the honor to hold the Gold Cup, along with the disappointment of having the year’s biggest event end in a no contest, led many within the sport to question the method of how the hosts were selected. Therefore the decision was made that, starting in 1963, the host would be chosen by which ever race site bid the highest amount to hold the race for that year. This was more in line with the more professional mindset that was taken with the URC, but it also brought an end to the era when hosting the Gold Cup was a matter of civic pride with communities rooting for hometown boats to win or defend the right to host the next year’s race on its home waters. So while the Seattle-Detroit rivalry would never be the same, the choosing of a Gold Cup venue became another sign of how hydroplane racing was becoming more of a professional endeavor.
From 1963-1968, the Gold Cup by and large continued its pattern of the previous decade of the race rotating between Seattle and Detroit. That changed in 1969 when San Diego won the right to host. San Diego was once again the host in 1970, but that also was the first race to show the blemishes of the still relatively new method of choosing a Gold Cup host. The race was marred by the tragic accident that resulted in the loss of life of Tommy “Tucker” Fults, and the bad feelings of the loss, along with the financial difficulties that came from hosting two straight Gold Cups and all the added financial burdens that came from that, led to the San Diego racing organization to be dissolved. It would be another three years before San Diego would rejoin the schedule. It wouldn’t be the first time that a race committee would meet its demise due to the financial difficulties of hosting the Gold Cup. Owensboro hosted the Gold Cup in 1978 in a race that saw Bill Muncey dominate an extremely outclassed field of only six boats in the Atlas Van Lines. The event gathered attention initially with a $110,000 prize package (which was the largest in the sport up to that time) but with the race being largely an exhibition for Bill Muncey and the Owensboro race committee unable to make ends meet after offering such a large purse, Owensboro was off the Unlimited schedule for 1979 and the popular event would not return. Similarly, the 1985 Gold Cup was scheduled to be held in Houston when its organizing committee bid $175,000 after hosting several successful UIM World Championship races in the early 1980’s, but the organization went bankrupt and Houston lost not only the right to hold the Gold Cup but lost its race before the 1985 season ever took place. Houston would likewise be off the schedule and wouldn’t return with the exception of a one off event in 1989. As can be seen, over time the financial burden of hosting the Gold Cup proved to be too much for many race committees. While it could be said that the committees should have known better than to overstep their financial bounds, in truth the “carrot” of hosting the Gold Cup was too big for many of these committees to resist.
That is not to say that the rule didn’t have its positive effects as well. First, the method of the rights to host the Gold Cup going to the highest bidder was at least indirectly responsible for what was arguably the most memorable moment in Unlimited Hydroplane racing in the 20th century. The race in Madison, Indiana was a regular event on the Unlimited Schedule since 1954 but probably wasn’t seen as a “major” event and could even be viewed as little more than a leftover from the sport’s pre-URC days when a number of small towns across the country held events that would draw a few Unlimiteds from time to time. Then in 1971 the Madison Regatta committee put forth a bid of $30,000 to host the Gold Cup, much smaller than what was usually needed to host the Gold Cup and was little more than a “courtesy bit” by the Regatta committee. The only catch: due to a misunderstanding in the rules Madison’s smaller than usual bid was the only one submitted to the APBA headquarters on time and Madison was the host of the Gold Cup. Never before had such a small community hosted powerboat racing’s largest event. This, of course, set the stage for the Miss Madison to win the Gold Cup on its home waters and became an immediate part of boat racing lore and, of course, led to the making of a motion picture many years later. It has been argued that the one thing that has kept the Madison Regatta and the Miss Madison team going for so many years were the fond memories of this day. This was especially prevalent when both the Miss Madison and Madison Regatta went through some leaner years in the late 1990’s. While the Jim McCormick and the Miss Madison certainly deserves most of the credit for this amazing moment, a confusion of rules and a smaller than usual bid provided the setting for it.
Another positive effect of the Gold Cup going to the highest bidder, it could be argued that the race had an adverse effect for Tri-Cities in comparison to San Diego, Owensboro, and Houston. Tri-Cities, Washington had been hosting an Unlimited race since 1966 and quickly became a popular event due to its location in the Pacific Northwest (which had at that point more than established itself as the hotbed of Unlimited Hydroplane racing) and the fact that the wide Columbia river provided a natural venue for the large fast boats. Already on solid footing, the race joined the “big leagues” when it won the rights to host the Gold Cup. The committee then hosted the UIM World Championship in 1974 and the Gold Cup again in 1975. The three successive financially successful major events meant that Tri-Cities had a place as one of the most popular and financially solvent races on the circuit, a place that it still enjoys to this day.
As the 1980’s progressed the high bids for the Gold Cup begin to dry up. Although the sport was enjoying a bit of a rebirth in popularity thanks to expanded media coverage, higher boat counts, and new technology such as the turbine powered engine, the right of hosting the Gold Cup didn’t take the role of civic pride that it held in previous decades. There are a few explanations for this. First, it is possible that after seeing the demise of the Owensboro and Houston races after putting forth huge Gold Cup bids that race committees were obviously timid about bidding such exorbitant amount that in truth had little effect in attendance for their events. Another possible explanation is that the expanded media coverage might have actually led to less interest in hosting the Gold Cup. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the one Unlimited race every year that was guaranteed to be on national television every year was the Gold Cup, usually broadcast a couple weeks after the event on tape delay on ABC’s Wide World of Sports or CBS’s Sports Spectacular programs. In the early 1980’s, however, ESPN began broadcasting all of the races of the season on tape delay. Suddenly, a race site didn’t need to hold the biggest event of the year to be on national television, it just needed to be on the schedule. Into the late 1980’s there were more than a few whispers that Detroit was in fact bidding the highest amount to host the Gold Cup every year and the APBA was allowing other sites to hold the race as little more than an act of courtesy.
It was in this climate that the APBA and URC once again chose to review the manner in which it chose a Gold Cup host. After some discussion, the decision was made to sell the rights of hosting the Gold Cup to the Spirit of Detroit, making it the permanent host of the Gold Cup. Starting in 1990 the Gold Cup would have a permanent home for the first time in its history. Having the Gold Cup at a permanent site has proven to be a boon for the event. First, it was no secret that winning in Detroit had extra meaning for the Unlimited owners and drivers whether it was hosting the Gold Cup or not. Chip Hanauer famously called the Detroit River course the “Yankee Stadium of hydroplane racing” and other teams would often talk about how much it meant to win in Detroit. It also drew the biggest crowds on the tour year in and year out and, although it has probably since ceded this claim to Seattle (official attendance numbers are never really released for any event), Detroit can still claim a crowd in the six figures. Also, in the grand scope of things, having the Gold Cup at a set site simply makes more sense. Unlimited Hydroplane racing is often compared to other motorsports and one thing that most major motorsports hold their biggest event at the same place every season. Formula 1 has Monte Carlo, IndyCar has Indianapolis, NASCAR has Daytona, and Unlimited Hydroplane racing has Detroit. That isn’t to say there haven’t been issues. The Detroit race has had its own financial issues over the years, most notably was in 2003 when the sponsoring Spirit of Detroit Association went bankrupt as the season approached and a last minute deal was put in place with a new organizing committee (known as the Detroit River Regatta Association) in place and the race was held in late August as opposed to its usual early July date. In the end, however, the Gold Cup has largely went off without hitch and the DRRA has done a fine job of assuring that the race is a key part of not only the Unlimited Hydroplane schedule abut also holds a place as a marquee event within the Detroit committee.
It has now been over two decades since a city other than Detroit has hosted the Gold Cup. Effectively, a generation of fans has grown up knowing only of the race taking place in the Motor City. While the decades in which the right to host the Gold Cup went to the highest bidder certainly had some memorable and great moments, the financial burden of bidding for then hosting the race proved to be too much for many race committees as evidence by the loss of three races, one temporarily and two permanently (at least as of 2012). In the end, having the Gold Cup at one set location is better for the sport as a whole, as it has left much of the worries surrounding the event in the past and in my opinion has made the Gold Cup an even more prestigious event. After all, the most important and historic race of the year certainly belongs on the most important and historic venue for Unlimited Hydroplane racing.