Lake George in History: Gold Cup Racing and the Inimitable George Reis
From 1922 to 1941 unlimited hydroplanes were barred from participation in the American Power Boat Association (APBA) Gold Cup races. As a result, a new category of racing boats was created called the Gold Cup Class.
The original Gold Cup Class boats of 1922 were so-called “gentlemen’s runabouts.” Boats with “steps” or “shingles” on the underside of the hull were banned and the engine size was limited to 625 cubic inches. For the next two decades Gold Cup racing was restricted, supposedly for safety but more likely to put the activity into the range of more pocketbooks.
The sport was in deep trouble after five years of racing under the restrictive Gold Cup Class rules. Costs continued to spiral upwards and the boats that raced were definitely not the desired “gentlemen’s runabouts.” They were nothing but unadulterated racers.
No Gold Cup race was run in 1928. The “gentlemen’s runabout” concept was discarded and hydroplane hulls were re-admitted. The hydroplanes made a discouraging return in 1929 in Red Bank, N.J. and the race winner that year actually ran slower than the 1927 winner which was a V-bottom monohull.
The 1930 Gold Cup churned the waters of suspicion from the previous year that the hydroplane hulls built to the new rules were not competitive. None of the six boats entered in the 1931 race were able to keep up with “Hotsy Totsy”, a four-year-old V-bottom hull which had been treated to a “shingled” underside.
“Hotsy Totsy” repeated as champion in 1931 and as a result two-thirds of the boats entered in 1932 consisted of “shingled” versions of earlier V-bottom Gold Cuppers. The 1932 winner was “Delphine IV” owned by Horace Dodge, Jr. and driven by Bill Horn.
Because of Dodge’s win in 1932, the 1933 race was held in his home port of Detroit, Mich. but the Cup’s stay in the Motor City proved to be of short duration. This was the year of the highly touted “Dodge Navy”. Five out of a total of eight entries belonged to Dodge but none of them were a match for “El Lagarto”, the “Leaping Lizard of Lake George.”
Owner/driver George Reis and riding mechanic Dick Bowers pushed the old “Lizard” to the fastest heat (60.866 mph) since the cubic inch displacement limitation was implemented in 1922. Reis and Bowers made it two Cups in a row in 1934 at Lake George (Reis’ home port). “El Lagarto” won the first two heats after a battle in Heat Two with Bennett Hill in “Hornet” and then cruised to an easy third in Heat Three to win on race points.
In 1935, for the first time in Gold Cup history a boat, (“El Lagarto”) won three Gold Cups in succession. Not for 30 years would another craft (“Miss Bardahl”) match “El Lagarto’s” record of winning three Gold Cups in a row.
George Reis had to be one of the most colorful characters to ever pilot a hydroplane. Born to wealth, he was reportedly brought up to learn the value of money. His father, a steel company executive, used to make him caddy during the summer while his family vacationed in resorts.
Reis was a poet and also a stage actor of some distinction. Every winter he would take his wife, Mary, to Pasadena, Calif. where he starred in performances at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse. Reis was blind in his left eye and, when driving in a race, would only pass on the right of his fellow competitors.
Of all of the 1930s Gold Cup Races only the 1936 race was a total disaster. Only two boats answered the starting gun on Lake George. “El Lagarto” went dead in the water after only one mile of competition and “Impshi”, with Englishman Kaye Don driving, ran 89 out of 90 miles by itself. “Impshi’s” win in 1936 returned the Gold Cup to the shelf of the Detroit Yacht Club and in 1937 the race proved to be one of the more successful in the series. The rules were amended to allow participation by boats of the International 12-Litre Class which was popular in Europe at the time.
On September 1, 1939, the same weekend as the APBA Gold Cup Regatta in Detroit, World War II began over in Europe with the German invasion of Poland. The long-feared worldwide conflict was now a reality and American involvement was to be expected but did not occur until Pearl Harbor was bombed two years later.
For the time being APBA racing continued but no one could deny the existence of war clouds on the horizon. The quality of Gold Cup racing in the years just prior to the outbreak of U.S. participation in the war had generally been good. But, the problem of what to do about the dwindling supply of engines would not go away.
By 1941 the troubles of the Gold Cup Class seemed trivial in light of the terrifying situation facing the country. Detroit declined to host the race so the Red Bank, N.J. committee agreed to run the Gold Cup between the heats of the National Sweepstakes and even then only one boat answered the starter’s gun. This marked the end of ABPA Gold Cup Class activity for the duration of the war.
By and large, the Gold Cup Class, 1922 to 1941 put on many more good races than bad. Throughout the Great Depression the Gold Cuppers kept big-time boat racing alive during a time of economic uncertainty. The Gold Cup Class was an APBA showcase group. After World War II the Gold Cuppers and the 725 cubic inch Class merged and changed over to the Unlimited Class marking the end of an era in boat racing.