On August 7, 1954, during the Gold Cup races on Lake Washington, the hydroplane Gale IV, piloted by the already legendary "Wild Bill" Cantrell (1908-1996), loses its steering and ends up on the lawn of the lakeside home of Dr. F. A. Black. Cantrell, who is in his first season driving the Gale, had left the hydroplane pits to compete in the race's second heat. During a warmup lap, the Gale IV's rudder jams. While he struggles with the problem, the Gale IV turns sharply right, scribes a large circle on the calm lake, and heads for shore at full throttle. The boat hits the beach at high speed, jumps a bulkhead, and sails through a rose garden. Finally, adorned with rose petals, the Gale IV comes to rest next to a fish pond, just feet from a picnic umbrella and a table of food set out for Dr. Black's guests, who have scattered in all directions.
William E. Cantrell was born into poverty in 1908 in West Point, Kentucky, a small town on the south shore of the Ohio River across from Indiana. Details of his youth are scarce, but it appears that his first experience in boat racing came in the early 1920s, when he rode as a mechanic on two-man speedboats racing on the river. In 1924, when he was just 16 years old, he won his first race as a driver. A year or two later, while competing in an outboard on the Ohio, Cantrell lost control of his boat, plowed through anchor chains marking the course, and sank a couple of canoes. It would be far from his last mishap on the water, and it earned him a nickname that he would live up to -- "Wild Bill." For the rest of his long career, he proudly wore the sobriquet and used it for autographs. Cantrell had found his calling, and in 1927, at the age of 19, he won the Ohio Valley Championship for Class B Outboards.
There was little prize money in motor-boat racing back then, and by 1928 Cantrell was earning his main living installing radio antennas. He decided to try boxing, but found the training too strenuous and turned to wrestling instead. After a few years as an amateur, wrestling mostly college students, Cantrell turned professional during the darkest days of the Great Depression. He billed himself, of course, "Wild Bill," and for nine years roamed the Midwest on the carnival circuit, wrestling in mostly rural towns, and racing cars when he could catch a ride. Interviewed in 1979, Cantrell recalled those days, his diction still pure rural Kentuckian:
"It was a tumbling act, just like it is today, except back then you had to be able to rassle ... I ran the midget race cars on dirt tracks in the daytime and I rassel'd winner-take-all on the 'ad show' at night ... And you'd go up there on the stage, and challenge someone to rassle you. They would bark you up and ballyhoo you and to get up the heat, you'd pick out some big bruiser in the audience ... But for every minute they's stay with you, they'd get five dollars. Well in those days, you couldn't let a guy stay in there long. You had to beat him quick, or it cost you a lot of money" ("Wild Bill Remembers").
He would survive his time as a wrestler, but in 1941 Cantrell broke his neck during an automobile race in Evansville, Indiana. The injury was severe enough to disqualify him from military duty in World War II.
While wrestling in Michigan, Cantrell discovered Detroit's Gold Cup boat races, sponsored by the American Power Boat Association (APBA). When his wrestling career ended in the late 1930s he started racing limited hydroplanes, including several of his own that were all named "Why Worry," which could have been his life motto. He met with considerable early success and first attracted national attention in 1939, when he drove a Why Worry at the APBA Gold Cup races in Detroit. He led the field for two heats before being forced to withdraw; fans and other drivers took notice. At a regatta on the Ohio River at Evansville the following year, Why Worry won the initial heat, but flipped on the last turn of the second heat. Cantrell emerged relatively unscathed.
In the late 1940s, while still racing boats, "Wild Bill" decided to give cars another shot, this time at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and in the premier 500-mile event. In 1948, driving a Fageol Twin Coach, No. 36, he made it through 161 of the event's 200 laps before steering problems forced him to pull out. Even so, he placed 16th, earning $1,870. But it was, as they say, all downhill from there. In 1949, driving an Offenhauser-powered racer, Cantrell made it only to the 95th lap before losing his driveshaft, placing 21st. In 1950, he failed to qualify, as happened in 1951, 1952, and 1953. He would over the years also drive in other types of wheeled races, including midgets, sprint cars, and stock cars.
Playing with the Big Boys
Cantrell's unlimited-hydroplane career was so long and so varied that only a brief mention of some of its most dramatic moments is possible here. After competing at Indy in May 1948, he was hired to drive his first unlimited hydroplane, My Sweetie, owned by Ed Gregory and Ed Schoenherr of Detroit. He drove in three races that year -- the Gold Cup, Silver Cup, and President's Cup. His best result was placing sixth in the President's Cup. In the Gold Cup race on the Detroit River in August, he was doing well until his boat started to take on water, and he prevented a sinking only by running it onto the beach.
In 1949 Cantrell came into his own as an unlimited driver, winning every race but one and capturing his first (and last) Gold Cup in My Sweetie. Driving Such Crust IV in the 1952 Gold Cup race in Seattle, he barely escaped death when the boat caught fire and exploded in the south turn during Heat 2. A Coast Guard patrolman pulled an unconscious Cantrell from the cockpit of the hydroplane, which burned to the water line. "Wild Bill" spent 46 days recuperating in a Seattle hospital. Ever resilient, he came back in 1953 to have one of his best years on the unlimited circuit.
In 1954 Cantrell joined up with Detroit's Joe Schoenith and his son, Lee, the latter of whom also drove for the family's Gale team. The relationship would last for 22 years, and it was magical at the start. In 1954 Lee Schoenith and "Wild Bill" won every major race but the Gold Cup. Lee Schoenith piloted Gale V to the national high-point championship. Cantrell and Gale IV were second. Cantrell won the President's Cup in Gale IV that year in Washington, D.C., and he and the Schoenith family were invited to the White House to receive the trophy from Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969).
Of course, it was also in this first year with the Schoeniths that Cantrell and Gale IV ended up attending Dr. Black's garden party. While not exactly magical, it was certainly entertaining, more so because no one was injured. And, once again, "Wild Bill" justified his nickname.
Never a Dull Moment
On the morning of June 26, 1950, a new unlimited hydroplane named Slo-Mo-Shun IV set a one-mile straightaway record of 160.323 miles per hour on Lake Washington. The Slo-Mo IV was designed by Ted Jones (d. 2000), and built by Seattle shipwright Anchor Jensen (1918-2000). (Note: Some sources credit Jensen with the boat's design, and the conflicting claims have never been definitively resolved.) The owner and driver was Stan Sayres (1896-1956), a Seattle entrepeuner and Chrysler dealer. The previous world-record speed on water was held by Malcolm Campbell -- 141.740 m.p.h., set in 1939 in England. Sayres beat it by nearly 19 m.p.h., a remarkable feat. In 1952 he bested himself, clocking 178.49 m.p.h. over a measured mile, again on Lake Washington.
Slo-Mo IV and Slo-Mo V changed the metrics of unlimited hydroplane racing. They were incredibly fast, although sometimes hampered by stability issues and occasionally outfoxed by other drivers. Cantrell had won the 1949 Gold Cup in Detroit driving My Sweetie; the next five consecutive Gold Cups were won by either Slo-Mo IV or Slo-Mo V, with four different drivers. From the day they came on the scene, the Slo-Mos were formidable foes to every other boat on the water.
The qualifying speeds for the 50th annual Gold Cup race, held in Seattle in 1954, demonstrated the Slo-Mo Shuns' dominance, but also the fact that rival teams were beginning to catch up. Slo-mo V, driven by Lou Fageol and using for the first time a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, roared around the course at an average 111.632 m.p.h. Its sister ship, Slo-Mo IV, with Joe Taggart in the cockpit, was third fastest, at 103.22 m.p.h. But edging it out for the second-fastest qualifying speed was "Wild Bill" Cantrell in Gale IV, who made it around the course at 103.74 m.p.h. His teammate Lee Schoenith, driving Gale V, clocked in at 99.901 m.p.h.
On race day, August 7, handicappers picked Slo-mo-shun V (U-37) to win, Gale V (U-55) a close second, Slo-mo-shun IV (U-27) for third, followed by Miss U.S. (U-2) and Gale IV (U-54), noting that the fifth-place pick had "experienced driver Bill Cantrell" in the cockpit ("1954 APBA Gold Cup"). This was true, but there had been both good and not-so-good experiences in "Wild Bill"'s long career, and this one would end up in the latter category.
In the first heat, both Slo-mo-shun IV and Gale V were penalized a lap for jumping the gun, virtually eliminating them from winning the heat unless every other boat went dead in the water (and four of the eight that made it onto the course did just that). Cantrell in Gale IV was leading going into the first turn. Slo-Mo V, which had crossed the starting line in fourth place after being trapped behind other boats, trailed him. Then Lou Fageol put the pedal to the metal. Coming out of the first corner Slo-Mo V showed her speed, flying by Gale IV. Cantell was in range for two laps, then died in the north turn and coasted to a stop. Slo-mo V won the heat, followed by Detroit's Miss U.S. and Gale V. On the scorecard, the speed of the fourth-place boat, Miss Cadillac, also from Detroit, was listed as "too slow to clock" ("1954 APBA Gold Cup"). Even more embarrassing, Slo-Mo-Shun IV actually ran out of gas before finishing, but managed to last longer than the four dropouts.
Until she broke down, Gale IV had stayed close to the screaming-fast Slo-Mo V in the first heat, and there were hopes that with a little luck, Cantrell could pull off a win in Heat 2. It was not to be. An entertaining, if perhaps slightly embellished, account by hydroplane writer Michael Prophet, reported:
"All the boats started leaving the pits for the second heat, but during the warm up laps 'Wild' Bill Cantrell showed his 'wild side' a little. While he was trying to get set up for his starting run the Gale IV went out of control when the steering control jammed, took a hard right turn and made a big circle, then went screaming towards shore. Before he could get off the throttle he hit the beach going flat out, jumped over a concrete bulkhead, leaped over a rosebush, and came to a dead stop at the edge of fish pond next to a table filled with food. The partygoers quickly scattered, running in every direction but towards the Gale IV. After Bill Cantrell and the Gale IV came to a stop, the owner of the yard, Dr. F. A. Black, came over and asked Bill Cantrell if he had an invitation to his party. Bill Cantrell replied sheepishly that he didn't, and that this was all just a big mistake. Bill Cantrell was very embarrassed, but unhurt in the incident. The Gale IV wasn't quite so lucky, she had a small eight-inch gash in the hull, the seat was torn loose, and it was stuck in a rosebush on shore" ("1954 APBA Gold Cup").
On the Hydro History website's chart of the second heat's results, in the slot for last place, is this concise explanation: "U-54 - Gale IV - went to a party." And, of course, there was much speculation about just what had happened. A plausible explanation was provided by Prophet, whose account continues:
"The story I heard about Bill Cantrell's little side trip to the garden party was because the Gale team was trying to be tricky, and confuse the Seattle race teams. The rudders on the two Gales are located on opposite sides of the stern, so the night before the Gold Cup, the Gale crew switched rudders between their boats ... This morning when the crew put things back, they forgot to tighten the rudder stop on the bellcrank secure enough on Gale IV. So when Bill Cantrell went out for the second heat things finally fell apart on him. When he turned the boat left, it went right instead ... to end up in the rose garden ... Bill Cantrell walked dejectedly back to the Mount Baker pits. Joe Schoenith was looking out on the racecourse and asking the crew where Bill Cantrell and the U-54 Gale IV was [sic], from behind him Bill Cantrell spoke up saying here he was ... In the meantime, out on the racecourse, Lee Schoenith, and a U-55 Gale V was circling around the course getting set up for the start. He too was looking for Bill Cantrell and the U-54 Gale IV ... He came buzzing back to the pits after the heat worried about his close friend. When he jumped out of the U-55 Gale V he quickly asked where Bill Cantrell was, then saw him a sitting on the empty trailer. Bill Cantrell said this was the first time he had ever walked back from a race. Not too long after this 'Wild' Bill Cantrell picked up a couple of new nicknames, ones he didn't particularly care for too much ... 'Rosebud' and 'Rose Petals'" ("1954 APBA Gold Cup").
The Enduring Charm of "Wild Bill" Cantrell
For most of his long career, Bill Cantrell was one of the most popular drivers on the unlimited-hydroplane circuit, especially with young people, but he hardly fit the popular conception of a dashing, bold sportsman. He was rough-hewn and stocky, with a slanted smile and a gap between his upper front teeth. His looks were most often compared to those of famed actor Wallace Beery (1885-1949). He had a low, gravelly voice and a booming laugh, and he never lost the cadence, vocabulary, and grammar of rural Kentucky. He often dispensed with shaving before public appearances, and was rather indifferent about his wardrobe. But if one had to come up with a single word to sum up Cantrell's attraction, "lovable" would do nicely. He once said, long after he had retired and with typical simplicity, "Try to be good to your fellow man like you want him to be good to you. I have always treated people like people" ("Legendary Racer 'Wild Bill' ..."). He never married, had no children, but was known to have a fondness for attractive women.
Cantrell loved the fans as much as they loved him. One anecdote is particularly revealing. During an August 1961 hydroplane race (not the Gold Cup) in Seattle, Cantrell spotted a youngster outside the fence that separated the pits from the public. The boy was staring longingly at the Gale V, but didn't have the pass needed to get any closer. "Wild Bill" reached over the barricade, lifted the little lad up, and gave him a personal tour of the pits. Many years later the two would meet once again. Cantrell then learned that the 7-year-old boy whose day he had made in Seattle in 1961 was Chip Hanauer (b. 1954), who went on to become that third most successful driver in unlimited-hydroplane history.
Although he raced until 1968, an accident in Madison, Indiana, in 1965 foretold the end of Cantrell's time in the cockpit. He was driving Miss Smirnoff when he hit a cross-wise wake from another hydro and was thrown violently out of the boat. A photographer taking pictures from a nearby patrol craft reported, "I could hear him cussing in that distinctive Kentucky drawl of his as he sailed right over me" ("The Saga of 'Wild Bill' ..."). Cantrell had eight cracked ribs and was paralyzed on his left side for nearly three months, but not quite ready to quit. His last appearance as a driver was in the Diamond Cup in Couer d'Alene, driving Gale's Roostertail. After Heat 2-A he told a radio reporter, "This is my last race" ("The Saga of 'Wild Bill' ..."), and he meant it. He'd been at it for 44 years, nearly killed himself more than once, been hurled from boats, burned up in boats, grounded in boats, and almost drowned. But he had lasted through it all, high points and low, and had won not only the affection and respect of tens of thousands of fans, but also just about every race and honor there was to win in the unlimited-hydroplane circuit. Not bad for a Depression-era kid from Kentucky.
William "Wild Bill" Cantrell retired to Madison, Indiana, where he ran a machine shop and was always eager to provide interviewers a detailed and colorful oral history of decades of American hydroplane racing. He died on January 22, 1996, at Charleston Medical Center in Indiana.