Detroit — As a boy, Sandy Ross could stand in front of his home near Van Dyke and Kerchival streets, look south toward the Detroit River less than a mile away, and consider three possibilities for sport.
In autumn during the Great Depression, it was football in Memorial Park, just across from The Whittier, the bustling hotel and apartment complex where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stayed, the automobile pioneer Horace Dodge had lived and the Purple Gang made criminal use of the boat slips for easy access to Canadian distilleries.
For hockey, Ross would head over the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle and the sailboat pond. It froze solid early, nearly every winter.
And in spring and summer, he heard a sound coming from the river that fascinated him.
Like the Sirens of Greek mythology, it drew Ross. But instead of his demise, the immense roar lead him to his life’s passion. At least a few hydroplane races each year and, in those days, the frequent testing of the boats with their trim, built-for-speed hulls and massive engines, lured him.
“From that vantage point,” Ross said, of his home, “you could hear the boats on the river and that’s what got me going down there.
“The sound, that’s the magnetism that draws you to the river.”
It will, once again, this weekend.
The 2017 Spirit of Detroit Hydrofest, including both the President’s Cup and the annual American Power Boat Association Gold Cup, slated for Friday through Sunday, marks the 101st year of hydroplane racing on the Detroit River. The neighborhood kid has not missed too many.
‘It was significant’
Nearing his 89th birthday, Ross, a former hydroplane constructor, driver, crew member and current racing historian, is the honorary race chairman.
“I think these boats are a great engineering achievement,” he said. “I think they are exciting. And based on the comparatively few that there are, these days, they are very competitive, all of them, now.
“And there’s great, young drivers.”
Motors are no longer the highest technology, as they were when Detroit became the Motor City.
The latest aircraft engines built by Buick, or the Rolls-Royce marine engines off the Packard assembly line, which powered the PT boats of World War II, were used to power some of the hydroplanes of the golden era.
The city became the hub of the sport.
Ross, the son of the chief electrician for the Detroit Public Schools, grew up interested in technology.
“My best friend, who grew up at St. Paul and Van Dyke, and I decided, well, we’re going to have a race boat,” he said.
“So, he and I, with a bunch of hand tools and not much brains, and some sketches, we built our first limited, in-board hydroplane. We started in 1948, and it took us over a year, in a dirt floor garage on Van Dyke.”
He drove the limited hydroplane, with some success.
At 20, Ross was not the only person around Detroit building competitive limited and unlimited hydroplanes in local garages and backyards.
Detroiters experienced hydroplane racing as a participatory sport. The loved speed and new how to create it.
They included men like Garfield “Gar” Wood, who invented the hydraulic lift for unloading coal from rail trucks, a “dump truck,” and then went hydroplane racing. For the next 30 years, Wood dominated racing on the Detroit River, making the sport synonymous with the city.
Horace Dodge Jr., the scion of the automobile manufacturing family, kept his boats in slips off Lycaste Street, between Jefferson Avenue and the river.
“When I did finally get our first race boat to run decently, the first race I raced in was the Silver Cup,” Ross said, of one of the annual races on the Detroit River. “And Horace Dodge gave me the first trophy I ever won in a race.
“I will quickly note, I was third in three-boat race! But it was a trophy, and it was significant.”
Later, when Gary Stroh, a cousin of the local brewers, bought a new hydroplane, Ross said, he gave him the old one.
Ross replaced the Ford straight-six engine to 1934 V-8 stock engine, converted to marine use with the help of the service manager of a Ford dealership on the East Side. He then went out and beat Stroh on the river.
“It bent his nose out of shape to think that his brand new boat could be beaten by his old boat,” Ross said, some 60 years later, still taking some enjoyment from the moment.
By the mid-1950s, a friend and of Ross persuaded an executive of the DeSoto automobile company to give them a brand new hemi, V-8, DeSoto engine. They raced it successfully until they broke both the engine and “the wings” on the Detroit River.
The kid from the neighborhood, then several years into adulthood, had a new thought.
“I finally came to the conclusion that I could not compete against automobile dealers and owners that had almost unlimited budget,” Ross said.
But some of the eight-to-10 backyard and alley racing teams around the city were having considerable luck in the unlimited category.
“With their success against some of these moneyed people, that wet everybody’s appetite to want to become involved with the unlimiteds,” Ross said.
He started working on their crews, getting to know and working with some of the great names of the sport, like Joe and Lee Schoenith and the drivers Bill Muncey, Ron Musson and Don Wilson.
Ross bought a 1956 copper, tan and white Corvette, with the new 265-cubic-inch V-8 and the dual carburetors, which Chevrolet began manufacturing, from the dealership owned by Muncey’s father on West McNichols Road, near Mercy College.
He also raced against the hydroplane legend.
“He raced limiteds, too,” Ross said. “It was at one of the Maple Leaf Regattas at the Windsor Yacht Club.”
‘It could have been me’
Ross had an intimate relationship with the tragic aspects of the sport. He saw Bill Braden, the best hydroplane driver from Canada in the early 1950s, killed at a limited hydroplane race on Fairy Lake, in Huntsville, Ontario.
“I was right behind him, when he had his fate,” he said. “He lost control of the boat. The boat hooked, and Joe Alvey, of Detroit, a friend of mine, here, an engineer — his boat ran right over the top of him.
“The race was canceled.”
Chosen to fill in driving the unlimited hydroplane Mariner Too, Ross narrowly escaped involvement in a massive wreck that nearly killed another fill-in driver, Marv Henrich, when a scheduling conflict kept Ross out of a practice session.
“It could have been me,” he said.
“It kind of woke me up to the fact that now that I’m a father, this is kind of a stupid thing. I have a relationship here, and I have obligations and so forth.
“So that ended my unlimited career.”
He continued to crew on the big boats and was on the Potomac for the 1966 President’s Cup when Musson, Wilson and Rex Manchester all were killed.
“The darkest day in the sport’s history, when we lost three drivers who were at the heart of it,” Ross said.
“We had flown down in one of our friend’s Cessna 172s to Washington, and it was a long ride home in a single engine airplane.
“After the arrival back home, it was decided to keep racing and the Gold Cup was coming up in Detroit.”
In that race, just a week later, Chuck Thompson’s Smirnoff disintegrated not far from where Ross played football as a boy, killing his friend, instantly.
“He went down by the Whitter, and there is an underwater drain that drains into the river, right there,” Ross said. “There is sort of a groundswell, right there. It’s not a wake, you never see it.
“He hit that wrong and the boat disintegrated, and he died right there.”
Several years later, it was Ross’s friend, Warner Gardner on the Detroit River. Then, on Oct. 10, 1981, the sport and great passion of his life claimed another friend. Muncey, by then the patriarch of the sport who had won more unlimited races than anyone in history, died racing the Atlas Van Lines in Acupulco.
Ross, who had won the 1973 championship as part of the crew of Atlas Van Lines, continued as a member of hydroplane racing crews until 1980, when he stepped away.
He is wistful at the thought of all the tragedy.
“I left the boats behind. I made it out alive,” Ross said. “I am happy to have left the driving when I did. If I had not lived in Detroit, I probably would have been more typical. I would have been more into the Tigers, into baseball, Navin Field, Briggs Stadium.
“I worked from 1975 to ’79 on the Budweisers, all of the way up till the (Allison) Griffon engines.
“When they came in, I finally decided to quit.
“So,” he said, with a chuckle, “I learned to play tennis.”
What: Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers Hydrofest
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: Detroit River
Main event: The APBA Unlimited Gold Cup final is at 4:35 Sunday
Tickets: detroitboatraces .com