Racing around Hampton,Virginia in the 1950s
By Lewis Redding
This is a long and rambling trip to the past. For the most part, I believe that my memory is accurate. I was never a racer, nor a boat owner, but I grew up in Hampton, Virginia. The Hampton, Newport News, Portsmouth, Norfolk, area was a center for limited class inboard hydroplane and runabout racing, particularly in the 1950s. 

My older brother probably took me to my first Hampton Regatta in about 1949 when I was five years old. I loved it and couldn’t get enough of the boats. From that time forward I attended every Hampton regatta until the early sixties. There was also an annual regatta at Langley Field, as well as regattas in Norfolk and in Portsmouth. Until I got a driver’s license, I was stuck at Hampton, but that was not at all a bad place to be.

I spent my childhood on the campus of a historically black college named Hampton Institute (now, Hampton University). Until the late fifties the regatta was held on what we knew locally as “The Creek.” Officially, it was the Hampton River. The race site bordered Hampton Institute and the race pits were actually on Hampton’s campus. As laid-out, the original course had a rather peculiar shape. As a result, each heat was five laps in length. My memory is that one reason the course was finally moved to Mill Creek was to have sufficient space to have four laps per heat and where records could be officially sanctioned. There were also some safety concerns.

Every year when the race rolled around my friends and I would be up at the crack of dawn and head to the entrance to Hampton Institute to watch the boats drive onto the campus and head to the pits. We would try to discern the “best” boats and determine our favorites as the boats passed by on their trailers. Our parents would not see us until sunset. 

Later, we would spend time in the pits, no pit passes required. Basically, we had the run of the place. Shortly before the first heats began, we would head down to a campus site known as the Catherine House in order to watch the action. The Catherine House was right on the water. Not only did it have a large, fully-screened, porch, but it had two substantial piers that jutted out into the water. There was a boat ramp between the two piers. At high tide the water would rise to within three feet or so of the tops of the piers. Best of all, the second turn of the race course began immediately beyond the Catherine House. The drivers would begin to set up their boats for the turn right in front of those piers where we sat and, depending upon the tide, and the track each boat would take, spectators sitting on the piers might well get a soaking.

I took tons of snapshots of the boats in the pits with a Brownie Bullseye camera. Unfortunately, when I went away to school and my parents moved all of those snapshots were lost.

Here are some assorted memories, not just from the regatta: 

  • Our excitement when we heard there was going to be a 280 cid class because, initially, we did not know that it was a “stock” class; we thought that the boats would be even faster than our favorites, the 266cid hydros.
  • During the spring and summer, suddenly hearing the roar of an engine, and running to the shore as a local boat made a few practice runs. Those local boats included the E-Service runabouts, Skip-e, Miss Bee Bee, and, if memory serves me well, an infrequent Vaughn Francis. At one time or another all of those boats were national champions. Rodney Brogden’s, Kitty B also put in an occasional appearance on the river.
  • The summer that a gentleman from New Jersey – I am sorry that I do not remember his name – brought to Hampton three boats all named Jersey Devil a 135cid hydroplane, a 225 cid hydroplane and a 266 cid hydroplane. We had seen the Jersey Devil previously, but not three of them.
  • That same summer, Bill Ritner of Pennsylvania showed up with three versions of Wa-Wa, also a 135cid, a 225cid, and, of course, the famed 266ci, F-247. The heats involving the Wa-Wa’s and theJersey Devils, were fantastic.
  • Another summer in which Ron Musson showed up with ChroMate and Chromium.
  • The summer that water was running high and Wa-Wa’s driver – whether it was Hank Lauterbach or Curt Estes, I don’t remember – appeared to have some steering difficulty with the boat, lap-by-lap creeping ever closer to the piers where we sat, hosing us down, and finally hitting some pilings, tearing the right rear side of the boat off and sinking going into the turn. Luckily, no one was injured, but we sure ran like the devil when we saw that the boat was going to hit. I took some scraps of the Wa-Wa home with me.
  • Rooting for Curt Martens, another local, in his 266cid hydro, Mar-Bel.
  • While we probably thought that the 48 cid hydros were a bit of a joke, there was no denying the winning ways of FC “Doc” Moore’s Southern-Aires.
  • A bright red 266cid hydro named, International III, that flipped at the Hampton regatta, was dried out and ran at the Portsmouth or Norfolk regatta the very next day. Unfortunately, its throttle stuck and it smacked a pier pretty hard. No one was hurt, but the boat suffered mightily.
  • In the early fifties, a stunning E-Service runabout named, Dynaflow. Unfortunately, she never ran as good as she looked.
  • In those days, the Pacific One Design Hydros still competed, but the class was rapidly disappearing. I believe that, by 1955 or 1956, they ceased running at Hampton. The Jersey Speed Skiffs didn’t run at Hampton then either.

There were many years when I lost all contact with limited class hydroplane and runabout racing, but depending upon where I happened to be living at the time, I was able to attend wonderful regattas in Lowell, Massachusetts, as well as at Moore Dam in Littleton, New Hampshire. In southern California where I now reside limited class hydroplane racing is unfortunately, non-existent. 

Even now when I see a racing hydroplane my heart beats a little faster: I remember the sounds of the engines and the smell of the fuels. The classes of boats have changed as engine sizes have increased and some classes have totally expired, but the boats remain among the most beautiful examples of form following function that have ever existed; they are pieces of art and to my mind, the late Henry Lauterbach –with all due respect to Will Farmer, Dick Sooy, and the other builders – was the sport’s Michelangelo.

My regards to the Hampton Regatta, as well as to all of those associated with limited class inboard racing. You certainly have brought a lot of pleasure into my life.

Lewis Redding
Arcadia, California

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