By Fred Farley – APBA UNLIMITED HISTORIAN
The late Marion Cooper of Louisville, Kentucky, was inducted into the Kentucky Motorsports Hall of Fame, on October 24, 2015, in ceremonies at Owensboro, Kentucky.
Among other honors, Mr. Cooper was the original winner of the Indiana Governor’s Cup at Madison in 1951 with the 225 Cubic Inch Class HORNET and the first pilot of the community-owned MISS MADISON in 1961 and 1962. And few drivers have longer career spans where participation in the APBA Gold Cup is concerned. (His first ride in the Gold Cup was the 1939 event at Detroit with MERCURY and his last was the 1962 affair at Seattle with MISS MADISON.)
Marion was also a three-time winning chauffeur of the Calvert Trophy, the premier award at the annual Marine Derby Regatta in Louisville, with victories in 1938 with HERMES III, and in 1954 and 1955 with HORNET. He won the 1966 Calvert Trophy as the owner of LOUISVILLE KID, piloted by Bill Cousins.
APBA Unlimited Historian Fred Farley conducted an interview with Marion Cooper in 1973.
Cooper’s first competitive performance behind the wheel of a race boat occurred in 1937 at Cincinnati with the 510 Cubic Inch Class HERMES, a craft in which he had served an apprenticeship as riding mechanic for several years.
“I rode with my brother, George Cooper, back in the days when there were two-man boats. Turley Carman and George Davis had built the boat, which used an OX-5 aircraft engine. The rocker arms were on the outside with no cover over them. I think the top rpm on the engine was about 1400. It turned through a gear box and got up to speeds of 60 to 65 miles an hour–maybe 70.
“Back in the pre-World War II days, you didn’t have such things as fuel pumps. You had to have someone to operate the hand pressure pump. The riding mechanic had to watch the gauge and keep the right amount of pressure in the fuel tank to keep from flooding the thing. He had to keep the pressure up to as much as five pounds and not over six. That went on for years because the pumps they had up to that time wouldn’t supply enough fuel.
“For instance, the Hisso-powered MERCURY that I had, at one time, used eight dual Stromberg carburetors and it took a lot of fuel to supply those things. Of course, in one sense of the word, it was a dangerous proposition running pressure on the tank because it resulted in fires occasionally, on account of the pressure on the tank would sometimes break loose. But we were always able to put it out before it got too bad.”
Cooper’s next boat was the HERMES III, a highly successful 725 Cubic Inch Class step hydroplane, which campaigned during 1937 and 1938 with a V-8 Hispano-Suiza (“Hisso”) engine.
With George Davis along side in the mechanic’s seat, Marion won the 725 Class event at the 1937 Gold Cup Regatta in Detroit and posted a First Heat average speed of 54.800 miles per hour over contenders such as Bill Cantrell in WHY WORRY, Jim Anderson in WARNIE, and Cam Fischer in MISS CINCINNATI, JR.
“In that race,” Marion recalled, “Jim Vetter in MISS TRAILMOBILE ran over the top of the WARNIE, fell on our boat, and knocked out our freeboard. But we went on and finished the race anyway. Although, they had to pull us out pretty quick because it would have sunk.”
Painted black and yellow with orange checkers on the foredeck, HERMES III measured 22-1/2 feet by 5-1/2 feet with a sharp curving bow and a deep notch across the bottom amidships and was equipped with a three-bladed brass propeller that turned around 3600 rpm for every 2400 revolutions of the Hisso power plant.
In later years, it was renamed PIN BRAIN IV by another owner but not before the team of Cooper, Davis, and HERMES III triumphed in the Calvert Trophy at Louisville and the 725 Class contest at Evansville, Indiana, during the summer of 1938.
Cooper’s first experience with a sponson-type rig was in the MERCURY which, for two hours, was the fastest boat in the world in its category with a 98 mile an hour straightaway clocking at the 1940 President’s Cup Regatta before Cantrell did 99 with WHY WORRY.
“We had higher compression on the MERCURY than on HERMES III. We also had a little better carburetion on it. It was real wide and most of the sponsons were built underneath. Only about four or five inches of the sponsons stuck out from the sides. MERCURY was built similar to a Ventnor, except that the Ventnor hulls had the sponsons all to the outside. It was pretty close to the design of a two-point hull, which nobody knew much about then.
“In fact, it kept trying to run on the two points a lot of times and we kept moving the weight back to try to keep the back end down, which was the wrong thing to do. If we had kept the weight forward, it probably would have run on two points.”
Before World War II lowered the curtain on the 725 Class and Cooper’s participation in it, Marion, together with riding mechanic Charlie Schott, pushed MERCURY to victory at the 1940 Evansville Jaycees Regatta and the 1942 Emil Auerbach Memorial Trophy Race on Biscayne Bay, which carried with it the 725 Class National Championship.
His major competition during those years was Cantrell’s WHY WORRY. Between the two of them, Bill and Marion accounted for most of the major trophies on the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association (MVPBA) circuit.
MERCURY and WHY WORRY also made their presence felt in races against the generally more expensive and more exotic-looking APBA Gold Cup Class contenders. The 725 Class circuit usually consisted of from eight to ten races, wherein the boats ran clockwise because their engines turned that way. Flag starts without any blackout clock were also the rule.
After World War II, the 725 Class and the Gold Cup Class combined and changed over to the Unlimited Class.
According to Cooper, “The 725s rode rougher than your Unlimiteds do today. Of course, an Unlimited is about as easy riding a boat of them all. Although, when you get a jolt in an Unlimited, it’s a good one.”
For most of his adult life, Marion was General Manager of Louisville Motors, where he applied the same no-nonsense approach to business as he did with racing.
After the war, Marion saw action primarily in the 225, 266, and 7-Litre Classes. He owned nine Limited hulls and built three of them himself. In 1946, he won the 225 Class National Championship Race with HORNET and, in 1955, set a world competition heat record of 81.008 with the 7-Litre Class HORNET.
He won the 225 Class race at the 1949 Madison Regatta and the 1951 Indiana Governor’s Cup at Madison with HORNET. In 1960, while driving LOUISVILLE KID, Cooper finished second to George “Buddy” Byers in the 7-Litre Class World Championship Race that was run at Madison. He was also a silent partner in the IT’S A WONDER, a former 725 Class rig, owned and driven by George Davis.
During the mid-1950s, Marion was briefly involved with several Unlimited teams. As a back-up driver for owner Stan Sayres, Cooper test-drove both SLO-MO-SHUN IV and SLO-MO-SHUN V. And on the recommendation of his friend Joe Taggart, Marion drove Austin Snell’s MISS ROCKET in the 1957 Gold Cup at Seattle.
Not until 1961 did the quiet unassuming Kentuckian’s fame reach the first magnitude when the call came to take over the seat in the MISS MADISON, the world’s only community-owned Unlimited hydroplane.
“I had often driven for Neal Cahall and Dick Cox in the 225s and 266s. They were involved in the MISS MADISON organization when Sam DuPont gave them the first boat. They called me and wanted to know if I would drive it and, of course I was happy to do so.”
The MISS MADISON was a very low-budget operation in those early days. Everyone from crew chief Graham Heath on down was a volunteer. Cooper had to pay his own way to the races.
“During that first year, they didn’t have another stock Allison engine. So, the same engine was run the entire season. We tried to hold the rpms down to around 4000 to 4100. If it went above that, it was only for a short time. We didn’t figure it would run very long above that.
“At the end of the season, since the Madison Regatta was the last race, the organization said I could let it go. So, I did and took fourth in an eleven-boat field.”
That was the start of a competitive tradition for the City of Madison that continues to the present day. No other Unlimited hydroplane team in history can match the MISS MADISON in the number of consecutive years of participation.
During his tenure as the original MISS MADISON driver, Marion also took fifth in both the 1961 Detroit Memorial Regatta and the 1961 President’s Cup, sixth in the 1962 Gold Cup, fourth in the 1962 Spirit Of Detroit Trophy, and third in the 1962 Indiana Governor’s Cup. Cooper finished every heat that he started with the MISS MADISON and scored points in all but two.
The race that Marion would remember for the rest of his days occurred on the warm and sunny afternoon of August 6, 1961, during the Seafair Regatta on Lake Washington. That’s when MISS MADISON won a hard-fought victory in the second-division Seattle Trophy Race with heat speeds of 99.046, 98.937, and 100.074.
“In the First Heat, I got up to the starting line a little too early and had to back off. By the time I got on it again, the others had all gone by me. I stayed back there in all that rough water until about the last lap when I went by two of the three boats ahead of me on the outside and took second-place points.
“In the next two heats, I got good starts and won both of them. Although, in the Second Heat, the exhaust stack broke off on the right side and was firing into the right side of the hull and finally began to blaze. Then, a three-quarter inch water plug on the right bank blew out. And this plug started hitting and putting the fire out. The resulting steam was flying about seven or eight feet in the air and I think everybody thought that the engine was cooking but it wasn’t. I watched the temperature gauge but the water from that plug kept the fire down until we finished.
“Of course, for the Final Heat, they put another exhaust stack on and another plug in it and everything was alright again.
“The memory of that race is especially fond due to the enormous crowd and because the race in Seattle was a big deal–more so than anyplace else in the country.”
Following his retirement from Unlimited competition, Cooper remained affiliated with the MISS MADISON. In the years that followed, he would “break in” the new drivers for the team. First, Marion would take the boat out for a run, check the systems, and then turn the wheel over to the new man. He did this in 1963 for Buddy Byers and again in 1966 for Jim McCormick.
In counseling new drivers just starting out, Cooper believed that “if a rookie can get into an Unlimited, then that’s the thing to do. He could learn to drive in that just as easy as he could starting out in a Limited. That’s because they drive entirely different. Of course, that doesn’t happen very often but it does occasionally. And I’d say he’d be just as good a driver as one who started small and then worked his way up.
“The two hard points about driving an Unlimited are in going way back at the start and in keeping the transom up going around the turns. If you let it drop, you may as well forget about it on account of the three-to-one gear ratio.”
When asked in 1973 about the great drivers of the past and present, Marion believed it was “pretty much of a draw. Bill Cantrell was rough but, of the new ones, I would just as soon risk Dean Chenoweth with a boat as any at all.”
In assessing the sport as a whole, Cooper observed, “Except for the pickle-fork designs and the front seat affairs, I haven’t seen too many changes in the boats themselves. The lift wings on the back ends of boats are a big help in getting around a corner.
“The races are kind of like they’ve always been. There has been quite a bit of improvement in the rules and regulations since I was a driver. But a race now is just about like a race back then.”
For the rest of his life, Marion remained an ardent fan of racing. He never failed to attend the annual Madison Regatta, accompanied by his wife Mildred and his old friend and partner from the 725 Class days, George Davis.
Marion Cooper passed away on February 21, 1986, while on a vacation trip to Florida. He was 82.
Cooper’s long-time friend and fellow competitor, Bill Cantrell, offered the following eulogy: “He was quite a guy! Marion was congenial, likable, and he was always willing to help out if another guy needed help on his boat. He was a hard driver–a good driver!”