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.