Baby Bootlegger

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Illustration by Jim Ewing

Boating writer Alfred Scott called Baby Bootlegger “perhaps the most beautiful wooden boat ever built.” She was also a fierce competitor, powered by a Hispano-Suiza airplane engine — right out of a World War I Spad — and driven by her owner, industrialist and sportsman Caleb Bragg.

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The George Crouch-designed racer won the 1924 Gold Cup on the Detroit River in a disputed competition. One of the entries, Rainbow IV, had a bottom made up of transverse planking that created small steps, and this inspired a protest. Planking had to be run fore and aft. The race committee passed the protest on to the American Power Boat Association and held the races anyway. Although both boats won a heat, Rainbow IV edged out Baby Bootlegger on points, 1,122 to 1,085, averaging just over 46 mph. The APBA decided the steps made Rainbow IV a hydroplane, which were barred from racing for the Gold Cup, and awarded the victory to Baby Bootlegger. (It’s interesting to note that Crouch designed both boats.)

In 1925, Bragg sought vindication and a clear victory. The scene was electric on Manhasset Bay in Port Washington, N.Y., on Aug. 30. More than 1,000 spectator boats were on the bay in western Long Island Sound, and a pair of floating grandstands held an estimated 15,000 people. The crowd roared as the boats started the first of three 30-mile heats on the 3-mile oval course.

Pioneering female driver Delphine Dodge Baker won the first race with Baby Bootlegger on her tail. Baker started first in the second race, but Baby Bootlegger caught her at the end of the first lap, took the lead and held it. A second-place finish in the third race secured the Gold Cup. Just for good measure, Bragg drove Baby Bootlegger to victory in the next day’s Dodge Memorial Trophy Race, winning all four of the 12-mile heats.

Mark Mason, of New England Boat & Motor in Laconia, N.H., rescued and restored Baby Bootlegger in the late 1970s. He owned the racer for 25 years. It handles “like it’s on rails,” he says. The boat now belongs to the Mittler family in Michigan.

June 2013 issue