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The Pursuit of Speed

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Garfield Arthur Wood, better known as Gar Wood, was the son of a Minnesota ferryboat operator who worked on boats from an early age. Wood invented various devices, including a hydraulic lift to unload coal from trucks, and used his wealth to satisfy his lust for speed on the water.

In 1916, he purchased a motorboat named Miss Detroit, bought the company that made it and hired the two brothers who’d owned the business. (One of the brothers, Chris Smith, would later form a company called Chris-Craft.) His company went on to build Miss America with twin 400-hp Liberty V-12 marinized airplane engines. It would set the world water speed record in 1920 at 74.870 mph.

A showman, Wood would use his racing success and publicity stunts to sell his Gar Wood brand of boats to the public. For instance, in 1921, Wood raced the Havana Special train from Miami to New York City, covering the 1,250 miles up the Atlantic coast in 47 hours and 23 minutes, beating the train by 12 minutes. Between 1920 and 1933, Wood built nine more Miss America models and broke the world water speed record five more times. Most of those records were set in the early 1930s when the English tried to best Wood with three boats called Miss England.

The rivalry peaked when Wood and the Irish racer Kaye Don traded the world water speed record four times in a little over a year. Wood became the first person to bust the 100-mph mark in 1931 at 102.256 mph. Less than a month later, Don raised it to 110.223 mph.

Wood’s response to Don’s success was captured on film on February 5, 1932, when he and his mechanic Orlin Johnson set the new record on Miami’s Indian Creek with Miss America IX. A photo of the boat during that race is shown above. The English responded by building Miss England III and taking the record back in July of that year. But Wood, determined to have the last word, built Miss America X with four 1,800-hp supercharged Packard airplane engines and a few months later set a new record at almost 125 mph. Don would decline an attempt to beat it. 

This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue.

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