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Rebecca Perron & The Casemate


In 1926, a group of Hampton Yacht Club members decided to have a race to see who had the best navigation skills and which of their boats was the fastest. That spirit of friendly competition endured, and decades later it still serves as the catalyst for one of the most popular competitions in the speedboat racing world.

The modern Hampton Cup Regatta attracts vessels and crews from all corners of the U.S. It has seen racing teams from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is the place where regional and world records have been set. It has truly blossomed into an international affair.

But the one thing that has not changed through all these years is the notion of good-spirited fun, and bragging rights of course, among an ever-growing community of boat-lovers.

The local regatta story begins on the Hampton River in the area between the downtown Crowne Plaza Hampton Marina Hotel and the inlet near the Veterans Administration Medical Center (back then, it was called the National Home for Volunteer Soldiers and Sailors).

The first motorized race boats were, of course, made of wood, which was far heavier than the carbon-fiber materials used today. Their drivers didn't have proper seats but instead crouched on their knees inside the boats. The controls were primitive hand throttles instead of today's foot pedals, and drivers had to physically lean into each turn simply to steer. Seat belts, too, were many years away. The top speed of the fastest boats was around 35 mph - which was thrilling for the time.

For the first few years, winners collected friendly wagers and the aforementioned esteem that accompanied the knowledge of having the fastest vessel. Most competitors drove their boats to the race, competed, and headed home.

Somewhere around the 1930s, the Dodge automobile family ventured into boat building in Norfolk. They created a trophy called the Dodge Cup, which they began presenting to the winner of the Hampton Cup Regatta.

"It was the pride and joy of the event for decades, said John Lowe, a former race committee chairman. "I remember seeing them put the names of the winners on the cup at the event every year.

"Unfortunately, nobody knows where the Dodge Cup went after the 75th race," he said. "We kept it in a bank vault in between races, but committee members come and go, so one of them may have it. We did design and make another trophy in the meantime."

Lowe hopes that one day the Dodge Cup will be discovered and put on display at the Hampton History Museum.

Those early races also introduced an ever-evolving assortment of hull and engine upgrades, safer cockpits for drivers and better organized categories for competing boats.

The design improvements that may have had the most impact on the sport came from Henry Lauterbach out of Norfolk. Starting in the 1940s, he constructed more than 200 hydroplanes by hand; and each one showed his meticulous attention to detail. During the 1950s, Henry was the National High Point Champion in three different APBA inboard classes and was inducted into the APBA Hall of Fame in 1956.

Bill Sterett out of Owensboro, Ky., was another accomplished regatta racer. One of his racing vessels was dubbed the "Miss Chrysler Crew," and it became the only boat in the post-World War II era to win an Unlimited Race with automotive power - a pair of 426-cubic-inch supercharged Chrysler hemispherical engines.

For the next couple of decades, power and speed became the name of the game for racers. Boats with modified automobile engines became the standard and the speed of those vessels eventually became too fast for the turns in the Hampton River.

"So the race was moved out to the open waters off Strawberry Banks," Lowe said. "This proved to be dangerous because of the conditions and boats traveling in and out of the race field. That's when it was moved to its current location in Mill Creek, between Fort Monroe and the East Mercury Boulevard Bridge in the mid-1960's."

Lowe said it has become the best place to race and to set world records, since it is well-protected from current changes and adverse water conditions. The density of the relatively shallow water also contributes to the speed of the racing boats.

Today, the Hampton Cup Regatta is sanctioned by the APBA - the American Power Boat Association (APBA). and the regatta falls within Region 4 of the APBA, and its home host club is the Hampton Cup Racing Club.

Race committees from the various divisions must put in a bid two years prior to see which event they will receive for the upcoming season. In some years, the World Inboard Hydroplane Championship has been awarded to the Hampton Cup Regatta, and in others, the Regatta has been the host to the North American Championships, Summer Nationals or Eastern Divisions (Regardless of which race is awarded, it is always scheduled on the first or second weekend of August. The date of the race depends on the expected tides.)

While regatta courses are fairly standard in layout, the length can vary depending on the available space and the type of race that is being run. (The Hampton course this year is 1.25 miles in total length and it just passed its required certification conducted every 10 years).

An event of this magnitude would not be possible without the all-volunteer organization. There are about 25 dedicated volunteers who meet year round to put on the event, as well as a huge number of race weekend volunteers, security personnel and other supporters.

"We receive a tremendous amount of support from Fort Monroe, the City of Hampton, the Hampton Department of Fire and Rescue, the Hampton Police and the Nightingale Helicopter.

Without these people, there would be no racing, You would not believe the hours put in to make this event run smoothly and the cooperation between the committee members, boat racing club, all of the volunteers, the City of Hampton and Fort Monroe, which is the key to success."

The final, and most important, element of the regatta is its racing families .

"That's what keeps us going ... that spirit of family and tradition, as well as the need to keep this thing alive for future generations," Lowe said. 

"Throughout race weekend, you're going to hear a lot about boats, drivers and who won what, where. But the personal story also will be there; who's deployed and serving their country, who the third and fourth generation racers are, who couldn't be here this year because they're having trouble. That's the heart of the regatta story."