Go-Fast Blast From the Past: Cypress Gardens Outboard Steeplechase Race

1951: Cypress Gardens Hosts an Outboard Steeplechase

Cypress Gardens Outboard Steeplechase Race
Six boats put Mercury power plants to the test.Courtesy Mechanix Illustrated

How much abuse can a motorboat take? Plenty, say the spectators of the Cypress Gardens Outboard Steeplechase Race held annually on Lake Eloise near Winterhaven, Fla.

Startled sightseers saw speedy outboards scoot over narrow peninsulas of land, through masses of weeds, over inclined ramps and bridges. They watched open-mouthed as the little craft hurdled the rolling wakes of inboard cruisers, narrowly missing the huge cypress trees which grow in the water along the 11-mile course.

Silly, you say? Well, not when you consider that this madcap cross-country boat race was sponsored by the Kiekhaefer Corp., manufacturers of Mercury outboard motors, to discover exactly how much the boats could take in the way of punishment.

Cypress Gardens Outboard Steeplechase Race
Only three of the boats managed to survive the treacherous course.Courtesy Mechanix Illustrated

Six boats, especially designed and built for the race, were patterned after the 1931 Century Hurricane minus the conventional hydroplane step. They were 13 feet long, 54 inches wide and weighed approximately 300 pounds. The transoms had steel knees which tied in with oak runners that ran the full length of the bottom for the boats to slide on. Standard Mercury 10 Hurricane motors were used.

Only three of the boats managed to survive the treacherous course, sliding eight feet out of the lake to cross the land-logged finish line. Winner was Dick Pope, Jr., pilot of Lightning, who was immediately subjected to the customary dunking.

Then the winner was presented with the traditional floral wreath. Appropriately enough, it was shaped like an anchor.

Dick Pope Jr. (1930-2007) was the son of Cypress Gardens founder Dick Pope Sr. and Julie Pope. In 1947, Pope was one of the first people to successfully barefoot waterski. In 1952, he became the first person to successful complete a 540 jump off a ramp. Pope succeeded his father as president of Cypress Gardens in 1962. The former Cypress Gardens property is now part of Legoland Florida.