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Tinkering


Editor’s Note:  In March 2010, David (Dave) Whitford wrote a short story for TI Life entitled, “Duck Hunting”.  This year he sent me this article that recently appeared in another literary magazine - Righter Monthly Review, September, 2011. We asked permission to republish “Tinkering” and Dave then wrote this special epilogue entitled:  Riggs the Racer, as a tribute to the late Riggs Smith whose contributions to the River community will be long remembered.

I’ve tinkered a lot. One dictionary definition of to tinker is to repair in an unskillful, clumsy, or makeshift way. Despite that, my highly-skilled repairs are graceful and wholly professional.

***

One summer morning in 1969, I helped Riggs Smith test his race boat from his dock at the edge of the Saint Lawrence River. Riggs had bought my previous year’s hydroplane and was learning how to race it. His Mercury D-Stock engine was a 40-horse, four cylinder, Mark 55H with Mercury’s Quicksilver racing lower unit: no neutral or reverse gear, just fast forward. His test clocked slower than competitive, and his engine had a peculiar fluttering sound at top speed. I guessed too rich a fuel mixture or too high a float level and removed and disassembled the two carburetors to determine what might be wrong. While viewing whether the float needle’s levers were level by sighting against the water horizon, I heard girlie footsteps behind me.

“Tink, tink,” Nan said. “Tink, tink, tink!”

It was Riggs’s wife, wryly taunting me.

“When you boys can finally tear yourselves away from your obsessive tinkering,” she said, “I have sandwiches ready on the screen porch.”

I adjusted the float-needle levers, put the carburetors together and back on the engine, and Riggs took another run.

“Still just 68,” he said, pulling his helmet off and doffing his life vest.

“And I can still hear the flutter,” I said.

“RATS!” Riggs said. “Let’s get this boat back on sawhorses and go eat those sandwiches.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. “What’s that prop you’re using?”

“My biggest runabout prop.”

“That’s probably it,” I said. “You need more pitch for a hydroplane.”

We walked up toward the screen porch. “So I need to buy another new prop?” Riggs asked. “Ouch! That cramps the budget.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Maybe you can borrow a bigger prop to try from Jon Stone or some other hydro hotshot. I know none of my alky props are big enough, and they wouldn’t fit your bigger propeller shaft anyway.”

Riggs bought the new prop, picked up the missing three miles an hour, and was competitive; at least until the following winter at Lakeland, Florida, where he hit a bad bump on Lake Hollingsworth’s big oval course and stuck his helmet through the plywood foredeck when the boat came up to smack him. I’d learned the previous year that the boat couldn’t handle 70-plus, but Riggs was bigger and burlier than I was. He’d convinced himself that he could hold her down. He retired the boat. We should’ve burned it on the beach.

If we’d had a tachometer to use on Riggs’s dock, we would’ve known he was overrevving his engine with too small a prop. The tach would’ve eliminated the guesswork. Maybe that’s an example of the dictionary’s definition of unskillful tinkering.

***

Fast forward ten years: I bought a revolutionary new engine from a small Illinois Company: Quincy Welding. My engine’s serial number is #5. The first three were Quincy’s developmental engines. I don’t know who got #4, or whether it still survives … might have been Larry Latta in Iowa. My #5 won a National Championship (different driver, not me) and gathers dust on my workshop floor, waiting for me to clean it and mount it as a curio in my den.

Compared with its competition in 1979, the Quincy “Z-Engine” pulled like a John Deere and had a cylinder block whose fuel ports made it look like Swiss cheese. For you motor heads out there, the Z-engine made four dynamometer horsepower per cubic inch on straight methanol-oil fuel without performance additives. That, Friends, was a milestone.

Quincy Welding’s involvement with powerboat racing began in the postwar 1940s when Oval F. Christner began modifying Mercury outboard engines for increased performance in the Professional Outboard circuit and the newly developing Modified Outboard classes. In 1963, Chris took Mercury’s crankshaft-and-connecting-rod technology as far as it had the strength to go by making all new crankcase, cylinder, and cylinderhead castings. These wholly disguised the Mercury origin and boosted performance substantially.

We called these Quincy engines Loopers because Chris had employed European loop-scavenge piston technology, years before Kiekhaefer produced loop-scavenge Mercury’s in the 1970s.

As a consummate tinkerer, Chris pioneered numerous innovations such as loop scavenging and exhaust tuning that later trickled up into the design of Mercury’s production outboards. Chris died in 2003, almost 90 years old, in his Sarasota winter home. His son, Paul, told me that Chris left the unfinished design of a radical new engine on his drawing board.

When Chris designed the Z-engine in 1976, he started with clean paper, knowing that he’d already taken the Mercury strength to its limit. From concept to a complete running engine took only 90 days. He adopted the crankshaft and connecting rods from two-cylinder Yamaha road-racing motorcycles, which then dominated. The connecting rods were longer, which reduced the whiplash vibration from the shorter Mercury rods. The entire assembly was heavier-duty with bigger, heavier bearings, and a track record of surviving sustained 12,000 RPM running.

When I took delivery of my Z-Engine in 1979, Chris had pegged the RPM peak at 9800, which was the horsepower peak. Chris favored racing runabouts, which plane atop and keep contact with the water and hence need plenty of “grunt” power. My hydroplane, however, got completely airborne on the straight-aways, requiring more RPM for competitive speed. Larry Latta colluded with me in bending Chris’s mind about hydroplanes because Larry raced both hydroplanes and runabouts.

Larry, a little guy, had persuaded Chris to split his two-cylinder 250-cc motor like I had into a single-cylinder 125. This new little engine set a kilometer straightaway speed record in 1982 that stood for an unprecedented 24 years until it was finally broken in 2006. Chris developed a new exhaust pipe for the 125. This expansion chamber was smaller and more efficient than the earlier truck-like exhaust that I was using. I got the new pipe’s dimensions from Chris and tinkered a new dual-exhaust system for my engine.

Following my lead, Chris later adopted my two-pipe setup to later-production two-cylinder Z engines.

The new system let me rev my motor to more than 11,500 and added several miles an hour. While Chris’s earlier exhaust system gave me unbeatable punch from the turns, I lost little of that with my new system and could pull away from most other boats on the straight-aways. My best short-course setup revved 11,700 with a prop that Louie Simon had built in Montreal for his brother’s 350-cc Koenig almost 20 years previous. My big-course setup topped 90 miles an hour, which I was going for two-and-a-half laps while leading on Syracuse’s Onondaga Lake before my exhaust-control cable broke. That Onondaga race was in 1979. I got a recent email from Michael Schmidt, who won after my exhaust broke, that his son’s 250-cc hydroplane won the National Championship this summer, running “96 with terrific punch out of the corners.” Technology evolves, but it took 32 years for the speed to increase six miles an hour, now with an Italian engine.

In the early 1980s, the Germans, Japanese, and even the Italians were far from standing idle in their race-engine factories while Chris’s little enterprise stole the show. Staying in front of the newer foreign engines with sheer horsepower and speed got harder for me. In 1984, for example, Kay Harrison came from Ohio to Sebring, Florida, with a spanking new Japanese Yamato, which I’m sure he and his father had worked over to a fare-thee-well. That pair previously re-manufactured and marketed British Anzani racing engines and knew their stuff.

First on the way to the flying start on Sebring’s big oval, I had good speed on the inside with my biggest, fastest prop. Incredibly, I saw Kay overtaking me on the right on the way to the first turn buoy. I knew he’d try to cut me off on the way to the middle turn buoy. Kay had only half a boat length on me on the way into the turn. Partway through the turn, his lead increased to a boat length, even though I’d not yet let off the throttle, planning to drift my way around the big turn at full speed.

Then Kay’s engine developed a “hiccup.” Spurts of spray came off his propeller to indicate that his engine was about to seize solid. I saw this from the corner of my right eye before the prop locked completely up and spun Kay’s boat hard left into my path. I drove over his cockpit and then found myself into the water too. Boats behind us both hit us and missed us. No one died. Kay had a black eye, and I somehow lost part of my left pinkie tip.

We burned what was left of my boat on the beach that evening, what I meant earlier about burning boats that hurt people. I have fireside photos of roasting marshmallows over the coals. You’d be surprised at how few ashes remain after burning a plywood and sitka-spruce hydroplane … especially after the Sebring Park Police threaten you with cartage fees for hauling off your broken boat. No cartage fees for ashes, I reckoned.

Before that fateful crash, I’d needed to fix the Z-Engine’s Achilles heel: carburetors. Chris had seen fit to convert diaphragm snowmobile carburetors for methanol fuel. They sucked. In Chris’s static dynamometer environment, they surely worked swell, not so much on a rough-water race course. The trouble with Chris’s snowmobile carburetors was that they had no overall response range. They were either ON or OFF with no smooth transition between. Worst of all, the overall design is hard to trouble-shoot and fix.

My tinkering led me to a South Carolina motorcycle speed shop on my normal route from Charlotte to races in Florida. In those early 1980s, Yamaha road-racing motorcycles were holding sway on the competition circuits, but the top dogs were immediately removing the factory’s Mikuni 34-mm carbs and replacing them with after-market Lectrons.

I bought a pair of new take-off Mikunis from the motorcycle guru who was pleased to get a few bucks and be rid of them. I also called Roz, the Brit chief engineer at Lectron.

During our 45-minute conversation, she enlightened me about current carburetor technology, had no clue about how to adapt her carburetors to methanol fuel, and thereby had no info about how I could adapt her technology. I crossed Lectrons off my list and began tinkering the Mikunis.

Attaching the Mikunis to my Quincy was easy. What was harder was re-jetting them for methanol. You need to burn about twice as much methanol as gasoline for normal combustion. In general, you increase flow lines and carburetor jets about double in size.

I called the Mikuni distributor in California, and they had no recommendation, suggesting that I get back with them after I solved my problem!

I called Don Eldredge in Florida. He’d used 125-cc Suzuki motorcycle engines to make outboard engines for his kids to race in the mid-1970s. Those Suzukis also used Mikuni carburetors. Don recommended a big main jet and the bluntest possible metering needle.

Although Don’s advice was good, it still didn’t give me quite the flexible easy driving I wanted. Then I discovered that the newest Mikuni motorcycle carburetors had an added power-jet circuit. This provided the necessary fuel for full-speed running and enabled me to reduce the size of the main jet for better slower-speed running, just what I needed.

A trip to the model-airplane store garnered me the tiny brass and plastic fuel tubing that I needed to tinker together the power jets to update my second-hand Mikunis. With new exhaust pipes I tinkered to give me a way to change their internal volume while driving, the Z-engine was now as tractable as a fishing outboard. I could run as slow as fifteen miles an hour, barely on plane, in the center of the race oval in front of the starting clock, while the rest of my competitors were whizzing around the far side of the race course at 50 miles an hour or more to keep their engines from loading up and fouling out.

I got great starts that way in 1986, my final racing year. I sorely needed them because the Japanese engines had become faster than mine. Ten years is a long time in racing technology, and my Z-engine by then represented ten-year-old technology. My tinkering and a switch to five per-cent nitro-methanol fuel kept me competitive during that last year. With good starts, I actually won a heat or two.

***

Fast forward five years of sickening withdrawal from racing addiction to 1991. That was when I started competitive rifle shooting to fill the void after boat racing. It was clear from the start that to shoot well, I’d need a technological boost. I began building my own adjustable gunstocks from – what else?! –the metal that I knew how to weld and tinker together from my boat-racing experience. When people disdain my ugly-but-functional gunstocks, I enjoy telling them, “If God had wanted us to put wood on firearms, he wouldn’t have given us iron mines!”

I’ve been shooting competitively for twenty years now, almost as long as the twenty-six years I spent racing boats. I admire that competitive shooting is not as apt to kill me as boat racing, and that I might yet die of natural causes. My workshop makes me just as happy making metal gunstocks as it did tinkering together new exhaust pipes and carburetor modifications. The gunstocks are easier, if no less innovative. I conclude that not all tinkering is inept,

By David Whitford

Dave Whitford’s professional background reads he was an IBM technical writer.  However he is quick to report his overall background is “an exiled River Rat; boat mechanic at Reed's, Mercers, & Central Florida; and as a general misfit”.

He now lives in East Virginia near Williamsburg.  He is a contemporary of Dick Whithington and first wrote TI Life when he read about Dick’s experiences in Winter Islanders.  His short story appears in “Duck Hunting”, published in March 2010. 

Epilogue: Riggs the Racer

By Dave Whitford

Many River folk might remember Riggs Smith for his involvement with Clayton’s Antique Boat Museum. Riggs was appointed executive director in 1987 and a member for more than 40 years.

What you need to know first about Riggs is that his life achievement tripled the output of us mere mortals. The museum job was just a post-retirement gig for him in 1987 until he could find a suitable curator a year or so later and continue tending the several other fires he then had burning.

My first contact with Riggs was on the Thousand Island Park dock in 1954, where he was testing an outboard racing boat with his cousin, Dave Mason. At fifteen, I then lusted after speedboats and was fascinated. I knew Riggs’s younger siblings, Hollis and Prudy, because they were part of the youthful summer gang that operated from the Park dock’s Yacht Club meeting room on the lower level of the green-and-white dock house.

My article implies that I was teaching Riggs to race. The reverse was true because Riggs was my main mentor in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By 1969, Riggs had already set a worldwide mile-straightaway record in an outboard runabout and won his class in one of the 1000 Islands 100-mile marathon races.

His world record will stand forever because shortly after Riggs set it, the Belgian worldwide sanctioning body changed the criterion to only one kilometer, much easier for higher-speed records. Nonetheless, it took another ten months before someone else went faster on the easier kilometer straightaway. My influence was just to get Riggs into hydroplanes, a faster, entirely different kind of racing boat.

Riggs founded a new racing club in Binghamton and established several enduring regattas at sites that had never before hosted outboard racing. He could build himself a new race boat from scratch and a plan in his head in a week of evenings and did so for numerous years during the time that he raced.

By his time at the Antique Boat Museum in 1987, Riggs had throttled back into retirement and no longer raced much, if at all. It’s relevant to note how he re-channeled his enormous energy for the racing of little speedboats into what became the thriving museum of today.

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Comments

Scott Smith
Comment by: Scott Smith ( )
Left at: 4:56 PM Monday, September 19, 2011
Thank you David. Dad always thought very highly of you...
Roger Hinsdale
Comment by: Roger Hinsdale ( )
Left at: 5:37 PM Tuesday, September 27, 2011
David, I so enjoyed "Tinkering". I can't help but believe we have met due to our association with Riggs. I was a part of the Triple Cities boat club that Riggs founded. Riggs also played a big part with my love for racing outboards. I never got to race with Riggs, but did do some laps with Scott at Clayton. Hopefully we'll do more!
Thanks for doing the great epilogue: "Riggs the Racer"
Roger

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