HARRISON TOWNSHIP — Fred Alter began what would become a decades-long career in hydroplane racing in the early 1950s, a time that is now referred to as “The golden era of boat racing.”
“My boat-racing career took place in a different era,” said Alter, 86. “Very few safety standards and regulations were in place then, and unfortunately, many drivers were lost to the sport in those days.
“Some say I’m the man with more than nine lives and am lucky to be alive today. But it was all the racing accidents that made me push for the safety standards that are now in place today.”
“Fearless” Fred Alter, of Harrison Township, has raced 19 Unlimited hydroplanes in competition — more than any other driver — during his career that spanned the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
He raced Limited hydroplanes in the early 1950s, and campaigned a 48-cubic-inch class rig named Fancy Pants, and later helped out on the crew of an Unlimited hydroplane, the Fickle Eye IV, one of a wide assortment of lower-echelon campaigners that inhabited the Detroit racing scene in the years following World War II. Fickle Eye made a start in the 1949 Silver Cup on the Detroit River but failed to finish.
Alter got his start when a sales representative for the William P. Young Company in Detroit came in 1955 with Bill Stroh’s Miss Detroit (the former Such Crust V). Ray Crawford, a well-known automobile racer at the time, was scheduled to drive in the Silver Cup. However, after Crawford jumped the gun in the first heat, Stroh asked Alter, still a member of the crew, to drive in the second heat.
Alter’s most successful seasons were between 1956 and 1958. He was the fastest 1956 Gold Cup qualifier and won the 1957 Detroit Memorial Regatta with Jack Schafer’s Such Crust III. He captured the 1956 Indiana Governor’s Cup with George Simon’s original Miss U.S. I and the 1958 International Cup with the second Miss U.S. I.
In 1965, he won a secondary race for the South Shore Trophy at the Lake Tahoe World Championship Regatta with the third Such Crust IV, which utilized twin Allison engines in tandem. Alter also saw action with the likes of Gale VI, Nitrogen, Mariner Too, Blue Chip, Miss Dixi Cola, Parco’s O-Ring Miss, Miss Owensboro, Miss Schweppes, Towne Club, Gale’s Roostertail, Miss Bardahl — which he piloted in 1969 and said was his most competitive ride — and Miss Budweiser II. His last ride in competition was the Miss Vernors in 1975.
During these years, Alter had become well-known across the country, from Detroit and Toledo to Seattle, for his stamina and fortitude on the water, as well as his showmanship and skill that thrilled crowds and eventually garnered him the nickname “Fearless Fred.” In addition, during this time, Alter was one of the leaders in bringing new safety regulations into Unlimited Hydroplane Racing by pushing for equipment improvements, such as bright-colored helmets to make the driver more visible in the water, and racing rule changes, including making mandatory the use of smoke flares and stopping a race when a driver was in the water.
During the years of the Seattle/Detroit hydroplane racing rivalry, Alter was in fact feared by Seattle fans who supposed that he and Miss U.S. I were going to take the Gold Cup away from Seattle in 1958. This was after Alter won the first two heats of that year’s Diamond Cup at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, with ease. Fortunately for Seattle, Hawaii Kai III came out of retirement and knocked Alter and Miss U.S. I out of first.
Alter’s closest call in a race boat came at the 1961 President’s Cup in Washington, D.C., when he survived a 130-mile-an-hour disintegration in the second Such Crust IV (the former second Gale V).
The right protective sponson sheared off, along with the entire right side of the boat during the second heat and Alter was thrown from the driver’s seat, bounced onto the Allison engine, and was thrown back into the cockpit. As Alter struggled to free himself from the rapidly sinking hydroplane, a nearby patrol boat remained inexplicably motionless.
Fortunately, Bob Schroeder, who had been running 200 yards astern of Alter at the time of the crash, shut off his own boat, leapt aboard the quickly submerging Crust, and rescued the stricken Alter, who suffered only cuts and bruises.
Five years later, at the 1966 President’s Cup, Alter was a pillar of strength following two fatal accidents that claimed the lives of drivers Ron Musson, Rex Manchester and Don Wilson. Alter went from one boat camp to the next, securing equipment and comforting the bereaved. Alter retired from competitive racing in 1975 but continued to be involved in the sport, later becoming American Power Boat Association’s Unlimited Racing Commissioner, bringing substantial sponsorships and national television coverage to the sport. Alter was named URC’s Official of the Year in 1977.
He was inducted into the Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame in 1983, and today, 30 years later, he’s going to be inducted to the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame. The 2013 banquet will be held Nov. 3 in Mount Pleasant.
It’s a long-awaited and well-deserved honor to those who know Alter. “Fred Alter was a driver’s driver: sometimes feared, but respected by all he competed against,” said 1985 and 1988 APBA National Champion Ray Dong in an email. “Fred always reached out to the fans. In an era of heroes and villains, Fred was uniquely embraced by all. He was not called ‘Fearless Fred’ for nothing. Fred probably did more to inspire and engage fans and promote the sport than anyone else.
“Always bigger than life, Fred is beloved, admired, and he always looked the part. He mentored and inspired several generations of racers, including me.”
While Alter has slowed down a bit, he is still active. In 1999, Alter drove of the many vintage hydroplanes that were involved in filming the movie “Madison,” which tells the story of the 1971 Gold Cup race held in Madison, Indiana. Alter, then 72, not only drove a vintage craft for the filming, but he earned a place in the Hollywood Stunt Men’s Union for his driving exploits during filming.
More recently, he founded the “Pioneers of Powerboating,” an arm of the Great Lakes Maritime Institute, to preserve the history of the sport, and he brought the “Hall of Fame” award to Detroit to honor those who have contributed so much to the sport.
“I try to support the sport of powerboat racing in any way I can,” said Alter, who suffered a stroke a few year ago. “I am still active in the Legends of Powerboating, an organization I started nearly 15 years ago to honor those who gave so much to the sport of boat racing. Each year at the Gold Cup Race on the Detroit River, we honor someone who has made a significant contribution to the sport of hydroplane racing.”
Alter is also a longtime member of the Antique and Classic Boat Society, and has worked on the restoration of several boats over the years.
“I have also been involved in vintage boat racing events in recent years,” he said. “I started building a replica of the Unlimited Hydroplane, Miss Vernors in the late ’90s. The project took nearly 10 years to complete, but I was able to run the Miss Vernors at Vintage events until I sold it last fall.
Boat racing fans still love to hear the roar of an Allison engine.”