one-of-a-kind River Rat
showcases Kentuckians handiwork
became friends with racings elite
When it isnt ripping up the river this weekend in
the Madison Regattas Bob Snelling Vintage Memorial Event, Billy
Cousins one-of-a-kind hydroplane, the River Rat, is sure to attract
attention in the pits.
by Michella Nigh
Cousins built his vintage
boat more than 30 years ago.
According to Regatta Chairman Joe Johnson, Its
a boat you just have to see to believe. Theres not another one
like it in the world because Billy built it himself.
The boat will be among 20 vintage hydroplanes performing exhibition
runs on the Ohio River over the Regatta weekend. The River Rat, a gorgeous
craft of magnesium polished wood, has been turning heads since it debuted
in 1972. But the story of Cousins racing career goes back much
Cousins, 65, learned about auto mechanics and boat racing in his teens
by working in boat shops, auto garages and machine shops. He started
racing B-outboard boats at age 14, built three of his own at age 15,
and by his 20th birthday had built a twin-engine hot rod from scratch.
The whiz kid kept his eye on the water, however, and in 1961 had the
rare honor of meeting his racing idol, Marion Cooper, who had just become
the first driver of the Miss Madison. Cousins wife of 43 years,
Betty, clearly remembers the day of this breakthrough. The couple grew
up two blocks apart in Louisville, and she has a way of remembering
the details of his career that he has forgotten or more
likely is too modest to mention.
Bob Snelling Vintage
Memorial Event Entered
as of 6/23/05
F-333 Kevin Klosterman, Aqua Flyer
F-222 Hal LeDuc, Opechee
F-77 Tim Settle, Barracuda
G/P and 7 Litres:
N/A Billy Cousins, River Rat
GP-317 Bill Fisk, Irishman
N/A Travis Hickman, Xanadu
J-55 Danny Lyles, Streaker
GP-1001 Gordon Jayne, Dinomytes
N-72 Carl Wilson, Tiger
N-73 Loren Charley, Close Shave II
N-700 Steve Ladino, Miss Sapphire
n 2.5 Mods (vintage):
A-30 Fred Shearer, Avenger
E-11 Gary Cotter, Miss Bonnie
E-207 Ron Taylor, Happy Buddha
E-11 Jack Englehardt, Yellow Streak
N/A Doug Woodward, Country Stoves
Jersey Speed Skiffs:
Dave Yeager, Swamp Rat
Robert Francis, Hot Chocolate
Bruce Lowe, Lowe Blow
Tom Costello, Miss Rosie
Litre Stock Class (non-vintage)
S-96 Mane Attractions presents W.D. Racing, Wayne Dunlap, Madison,
S-31 Team Denial, Paige Taff, Knox, Ind.
S-77 Oh Brother, John Carlton, Plymouth, Ind.
S-17 Bad Habit, Keith Anderson, Hobart, Ind.
S-2 Superior Mist, Dennis Wright, Mount Vernon, Ind.
S-52 Roostertails.net, Sean Bowsher, Decatur, Ill.
S-5 Startrooper, Myron Jackson, Vevay, Ind.
N/A Knot Rod, Marty Wolfe, Crete, Ill.
Ive been through the whole thing, she
Marion Cooper kept blowing engines, Betty recalled. Billy
knew that he could fix the problem if he could just get to Cooper.
Billy went to the 1961 Louisville, maneuvered his way into the pits
and convinced Cooper to give him a shot. From then on, Cooper
never blew another engine, said Betty.
Cousins became a permanent addition to Coopers crew, building
and repairing engines. When Cooper left the Miss Madison in 1962 to
drive his own boat, the Louisville Kid, the Madison crew tapped Cousins
to drive. Instead, he followed Cooper to the Louisville Kid. Impressed
with Cousins work, Cooper promoted him to driver of the boat in
Eventually, Cooper gave his previous boat, a 7-litre called the Hornet,
to Cousins as a token of his appreciation.
However, Cooper didnt want to lose Cousins as a driver, so Cousins
hired Jim Davis as the driver of the Hornet.
When Davis totaled the Hornet at New Martinsville, W.V., in 1968, Cousins
began contemplating a new hydroplane.
In 1969, Cousins began drafting plans for the River Rat.
He sent a sketch of the boat to legendary builder Ron Jones, but Jones
sent it back, saying he didnt have time to build it. Curiously
enough, many of Jones boats went on to incorporate elements of
Cousins built the River Rat from 1971-1972 in his garage. The hull is
a pickle-fork of his own design, but he noted, When youve
been around boats so many years, you know what works and what doesnt.
Cousins design certainly worked his first River Rat
race was in 1972 at the Dayton World Champion-ship, where he won second
place. He won in the Grand Prix class on the Scotio River at Columbus,
Ohio, in 1972 and 1973. Cousins also won the 7-litre class at Columbus
three years in a row, as well as a Governors Cup in Paducah, Ky.
by Michella Nigh
Rat will be in the Madison
Regatta vintage program.
Competing for the Calverts Cup in Louisville in
1974, Cousins won the first heat of the 7-litre race but wrecked just
hours later in heat two, putting himself and the boat out of commission.
The accident tore out the middle of River Rats front end and threw
Cousins over the steering wheel, injuring his leg and breaking his nose.
It took me about two months to get over it, he said.
The downtime allowed Cousins to shift his focus to his family. He eventually
repaired the damage and tried the boat with a different motor in 1976
but didnt get the combination quite right. The next year, he put
the boat in top form but had little time for racing.
His involvement tapered off, and in 1984, he stopped racing all together.
I got too busy with work, and the farm and the house, he
said. The house he refers to is the idyllic log home he built by hand
on his 60-acre farm near Sligo, Ky.
And, of course, his home would be incomplete without a shop. Cousins
retired five years ago from LG&E. Im working more now
than I ever did, he joked. Now he spends most of his time in his
garage repairing heavy machinery and tools. Somebodys always
calling to ask, Can you fix this? or Will you look
Cousins and River Rat returned to the Ohio River in 2002 when event
organizer Johnson looked him up. Johnson said he was looking over a
list of past APBA racers and came across Cousins name. I
had no idea hed been sitting on that hill just across the river
all this time, said Johnson.
The vintage event has given Cousins a chance to include his children
in boating. They were too young in the glory days, says
Betty. Their son, David, an industrial plant manager in Georgetown,
Ind., has attended the Regatta with his father since 2002.
We always talked about getting the boat back on the water,
he said. David recalls watching some of the boats previous races
as a young boy but enjoys getting his hands a little dirty this time
I just do whatever Dad tells me to do, he said. Hes
kind of a perfectionist. I just like being a part of it now.
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