Vintage boats

Cousins’ one-of-a-kind ‘River Rat’
showcases Kentuckian’s handiwork

He became friends with racing’s elite

By Levi King
Staff Writer

When it isn’t ripping up the river this weekend in the Madison Regatta’s Bob Snelling Vintage Memorial Event, Billy Cousins’ one-of-a-kind hydroplane, the River Rat, is sure to attract attention in the pits.

Billy Cousins

Photo by Michella Nigh

Billy Cousins built his vintage
boat more than 30 years ago.

According to Regatta Chairman Joe Johnson, “It’s a boat you just have to see to believe. There’s 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 farther.
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.

2005 Bob Snelling Vintage
Memorial Event Entered
as of 6/23/05

• 266 Class:
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
• 225 Class:
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
• 280 Class:
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

• 2.5 Litre Stock Class (non-vintage)
S-96 Mane Attractions presents W.D. Racing, Wayne Dunlap, Madison, Ind.
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.

“I’ve been through the whole thing,” she said, laughing.
“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 Cooper’s 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 1965.
Eventually, Cooper gave his previous boat, a 7-litre called the Hornet, to Cousins as a token of his appreciation.
However, Cooper didn’t 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 didn’t have time to build it. Curiously enough, many of Jones’ boats went on to incorporate elements of the model.
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 you’ve been around boats so many years, you know what works and what doesn’t.”
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 Governor’s Cup in Paducah, Ky.

River Rat

Photo by Michella Nigh

River Rat will be in the Madison
Regatta vintage program.

Competing for the Calvert’s 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 Rat’s 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 didn’t 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. “I’m working more now than I ever did,” he joked. Now he spends most of his time in his garage repairing heavy machinery and tools. “Somebody’s always calling to ask, ‘Can you fix this?’ or ‘Will you look at this?’ ”
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 he’d 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 boat’s previous races as a young boy but enjoys getting his hands a little dirty this time around.
“I just do whatever Dad tells me to do,” he said. “He’s kind of a perfectionist. I just like being a part of it now.”

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