It has been years since unlimited Hydroplanes have raced on Coeur d'Alene Lake.This year, the race is coming back. Slated for Labor Day Weekend, the date is set and officially accepted by the racing commission.
I fondly look back at years of racing in Seattle, where I was raised. The hydros arrived at Lake Washington in 1952. In the beginning, the Gold Cup winner chose the location of the next race. Stan Sayres of Mercer Island, contracted with Ted Jones to design a faster boat than what was currently used in the Detroit area. The Detroit boats were what was called "stepped hydro's." A raised ledge was built into the hulls where the boat would ride on the step and the propeller. Miss Pepsi and the Gayle boats ruled the waterways at that time.
The Sayre boats were built by Les Staudacher. Slo-mo-shun 4 was the first boat It was a radical design change. Two sponsons, one on each side supported the hull. When racing the only surfaces contacting the water were about three inches on the rear of each sponson and the bottom half of the prop. With half the prop out of the water, huge rooster tails would climb high in the sky reaching 75 feet on the straightaways. Sl-Mo 4 was shipped to Detroit and promptly won the Gold Cup in 1951, driven by Les Taggart. The gold Cup was coming to Seattle.
Hydro racing came to Lake Washington in the summer of 1952. By that time, the Sayre design of Jones and built by Staudacher produced another boat, Slo-Mo 5.The new boat was driven by Lou Fagel. After a few years of Seattle domination, the powers in Detroit changed the rules governing the location of the Gold cup to highest bidder. The Seafair Trophy races were born.
Some of the most famous boats were the Thriftway driven by Bill Muncy. He won 66 races, all in the Thriftway boats. Another was the Bardahl, owned by Seattle oil baron, Ole Bardahl. Later, the beer boats came along. The Miller boat and most famous of them all, the Miss Budweiser. These early boats were powered by Allison aircraft engines from World War 11, used in the Mustang fighter plane. All had to be water cooled for adaptation to the Thunder bats. Rolls Merlins were a bit more powerful and became the standard. The Rolls came from the British Spitfire of The "Battle of Britian" fame.
Bernie Little, ever the fierce competitor, bought up all of the Rolls-Griffins, cornering the market. From that day on, he controlled the races, which because of the lack of competition nearly killed the sport. The Griffin was a second generation built for the Supermarine Spitfire.It was so powerful that the Spitfire could keep up with V-2 rockets.In the beginning, the races were carried live on all three Seattle TV Stations. Bill O'Mara of King TV was the most famous voice of the hydros.
Ron Musson, Bill Muncy and many others were killed in boat crashes. From 1968 forward the "Pickle Fork" design was used. This consisted of scooping out much of the bow which tended to catch air and flip the boats. In on of the most spectacular crashes, was Slo-Mo-5 which caught the wind and did a complete loop ending up right side up, sans driver who fell out while the boat was upside down. He survived, but never raced again. In later years the cab was located in from of the engine, the first being Thriftway too. It never lived up to expectations but when the jet boats came along, the design was adopted, along with an escape hatch on the bottom of the cockpit so that a flipped boat could allow a driver to exit from the bottom.
As racing draws near, I will write more on this subject, along with sketches of some of the more colorful drivers.
Photo by Taryn Hecker Thonpson.
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