Seafair Memories from a Seattle Old Timer

Unlimited hydroplanes racing down the backstretch on Lake Washington. Photo credit: U-37.com

Unlimited hydroplanes racing down the backstretch on Lake Washington.
Photo credit: U-37.com

Note: In July, we will be returning to the United States to begin a new chapter in our travel lives.  With this blog, Applecore, I will continue to write about our travel adventures.  However, our lifestyle as The 6 Monthers is nearing its conclusion.  As our time in Spain comes to an end, I have begun contemplating our next destination – the return to my home state of Washington.  Inspired by memories of my younger days, this story is the first in a series looking back on my experiences growing up in Seattle.

Much of this story will be news to newcomers to the Seattle area, those who came within the last 40 years.  It was a time before Seattle had the NFL Seahawks, the Major League Mariners, or an NBA franchise like the now defunct Supersonics (now known grudgingly as the Oklahoma City Thunder).  We had the AAA baseball Seattle Rainiers who played at Sicks Stadium, located on Rainier Avenue where a Pepsi Cola warehouse now sits.  We also had the Western Hockey League Seattle Totems who played at the Civic Ice Arena, now known as the Seattle Center Arena.  However, these were minor diversions for sports fans.  There was only one sport that owned Seattle during my youth in the 50’s and 60’s – unlimited hydroplane racing.

Hometown favorite, Miss Bardahl won the National Championship in 1967 and '68.

Hometown favorite, Miss Bardahl won the National Championship in 1967 and ’68.
Photo credit: Seattletimes.com

In 1947, a national racing circuit was established for unlimited hydroplanes.  They were powered by V-12 Allison aircraft engines surplused after WWII.  The Allison’s were gradually replaced with V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, the ones that powered the British Spitfire fighter planes.  Generating over 1,000 horsepower, these extremely loud aircraft engines were what led to nicknaming the hydros as ‘Thunderboats.’  Even where I lived south of the city near Burien, I could hear the Thunderboats from my home five miles from the Lake Washington racecourse.

Why was unlimited hydroplane racing so big in Seattle?  Other than no big-time sports in the city, the lakefront along Lake Washington was, and still is, public park land.  It was an ideal setting for a daylong summer outing for the whole family.  The fans, who enjoyed swimming and picnicking between racing heats, turned out by the hundreds of thousands.  There was also a floating log boom installed along the backstretch of the racecourse.  To this day motorboat enthusiasts moor side-by-side to form a mile long flotilla of partying race fans.  Annual attendance estimates in the 50’s were around 400,000 people for the hydroplane races – almost half the population of the Seattle Metropolitan Area at the time.

The U.S. Navy is popular in the Puget Sound region, and their Blue Angels are a Seafair fixture on race day.

The U.S. Navy is popular in the Puget Sound region, and their Blue Angels are a Seafair fixture on race day.
Photo credit: Seattlepi.com

One great legend from this era was that of test pilot, Alvin ‘Tex’ Johnson.  Originally from Arkansas, he acquired the nickname ‘Tex’ from his penchant for wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots on the flight line.  He came to Boeing from Bell Aircraft, where he piloted, among other prototype aircraft, the rocket-propelled X-1, which pioneered the breaking of the sound barrier.  At Boeing, Johnson, the first pilot to fly the B-52 Stratofortress, sealed his legend when he flew the prototype Boeing 707 over the Lake Washington hydroplane racecourse on race day and performed a barrel role directly overhead of thousands of awestruck onlookers.  This risky maneuver, never before attempted in a four engine passenger jet, was captured on film.  (Click here for the brief video.)  The story goes that Tex was called before then Boeing President, Bill Allen, and asked what the heck he thought he was doing, to which Tex replied, ‘I’m selling airplanes.’  And that is exactly what he did.  Orders for the 707 came pouring in after his stunt, and Johnson was never fired, suspended or fined.

Other legends arose from the early hydroplane days.  Col. Russ Schleeh, who left his career as a test pilot to drive the old Shanty I hydroplane, is still the only hydroplane driver ever to get his photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated (September, 1957).  Old time race fans will remember the 1950 Slo-Mo-Shun IV driven by Stanley Sayres that set a world water speed record of 160 mph breaking the 11 year old record by almost 20 mph.  Two years later the same boat set a new record at 178 mph.

On race days the ‘Slo-Mo’ used to stop traffic on the Lake Washington Floating Bridge as it left its owner’s private dock near Leschi Park, a mile north of the racecourse.  It would race under the west high rise of the bridge and time its approach to the starting line going 160 mph as the starting gun sounded.  The running start was halted when the rules were changed requiring all boats to start from and return to the pits.

Unlimited hydroplane racing is inherently dangerous.  Even the modern aerodynamic boats can get airborne at high speeds.  Photo credit: Seattletimes.com

Unlimited hydroplane racing is inherently dangerous. Even the modern aerodynamic boats can get airborne at high speeds.
Photo credit: Seattletimes.com

Other early hydroplane drivers were household names in Seattle:  Mira Slovak – The Flying Czech (who escaped Communist Czechoslovakia as an airline pilot who diverted his commercial flight to Luxemburg), Dean Chenowith, Ron Musson and Bill Muncey.  Slovak was the only one of these drivers not killed in competition before safer boat designs were instituted.

My most vivid memory of the hydroplane races was standing on the shore of Lake Washington in 1969 as six Thunderboats came across the starting line.  They came roaring straight toward me side-by-side at 150 mph as I stood waist deep along the shore near the first turn.  Imagine seventy-two un-muffled combustion chambers exploding with aviation fuel as the boats spit out roostertail wakes fifty feet high.  The sound was so loud that it pulsed through my bones like a hundred sub-woofers cranked to the max at a KISS concert.  I have never experienced such total immersion in sensory overload as I did at that moment.

Beginning in 1980, unlimited hydroplanes began using Lycoming T-55 turbine engines.  Initially built to power Chinook helicopters, these engines produced over 3,000 horsepower.  The safer design of updated hydroplanes incorporate space age components, advanced aerodynamics, and enclosed cockpits.  As fast and powerful as these boats are, now easily reach speeds in excess of 200 mph, their high-pitched turbines can never replace the excitement and sensation of the classic Thunderboats.

Seattle’s annual Seafair celebration still culminates with unlimited hydroplane races on Lake Washington, and the races are still a great extravaganza.  Every year over a quarter million people line the course to watch the races.  However, with so many sports options available, hydroplane racing in Seattle will never regain the unique excitement once provided by the Thunderboats whose tradition is kept alive only when there is a demo race of the classic hydroplanes.  What remains of the Thunderboats are museum pieces which can be viewed at the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent, Washington.

 

The Legends:  U-4   Miss Burien, Chuck Hickling U-40 Miss Bardahl, Norm Evans (later drivers: Miro Slovak, Jackie Regas and Ron Musson) U-60 Miss Thriftway, Bill Muncey – winningest driver in unlimited hydro racing history (62 victories)  U-6   Oh Boy! Oberto, Buddy Byers (later, Jim McCormick) U-77 Miss Wahoo, Mira Slovak

The Legends: U-4 Miss Burien, Chuck Hickling
U-40 Miss Bardahl, Norm Evans (later drivers: Billy Schumacher, Mira Slovak, Jackie Regas and Ron Musson)
U-60 Miss Thriftway, Bill Muncey – winningest driver in unlimited hydro racing history (62 victories)
U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto, Buddy Byers (later, Jim McCormick)
U-77 Miss Wahoo, Mira Slovak
Photo credit: waterfollies.com

Note:  For more reading about the Thunderboats, click here for another story I ran across by another Seattle old-timer with his own take on the classic hydroplanes.

Advertisements

11 comments on “Seafair Memories from a Seattle Old Timer

  1. Michele Ricchiazzi says:

    Why the sudden change of heart (lifestyle)? Is all OK with you two? Happy that you will be stateside but know how much you love the adventurous life. Keep us all posted.

    • Mike Lince says:

      Michele, living abroad and moving every six months has been a blast, and it has also taken a toll on us in the form of cumulative fatigue. We have to deal with visa regulations and various challenges that make it difficult to maintain a stable and healthy lifestyle. After three years on the road internationally, we are ready for a new travel style. And we do intend to continue traveling.

      Thanks for following along. One of these days our travels will no doubt take us closer to your neck of the woods, and that is something I would enjoy! – Mike

  2. brickthomas says:

    Thanks for a peek at a Seattle I never knew and I look forward to learning more. I understand your fatigue Mike and I suspect you will enjoy both the relaxation and excitement that comes with being back in your home country.

    • Mike Lince says:

      Setting aside some time for family, friends, and a familiar setting are just what we need for awhile to recharge our energy. We are already planning our next travel adventures, so we will soon be exploring more new places. In the meantime, there are some good stories about the Puget Sound area that I have been saving up. Thanks for reading. – Mike

  3. Congratulations on the upcoming move back to the US Mike. Big changes are always exciting, and as yo-yo expats ourselves, we can attest that a bit less travel stress and hassle won’t be a bad thing. Do you know where you’ll be settling yet? From your boyhood memories from the Seattle area, it sounds like you will fit right back in. All the best to you and Florence on the next phase. ~James

    • Mike Lince says:

      Olympia was where I raised my daughters and where they went to school, so I now think of Olympia as my home. That is where we will settle. We still have the benefit of the mountains and the sea without the crowds and the higher cost of living in the big city, and I still have a few friends in the area, so it will be a pleasant spot, especially arriving there in the summer.
      – Mike

  4. reocochran says:

    I am excited, as always, knowing how much thought you have taken in this decision making! I am sure this will be a memorable period of time in your life, since you will pack family, local friends and trips around the country, I am sure into your lives. Congratulations, Mike and Florence and wishing you all the best in your next part of your life together. This means our paths may someday cross, since I was uncertain if I would follow through on overseas travel, unless I met a girlfriend or guy friend, to accompany me… Thanks for being around for me. (On my posts, with such great additions and thoughtful comments, Mike!)
    I enjoyed this post about the awesome noise made by exciting hydroplanes and Thundering jets of the Blue Angels! Especially exciting to be young while this was all going on! I cannot imagine, since the sailboats, tub boats and big cargo ships on Lake Erie are all rather ‘sedate’ in comparison!!
    No wonder you claim to not be able to hear so well! Smiles, Robin

    • Mike Lince says:

      Robin, Florence and I both look forward to a day when we will meet in person. In the meantime, we have shared a meaningful ‘bloggers’ bond’ that would blossom even more once we have all met. In the meantime, you help me learn and appreciate more about places in Ohio, a part of our country about which I know little. And since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is on my bucket list, I am sure our time to meet will come. Thank you for your stories, your comments and your friendship. Abrazos! – Mike

  5. reocochran says:

    Abrazos y besos! I am sure there are many things about the Midwest which may bring you here…I am glad you mentioned the possibility and also, Cleveland’s Art Museum just got remodeled and added quite a wonderful amount of art pieces, along with keeping the structure intact, in its beautiful edifices. Oh, you never know, we could find Columbus places, too. Cincinnati and its Underground Railroad and Zoo, Canton with the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Amish Country is in the Eastern part of the state, New Philadelphia, Charm, Dover and Wharton’s Wood Carving museum. Well, that will do, for now. We are staying in touch, so I better read someone else’s posts now! Smiles, Robin

  6. Seattle is a great place to be vegan Mike! Paul and I will have to come visit you guys while you’re there. I also want to introduce you to Jean, a longtime vegan, who lives in Seattle. Here’s a link to her blog: http://sunshineandslaughter.com/ See you soon! Celeste 🙂

    • Mike Lince says:

      Thank you, Celeste, for the link and the many resources you provide us as complete neophytes in the vegan world. We are eagerly anticipating our return to the states and our coming reunion. We look forward to tapping into your wealth of knowledge. – Mike

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s