Bob Gilliam Remembered
Thunderboat racing has lost Bob Gilliam, everyone's favorite Cinderella Man. The pages of another chapter in racing's classic past are closed forever.
Throughout his long career, Bob was a never-ending source of amazement, amusement, and inspiration. He turned in some truly remarkable performances, considering that he was operating on a shoestring much of the time.
When he won the Final Heat at Buffalo, NY, in 1959 with KOLroy, that was exciting. Okay, the overall winner, Maverick, had a sizeable point lead and didn't have to go all out. But Gilliam was a boat racer that day. The U-1300 had more bounce than it ever had and twice the acceleration. Bob was down to one propeller at that event. On the day before the race, a chunk of one blade broke off in a test run. The nearest "hot" prop was a continent away in Seattle. So, Bob had to "run what he brung." He and crew chief Al Thoreson hacksawed an equivalent chunk out of the other blade and then filed both blades by hand, hoping for the best.
The next day, Gilliam and Thoreson finished an overall second. This was the closest that Bob ever came to winning a major race.
I remember being frustrated by Gilliam. Every time he seemed ready to advance to the next level of competitiveness, he would tumble back to square one. Bob had looked promising in 1964. But then, in 1965, he was a complete zero.
At the 1966 Seafair Trophy Race, I was pretty unhappy with him for having disappointed me the year before. But then a miracle happened.
I was watching the race from the press section of the Official Barge, which was anchored offshore in those days. Gilliam and Hilton Hy-Per-Lube were drawn into Heat 1-A, together with National Champion Tahoe Miss and Mira Slovak. Gilliam and Slovak both had boats that were predominantly red in color.
The starting gun fired and all the boats thundered into the first turn. The first boat out of the turn was painted red. Everyone else in the press section--including veteran broadcaster Bill O'Mara--was yelling that it was Tahoe Miss. But I knew that it wasn't. (Slovak's boat didn't have a straight-back tailfin; Gilliam's did. And this boat had a straight-back tail.)
All the way down the backstretch, my eyes were riveted to the tailfin in disbelief. "This can't be happening," I tried to convince myself. "I must be losing my mind."
The lead boat rounded the second turn beautifully, still holding a substantial lead. My fellow journalists were still yelling that it was Tahoe Miss.
The leader then roared past the Official Barge at the end of lap one.
Bill O'Mara screamed at the top of his lungs, "I called the wrong boat! I called the wrong boat! It's Hy-Per-Lube!"
And so it was. Bob Gilliam's much-maligned U-88 was way out in front. Old Bob was driving the race of his life, holding off Tahoe Miss, Miss Chrysler Crew, My Gypsy, all of them.
The crowd loved it. And so did I. The fiasco of 1965 was forgiven and forgotten.
Hilton Hy-Per-Lube finally ran out of steam after two or three laps and went dead in the water. Heat 1-A--and the Seafair Trophy--went to My Gypsy with Jim Ranger driving, while Bob concluded the day at the end of a tow rope.
Looking back over the years, it's amazing the number of people who have told me that they remember the 1966 Seafair Regatta not as the race that My Gypsy won, but rather as the race that Gilliam took an early lead. It was the race that assured the Cinderella Man an honored place in hydroplane history and legend.
[Bob Gilliam died in January, 1998 — LF]