Mike Welsch Remembered
In the high-tech world of Unlimited hydroplane racing, the owners and the drivers receive most of the attention. But without the crew chiefs, they would all be dead in the water.
The modern concept of a crew chief evolved after World War II. The Slo-mo-shun team from Seattle, Washington, was a classic example.
L.N. "Mike" Welsch racked up twelve race victories as lead wrench for Slo-mo-shun IV and Hawaii Kai III to be the winningest crew chief of the 1950s. In the last year of his life, Mike was still making his presence felt on the crew of the 1981 National Champion Miss Budweiser.
A crew chief is defined as an individual who regularly works on the boat and has charge of those who also work on the boat. Crew chiefs, over the years, have had varying degrees of authority, depending upon their relationship to their owner and driver, yet are considered crew chiefs if they fit the above description.
On June 26, 1950, the Seattle-based Slo-mo-shun IV set a mile straightaway record of 160.323 miles per hour on Lake Washington near Sand Point, which raised the former standard by nearly 19 miles per hour. This was the start of "Hydromania" in Seattle.
Slo-Mo was owned by Stan Sayres, designed by Ted Jones, and built by Anchor Jensen. Measuring 28-1/2 feet with an Allison aircraft engine, the “IV” was not the first Unlimited hydroplane to "prop-ride" on a semi-submerged propeller. But she was the first to reap championship results in the application of the concept.
Welsch, who worked with Jones at Boeing, became Slo-mo-shun IV's crew chief. "The boat was good from the beginning," Mike told interviewer David Greene, "although we did modify the steering and change the rudder location."
A public subscription drive in the Seattle area enabled Slo-mo-shun IV's entry in the Gold Cup race on the Detroit River. Then, as now, the Gold Cup stood as the ultimate power boating prize.
Upon arrival in the Motor City, then the hub of organized boat racing in North America, the oddsmakers conceded that Slo-Mo was indeed an awesome sight to behold on the straightaways with that impressive roostertail of spray a football field in length. They doubted, though, the record holder's ability to effectively corner under competitive conditions and labeled her "A worm in the turn."
This notion vanished quickly when the “IV” made several high-speed test laps around the 3-mile Detroit River race course and demonstrated that cornering was not a problem.
In those days, the Gold Cup race site was determined by the yacht club of the winning boat rather than by the present method of the city with the highest financial bid.
Slo-mo-shun IV won all three 30-mile heats of the 1950 contest with Ted Jones as driver and Mike Welsch as riding mechanic.
Not once in the 46-year history of the event had the Gold Cup winner hailed from any other locale farther west than Minneapolis (in 1916). Immediately, Sayres announced plans to defend the cup on his home waters of Lake Washington.
Before concluding her maiden year of competition, Slo-mo-shun IV also claimed first-place in the Harmsworth International Trophy race in Detroit. Driven this time by Lou Fageol, the “IV” became the first craft in history to be timed at 100 miles per hour in a heat of competition around a closed (5-nautical mile) course.
Fageol and riding mechanic Welsch averaged 100.680 in the second heat of the best-two-out-of-three-heat series. Slo-mo-shun IV thus became the first boat to win both the Harmsworth and the Gold Cup races, in addition to setting a world straightaway record, during the same calendar year since Miss America (in 1920).
Although pleased with the team's Harmsworth victory, Mike did not relish riding with Fageol. According to Welsch, Lou drove like a man possessed.
The response of Seattleites to Slo-Mo's success was, in Mike's words, "Fantastic. That was part of the enjoyment of working on the boat because of the way the public backed us--especially the little kids, five and six years old. That was really something--the reaction of the city--and made working for nothing fun."
The Slo-mo-shun mechanical crew was more than just a racing team. It was the most exclusive men's club in the Seattle area in the 1950s. And everyone wanted to join. But very few ever achieved the inner circle. Some of those who did included Elmer Linenschmidt, Joe Schobert, George McKernan, Wes Kiesling, Pete Bertellotti, Rod Fellers, Jack Harshman, Martin Headman, Fred Hearing, Don Ibsen, Jr., Bob Stubbs, and Jack Watts.
Owner Sayres recognized that he would need a second hull in order to compete with the Detroit contingent's numerical superiority. Slo-mo-shun V had the same designer, builder, length, and power source as her predecessor, but had a wider beam and a slightly different sponson design that included larger non-trip areas. Unlike her sister, Slo-mo-shun V was built for competition rather than for straightaway performance.
Welsch retained his status as Slo-mo-shun IV's crew chief; Linenschmidt took charge of Slo-mo-shun V.
For Seattle's Unlimited debut, two major races--for the Gold Cup and the Seafair Trophy--were scheduled for consecutive weekends during the month of August, 1951. Slo-mo-shun V won both of them with Lou Fageol driving in the Gold Cup and Ted Jones in the Seafair Trophy. On the first lap of the initial race, Fageol demonstrated acceleration never before witnessed in competition and was credited with a 3-mile mark of 108.633, which raised the former standard by better than 22 miles per hour.
Slo-mo-shun IV was run under wraps during the Gold Cup, taking a safe third. She was, however, turned loose in the Seafair Trophy, which was, in effect, a match race between the “IV” and the "V." Slo-mo-shun V took the first and third heats; Slo-mo-shun IV won the middle stanza in record time for two laps around the 5-nautical mile course at 111.743. This eclipsed the former all-time high for the same distance by better than 4 miles per hour.
Sayres entered Slo-mo-shun IV in another straightaway trial in 1952--this time on Lake Washington's East Channel near Mercer Island. He felt that the “IV” had not been run to the maximum when he did 160 with her in 1950. With Elmer Linenschmidt alongside as riding mechanic, Slo-Mo IV did 178.497 over the measured mile.
In comparing the two boats, Mike Welsch felt that Slo-mo-shun V was quicker out of the corners. "Once she came out of the turn, 'V' could get up and clean out faster than 'IV.'
"Slo-Mo IV had a tendency to stick in the turn. You had to turn 'IV' right to break it loose before you could get going. 'V' didn't have this tendency. It had some dihedral in the side that we didn't have in the 'IV' until later, when we added a bustle. Anything over 165 mph would cause the bow in the 'V' to start kiting. It would really get hairy. The 'IV' could do 185 with no strain."
Slo-mo-shun IV won both of the next two Gold Cup races in Seattle. "The Grand Old Lady," as she was then labeled, took the 1952 event with Stan Dollar at the wheel and the 1953 renewal with Fageol and Joe Taggart alternating in the cockpit.
Slo-mo-shun V experienced mechanical problems at both of the hometown races in 1952 and 1953, but took in the Eastern circuit in 1953. Fageol won the President's Cup with the “V” on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Slo-mo-shun V was probably the fastest competitive boat in the world on smooth water but was something else on the rough Eastern courses and still needed proper trimming after three years of racing.
In 1954, Slo-Mo V handed Stan Sayres an unprecedented fifth straight Gold Cup award. Instead of the tried and proven Allison, however, the “V” used a Rolls-Royce Merlin. According to Mike Welsch, "We compared the two engines and the thing that convinced us was the blower and the manifold system. The Rolls also had a very impressive front end and intake system."
The move to Merlin power was a gamble because several prominent teams had experimented with them in the 1940s and found them too temperamental to their liking. "At first, we were just going to test them to see what we had," said Welsch. "But once we tried the Rolls, there was no life in the Allison as far as we were concerned.
"After the performance in 'V,' we figured that we had better put it in 'IV,' too. And we had no trouble getting engines in those days."
Oddly enough, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine used in Slo-mo-shun V to win the 1954 Gold Cup was the same power plant used in the ill-fated Quicksilver, which crashed to the bottom of Lake Washington in 1951 with fatal consequences.
While attempting qualification at the 1955 Gold Cup in Seattle, Slo-mo-shun V turned a complete 360-degree backward somersault at a frightening 160 to 165 miles per hour. Fageol was on the backstretch of his third official lap on the 3.75-mile course after posting identical readings of 117.391 on the first two.
The “V” landed upright minus her pilot and coasted--remarkably intact--to a halt. Rescue teams found the stricken Fageol still conscious but badly injured, his distinguished driving career at an end.
For years, the Sayres team had yielded to civic pressure to remain active in Gold Cup competition. rather than retire undefeated. But on the eve of the 1955 Gold Cup, Stan announced that the next day's race with Taggart and Slo-Mo IV would be his last. As the only five-time consecutive winning owner of that famous cup, he would give it one last try. And he nearly pulled it off.
The “IV” was leading and only three laps from victory when the manifold started to crack. Taggart eased off to nurse "The Old Lady" along. With two laps remaining, the Slo-Mo driver elected to save the boat and himself from fire, which had spread to the hull, and shut off the engine, forever dashing the team's hopes for a sixth consecutive triumph in the race of races.
One can only speculate as to what effect the running of several additional hard laps--due to an Official's error--in the confused first heat of the day, may have had on the hometown favorite's inability to finish the grueling 90-mile grind.
Although "retired," Stan Sayres and his crew continued to test Slo-Mo IV the following winter as they had in the past. Sayres sold the disabled Slo-Mo V to a local syndicate, which repaired and renamed her Miss Seattle. The former “V” raced off and on between 1956 and 1966 but was never again the contender that she had been as Slo-mo-shun V.
One week before the 1956 Seafair Trophy Regatta on Lake Washington, Sayres announced that he would return for at least one more event. The “IV” ran an extremely competitive race. She tied the winner, Shanty I, another Ted Jones hull, on points but not on elapsed time. Slo-Mo was decisively beaten in the Final Heat showdown, but had managed to defeat Shanty I in an earlier preliminary skirmish.
The “IV” was obviously not yet ready for the bone yard, and the Sayres team elected to send her to Detroit for one last try at the Gold Cup, which had been captured the previous year by the Motor City's Gale V.
On an early August morning, a radio report broke the sad news to Seattleites that their boat had crashed during a trial run on the Detroit River. At 150 miles per hour, Slo-mo-shun IV had encountered the wake of an illegally moving patrol boat and broken apart, inflicting serious injuries on Joe Taggart, who--like Fageol before him--would never race again.
Sorrowful over the misfortune to his boat and driver, Stan Sayres refused to even look at Slo-mo-shun IV in her wrecked state. He died in his sleep three weeks later, a truly heartbroken man.
Sayres did, however, leave a final legacy to the sport that he loved, in the form of an offer to Hawaii Kai III owner Edgar Kaiser, who had assisted in transporting Slo-Mo to Detroit. Sayres made available his spare Rolls-Royce Merlin engine for use in the Kai, together with his experienced crew to maintain it.
Beginning with the 1956 President's Cup Regatta, the entire team--with Mike Welsch as crew chief--would affiliate with "The Pink Lady" Hawaii Kai III, which, for the next two years, would fill the void as the sympathetic successor to Slo-mo-shun IV as far as Seattle fans were concerned.
Backed by the Slo-Mo crew, Hawaii Kai won eight races--six of them consecutively--and hauled down the 1957 National Championship in addition to upping the mile straightaway record to 187.627 with Jack Regas as driver.
Their last race together was the 1958 Gold Cup on Lake Washington, which they won, hands down.
Following the Kaiser team's retirement from racing, Welsch took a vacation from the sport. Instead of twisting wrenches, he served on the Seattle Seafair Regatta's registration committee for several years.
In 1961, Mike was inducted into the Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame as a charter member, one of the first crew chiefs to be so recognized.
In honor of his Slo-Mo and Hawaii Kai experiences, Welsch named his own personal pleasure boat the Mo-Kai.
Mike no longer wished to be a crew chief but still enjoyed lending a hand where it was needed.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Welsch helped with Shirley Mendelson McDonald's Notre Dame. His final involvement was with Bernie Little's Miss Budweiser.
Fittingly enough, one of the last races that Mike Welsch worked was the 1981 Seattle Gold Cup, which occurred just a few months before Mike's death. The race was won by the "Beer Wagon" with Dean Chenoweth driving.
Welsch's Unlimited career had begun with a Gold Cup victory at Detroit in 1950 with Slo-mo-shun IV. With the Budweiser's triumph in 1981, Mike was able to go out a winner.