Tom Martin Remembered
The Unlimited hydroplane sport lost one of its veteran participants on August 27, 2002. Tom Martin, who raced Unlimiteds during the 1970s and early '80s, passed away at age 73.
A fan favorite, Martin was always quick with a smile and a kind word. He loved the sport and the people in it.
Tom was one of that group of respected middle-echelon chauffeurs in the tradition of Bob Miller, Red Loomis, Norm Evans, and Jerry Hopp. These were drivers who didn't get many of the "top rides." But they could be counted upon to step in at a moment's notice and were pretty good about bringing the boat back to the dock in one piece.
Martin waited a long time for chance to pilot a Thunderboat in competition. As far back as 1958, Tom tried out for the seat in the original Miss Burien but lost out in that instance to Bill Brow and Dick Short.
In the years that followed, Martin drove in a few 280 Cubic Inch Class races. But his goal was always to achieve the Unlimited level.
In 1973, Seattleite Pete LaRock had acquired the former Breathless II and was looking for a sponsor. Tom owned four Shakey's Pizza parlors at the time and made a deal with Pete. In return for putting up the sponsorship money, Martin got to choose the driver. Lo and behold, Tom chose himself.
Martin drove an Unlimited around buoys for the first time at the 1973 Gar Wood Trophy in Detroit. He failed to finish his debut race with Shakey’s Special due to mechanical difficulties. But that was the start of an Unlimited career that was to last a decade. For the next ten years, Tom was seldom without a "ride."
Truth to tell, most of the boats that Martin drove were "over the hill" long before Tom ever had a chance to race them. But he always turned in a good account of himself. At the wheel of 1957 vintage Sunny Jim, Martin finished fifth at Owensboro (Kentucky) in 1974 and at San Diego in 1974 and 1975.
The highlight of Tom Martin's career occurred in 1976. Tom had split with LaRock's team after 1975. Tom Sheehy was now Pete's driver. But LaRock still owed Martin two races from a previous contract. Pete resolved the situation by putting Sheehy "on hiatus" in mid-season and installing Martin in the boat for the 1976 Owensboro and Dayton races.
The boat in question was the former turbine-powered U-95, a state-of-the-art Ron Jones-designed hull, repowered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin. The LaRock team was officially the "stand-in" Miss Budweiser at Owensboro and Dayton, while the "real" Miss Bud was undergoing repairs following a crash at Detroit.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime for Tom Martin to drive for the sport's premiere sponsor. And he made the most of it, finishing third at both races behind Bill Muncey in Atlas Van Lines and Tom D'Eath in Miss U.S.
Success in racing is sometimes a matter of the right man being in the right place at the right time. That was certainly the case at the 1982 Tri-Cities Columbia Cup. Tom attended the race as a spectator but ended up in the role of relief driver for not one but two boats--Kawaguchi Travel Service and Design 360 for owners Bill Dreewes and Dave Jaeger.
Martin's most embarrassing moment was undoubtedly the time when he took a drive in the Burien Hobby Center at Seattle in 1980 and the engine wouldn't shut off. Fred Leland had been scheduled to drive but had quit the day before. Tom was asked to take Leland's place. On returning to the pits after a test run, Martin realized--to his horror--that the kill switch didn't work. The boat leaped clear of the water before coming to a grinding halt on dry land.
Tom was thrown violently around in the cockpit when Burien Hobby Center slammed into the dock but was uninjured. The horrific scene of the runaway boat was captured for all time on film by an alert television cameraman. For the next several years, the sequence was included in the opening montage of the ESPN broadcasts and still shows up occasionally on hydroplane "blooper" reels.
Martin's racing days ended with the same boat in which he had started--the former Breathless II (renamed Jose Murphy's). Tom tried to qualify the aging craft at San Diego in 1983 but was unable to do so. Martin then decided to call it a career.
A true gentleman, Tom was a credit to the sport both on and off the race course. He aided many regattas by his participation and helped to fill out many fields when racing needed boats in the pits.