A Lake Chelan Memory : Riding in "Slo-mo" [1994]

On Saturday, October 1, 1994, yours truly headed over the mountains from Seattle to Lake Chelan for the annual Apple Cup gathering, hosted by Unlimited drivers Mark and Mitch Evans. I had been promised a ride in the Slo-mo-shun V if all went well. I kept my fingers crossed in the hope that, after all these years, I would finally be able to enjoy the experience of a lifetime in the cockpit of an Unlimited hydroplane.

In the pits at Chelan, my girlfriend Carol and I found a mixed bag of race boats, new and old, in attendance. These included several current Limited inboards that were preparing for the October 2 race on Lake Sammamish.

Ike Kielgass brought his 7-Litre Class Mercury, and was she ever a beauty. This magnificent old wood hull with the Fageol bus engine, which sounds so much like an Allison, won many a trophy for original owner Ollie Elam in the years just after World War II. Mercury is a Ventnor hull and a non-proprider, so she doesn't kick up very much in the way of a roostertail.

Long absent from the competitive arena, the boat now enjoys a second career as a high-speed runabout. At Chelan, she used her passenger seat to good advantage, giving rides to a new generation of race fans. Mark Henning's 98 Cubic Inch Class Blue Lightning likewise showed her championship form at Chelan, and even shared the water with Miss Thriftway at one point. It was a thrill to watch these two former National Champion boats from different categories running head-to-head with each other in a friendly duel.

The three superstars of the Lake Chelan rendezvous were the three antique Unlimiteds that the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum group had so magnificently restored: the Slo-mo-shun V, the quasi-Hawaii Kai III/Breathlass II, and the Miss Thriftway. Looking at them brought back memories of the old Apple Cup races, vintage 1957 to 1960. Miss Thriftway, in fact, was the winner of the 1960 event on Lake Chelan with Bill Muncey driving.

The Thriftway was the Museum's most recent restoration. Original designer Ted Jones insisted that she looked even better than when he first built her in 1959. Every time out, she ran better and faster with then-owner Joe Frauenheim at the wheel. Dixon Smith also occupied the cockpit, lending the same expertise that has sparked the Atlas Van Lines, the Pay 'n Pak, and the Miss Budweiser teams to such great success over the years.

The Kai went in the water but had engine problems. She spent most of the day on her trailer while the crew sorted things out. She finally got to make one good run in the late afternoon with former owner/driver Pete LaRock at the wheel. The Slo-mo made an initial run with Dr. Ken Muscatel driving. All had gone well and he pronounced her ready. And I was ready for my ride.

Forty-three years earlier, at age seven, I had watched Slo-mo-shun V on KING-TV win the 1951 Gold Cup and Seafair Trophy races on Lake Washington with Lou Fageol and Ted Jones, two icons of my youth, driving. I remember the V's famous backward somersault in 1955 on Lake Washington with Fageol as clearly as I do the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Both occurrences affected me deeply. (I purposely didn't tell Carol about the flip. She was worried enough as it was.)

I had been given my choice of the three old Unlimiteds for my ride. The decision to try the V was instantaneous. This is the boat that got me hooked. If not for Slo-mo-shun V, together with Slo-mo-shun IV, my life would have been a whole lot different-- a lot less exciting, I'm sure.

Now, after forty-three years, my time had come. After scrawling my signature on a waiver form, I climbed into the cockpit. The boat is almost as old as I am. But as I settled into the seat, I discovered that I am still a seven-year-old kid at heart.

Ken gave me a crash course on how to ride the boat and hold in and not be thrown out. Unlike the Unlimiteds of today, Slo-mo-shun V is not equipped with an aircraft-style safety canopy. The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine roared to life on the first try. All of a sudden, we were going 40 miles an hour. We didn't work up to 40; we started there. A potent whiff of aviation fuel assailed my nostrils. And then we popped up on the three points.

I've been around high-performance water craft all my life. I've ridden in various Offshore boats and once even finished dead last in an OPC race on the Detroit River. But none of that even remotely prepared me for the adrenaline rush that comes from riding in an Unlimited hydroplane on Lake Chelan.

The sensation of running at speed on a cushion of air defies description. It's absolutely intoxicating. I felt as giddy as a drunken man. I remember thinking briefly about Fageol's flip, but that was quickly forced out of my conscious mind as we hurtled down the backstretch on the old Apple Cup race course.

Oh, God! What a thrill! We were only doing about 115, but it felt like 215. Riding in Slo-mo made a roller coaster seem as bland as a little kid's merry-go-round.

I appreciated the straightaways more than the turns. Boats of this vintage do a lot of jumping and hobby-horsing around in the corners. And the mahogany U-37 was no exception. (Two days later, my left knee was still a little bit tender from all of that jostling.) But who said that a race boat had to be comfortable? The whole point is to go fast. And Slo-mo-shun V was the fastest boat of her day. She was indeed the first to run a lap in competition at 108 MPH on a three- mile course

We made about two and a half laps around the oval and then headed back to shore. Ken shut off the engine and stepped up on the deck. I removed my helmet, leaned back in the cockpit, and started laughing. In my whole life, I had never been happier, except maybe when Jim McCormick won the Gold Cup on home waters with Miss Madison in 1971.

As an author and an educator, I make my living by using words. But after ten minutes of riding in Slo-mo, I found that all of the adjectives in Webster's Dictionary are inadequate to describe what I experienced on that gorgeous autumn afternoon in Eastern Washington. Only someone who has been up on three points can possibly comprehend the sensation.

Back on shore, I was on a natural high. I was incoherent, talking a mile a minute, and walking on the clouds. It took several hours before I "came down to earth." Carol was happy for me but clearly relieved that I was safe and sound.

As the sun set on that memorable October 1, I had a much healthier respect for the men that race these awesome machines. For the hundredth time. I replayed in my mind the incredible ride in the boat of my dreams. Having experienced a hydroplane fan's ultimate thrill, I found myself longing to do it again.

My hat is off to the men and women of the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum. Thanks to their hard work and dedication, my fondest wish has finally come true.