Famous Old Hydro Racers Ready to Run [1997]

Growing up on Mercer Island in the 1970s, on the long, hot days of early August, I could step outside and hear that sound.

Anyone growing up anywhere in the Seattle area has heard it at one time or another -- a screaming rumble that carried forever.

If you heard that blaring blast, you knew instantly that the hydros were running on Lake Washington.

They didn't call the hydroplanes of old "thunder boats" for nothing. The sport was never the same after the early 1980s, when the din of those driving pistons faded away in favor of the piercing whine of turbine engines.

Once, the hydroplane races were bigger than Seafair, more important than the Blue Angels show and more exciting than the dog days of the baseball season.

If the names Slo-mo-shun, Hawaii Kai or Bill Muncey hold a cherished spot in your memories, you need to visit the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum.

"People who grew up in Seattle during the heyday of the sport, it was as important to them as the Mariners, the Seahawks, and the Sonics," says David Williams, the museum's director.

The museum resides in a humble warehouse in Seattle's South Park business district, a few miles west of Boeing Field. It's about as easy to find as an empty slot along the log boom on race day.

The nonprofit museum, which is free to the public, has about 500 members, many of whom pitch in from time to time repairing and restoring the classic hydroplanes. An association started in 1983 and opened the museum in 1991.

Of the 16 hydroplanes in the museum's collection, six have been restored. Each restoration takes a year of time, about $40,000 and uncounted hours of volunteer labor.

"This is an active, working shop," Williams says. "All of the boats work, they all run. We take them out a couple times a year.

"If you grew up in Seattle and you are a hydro fan and you want to come down and work on a boat, this is the only place you can do it."

To a fan of the sport, the boats in the collection are like old friends.

The wood and metal hulls have been restored and polished to pristine condition, the mighty Rolls-Royce engines rebuilt and ready to roar. Three of the boats are mounted diagonally on trailers, ready to go anytime.

There's Slo-mo-shun IV, which won the Gold Cup in 1950 in Detroit and brought the race to Seattle. Slo-mo-shun went on to win two other Gold Cups.

"At the time this was built, there were not other sports in Seattle and the city latched onto boat racing," Williams says of the Slo- mo. "Unlimited racing at that time was far more in the public attention."

Next to the Slo-mo sits the Miss America VIII, which in 1929 was the first American boat to break 100 mph.

In the front of the museum is a replica of the Hawaii Kai III, a Gold Cup winner in 1958. The replica is built out of a boat that actually raced under 22 different names, including a turn as the Barney Armstrong Machine, Chip Hanauer's first hydro.

Some fans may get weepy-eyed seeing Bill Muncey's baby blue Atlas Van Lines hydro. It's the same boat Muncey was killed in while racing in 1981 in Acapulco, Mexico. His team restored the wreck and donated it to the Smithsonian Institute, which later gave it to the hydroplane museum.

Modern hydroplanes, with their enclosed cockpits and composite decks, are much safer, but a look around the museum's archaic equipment shows how death-defying the sport once was.

In the early days, drivers wore bulletproof vests under their life jackets and sat in seats without belts. Williams says the idea wasn't to get the driver killed, but to make sure they were thrown clear of the boat in the event of a crash. Back then, hydros weighed around two tons, half of which was the engine, and they sank like stones.

Most of the museum's huge collection of drivers' suits, newspaper clippings and the ubiquitous Seafair memorabilia is kept in storage, safe from the cold and the dirt of the museum's shop.

Eventually, Williams hopes to move the museum to somewhere downtown, where more people can see it and more can be displayed. Even inside the cold, noisy warehouse, however, his job has its rewards.

Not everyone gets to go 125 mph after a day at the office.

"That's half the reason I do this, so I can drive," he says.

The museum runs its boats a few times a year. When they do, museum volunteers get free rides, and residents around the Stan Sayres Pits get an earful.

"The police get a flood of phone calls, people complaining," Williams says.

To hydroplane lovers, it is a far sweeter sound.

(Reprinted from The Herald, Everett WA, Saturday, January 25, 1997)