Al Benson Remembered
by Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian
Veteran boat racer Al Benson passed away in August of 1988. He was 74.
A long-time member of the Seattle Outboard Association and the Seattle Inboard Racing Association, Benson drove Unlimited hydroplanes between 1957 and 1960.
Al was born in Spokane, Washington, but spent most of his early years in Southern California, before moving to Seattle in 1930. Benson, his wife Dorothy, and their sons Don and Jim, initially lived in Madison Park, just a block from Lake Washington.
Al was always interested in things mechanical and was always tinkering. As a child, he spent a lot of time in his grandfather’s basement, which was loaded with lathes and machine tools, where he would watch and learn.
One day, Al watched the famous 100-Mile Around Mercer Island Marathon for outboards and was immediately "hooked" on boat racing. The Mercer Island Marathon was a grueling affair on rough open water, starting and finishing at Madison Park and consisting of five laps around the island. Benson was so taken with the challenge that he immediately bought his first race boat, an outboard runabout. Al later won his first race in the Marathon.
Benson became an outboard racing legend. He joined the Seattle Outboard Association and elected Commodore in 1944. For three years, he won the SOA Sportsman Award, retiring the trophy.
Al promoted and won the world famous Sammamish Slough Outboard Race, which consisted of 28 miles up and down the twisty Slough River, which connects Lake Sammamish and Lake Washington.
Benson’s long-time friend Tom Winter remembers the time Al assisted in the production of a newsreel, covering the Slough Race. According to Winter, "The scenes were all staged with boats going through walls of flaming water, up on the beaches, through clotheslines. He was told that the production was the best news footage to come from the West Coast that year."
The late Bob Carver, who was the dean of boat racing action photographers, had the highest respect for Al Benson’s competitive prowess. In Carver’s words, "Put him on his knees in an outboard, and Benny was one of the all-time greats."
But despite a houseful of first-place trophies and other accolades, Al is probably best remembered as an avid supporter of the sport, especially on Seattle’s Green Lake. After a serious accident, the infamous Green Lake Park Board cancelled racing. Benson worked long and hard to bring the races back after a four year hiatus.
Al organized the JU Outboard Class almost singlehandedly. He started both of his sons in JU competition and also encouraged the neighborhood kids to participate. "The more the merrier" was his attitude. Al generously loaned equipment, even when Don and Jim needed some to race.
The future Unlimited Class driving star Billy Schumacher III was a youthful protege of Al Benson’s in the 1950’s. From outboard ranks, Billy "graduated" to the Limited inboards and then to Thunderboats, starting in 1961. Schumacher went on to achieve fame at the wheel of Miss Bardahl, Pride of Pay ’N Pak, Weisfield’s, and Olympia Beer.
One time, Al accepted a mink coat from Leif Borgersen’s mother in trade for an outboard race boat for Leif. Borgersen, in later years, drove for the Unlimited Class Notre Dame, Hallmark Homes, U-95, and Frank Kenney Toyota/Volvo teams.
While boat racing was Benson’s first love, he also raced motorcycles and cars from time to time. Al drove midgets at the old Aurora Speedway in North Temple and was friends with the fames Indianapolis racer Shorty Templeman.
Benson started driving Limited outboards in the 1940’s. These included a Ted Jones-designed 135 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane, owned by Fred Yoder from Idaho. In 1956, Al drove a futuristic 280 Class rig, designed by Chuck Hickling and built by Bob Reuss, to victory at Gateway Grove on Lake Sammamish. The boat resembled a late 1960’s Karelsen configuration with its flatter-than-usual hull profile and wide afterplane. The craft was one of the first 280’s to race in the Pacific Northwest and ran with the 266’s for a couple years until there were enough entries to constitute a local class. Benson later bought the boat, which he and his sons campaigned as Hooligan. Although built in 1955, the craft is still in circulation today, owned by APBA Unlimited Historian Fred Farley.
In 1957, the Unlimiteds beckoned. Al joined the crew of the Miss Seattle, the famed former Slo-Mo-Shun V, which was then owned by a local syndicate, called Roostertails, Inc. The organization included some of Benson’s friends from the outboards - Lin Ivey, Chuck Hickling, and Bill Schumacher, Jr. among them.
Throughout the 1957 campaign, Benson and Hickling traded off behind the wheel of the checkered tailfinned U-37. Both Al and Chuck qualified as Unlimited drivers at the first annual Apple Cup Race on Lake Chelan in Eastern Washington. Benson finished third in his first competitive heat, averaging 96.645 miles per hour for the 30 miles in section 1-A, behind Jack Regas in Hawaii Kai III and Mira Slovak in Miss Wahoo.
Al was always taking VIPs for rides in Miss Seattle. These included Arthur Godfrey and movie star Jill St. John.
According to Tom Winter, it was rumored that Benson once took someone for a roostertail ride from Sand Point and ended up at Franco’s Restaurant on Lake Union for a drink. "The trip was under two bridges and through the Ship Canal with the Seattle Harbor Patrol following in hot, if not distant, pursuit."
Al had once operated a thriving sales and repair service of auto radios in downtown Seattle. Benson was reputed to be the first to provide radio transmission from a racing hydroplane.
In 1958, the aging Miss Seattle had a teammate, the new Miss Pay ’N Save, designed and built by Les Staudacher. The craft was supposedly patterned after Guy Lombardo’s Tempo VII but really resembled a Lauterbach 266 with drop sponsons.
Al was designated the driver of Miss Pay ’N Save, while Chuck Hickling remained with Miss Seattle. Benson debuted the Rolls Royce Merlin-powered Pay ’N Save at the 1958 Apple Cup, where the craft proved to be a wild rider. . . . and would continue to be so throughout its career, no matter who was driving. (It was this same boat, renamed Miss Seattle Too, that Dallas Sartz disintegrated at the start of the 1962 Gold Cup in Seattle.)
In 1959, during a pre-season test run on Lake Washington, Miss Pay ’N Save violently stuffed its nose. Al injured his back in the- mishap and had to be replaced by Chuck Hickling for the upcoming campaign. Benson nevertheless remained active as a crew member and served as course judge at the Diamond Cup Race in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Al’s final competitive appearance in an Unlimited hydroplane occurred in 1960 at Seattle when he took one last sentimental journey aboard Miss Seattle in the Seafair Trophy Race. Benson was running second to the eventual winner, Miss Thriftway, driven by Bill Muncey, when Miss Seattle lost power and went dead in the water, thus bringing down the curtain on a long and memorable career.
Following his retirement from competition, Al joined his son Jim on the crew of the original Miss Exide, which Mira Slovak drove, in 1963. Al served as boat manager and test pilot for the craft, which was the first Unlimited hydroplane to built by his good friend, Ed Karelsen.
In later years, Benson operated a tugboat business in Ketchikan, Alaska. He lived there for a time before returning to the Seattle area to be near his sons and work as a caretaker for a 400-acre ranch near Snohomish, Washington. During the summertime, he would attend the Seafair Regatta and reminisce with his old friends.
One of Al’s brighter moments occurred in 1982, when this writer screened a 16-millimeter KING-TV film of the 1958 Gold Cup for the Benson family at the home of Jim Benson. The film showed Al driving Miss Pay ’N Save to an upset come-from-behind victory in Heat 1-B over Lee Schoenith in Gale VI, 93.701 miles per hour to 93.636. Also competing were Bill Brow in Miss Burien, Brien Wygle in Thriftway Too, and Bob Schroeder in Wildroot Charlie.
There, up on the screen, was big Al in all his competitive glory, holding off the challenger from Detroit, while family and friends roared their approval, 24 years after the fact. It was once of those nostalgic moments that makes boat racing so special.
In winning a heat of the APBA Gold Cup, Al did what Lee Schoenith - who had won the Gold Cup on points in 1955 - was never able to do.
Jim Benson remembers his father as a man who "did a lot of unheralded hard work for the good of the sport." Al was always eager to lend a hand when help was needed.
Tom Winters remembers his first meeting with Al Benson when Winter’s father bought a 14-foot Norseman outboard from Benson. "Dad had been told that Al was a straight shooter and had the best deals in town."
"Al will be missed," Winters continued, "for his personality, his friendship, and, of course, his many deeds. His life was full, and he lived it for the adventure it gave him. God bless him."