We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - H1 Unlimited Historian
Since 1966, the Tri-Cities of Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Washington, has been a mainstay on the Unlimited hydroplane calendar. From Day-One, the Tri-Cities race has set the standard for a well-organized aquatic festival that brings credit and prestige both to the sport and to the community that hosts it.
The man most responsible for this great success is Ken Maurer, who passed away on August 4, 2014, at his home in Pasco, Washington. He was 89 years old.
As one of the five original board members of the sponsoring Tri-City Water Follies organization, Maurer guided the race through good times and bad until his retirement in 2003. For many years, his advertising agency, the Maurer Group, ran the day-to-day operations of the Water Follies.
In the words of Denny Jackson, “To me, Ken Maurer was the epitome of a race site promoter. He had more knowledge of putting on a race than the rest of us combined. As a president of the Madison Regatta, I looked up to him.”
Raised on a wheat farm in Davenport, Washington, Maurer served in the U.S. Army during World War II and opened his ad agency in 1957.
Ken was an incredibly hard worker and expected a lot from people. But, in all fairness, he never expected of anyone else what he didn’t demand of himself. And yet, deep down, Maurer was a staunch fan of the hydroplane sport. After his own race was over and done with, he would head over to the Seattle Seafair Regatta and just kick back and enjoy being a spectator.
In the early years, the Tri-Cities race was called the Atomic Cup. When the Unlimited hydroplanes first came to town to do competitive battle, the Columbia Park pit area was a wilderness dustbowl. It was a far cry from the modern well-developed recreational facility that it is today.
There’s the often-told story of how Ken and the core group of the future Atomic Cup committee drove down to Stateline, Nevada, in September of 1965 to observe the Lake Tahoe World Championship Regatta. The group included Maurer, Jack Hamann, Mark Pence, Keith Bowers, and Wally Reid, all prominent Tri-Cities area businessmen.
They arrived at Lake Tahoe armed with cameras, tape measures, notebooks. And they asked questions. Lots of questions. When it came time for sanctions to be awarded for the 1966 Unlimited season at the 1965 APBA Convention, the Tri-Cities group had all of their ducks lined up.
The 1966 Atomic Cup was one of the best organized first-year races ever witnessed–an unqualified success that garnered rave reviews from fans, participants, and the media alike.
It is interesting to note that there were four new race sites on the Unlimited schedule in 1966. Of the four, only the Tri-Cities has demonstrated staying power. The other three (Tampa, Sacramento, and Kelowna) all vanished rather quickly.
The twelve boats that showed up for that first Atomic Cup had almost nothing in common with their modern counterparts that compete for the Columbia Cup. All were piston-powered and all but one used government surplus Allison or Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, left over from World War II.
The 1966 Atomic Cup proved to be the first-ever victory for MISS BUDWEISER team founder Bernie Little, who went on to win a total of 134 races prior to his death in 2003. Little had been racing since 1963, but this was his initial trip to the winner’s circle.
Little and Ken Maurer became close personal friends, which explains the long-standing Budweiser sponsorship of the Tri-Cities race. When Bernie would be in town for the race, he would often have dinner at Ken’s house.
Maurer was also close to the boat racing superstar Bill Muncey and appreciated all of the times that Bill stopped by during the off-season to help promote the Tri-Cities race.
Ken had many fond memories of those early Atomic Cups. Probably the best all-around competitive show of that era was the 1969 classic, won by Dean Chenoweth in MYR’S SPECIAL. Six heats of 15 miles each were run that day (July 20) and six different boats won them.
July 20, 1969, was also the day that man first landed on the Moon. Throughout the day, between heats, radio reports of the lunar mission were piped over the P-A system to the thousands of spectators lining the Columbia River on that historic afternoon.
After nearly four decades as head honcho for the Tri-Cities race, Maurer decided to sell his ad agency and retire from active promoting. But his story does not end there.
In 2008, author David Williams published his book HYDROPLANE RACING IN THE TRI-CITIES and dedicated it to Ken Maurer. On the dedication page, Williams wrote, “He, more than any other individual, is responsible for the Water Follies position as one of the longest running and most successful community festivals in the nation.”