We're racing through history!
The roars and risks, the heroes and heat of the race - a band of fans would revive the thrill of it all
By Richard Seven
Reprinted from Pacific Northwest magazine, July 22, 2001
Dust smothers the ankle-high black racing boots Bill Muncey used to wear.
In fact, the museum itself is off to the side in a South Park industrial complex of connecting warehouses full of airplane parts and electrical supplies. Even the sport, for most of Seattle, is in the closet for all but Seafair weekend.The legendary racer, killed during a competition in Mexico 20 years ago, merits his own display case within the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum, but the memorabilia is tucked against a far wall and obscured under the shadow of a thunderboat tilted on its side to save space.
The dust that idles on Muncey's boots, trophies, a toy figurine of him driving Miss Thriftway and other artifacts of his glory is like a coat of age, making the memories of when Seattle defined — and was defined by — unlimited hydroplane racing that much dimmer. The dust, though, doesn't collect from inattention as much as it is stirred by stubborn effort to keep the glory days afloat.
Mostly, the museum is a workshop where volunteer gearheads sand, saw, tune up and polish old thunderboats. They find the hydros rotting in fields and barns; or collect them from museums that need to clear space. They want the metallic-green Miss Bardahl, the Miss Burien and the others on the water and in running shape so people can feel the rumble and either recall or discover the names, personalities, innovations and the way Seattle used to be.
The new breed of turbine-powered hydros race at Seafair in two weeks, but 50 years ago, in 1951, thunderboats vied for the Gold Cup on Lake Washington, the first time the sport's top contest took place west of the Mississippi.
About 300,000 spectators lined the shore that year to watch Seattle's Slo-Mo-Shun V trounce challengers from Detroit and stoke a boat rivalry between an airplane town and a car town. The boats were odd, fast, cranky, a might tippy. The drivers were daring. Some were former test pilots. Some were car racers. Some just liked risk. All of them were comfortable at or near the edge. It helped spawn a generation of heroes and hero-worshippers and civic pride that out-of-the-way Seattle did something better than anyone else.
"Remember when the Mariners made the playoffs for the first time?" says hydroplane historian Fred Farley. "It was like that."
Of course, when hydro roostertails ruled, the Mariners, especially this year's version, hadn't yet arrived. The Sonics and Seahawks came later. Interstate 5 didn't split the city until 1967. In the early '50s, Seafair princesses shared news pages with the Korean War.
The sport roared on. Eventually, whining turbines replaced the throaty drone of World War II airplane engines. Instead of the Green Dragon against the Pink Lady, it was Budweiser vs. Miller. Hydros kept getting faster and more sophisticated, but so did Seattle. For many, they stopped making us distinct; they made us provincial. It went from, "We've got hydros and Chicago doesn't" to "Chicago doesn't have hydros so why do we?"
Seattle is still a stronghold for the sport and home to top drivers, crews and hardcore fans. This year's Seafair race will again draw a huge crowd and TV audience. It just doesn't imprint as deeply or widely as it used to.
In fact, the museum's drive to rekindle the golden days is complicated by the stalled present. This year's race will be one of the last stops on a six-event circuit, the slimmest slate since 1962.
Although much of the collection is stuffed in an attic, the museum holds worthy examples, as good history does, of evolution and personality. Cockpits and life vests changed right along with faster engines and sleeker hulls. Beneath the dust are tales of courage, bravado and foolishness, but also plenty of nostalgia, the essential ingredient that makes good old days better than they were.
Take the 1952 Gold Cup, for example. The revered Slo-Mo-Shun IV streaked to victory in front of a hometown throng, retaining the Gold Cup its sister boat won just the year before. Its main feat, though, was finishing. Every other boat in the field either cracked up or conked out.
HYDRO FEVER officially blasted off in 1950 when the 28-foot red-and-mahogany slipper-shaped Slo-Mo IV, driven by owner Stan Sayres, set the world straightaway speed record by exceeding 160 mph. A month later, the boat's designer, Ted Jones, won the Gold Cup in Detroit, stunning the hydro-racing world and earning Seattle the right to host the next year's race. Until then, it had been a Midwestern and East Coast sport.
The Slo-Mo IV, constructed and refined by Seattle master boat builder Anchor Jensen in his Portage Bay shop, revolutionized the sport. Powered by an Allison aircraft engine, it was the first thunderboat to successfully use a prop-riding technique, allowing it to skim the water. The boat so dominated the 1950 Gold Cup that Detroit racers, anxious to return the trophy to Michigan, focused on copying the hydro's secret.
In the months leading to the 1951 race, however, a new Slo-Mo was secretly created in a loft of Jensen's shop. An armed guard sat in front of the door, on alert for snoopers.
The new boat — the V — was unveiled just days before the race. Lou Fageol drove it to an easy win, setting an average lap record of 97.826 mph. Distracted by the giddy civic pride over Seattle's roost atop big-time boat racing, the press underplayed another fact of the sport: It's dangerous. A Portland driver and his onboard mechanic drowned early in the third and final heat when their boat, Quicksilver, lost control and nose-dived to the bottom of Lake Washington.
Every local station used to broadcast the finals. Pit crews were exclusive clubs. Kids hung around the pits peering at the boats and begging for buttons. They dragged little wooden hydroplanes, painted and named for their favorites, behind their bikes and raced them across parking strips and lots. Folks didn't come to the races just for sun and beer as they often do today; they knew heat times, racers' names and boat histories. They could not stand the thought of Detroit winning.
The two Slo-Mo hydros took turns winning the Gold Cups until 1955, when engine trouble knocked the IV out of the race and the V crashed after a spectacular back-flip, injuring Fageol. The Gale V of Detroit beat out Muncey's Miss Thriftway in a controversial scoring decision, taking the cup back to the Midwest.
The 1955 race marked the end of the Slo-Mo phenomenon, but plenty of other Seattle racing projects were taking up the slack. It was the perfect time and place for hydros. Surplus WWII aircraft engines were cheap and plentiful. Boeing engineers, like Jones, applied aerodynamics, and veteran military mechanics knew those engines. The town was not only full of boat nuts, it had a comfortable sense of itself.
Each crew embraced the unlimited concept, striving to be faster, hardier and more innovative than the others. Wealthy men followed Sayres into the sport, bankrolling entries. Bill Boeing Jr. had the Miss Wahoo. Ole Bardahl combined his love of boat racing and need to advertise his motor-oil additive by running the Miss Bardahl.
The Bardahl was the Green Dragon. The Hawaii Kai III was the Pink Lady. The Miss Spokane was the Lilac Lady. The Miss Tahoe was known as the Gray Ghost.
After leaving Sayres' team, Jones designed several more champion hydroplanes. The Bardahl, with Ron Musson in the cockpit, dominated for a stretch of the early '60s, winning three straight Gold Cups. Some fans favored the Shanty I; others liked the Miss Thriftway. Miss Burien was part of a marketing campaign to establish the city of Burien as the "center of the known world.''
It was a testosterone rush. Crews babied engines so drivers could push them to the edge. So-called backyard builders got involved, producing funky new efforts and some loveable dogs. The Miss University District got headlines for its radical design and was so dependent on dollar-sized donations it was billed as "the hydroplane a neighborhood built." A great story, but the boat never ran right.
Drivers seemed larger than life, too. Muncey was a Detroit native who defected to arch-rival Seattle and combined image-building panache with courage and driving skills. When Seattle lost the Gold Cup for the first time, Muncey won it right back.
Mira Slovak defected from Czechoslovakia by diverting the government-run airliner he was flying to Frankfurt and seeking asylum. After working as a crop duster in eastern Washington, Slovak became Bill Boeing's private pilot. When Boeing needed a driver for his Miss Wahoo, Slovak jumped in and became known in hydro circles as "The Flying Czech."
Col. Russ Schleeh defected from his work as an experimental test pilot to join the hydro circuit. He flew every plane that saw combat in the European campaign during WWII and was testing aircraft above Boeing Field in the early '50s when he noticed Slo-Mo IV skimming across Lake Washington. By 1956, he was driving a new hydro named the Shanty I to a series of prestigious wins.
One story has it that Ted Jones had asked Tex Johnston, the chief test pilot at Boeing, to drive a new hydro called the Rebel Suh. Johnston was the pilot who did an impromptu barrel-roll in a 707 prototype above Lake Washington during the 1955 Seafair. But he said no thanks and recommended Schleeh, a cohort of famed test pilot Chuck Yeager.
With his test-pilot moxie, Schleeh did things differently. Rather than slow to handle turns he stayed wide and kept the boat at full-throttle. After another driver scoffed, "Schleeh drives like a plumber," the pilot responded by waving a red plunger on victory laps. The flying plumber was such a good story that he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1957, the last and perhaps only hydro racer to do so.
TODAY, THE PRESIDENT of the hydro museum is Ken Muscatel, who could be called "the flying forensic psychologist." Muscatel divides his time between testifying in court on mental competency issues, keeping the museum afloat and working on and piloting his unlimited hydro, Miss Freei.
The museum he presides over was started in 1980 by Bob Williams, a truck driver, laborer and hydro fan so compulsive he kept his own vast button collection in alphabetical order. The museum began in his mind and heart and then moved into his rec room. By the late '80s, he had struck a deal with the city of Tacoma to lease a waterfront building for the museum for next to nothing. His organization couldn't get financial backing, though, and he moved to Florida.
Muscatel, whose heart was imprinted by hydros as a kid growing up near Lake Washington, merged the museum with his Antique Raceboat Foundation and set it up in his personal shop, where it is now.
For years after the aborted Tacoma project, the nonprofit museum treaded water, concentrating on paying down bills and finding focus. When David Williams (no relation to Bob) became executive director in 1995, it had a yearly income of $17,000, sagging membership and no firm plans. He told the board it didn't have to pay him a salary if he didn't generate money. He's been paid every year since, and the annual budget is about $275,000.
"My first order of business," says Williams, "was triage."
Williams left his high-pressure exporting job after watching his father die in a Seattle hospital. He decided right then to follow his passion — hydroplane racing. As a tot, he pined for a Miss Bardahl inner-tube. When his Little League buddies were dreaming of pitching no-hitters, he fantasized about winning the Gold Cup. Later, he learned boat building, raced a little, worked in the pits and co-owned a limited hydroplane.
From an attic cubbyhole above the museum, he now supervises one administrative assistant and a loose-knit army of volunteers who mainly want to work on boats. He edits copy for publications and helps direct video projects, like a current one on Muncey. His duties also include attending fundraisers and working on hydros.
Along with Muncey's boots, trophies and a button from when he campaigned for lieutenant governor, the free museum displays Schleeh's plunger and scraped-up helmet. There is also a melancholy poem mourning the final days of the Slo-Mos, a white Miss Wahoo T-shirt drooping on a mannequin torso and a series of hydro knickknacks, from ties to ashtrays. High on the wall are shards of famous wrecked hydros and a series of life jackets, including one that incorporated a parachute.
Much of the collection is stuffed in an attic above another hydro workshop a few miles away. Paintings and shirts are up there, as well as programs, wallets, glasses, license plates, cuff links, necklaces, models and windsocks.
A SPRING WINDSTORM knocked the museum's sign down from above its door. There was little rush to put it back up. The free museum is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and what memorabilia there is to see is shoved to one side to make room for work.
Most of the floor space is taken up by equipment and a few vintage hydros that range from stripped-down shells to polished end-products. Volunteers come in on Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturdays to rebuild the boats and dine on pizza and pop.
Early on a Thursday night several of the volunteers circled around the carcass of an old Miss Budweiser and exchanged classic workshop chatter:
"You should have seen this boat; it was in baaaad shape."
"I hope this works."
"You know, summer's almost half over and I haven't turned a wrench yet!"
"I'll never forget my first ride in one of these."
"Now that Little League is over, my wife says it's OK if I come down more often."
The hydros come before the displays because it is the boats that kick-start memories and attract attention, sponsors and members.
The museum has received one of Muncey's Atlas Van Lines hydros from a San Diego museum that needed the space and the Miss Bardahl from Goodwill Industries, again because of space. Restoring the boats for private collectors can account for up to one-third of the museum's annual budget and enable it to possess and eventually own boats from other institutions.
About a year ago, the hydro museum returned the Slo-Mo IV to the Museum of History and Industry. Volunteers restored the Slo-Mo V, now part of telecommunications magnate Bruce McCaw's private collection of vintage vehicles.
Then, just as the museum began renovating thunderboats in earnest in 1993, Muscatel was approached by filmmaker Bill Bindley, who had a script to make an inspirational hydroplane movie, "Madison." It tells the true, if embellished, Cinderella tale of how the depressed town of Madison, Ind., through elbow grease and heart, raced its hometown hydroplane, the Miss Madison, to a miracle 1971 Gold Cup win.
Muscatel readily agreed to help and supply the old boats, but the independent movie project had so many false starts that Williams and museum volunteers didn't treat it as real until the producer sent a check — and it cleared — in April, 1999.
"It was like re-creating the 1971 Indy 500 only you can probably find old cars that run," Muscatel recalled. "We had to have old boats with airplane engines that worked and run them about 1,000 laps. It was absurd, but we did it."
The museum furnished seven boats and volunteers to act as drivers and crew members in Madison and southern California. Muscatel raced an old Budweiser boat and staged a dramatic spinout for the camera. Williams spent much of that time doubling in driving scenes for star Jim Caviezel, who portrayed driver Jim McCormick.
As part of the payment for the museum's work on the film, it will co-host a fund-raising premiere here with Burien's Kennedy High School, where Caviezel graduated. The movie, a crowd-pleaser at the Sundance Film Festival last January, figures to play well in Seattle, too.
But as hydro luck would have it, Caviezel's big movie this year, "The Count of Monte Cristo," was scheduled for the same fall day that Madison was to be released. That means Madison and the museum's fund-raising opportunity may once again slide, possibly as far back as next spring.
In the meanwhile, the old thunderboats will get their attention at Seafair, when they will again stage an exhibition race just before the final heat of the Seafair Cup Aug. 5.
BECAUSE THE MUSEUM and its exhibits are virtually hidden, the best way to tour it for now is the Web site, www.thunderboats.org. There, you will find exhaustive bios on racers, race and restoration-project details and scads of information on memorabilia.
Rick Thompson maintains the site from the living room of his north Seattle home. He does it for free, he says, because everyone should volunteer in some way. A look around his house suggests another reason. He's one of those compulsive collectors of hydro buttons and pins. He owns several thousand, some of which carpet two walls of his bedroom. His wife gets most of the other two walls, which she uses for family photographs.
He began collecting as a kid, hanging onto buttons pit crews heaved over the fence by the handfuls and by using whatever connections he could make through his relative, a longtime Seafair pirate. The Internet has helped fuel hydro collecting. A Bellevue man recently paid $3,527 for a "Ride with Stan Sayres" Slo-Mo IV button. Thompson was in the bidding for awhile, but dropped out when he factored in what his wife's reaction would be.
His collection is lovingly ordered. Showing it off one morning, he pointed out one with significance, then another, and another, clearly having a hard time choosing. "There's the Exide," he said, straightening it slightly. "I can look at that and remember the race."
Of course, it will take more than the pin passion and fans' fetishes to get a real museum. In fact, perpetuating the old thunderboats will take what it took to get the boats flying in the first place a half-century ago: broad curiosity, a sense of relevance and wealthy people who see value in them.
Bruce McCaw, a hard-core racing enthusiast, sees value. He watched the Slo-Mo V's first race as a kid in 1951 and spent many succeeding Seafairs volunteering at the log booms and hydro pits.
"People new to this area don't begin to appreciate how important those boats are to the heritage of this place," McCaw says. "The turbine engines of today are tremendous but they just don't have that wonderful, sexy sound of the old Rolls Royce and Allison engines. The museum has done a wonderful job getting some of those boats back in action because when you see and hear them back in action it puts it all back into context."
Williams says the search is on for a new building so the collection can be displayed properly. Perhaps, he said, a 20,000-square-foot SoDo-area building away from the work dust would do. He also thinks as small as installing hydro displays in parts of other museums and as big as creating a motor-sports museum with simulators that give people the rush of piloting a skimming, sliding hydro at more than 100 mph.
At the least, a new building would allow the museum to unveil another of its hidden features: the Hydroplane Hall of Fame, celebrating the heroes of the sport: Muncey, Chip Hanauer, Musson and the team that started it with the Slo-Mos. "Right now," Williams said, chuckling, "the hall of fame is sort of a state of mind rather than a physical place."