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Hydro fever blends nostalgia with competition for die-hards

David Williams left his real-world job to live his dream. He occasionally drives hydros and works as executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent.

Seafair's hydroplane races don't hold the same place in Seattle's heart that they did in the 1950s and '60s when they were the only sport in town besides Husky football.

The city has grown up, but Seafair is still here as a reminder of the way the Emerald City used to be.

To most, it's a weekend when Seattle revels in summer fun, with the Blue Angels streaking into the sky, and traffic is usually the worse for it. But to a handful of diehards, it's a lasting way of life, an event that achieves holiday-like status, the defining point of the whole year -- year after year.

These are the people who keep the Seafair torch alive.

Lifelong dream of Seafair

For David Williams, racing hydroplanes was a lifelong dream. He was born in the late 1950s, when the sport was in its glory years, and when Seattle didn't have a lot else to offer a sports fan.

"I fell in love with it when I was 5 years old," Williams said. "The dreams that we form as kids are probably the strongest dreams we have. They're probably also the most unrealistic."

But Williams was lucky. It took a while, but his dream came true.

Williams is now the executive director for the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent, and he does some driving on the side, including competing in this year's Gold Cup in Detroit.

"I am kind of the cliché jack of all trades, master of none," said Williams.

But among the restored boats at the museum, Williams is the ultimate authority, even authoring the book "Hydroplane Racing in Seattle," released in June.

Ten years ago, Williams was on the fast track to success working in the import and export business. But the death of his father made him realize the fast track wasn't necessarily the right track, Williams said.

When he went to visit, his father was in the intensive care unit. Williams noticed every bed contained the same sad story.

"Some 60-year-old, middle-aged white guy, a wife hovering over him and the obligatory flowers from the company," he said. "The people in the rooms changed, but the scene was always the same."

Williams quit his job and started volunteering at the museum. A lot of hard work and fundraising later, he's working in a sport he loves, which he says is in Seattle to stay.

"It's very unique, it's something that is Seattle," he said. "You don't see this in Portland or San Francisco or Los Angeles."

Williams will be on hand at the Seafair festivities this weekend, keeping an eye on the museum's display of the 1968 Miss Budweiser and 1982 Atlas Van Lines, and signing copies of his book.

Seafair family tradition

The sight of the Miss Madison is familiar to most hydroplane fans. Painted green, red and white, the hydroplane looks something like a package of Oh Boy! Oberto beef jerky streaking across Lake Washington every year at Seafair.

The hydroplane is obviously painted to advertise, but to Seattle's Oberto family, sponsorship in the Seafair event is more than brand exposure; it's a tradition.

"I'm actually a second-generation hydro fan," said Larry Oberto, whose father, Art Oberto, began sponsoring hydroplanes in 1975. "I grew up in a house two blocks up from Lake Washington by the (I-90) bridge."

One of the reasons the Oberto family purchased the house was the large deck, well suited for throwing the Seafair parties they have earned a reputation for over the years.

Lately, the weekend parties have been thrown at Art Oberto's new house along the Lake Washington shoreline in Mount Baker. The house earned some notoriety when the raceboat Gale IV wound up beached in its rose garden in 1954, a commonly told story among hydroplane buffs.

It was a little later that Larry Oberto remembers the races of his childhood.

"As a kid, it was a chance to call up all your friends and go to the lake and swim and play," he said. "Then at the end of the day, you'd jump off the bridge."

The city has changed, and Seafair has changed with it, but the Obertos have maintained their annual ritual. Friends and family from around the country and world return to Lake Washington for the hydroplane races.

"It's something we do just out of sheer tradition," Larry Oberto said. "I think in a time of all the changes in Seattle ... people appreciate it. It would be missed if it were gone."

Not just a man's world

Hydroplane racing is often perceived as a male-dominated sport. But it's not an old boy's club. The 1981 departure of driver Brenda Jones might have looked like the end of women in hydroplane racing, but there still are a handful of women instrumental in running the sport from the sidelines.

One of those women is Lori Jones, who owns the U-9 Miss Car Pros with her husband, Mike Jones, a former driver.

The couple won the Gold Cup in 2001.

Jones said there's plenty of room for women in the sport if they have the right mentality.

"It isn't just a man's sport," she said. "Not at all. I mean, we have two female crew members, and they really love it."

If her husband didn't have such a history with the sport, or if she were single, Jones said would probably still try to carve out a career working in public relations or with sponsors in hydroplane racing.

"It would be a good career," she said. "I don't know if I could run a race team entirely on my own -- that would be a challenge."

The Joneses, who own an accounting business, took a break from racing after their Gold Cup win, but they returned to the water this year.

Lori Jones said it feels good to be back.

"It is kind of fun to be involved in a male-dominated sport," she said. "It's a challenge."

The Voice of Seafair

He's been the voice of Seafair for 40 years, a constant presence in a sport some said had too many fatalities and too few races to last.

Hydroplane announcer Pat O'Day, currently with KIRO, started his broadcasting reign in 1966, the same year three drivers were killed in a Washington, D.C., race. It's taken a long time, but O'Day says the sport, like himself, has made it through the good and the bad to secure a place in the hearts of sports fans.

O'Day, a disc jockey with KJR at the time, recalls he was in Dallas in the late 1960s with Jimi Hendrix when he got a call from a local station asking him to be the sole announcer for the hydro races.

"I said, 'I can't do seven hours by myself,' " he said.

Luckily, O'Day had friends in high places. Singer Wayne Newton owed him a favor -- O'Day was airing Newton's music long before other stations -- and he agreed to co-host the races.

"He did great," said O'Day. "Since then, some station has always picked me up, and that's how 40 years go by."

Since driver capsules and canopies have made the sport safer, O'Day said hydroplane racing has been slowly reclaiming a spot at the forefront of American sports.

"It's still a spine-tingling thrill, but we've eliminated fatality as the constant companion to the sport," said O'Day.

Hydroplane racing has been good to him over the years. He describes the sport as "just a lot of fun."

"I'm not alone -- there's a few thousand people who agree with me," he said.

Reprinted from the Seattle PI, August 4, 2006

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