We're racing through history!
By Danny O'Neil
Reprinted from The Seattle Times, August 8, 1999
What Ted Jones lacked in formal education, he compensated for with an unwavering belief he could build the world's fastest boat.
He showed his son, Ron, the blueprints.
"If something happens to me," he told Ron, "this can take care of the family."
Instead, the boat took care of a whole city.
Anchor Jensen built the Slo-mo-shun IV, and Stan Sayres owned it. But Jones designed it and drove it to victory on the Detroit River in 1950. Slo-mo-shun IV brought the Gold Cup back to Seattle and earned the city the right to host its first hydroplane races in 1951.
With its sister ship Slo-mo-shun V, Sayres' Slo-mo IV captured the imagination of a city. Kids built wooden hydroplane models, tethered them to bikes and dragged them down the street. Before the Seahawks and Sonics were in Seattle, the hydroplanes were the biggest show in town, an oft-repeated refrain of hydro enthusiasts.
The boats became a soap opera, a drama worth watching because of the characters involved. From Sayres' stoicism in the '50s to Bernie Little's live-wire cackle, which arrived in the '60s. From Lee Schoenith's crowd-baiting taunts to Bill Muncey's larger-than-life legacy to Chip Hanauer's quiet focus. But the bookends to the story are father and son. Ted Jones, who made boats faster, and his son Ron, who helped make them safer.
Together, they are seven reasons the city has been watching hydroplanes for five decades.
SAYRES: SUITED FOR THE JOB
No words. No embraces. Not even a handshake.
Just like everything else in his life, Sayres' welcome to the Slo-mo-shun crew was silent. Sayres left a new pair of coveralls hanging in the garage with the new crew member's name on the front and "Slo-mo-shun" scripted across the back.
At least that's how Pete Bertellotti was welcomed aboard early in 1953.
"I was elated," Bertellotti said. "The guys all slapped me on the back. You know that you're on (the crew) when you get coveralls. I had been using my Pan-Am coveralls. I left those at home."
The crew called Sayres firm but fair, a gentleman who brought hydroplane racing to Seattle when the Slo-mo-shun IV won the first of his five straight Gold Cups.
Sayres' boats won the first four hydroplane races in Seattle until the Slo-mo-shun V became the first hydroplane to flip in '55 and the Gale V reclaimed the Gold Cup for Detroit.
Bob Stubbs was a member of the Slo-mo-shun all-volunteer crew. The week before a race meant round-the-clock work on the boats at Sayres' house on Hunt's Point. The crew slept in the living room.
Sayres died of a heart attack less than a month after the Slo-mo-shun IV crashed on the Detroit River in 1956.
"He died of a broken heart," said Don Ibsen, another Slo-mo crew member.
TED JONES: BEST-LAID PLANS
Ted Jones could have used the money. His family was eating fish three times a day because it was the cheapest option.
But instead of cash, Jones said he made a promise. If the unlimited hydroplane he designed for Sayres didn't live up to his promises, Jones would pay construction costs.
"And I had 50 dollars," Jones said, "but it was burning a hole in my pocket."
Time hasn't taken his comedic timing. Even at 89, Jones' wit remains as sharp as his opinions.
The boat set a water speed record and won the Gold Cup in '50, but Jones and Sayres had a falling out in '51. Jones remains bitter to this day, and he also feuded with Anchor Jensen over who designed the boat.
After the split with Sayres and Jensen, Jones designed five national-champion boats: Miss Thriftway, Hawaii Kai III, Maverick, Shanty I and Miss Bardahl. Jones-designed boats won every national points championship from 1956 to '65.
"Boat racing is the only thing I got between my ears," Jones said.
Former mayor Norm Rice proclaimed Aug. 6, 1990, as Ted Jones Day in Seattle. The pronouncement plaque is displayed in Jones' humble Des Moines home, obscured because it hangs across from the three-foot-wide portrait of Jones driving the Miss Thriftway, his teeth gritted as he peers over the side of the engine.
SCHOENITH: THE MAN IN BLACK
He called Seattle residents yokels. He mocked the Seafair race course and said the city's boats wouldn't stand a chance if they raced east of the Mississippi.
Villains enable heroes to define themselves, and Lee Schoenith provided Seattle with a perfect foil in the 1950s.
Schoenith was from Detroit, his hard-firing personality a perfect fit for a city built around the horsepower of the auto industry. He was first a driver and later an owner of the Gale boats.
He sprinkled fiery quotes in the city's newspapers before he arrived in Seattle.
"He was a man Seattle learned to hate because of his very boisterous ways," Ron Jones said.
Ron's dad, Ted, remains convinced Schoenith fixed the point totals in 1955, the year Gale V reclaimed the Gold Cup in Seattle.
But he wasn't as mean-spirited as he let on in person. Bertellotti remembers Schoenith, who died in 1993, lending out garage space and helping recover the Slo-mo-shun IV when it crashed on the Detroit River in 1956.
"He was a kind man," Bertellotti said. "But when it came to the boat, he wanted to win. Like everybody else."
MUNCEY: RIGHT ON KEY
Part showman, part musician and pure racer, Bill Muncey was a relic from another era of racing.
Bill Muncey began racing boats because his parents worried about the company he was keeping as an up-and-coming saxophonist in the '40s. He sank the first two unlimited boats he raced before moving to Seattle in 1955 to drive the Miss Thriftway.
After moving to Southern California in 1970, Muncey returned every year for the races and his unique brand of fishing out the window of his hotel room. He tied fishing line to the phone cord so he could check back during the day.
"You would call your room from the races, and if you had a busy signal that meant you had a fish," said Fran Muncey, Bill's widow.
Dave Villwock remembers Muncey towing his limited hydroplane to Lake Sammamish and entering an event without warning.
"Just like a regular guy who shows up with a race boat," Villwock said.
Muncey was no ordinary driver. He won 62 races in his career, which included a record nine in Seattle. He died in October 1981 when he crashed while leading a race in Mexico.
LITTLE: LEARNING THE TRADE
Some say it was a Cadillac. Others claim it was a small airplane.
Bernie Little insists it was a 36-foot cruising boat that jump-started his racing career. Little traded the boat for a four-seat hydroplane named Tempo in 1963.
"My wife thought I had lost it," Little said. "She wanted to know what the hell I was going to do with it, and I told her we might just go racing."
That's just what he did in Seattle that year. The next season he began his association with Budweiser, which is now the longest continuously running association in motorsports.
In 35 seasons, the Miss Budweiser team has won 18 national points championships with six drivers. In the past two decades, the Miss Bud has won nine of the 20 Seafair races. Little remains the same free-wheeling trader who entered the sport 36 years ago.
"The only thing Bernie likes as much as winning races is making deals," said Chip Hanauer, Little's driver in the Miss Bud from 1992-96.
HANAUER: WATERED-DOWN COMPETITION
"I've wanted to be a race driver ever since I can remember," Hanauer said.
But his racing dreams involved asphalt, not water. Formula One driver Jimmy Clark was Hanauer's hero when he was attending Newport High in Bellevue. He watched his first Seafair hydroplane races at Sand Point in 1974. Two years later, he saw his second Seafair race, this time from the cockpit.
Boats were the only ride available to Hanauer, who started racing them at age 10. His first boat was a J-class that cost $250, which Hanauer bought with money earned from delivering papers.
Now 45 and in his 20th season of racing, Hanauer has come back to hydroplanes twice. He has won three races this season, and his next win will be No. 62 of his career, which will tie him with Muncey for the most all-time.
Hanauer won his first Seafair race in '82 and has won six since. No other active driver has more than two Seafair wins.
RON JONES: SAFE AT HOME
More than 30 years have passed since Ron Musson died on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., but time has not eased the pain in Ron Jones' voice.
"Ron Musson died in my boat," Jones said.
Jones lost 50 pounds in the three months after the accident, the first of four driver fatalities in 10 days. The accidents changed public perception of the sport. The Seattle Times ran a headline that said, "It will never be the same."
The racing community didn't help Jones overcome his grief. No one talked to him when he walked into the pits at Seafair in '66, less than two months after Musson's accident.
His dad, Ted, was a firecracker who cracked jokes and forgot dates. Ron speaks slowly and chronicles events meticulously. His deep voice becomes more somber when Musson's name is mentioned, his words even more deliberate.
Ron Jones has built 25 unlimited hydroplanes, and his engine-behind-the-driver design helped the boat corner better. But he considers the use of the F-16 canopy his crowning innovation.
The Miss Bud and Miss 7-Eleven both used the canopy in 1986, and proof of the new design's strength came during offseason testing when Steve Reynolds flipped the Miss 7-Eleven during testing in the Tri-Cities.
Reynolds was unhurt in the violent crash. He didn't even know he had flipped.
"If I haven't done anything else, getting canopies on boats that would allow drivers to survive has been something of a great accomplishment," Jones said.