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The Master Speaks - An Interview with Ron Jones Sr.

By Anne McRayde. Reprinted from Skid Fin Magazine, 2003, Vol 1, No. 1

How did you first begin building boats?

You could say I was born with it. My father was Ted Jones, who invented the three-point hydroplane, as we know it today. As a little boy, I was able to go with Dad, and my three sisters, and Mom to the lake and watch Dad test. When he was out testing my three sisters, who are marvelous people, screamed and hollered. I stood there very stoically and quietly. At the end of the dad my Mother would tell my Father, “I don’t think Ron’s interested in those boats, you know the girls just scream, but Ron just stands there.” Well I was just dying inside to be a part of it, but didn’t know how to say it. My Dad was insistent that I not do this that he locked the basement door where he kept his hydroplanes and wouldn’t let me in there. Of course I figured out a way to get in on my own. When he was at work I would go in and study what was going on. I was born with it and made it a part of my life ever since. This is my 53rd year; I’ve been building hydroplanes a long time.

Did your father encourage you once he saw how interested you were?

Actually no. He did his best to stop me from getting involved. My Dad had a lot of heart-breaking experiences in the business realm of hydroplane racing. He warned me that if I did this there would be a lot of heartbreak and little pay. He believed that when all was said and done I would look back and say, “Why did I do that?” Well, mostly he was right, but I am very thankful that I did it. I have lots and lots of wonderful friends and family as a result of hydroplane racing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

You mentioned that your father discouraged you from building hydroplanes. Your son, Ron Jones, Jr., is a boat builder as well. Did you encourage your son or take the same approach as your father?

I did what I hoped was right. I encouraged him in the sense that when he was very young, we made sure that he and his two sisters went with us to the races. I noticed at the races a lot of times Ron, Jr., was over on the swings or on the slide. I wasn’t sure about his interest, just as my Mom wasn’t sure about mine because I didn’t yell and scream. But, Ron Jr., did have an interest, which he developed throughout his high school years. When he was in high school he worked in my shop a few hours. He developed into a marvelous boat builder. Today he has his own facility where he builds things out of composite. He builds airplane parts and hydroplanes. To be very honest, business-wise he’s far more successful than I. He’s constructed a wonderful business that’s very profitable and growing. Not only does he build great hydroplanes, but he has a contract to build doors for airplane cockpits. I admire him greatly; he has wonderful abilities and he is a very, very bright young man. Can you explain the process you take when building a boat?

I usually start with a piece of blank white paper. I draw one line and that’s the baseline. From there I construct the hydroplane in my head as I am drawing. As I begin to draw the boat all the things I’ve done in the past go through my mind. I remember the things that did and didn’t work. I try to think of new things that will be better. Eventually I have a drawing on a piece of paper. I let the paper sit for three or four days. I come back, look at it and say, “Oh no, that can’t be right.” It takes quite a while just to draw it. Then the actual construction begins. We build hydroplanes today of composite material, which is very much like aerospace material. Due to that, we have a lot of molds and tooling already prepared. Even so, with two good men working hard, it takes about six months to prepare an Unlimited Light from start to finish and get it ready to go into the water.

If you recall the days of the Slo-mo-shun and the old boats powered by airplane engines, we think of those as the “glory days.” The Unlimited Lights, that are built today, run with much smaller engines. As a result, the Unlimited Light is a very complex, fast, difficult piece of equipment. It’s easy to build a hydroplane; lots of people do it. The secret is to keep the propeller hooked up to the water and the boat stable on the water so bad things won’t happen and ruin your afternoon.

What inspiration do you have as you begin to design a boat?

When I sit down with that white piece of paper, before I draw the baseline, I pray. Because I know the extent of what’s going to happen, so I ask the Lord to help me put down the right lines and not the wrong ones. I would say that it’s the grace of God, if there is any success, it would be because of him. Now people obviously say, if every boat builder asked him for help, how can one boat win and not the other? I didn’t say that I ask him to win, I don’t. I ask him to let me do my best and to have the safest boat that I can possibly produce. I’m thankful for that because he has been faithful to help me.

Is each component specialized for every hydroplane you build?

Yes that is the secret for not making money. Don’t ever build the same boat twice, build everything differently. I have been criticized for that a good deal. But you see for me, after I build a boat, I am very proud of it. For example, after building Barbara Michael’s 5-Liter boat, I went to the races and watched it. I was very excited about it. In my mind I was thinking of all the things I would do to make the next boat better.

Every boat is a custom boat in the most intense sense of the word. Rudder shapes, propellers, shafts, skid fins, all the components of a boat are each unique. Eventually, the parts become unique to that boat. You don’t call up the hydroplane store and order parts. There is no hydroplane store, you’re it. Therefore you get to design all the pieces and build them one at a time. Because you had something fail ten years ago, this sticks in your mind and you never want to do it again, so you make this part a little better than you have ever made it before. Automatically you become a metallurgist because you have to learn what this metal will or won’t do. Then you have to learn about heat treatment of metal. You learn about paint, sub-painting, sanding, and wood.

In the old days we learned all about wood and what it could and could not do. Then once I decided that hydroplanes should be made out of composites we had to learn a whole new discipline. That was a whole new world to learn. We love composite because in the old days with the wood boats, if it crashed it was usually finished for the season. With the composite boat, they turn it upside down and sometimes race in the next heat. The structure is wonderful so you learn composite. You learn how to make the boat comfortable and user-friendly for the driver.

All the parts of a boat then, work together as one.

That is absolutely right. It takes a lot of pieces, a lot of thought. I love the sport, but I get the biggest kick out of designing a boat with this blank piece of paper and seeing it come to life. The boat becomes this living entity. Then I get to go see it run and I tell myself, “ I am going to make the next one better.” That’s what keeps me going.

You mentioned boats moved from being built with wood to composite materials. What do you see as the future material for boats?

Right now everybody is familiar with Tupperware, which is a wonderfully modern plastic, but you surely could not build a boat out of it; it wouldn’t take the abuse. However, there are people in the plastics industry working on a material like Tupperware. They take a big sheet of flat plastic, already made, put it on a form and place it in an oven in a vacuum. As the heat rises the sheet of plastic takes the shape it was around. You pull it and the end result is the final shape. That sounds far-fetched, but it is being worked on right now. That would be marvelous because you could mold a boat in a few hours, instead of a few weeks. Maybe in two or three days you would have a bare hull. That is a goal, which will hopefully be achieved.

There are many other wonderful products available to improve even on our composite structure, but composites generally take a long time to put together. Let’s say that Unlimited Light racing became so popular that 20 people came to me and all wanted a boat for next season. Short of a miracle, that won’t happen. But in the method I previously described, it’s possible that production could be set up to do something that well.

From the time you built your first hull to now, technology has dramatically advanced. Was it more fun back in the old days when you were building boats in your garage out of wood?

Not really, I have just as much fun today, 53 years later, as I did in my Dad’s basement at home. I built my first hydroplane based on some little drawings and a few numbers my Dad sketched on the back of an old envelope. I was 16 years old when I looked at that envelope; I didn’t have a clue what was going on. My Dad left then to go to Detroit and race the Slo-mo-shun. He was gone for a number of months. In that basement I built a little 48 c.i. hydroplane or what we call today a 1.5-Litre. I built that little boat all by myself out of wood. I was nearly done when a local fellow racing in that class heard about it and came to see it. The fellow looked and the boat and said, “I’d like to buy that.” I replied that I was building the boat for myself and was naming it Pop’s Chip, for chip off the old block. He said he would give me $300 for it. As a 16-year-old in 1948 this sounded like a really good idea.

I had a lot of fun with that boat, but it launched me into building other boats for people. I am 69 years old and having a ball building Barbara Michael’s Unlimited Light hull. I started with a piece of white paper. I put a baseline on it and all the lines are new, not like ones I’ve built before. It’s not radically different and most people won’t notice a difference, but I notice. There is a lot of difference. It’s a lot of fun and I can’t wait to get the boat in the water and have Barbara drive it.

How did you keep up with the rapidly changing technology?

I learned to build the first few boats by observing through a peephole in the basement while my Dad was working. While I wasn’t able to look firsthand, he did, like I said, drew a little boat on the back of an envelope. He did that a number of times.

I built the 1958 Miss Bardahl Unlimited hydroplane, my first Unlimited, under those exact circumstances. My Dad had a contract with Mercury Marine; he was a close friend of the owner. My Dad got a big contract to go back east for a number of months. He was just getting ready to go to the airport, I was driving him, when the phone rang. It was Ole Bardahl and he said, “Mr. Jones, I’d like you to build me a boat.” My father replied that he was just leaving to go back east on a big contract. Ole persisted; he wanted an Unlimited hydroplane. My Dad said he would fix him up. Meanwhile, I was standing outside waiting and becoming worried because we were late. On the way to the airport I drove and on an envelope he pulled from his pocket, my Dad drew some lines and numbers that became the Miss Bardahl.

You either learn or you aren’t going to make it. I learned technology by doing. My education is limited; I’m a high-school graduate. For a time, I attended Seattle Pacific University during the day, and because I had a family I also worked nights at Boeing. On my way to school after working all night at Boeing I woke up driving down Rainier Avenue. I was driving down the avenue and cars were honking and swerving on both sides of me. I realized this was not the way to live. I chose boats rather than education.

While I’m not formally educated I made it a goal of mine to study aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. I am layman when it comes to those topics. I understand pretty well what goes on in the water and the air. That turns out to be the most difficult technological discipline on the face of this planet.

For instance, the Russians when it was the Soviet Union, spent billions of dollars and years of testing technology and wind tunneling trying to build a boat that would fly and thus reduce the cost of transportation. After the Cold War was over they invited Americans of a similar discipline to come and see what they had done. Seven Americans went over and got a ride in this boat. It was a 325 mph part boat and part airplane. The pilot of this boat/airplane seated the American and Russian passengers and away they went. Once they hit 250 mph, the pilot took his hands off the wheel, turned around and said, “What do you think boys?” As he had turned around, the boat suddenly ran over a big wave and it pitched them up into the air. The pilot panicked, turned around and shoved the yoke forward as you would with an airplane. The boat/airplane nosed in at 250 mph. Fortunately, only one person died and several others had injuries. I say fortunately because it could have been much worse. The Russians lost this multi-million dollar craft. Why did I tell this story?

Because the discipline of building a boat that’s really an airplane and having it maintain both hydrodynamic and aerodynamic contact in one phase, is the most difficult thing to learn. We have a long way to go, but we’ve learned a lot. I suspect the next leap forward in technology will be a hydroplane that goes very fast, does all the things we want it to do and cannot blow over. One of my goals before I die is to make that happen.

When you build a boat for somebody, how closely do you work with the customer?

We try to make that a valid part of every boat. First of all, in boat racing my customer’s end up being my friends. Immediately, I am concerned about them. I become concerned about the owner if they should not happen to be the driver, because obviously he is invested a great deal of money. He chose me because he thinks I can do what it is that he wants done. If he has a driver or even if he is the driver, I become doubly concerned about their safety.

In the case of Gary and Barbara Michael, they have placed their confidence in me, which I appreciate more than anyone would ever know, but I want to reciprocate. I want to a part of that boat. As I said, I want that boat to become a living entity. I want to be a part of that entity all the time. Occasionally, I do get a customer who will buy a boat and then disappear and not consult with me. Usually what ends up happening is that they are not successful and sell the boat. The new owner calls me and says, “What should I do?” They become successful, set world records or whatever. Consequently, we like to be part of the boat all the time.

You were a major force behind developing safety concepts in hydroplane racing. Can you explain some of the concepts you developed?

The sport, unfortunately, has had a dangerous and difficult path. Many people lost their lives in hydroplanes. I did not want to attend any more funerals; it was too tragic. There was one day when three drivers died in Unlimited hydroplane racing. I made up my mind that somehow there has to be a better way. At the moment, I didn’t know what that was, but I kept looking into things that could work better.

It was safety that drove me my whole life to change things the way I do. I have been pushing the canopy idea since the mid-or-late ‘60s. It was hard for that to be accepted. People thought they would be like a marble in a glass jar, and when the boat crashed they would be rattled around and pulverized. They didn’t want any part of it. They assumed that they would drown in a canopy. I received all kinds of resistance, but I become so concerned for the people, that we developed things we think are better and safer, and make the sport better for everyone.

I have tried to make the boats safer, aerodynamically, which is a big problem. These boats like to be airplanes and fly away at unspoken moments. We have made safety features to prevent that from happening. But I think the biggest thing we have done is develop an environment in which the driver can survive a vicious crash. We chose to call it the enclosed safety canopy. It looks very much like a fighter plane canopy, which is where I got the idea. I bought a book on all the world’s fighter planes and I looked at every one carefully to see which one had something that we could utilize in the race boats. At that time I was doing this for Unlimited hydroplanes. I saw the F-16 fighter plane; the Air Force calls it the “Flying Falcon.”

The F-16’s canopy was a marvelous shape for us because it had a one-piece all plastic canopy with no structure. I knew that was what we had to have. I used that idea as my basis for developing the Unlimited canopy. Originally, I put F-16 canopies directly onto Unlimiteds. I made a structure that would hold it on the boat.

It was a while before we learned how it worked. We learned accidentally in a boat called the 7-Eleven. Steve Reynolds, a local driver, was testing in Pasco. He made a hard turn as he was supposed to do. The skid fin, which is a big piece of steel that hangs down on the left side of the boat preventing slides in the turns, broke off. The boat did an inside roll. It went clean over and lit right side up. The crew had radio contact with Steve and once it settled down he said to them, “Hey fellas I think I just spun out, I saw a lot of water.” He didn’t even realize what had happened. Meanwhile, the crew told him to sit there and they came right over.

That event started it, it set the program in motion. Everybody realized that the canopy was a good concept and we had better do it. I’ve graduated from putting a one-piece F-16 canopy to building an all-composite structure. I don’t put F-16 canopies directly on boats anymore because they are subject to deterioration by ultraviolet rays. We build a composite canopy with a minimum number of windows in it and they have been very successful. The windows are made like the F-16 itself, but these windows, the windshield and two side windows, are just large enough to see out of.

For once in my life, after building canopies I can attend a race and semi-relax instead of standing there with my fists clenched wondering if someone is going to be hurt. It’s a good feeling to know that the canopies have saved a number of lives.

Throughout your career, approximately how many boats have you built?

I don’t have an exact number, but it is over 500. Maybe 65 to 70 percent of those were built in the “old days” when we used wood. I love working with wood. It is a marvelous material and it has wonderful qualities. However, wood won’t take the constant abuse that hydroplanes give it. If you crash one it’s usually kindling. These days, by graduating to composite material, the boats last indefinitely. We really don’t know how long they will last, some of them have been around for 15 years and are still running. They can take crashes and be re-built very quickly. The most important aspect is that the structure is safe. Drivers can live through horrible crashes. The composite material is very wonderful for what we do.

So even though we have built many boats, we haven’t built that many composite boats yet. In 1974 I realized composite was the way we must go. It was 1984 before I could convince anyone and even then people called it the “Tupperware boat.” But the Tupperware boats are now the boats of today’s standards.

Out of the 500 boats or so you have built, do you have one in particular that is your favorite?

I knew you would ask that! You know, every year I have a favorite boat and then next year I have a new favorite boat. I will say this, there was a time when the Unlimited hydroplane, Miss US, stood out in my mind as on of my all-time favorites. For many years, it remained a favorite.

Then I built a boat called the Miss Madison. It was a piston-engine boat when the turbines became popular. In its first race it beat the turbines and the Miss Madison became a real favorite. My little girl, who is 21 months old, is named Madison; perhaps there is some connection there.

When I built the Wildflower Unlimited Light, I thought I had achieved everything; then we built one that was better. They are all my favorites. All the people are lovely people and my friends. I admire the owners and sponsors for putting up the money, but most of all I admire all the drivers. I wish I could do what they do, but I am happy and content to do the part I do.

I do have many favorites. Unfortunately, I can’t really stop at one, there are so many.

How many world records have the boats you’ve built held?

Well, I haven’t kept score. My father died just two years ago in January. At his memorial service the Hydroplane Museum presented part of the program. In a beautiful video they presented, they said between Ted Jones and his son they hold over 3,000 world records. I know my Dad was somewhere in the 700 to 800 figure, which means mine is between 2,200 to 3,000.

I am probably the only boat builder that I know who builds such a variety boats. For example, I have built inboard and outboard drag boats. I built the first outboard drag boat to ever go over 100 mph in a quarter-mile. I built the first successful tunnel boat in the world and the first ocean-racing tunnel hull. Besides Unlimiteds, Unlimited Lights and hydroplanes like the 5-Litre, I built boats in many other classes. Consequently, this allowed me the opportunity to hold many world records.

Can you talk about a special moment that stands out in your mind?

I would have to say that the day the Miss Madison Unlimited boat ran for the first time was a memorable moment. The reason is the Miss Madison team is poorly funded. The citizens of Madison, Ind., love their hydroplane, but they have to scrape to keep the boat together. Well, they came to me to buy a new boat and I knew that was a tough nut to crack. I was very enthusiastic about doing a good job for them, but the lighter turbine boats were already successful and the Miss Madison was stuck with an old airplane engine, which weighed 2,500 pounds (a turbine engine weighs just 600 pounds), so right away we had a big disadvantage.

When I sat down with a white piece of paper and drew the baseline all these thoughts passed through my mind. This little town, the owner was a businessman himself, but I knew it was costing him dearly to build this, and the team couldn’t really afford to pay a driver. So while I was building the boat I had all these thoughts in my mind. I’ll tell you we worked hard to make that boat come out as light as it could possibly be, because that was the only chance we had. Of course, I had a deal with them. They agreed not to race the boat until we tested it, because no matter how much experience you’ve had building boats you wonder if it’s even going to float. Well guess what? They didn’t follow through on their end of the bargain. The first time it was ever shown to the public was at the Pasco Race Event. I was a wreck. I shook for three days waiting for race day wondering what this boat was going to do. I didn’t even know if it would get up into a plane. Well the Miss Madison not only got up into a plane on its first heat, it beat the turbines and this old man broke down into lots of tears. So I’d have to say that was a real memorable moment, which I’ll remember for a long time.

Did you ever want to drive?

I used to drive almost every boat I built. I wonder how in the world, except for the grace of God, I am even here today. I would build a boat, put the engine in it, and take it to Lake Washington alone to ran and test it. Then I would call the customer and tell him his boat was ready to go. Today you wouldn’t dare test a hydroplane without a bunch a support crew including a rescue team and boat.

I used to do that all the time however and thought nothing of it, but I’ll be honest and say I discovered very soon that driving wasn’t my bag. I watched other people drive and they were much better than I was. I wrestled with myself for quite a while before I decided I didn’t want to be a driver. I wanted to build the boat and learn from the driver. I used to drive the boats on purpose so I could feel with the seat of my pants what was going on. I’ll have to say, without the seat of your pants; it’s pretty hard to know what’s going on. Now I can watch a boat and observe it and see what’s happening. The seat of the pants had much to do with my success, if there is any, and what I am doing today.

Do you have more aspirations to build and develop?

I have thought about hydroplanes so much that they consume a majority of my thinking time. The concept of blowing over wears so heavily on me it’s hard to explain. I want to build a boat that’s even faster, yet safer and no matter what the driver does, the boat won’t blow over. Now that’s asking a lot, but if you were to have asked me when I built Pop’s Chip would I see what I do today, I would have said no way. But we’ve gotten here, so I believe it’s going happen.

What are your hopes for the future of hydroplane racing?

Honestly, hydroplane racing in general, is on a decline. There are a number of reasons for that. In the ’50s when my Dad was popular and hydroplanes were “the thing” in Seattle, there were no Sonics, nor Mariners, or Seahawks. There were very few, if any, professional sports to attend. As a result, hydroplane racing became a very big, important event. They were big worldwide.

Now we have a lot of competition for entertainment dollars. We have people who say the boats are too noisy. We have all kinds of problems with hydroplanes.

My hope for the future is that the public will see what I see. They will be excited, as I am excited. They will realize, yes this is a sport. It has been said

by some vindictive sports writers in newspapers, “Oh hydroplane racing isn’t a sport, it’s just a big promotion event.” When you put a driver in the boat, place the seatbelt around them, close the canopy lid, and push them away; they are all alone. If the fans could learn how much of a sport this really is and how much depends on the driver’s ability that would help. If we as a sport begin to promote our drivers as entities and let the public know who they are, I think we will improve.

The Unlimited Light class to me is the most exciting things I have seen and this is my 53rd year. The Unlimited Light class shows me that it can be done. The people behind it are doing the right thing. The people involved as participants are so excited they can’t wait to get to the races. That excitement is going to pay-off. The little light boats have small Chevrolet engines, but they are going 150 mph; that’s exciting! I believe the future is in Unlimited Light hydroplane racing.

What type of legacy, do you think, you will have on hydroplane racing?

That is difficult for me to answer, but I hope that people will remember me as someone that was not only serious about his work, but sincere, and when I talked about safety, I mean I am really concerned about safety. When I talk about advancing hull design, it’s usually with the driver in mind, to make the boat easier and safer to handle. Obviously boats have to go through all types of difficulties. I want to be remembered as one who planned each one of those difficulties, tried to plan the boat around them, and make the boat get through things that other boats couldn’t. That makes the boat more successful. I would like to be remembered as one who built quality boats, that were meant to last, meant to be safe, handle well and meant to do the job they were called upon to do.

How do you feel when you hear people call you a master builder?

Obviously, it’s a wonderful thing to hear, but being the person that I am, I immediately think of all the other boat builders who are very good. There are some fellows who are just excellent. My son is a boat builder and he is really, really good at it. There are many other folks around that build boats and do it well. So when you say, “He’s the master,” maybe, but I have trouble with that. I can’t even answer your question.

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