Although my pursuit of speed and success in motorsports was always on either two or four wheels, over the years I always tried to follow the sport of unlimited hydroplane racing. I remember carefully watching the hydroplane races on television in the 70’s & 80’s whenever we were lucky enough to get the coverage on ABC’s Wide World of Sports or TNN. Names such as Chenoweth, Kropfeld, D’Eath, and of course the larger than life Bernie Little and his Budweiser Hydroplanes to name a few.
I remember standing on the bridge over the Columbia River in 1977 to watch the Gold Cup / Columbia Cup Race in Tri-Cities, Washington. I think Atlas Van Lines won that year.
I remember when the turbine powered hydroplanes were first introduced to the sport, how unreliable they where in the beginning and when they raced with the older piston powered boats at first… and thinking that the introduction of the turbine powered hydroplanes was like the end of the world!
I remember when a new guy named Chip Hanauer began racing unlimited hydroplanes and starting winning races.
But never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would have the opportunity to actually ride in a vintage piston engine Unlimited Hydroplane…
Earlier this year when we were at the Lake Coeur d’Alene Regional ACBS Boat Show we were watching the boats from the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum making their exhibition runs on the lake. I commented to Ike Kielgass and Robert Dapron how cool it would be to some day go for a ride in a Vintage Unlimited Hydroplane. I also thought it would make for a great story on Woody Boater.
Well, much to my surprise, a few weeks later I received an e-mail from Ike Kilgass to say that they were working with David Williams, the President of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum and there was a possibility that I may be able to go for a ride in an Unlimited Hydroplane during the Mahogany & Merlot event in early October. As I was planning cover the event for Woody Boater anyway, we just kept our fingers crossed that it might happen.
On Saturday morning I checked in with the folks from the museum, my name was on the list and I completed the necessary paperwork, and after lunch they called my name. I suited up with all the safety gear, floatation device, helmet, ear plugs and climbed aboard OH BOY! OBERTO with driver Glenn Raymond.
Glenn (shown below) works as a volunteer Crew Chief on a few of the museum’s hydroplanes and is a mechanical technician by trade. I can say that it was an absolute pleasure to ride with Glenn, and afterwords he patiently answered all my questions and explained many aspects of the boat to me.
Once we got settled in to the small cockpit, Glenn fired up the big 2,000 HP Allison V-1710 12 Cylinder engine and we headed out on course. You quickly realize that these big 6,000 lb boats are a handful to drive, with lots of steering input entering the corners. The next sensation is when the boat skids in the turn… The best way to describe it is – Imagine going through a tight corner in your car at 100 MPH and all of a sudden, without any notice, it changes from the inside to the outside lane… in less than a second. That’s what it felt like, and it certainly gets your attention. But the second time it happened, in the next turn, it wasn’t quite as much of a surprise for me, just the dynamics of the hydroplane at speed. After we returned to the dock, I asked Glenn about skidding the boat, and he said that you just find a balance and usually apply throttle to prevent it from skidding… when it bites again that’s when it gets a bit violent in the cockpit.
It was fun when Glenn ran the engine up to 3,000 RPM down the straights and we were able to experience the straight line speed. Because you are out on the water, at first you don’t appreciate how fast the boat is going, because there isn’t a lot in your peripheral vision for reference. However when the boat enters the turn and you feel the g-force on your upper body, the sensation of speed quickly gets your attention. It also reminds you that your not wearing a seat belt…
At speed, all your senses are alive and well… You smell the exhaust from the engine, the loud roar coming from the supercharged engine is right in front of you, you can smell the scent of aviation fuel and your head buffets from the wind. A few times, when we entered the turn, I noticed a drop of oil hit the exhaust manifold and a puff of smoke comes straight back into your face shield. That’s how close you are to the engine.
But, a number of times during the run, I couldn’t help thinking about what it must have been like for the fearless driver’s back in the day, traveling at speeds reaching 160 – 180 MPH in a racing environment, with boats on each side, all racing into the corner together. What happened when you were racing in close quarters and the boat decided to skid in the turn? Yikes!
Although I have no experience with the handling characteristics of a Vintage Unlimited Hydroplane, I did get the sense that if you got into trouble at race speed that bad things could happen very quickly. I can now say that I have a whole new appreciation for how fearless those drivers were back in the day, racing at those high speeds on the water. No fancy electronics or enclosed capsules like the modern Unlimited Hydroplanes of today.
A special thanks to Ike Kielgass and Robert DaPron for their help to make this a reality, and also to David Williams and the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum for the opportunity to ride in one of their Vintage Unlimited Hydroplanes, and for inviting Woody Boater to join the fun at the 2nd Annual Mahogany & Merlot event.
To go directly to their website you can click here. Check out this awesome site and also the benefits of being a member of this wonderful organization, preserving history for future generations.
Also thanks to Jon Courtright for your hospitality, it was a privilege to be involved again this year, and spend some time with the nice folks from the Pacific Northwest ACBS Chapter. This is an amazing event, in the amazing community of Lake Chelan, Washington – and we hope it continues to grow in the future.
We would also like to thank Lori Ann Norton – Team Photographer for 1955 U-60 Miss Thriftway for sending a few of her very nice images to us here at Woody Boater for our story, we appreciate your help. Miss Thriftway also has a website so you can checkout that Vintage Unlimited Hydroplane, at Missthriftway.com
Woody Boater will be back next year!