It Was Fascination, I Know

Neighborhood kid J. Mike Fitzsimmons recalls a boat and driver
on a shoestring budget in a millionaire's sport.

kolroyi_thumb.jpg (4248 bytes)THE COCKPIT WAS CRAMPED, but a somewhat pudgy Bob Gilliam managed to settle behind the wheel of his brand-new hydroplane, prepared for her maiden test on Lake Washington. The name painted on the boat was KOLroy I, but Fascination was her name in spirit. Sponsor KOL was the hot rock'n roll radio station in town.

Cramped, too, was the operation's budget. Gilliam was not a high-stakes racer. His team was self-funded, and many laughed about the junk he routinely relied upon to get through a race.

"Yeah, they call it junk, but they also come to me when they can't find parts, so I don't know what they mean by junk," Gilliam would defiantly respond.

It was 1960. Bob Gilliam was 33 years old. His U-88 was a labor of love for a number of young crew members who wanted to be a part of the sport that had captivated Seattle. They only had Gilliam's team to get them into the pits. He had a large crew. Kids who raced on their bikes to the Stan Sayres pit area to "help" Gilliam with his hydro received a moment's glory when he'd let them handle a line during launching.

Sitting a little higher than the wind screen in his gold, black, and red hydroplane, in the presence of idolizing children, Bob Gilliam was the greatest, despite his small-time budget. Beside him was crew chief Al Thoreson, his soiled white T-shirt not yet a legend. Al was bothered by the kids, but patient enough to know that this opportunity to get so close to an unlimited hydroplane was the kind of thrill that baseball-crazy kids get catching an errant pop fly during batting practice at Yankee Stadium. He could not interfere with a childhood memory-maker.

A bunch of no-name kids, who would one day be top minds on the beach at any race, scurried to launch KOLroy I. Gilliam directed this sort of on-the-job training with a patience reserved mostly for den mothers and camp counselors. Often it took longer to get simple tasks done.

The kids helped Gfiliam build the U-88. They worked after school at his cluttered boat shop off Rainier Avenue on Weller Street, next door to Napier and Scott Heating. They came, whenever their moms allowed, to sand the deck or help Bob mix one of those greatsmelling adhesives when the boat was under construction. They often didn't do much of anything useful all afternoon, but they were in heaven.

Frequently, Bob's help would climb over the trailer of the old Miss B & I or sit in the cockpit of a weathered hull, several of which were strewn about his shop and yard. It was a magical place where kids dreamed of accepting the Gold Cup and of meeting Bill Muncey.

In the confines of the metal building, Gilliam's "fascination" took shape over a period of many months. The facilities operated by Ted Jones were different. Unlimiteds were turned out there with a certain professional pacing, usually on schedule, according to predetermined expectations. Not so for Bob Gilliam.

Boats would be complete when they were completed—before, during, or after the season. It was a case of doing what you could with volunteer labor, whenever everybody could get away to help.

The kids didn't care. Whether framed, unfinished, or not yet painted, KOLroy I was already a national champion, the Gold Cup winner, holder of the world straightaway record!

"Do ya think ya can beat Muncey this year, Bob?" the kids would ask.

"Sure!" Gilliam would respond with a wry chuckle. The older, legitimate crew guys would chuckle, too. They didn't really expect to beat Muncey. They just longed only for the chance to race him.

"Can this boat break Thriftway's record, Bob?" the kids would ask.

"Naw, we don't want that record." Gilliam would tell them. "Nobody cares about the record. We want the Gold Cup. That's what counts, ya know." "Yeah, the Gold Cup!" the kids would say, their minds drifting to NeverNever Land, where anything was possible, even winning the Gold Cup with a backyard racer.

On its launch day, the KOLroy I looked resplendent. The paint was fresh, the engine clean, the hoses and wiring new. Even the old Ford truck was somehow attractive. Under the arching launch-rail at the Sayres pits, U-88 appeared like a golden princess in a canopy bed. Several hundred kids from the nearby Mt. Baker community lined the rocky breakwater in anticipation of the first roar of her huge engine. It did not come.

The thingamajig leading to the whatchamacallit was apparently disconnected. Word of the misfortune spread through the peanut gallery as kids nodded knowingly like the old justices on the Supreme Court bench.

Bob Gilliam slowly worked his way out of the tight cockpit as the crew attached the sling. In a few minutes, the boat was back on its cradle with a flurry of activity on deck. Short kids strained to get a look at what the crew was doing. (The trailer seemed incredibly tall.) The problem was quickly solved. Back to the sling. Back to the rocks. Back to the longawaited launch.

Again, Bob Gilliam waddled his backside into the seat. This time the starter motor whined. This time ringlets of smoke popped from the throats of many stacks. This tiine the familiar clunking sound of large rods and pistons in motion soon gave way to a deafening roar and black smoke, then silence. The engine's blast echoed off the shoreline as Gilliam tried the starting sequence'again.

It took three or four attempts, but KOLroy finally came to life. Gilliam turned back to give a thumbs-up signal to his crew. Two dozen approving kids signalled back. The boat pulled out onto the traditional race-course area, though there were no buoys to mark her track. Scrambling kids ran to the long, green dock on the east side of the pits to watch the boat.

It was an overcast day. The wind provided a perfect chop for testing. There were a few nasty rollers off the 48th Avenue beach, but KOLroy handled them well. Two passes in front of the pits, a sharp loop, then back to the dock. Gilliam shut off the engine. The boat drifted into the slip as the crowd of after-school fans again took to their perches to quietly admire the accomplishment. "Nice run, Bob!" they shouted. Gilliam did not seem to acknowledge them, but he heard them, and he grinned.

On other April and May afternoons, the likes of Bill Muncey himself would command the attention of these hydro kids, but this day Bob Gilliam was their unquestioned hero. They watched as the truck and boat moved along the shoreline boulevard and vanished on the hillside heading back to the shop. There was a silence reserved for the moments when kids so respect what they are seeing that it isn't necessary to speak. All the way home these kids made noises like hydroplanes.

In 1961 in a preliminary Seafair Trophy heat, Bob Gilliam pushed Fascination past Bill Muncey's Miss Century 21. (Unsponsored, Gilliam had returned to his favored name.) For a lap and a half, he held Muncey at bay with his bubble-gum and bailing-wire boat. U-88 never won a Gold Cup, but it never lacked believers.

(Reprinted with permission from the Unlimited NewsJournal, February, 1992)

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