The running of the Gold cup hydroplane race on Lake Washington today is a tribute to the effectiveness of television and radio. What used to be considered a rich man's sport now attract 500,000 spectators, carrying some 90,000 portable radio receivers to the lakeside, plus an estimated total of 850,000 television viewers throughout the Pacific Northwest.
During the five-hour running of the six heats, the number of TV sets in use in the Seattle area jumps from a summer Sunday average of 9.6 per cent to an unequaled total of 73.5 per cent, almost all of them tuned to KING-TV or KOMO-TV.
It all began in 1950 when a Seattle man, Stanley S. Sayres, decided to challenge the small group of wealthy men who had been racing speedboats on the Detroit River in Michigan for nearly fifty years. His Slo-mo-shun IV won the Gold Cup race, and resident of Seattle went wild with pride. The next year (because the owner of the winning boat picks the course over which the next race is run), the Gold Cup came to Lake Washington, at the edge of Seattle. KING-TV, then the only television station in the Northwest, decided to cover the race. Neither Bill O'Mara, the announcer, nor Lee Schulman, the producer had ever seen a hydroplane race. Their coverage of the first heats was so exciting, however, that more than 100,000 persons left their TV sets that afternoon to watch the final hour of the race at the water's edge.
The coverage today involves what might be the most complex sports remote by any local television station in the Unites States. (It will also be covered by more local radio stations than any other sports event.)
Whereas KING-TV covered the 1951 Gold Cup with two cameras and nine men, all at the start-and-finish line, this year it will have eight cameras, forty persons and a variety of complex equipment at all major vantage points around the course. KOMO-TV will use a comparable crew. Between them, the stations spend $20,000 for staff time, special equipment and commercial programs whose time is pre-empted for the race.
The hydroplane excitement begins in May with the live remote coverage of the Apple Cup race on Lake Chelan, some 150 miles from Seattle. It rises in intensity during the spring and early summer, as local stations regularly report preparations for the Gold cup. In the week preceding the big race, both KING-TV and KOMO-TV, as well as several radio stations, keep broadcasting crews at the lake every day to break in with live coverage of time trials and any other event of interest. Not only the race itself but also any other hydroplane news development may interrupt or replace whatever program is on the air, whether local or network.
KOMO-TV has covered the Gold Cup since 1954, its first summer on the air, and the competition between the two stations has been called "as intense as the competition between the boats themselves." KING-TV services its affiliated stations in Spokane and in Portland, Ore., and has fed the American Broadcasting Company network. KOMO-TV provides live coverage for five stations in Washington and Idaho, and rushes kinescope films to two Alaskan stations.
Radio station KOMO several times has provided live news coverage for the National Broadcasting Company "Monitor" program, and two years ago a demonstration race was specially run on Lake Washington so the KOMO-TV could cover it for the NBC-TV "Wide Wide World" show. It was announced by Keith Jackson, KOMO-TV sports editor, who broadcast the first hydroplane race he ever saw, in1955, and who now calls it "the most exciting sport born in the twentieth century."
As a result of the intense regional interest--which television itself has created--the stations have introduced numerous technical advances, some of which have later proved valuable for news and other TV programming. These include huge lenses with great versatility, a miniature cameras, parabolic microphones and complex score-computing machines. The races have been covered from hilltops, blimps, barges, cranes and water-borne trucks.
Why all this frenzy over a sport in which the average spectator can feel no sense of personal participation? The broadcaster and other thoughtful observers have pointed to several possible reason: local pride in the fact that a man from Seattle conquered the titans of Detroit and brought the Gold Cup back with him; the pictorial beauty of hydroplane racing, coupled with the natural affinity of the people of Seattle for anything associated with the water; and undeniably, the element of danger in a fast and highly competitive sport. (Two men were killed when a boat blew up in 1951. This was the only fatal accident in the history of the race.)
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that hydroplane racing is "the sport that television made." A spokesman for Greater Seattle, Inc., the sponsor of the annual Seafair festival, which culminates in the Gold Cup race, recently observed that television almost single-handedly created the interest in Northwest for this sport, which a few years ago was almost unknown. An official of the American Power Boat Association commented, "We feel very definitely that the present-day spectator interest is a result of TV's help in promoting the race in those first years. At the beginning, we decided not to follow the pattern of other sports, where the television stations are charged for the right to cover major events. This has proved to be a wise decision indeed."
(Reprinted from the New York Times, August 5, 1959)
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© Leslie Field, 1999