When hydros were kings of our world
by Bill Kossen, Seattle Times Assistant Metro Editor


Editor's note: Bill Kossen is a hydro nut. The 43-year-old Seattle native has a shoebox full of old hydroplane pins that he drags out every year at this time in a pathetic display of nostalgia. He even bought a home in Southeast Seattle, in part so he could be near the racecourse.

``I dedicate this article to all the hydro drivers who have brought glory to the city,'' he said. ``And I'm also looking for a Miss Thriftway pin. Got one?''

The Seafair pirates landed at Alki Beach the other day. But you might have missed it. We didn't cover it.

Figures. That's not big news anymore. Used to be, though. Nearly everything connected to Seafair was a big deal - the pirates, princesses, parades and the hydros.

But that was years ago, when the city seemed to revolve around Seafair, and Seafair revolved around hydroplane racing. There were no Sonics, no Mariners and no Seahawks. No Sounders and no Reign. It was our only Big League sport.

And what we had at Seafair was pretty quaint and pretty raw.

There were those heavy-drinking Seafair pirates who ran wild at parades, shooting off their loud cannons and terrorizing women and children by pretending to kidnap them at swordpoint.

A pirate grabbed me once. I thought he was taking me away for good. It's one of my earliest memories. Welcome to the world.

But not long after, I saw my first hydroplane race and quickly became a lifetime fan of those roaring thunderboats racing sponson-to-sponson with the roostertails kicking up high. That is, until they flipped over or collided, sometimes killing the drivers, our heroes. Seafair could be tough on a kid.

But these were races for big-time glory. The unlimited hydros had races across the country, but the big show to determine the best boat that year, the Gold Cup, often was held here.

If someone from Seattle, like Ron Musson or Bill Muncey, won the Gold Cup, it was almost like winning the World Series. Hey, that meant we were beating those big boats from Detroit. Detroit! That had to mean we were Big League.

The boats were powered by World War II-surplus bomber engines, and you could hear the roar of the hydros on Lake Washington while watching the races on TV or listening to them on radio miles away.

The races always seemed close and the announcers always made it sound like it was historic. (In fact, the legendary Pat O'Day still does.)

"At the top of the north turn it's still Miss Bardahl in the lead with the Notre Dame cranking hard inside! And here comes the Budweiser! We got about a million gallons of water in the air! What a heat!"

But it was more fun to get down close to the pits near Seward Park, where the boats were dropped into the lake and you could get closer to the drivers. There a bunch of us kids would sell and swap souvenir pins like they were pieces of gold.

Some kids even made miniature hydros out of plywood and raced them behind their bikes, sliding around street corners and flipping the little boats, just like the real ones.

But no one died in our hydro races. Not like the real ones. Because the hydro drivers were sitting in open cockpits, not enclosed like today, they were in constant danger of being killed when they flipped or crashed into each other. Fourteen drivers died between 1951, when the sport first came to Lake Washington, and 1982, the last year anyone died in a race.

Dealing with fear and death and noise seemed to be a major theme of Seafair. After all, it was a celebration of summer in a brash, young city.

Times have changed. The pirates are sober and nicer, the newer turbine-powered hydros are quieter and safer (and upstaged by the Blue Angels). And the city has gotten much, much bigger and full of new residents who don't know a hydro from a cappucino.

Our fallen heroes - drivers like Muncey, Musson and Rex Manchester - are long gone and replaced by newer stars - Ken Griffey, Bill Gates and Amazon.com.

Yet Seafair endures, at age 49, a throwback with its neighborhood parades full of bands, drill teams, Seafair royalty and salutes to our region's rich and varied ethnic heritage.

The Seafair hydro races, which began in 1951, also are hanging in there, despite people saying every year that the sport is dead in the water.

Many say they are too predictable and boring, a wheezy old blast from the past in a high-flying city of multibillionaires that has much better things to do and see.

It hurts to see the people streaming by my home on race days, leaving the lakefront in droves after the Blue Angels air show, but before the final heat is run. That would have been unheard of years ago. Today, it's common. (At least they're not stumbling around drunk on our lawns and into our bushes to relieve themselves, as was the fashion in the days before drinking along the lake was curtailed.)

I feel sorry for these people leaving early, for they know not what they're missing.

But maybe all is not lost. Have you noticed what often gets the most fan attention at a Mariners game? It's not a Griffey home run or a Randy Johnson strikeout (whoops, but thank you, too, for the memories). We've seen hundreds of those.

No, just take a look at the crowd during those silly little races held between innings on the big screen among those cartoon hydros, one of which always flips just before the finish line.

I see adults cheer those races, their faces riveted to the screen. I see their kids cheer, too, another generation captivated by the thunderboats.

It may not be the real thing, but for a few glorious seconds, it's again the only Big League show in town.

So please come down to the lake this weekend. Revel in the power and the glory of the hydros. Be part of one of the greatest traditions this great city has ever known. We'd love to see you there. Just stay off my lawn.

(Reprinted from the Seattle Times August 5, 1998)


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