1973 UIM World Championship
Fascination Thrived On a Shoestring
Pollywogs are giving way to pickle forks. The trucks and cranes cramming the pits are more monstrous and complex every year.
The opulent owners take their ease in ever more lavish mobile homes at the lake’s edge, climaxed, for the moment, by Bernie Little’s bivouac on wheels — a Greyhound Scenicruiser converted, for $116,000, into a rolling villa for 12, complete with sauna bath.
"And we’re still eating our bologna sandwiches," said Bob Gilliam, with nary a trace of rancor.
As the contours of unlimited hydroplanes have evolved from the memorable pollywog profile of the legendary Slo-mos to the twin-tine bows now stabbing the lake, Gilliam has hung tough through jest and gibe, not always gentle, as a "shoe-string operator" in a realm of golden slippers.
For years, "Where’s Fascination?" was a question guaranteed to draw a guffaw among the shorebirds.
"Fascination" conjured visions of a zealot in greasy coveralls hammering together a motorized scow in a garage.
Bob Gilliam’s Fascination fleet was so persistent in its futility that he and the boats he built became, perversely, an indispensable fixture on the thunderboat circuit.
In all, Gilliam has hand-crafted a half-dozen unlimited hydroplanes whose success has been limited, and he retains the verve and the urge that drove him to turn out his first Fascination in a Fort Lewis boat shop before he handed back his G. I. laundry to Uncle Sam in 1957.
Growing up in Payette, Idaho, Gilliam was a handsome, black-haired, strapping kid who was at home on a baseball diamond, basketball court or football field.
Long before he wowed the crowds as a football end for Boise Junior College, he already was hooked by the addiction which still claims him.
"I built my first boat when I was 13," said Gilliam, now 46. "It took everything I made selling newspapers,"
Fascination for Gilliam was kicking up a foamy wake on the lakes and rivers of Idaho. When he opened a body-and-fender business in Payette, the shop was a dandy place to build fast little boats.
In the Army, Gilliam continued to indulge his passion in his spare time and was elated when he was assigned, at Fort Lewis, to the boat shop.
"I didn’t know any of the important things about unlimited hydroplanes," said Gilliam. "I took the plans for a limited hydro and blew it up and built an unlimited.
"I didn’t even know anything about sponsors for racing. I blew $10,000 of my own money before I knew what happened. That was when I found out about sponsors,"
The first Fascination eventually attracted a sponsor to help foot the staggering costs of construction and operation. Not all of Gilliam’s subsequent craft were so lucky. He drove himself and paid.
"It’s my life," said Gilliam. "I don’t drink, smoke, gamble or hunt. Boat racing is my bag."
In a truck and racing-equipment shop at Bothell, Gilliam has helped to pay his bills by producing smaller racing boats. He has an eye for a bargain and, occasionally, has picked up in lot sales engines and parts sought by fellow owners and drivers on the hydro circuit.
Two Gilliam boats — dating back to 1965 and 1960 — are in the pits for the World Championship regatta here. But Bob is driving an unlimited he bought, with the help of his sponsor, Valu-Mart.
"It is," said Gilliam, "an easier life with a sponsor."
Bernie Little, the affluent major domo of the first-cabin Budweiser camp, putted by in a miniature motorcycle he lugs along to save steps in the pits.
"What we spend is like coffee change compared to the big operators," Gilliam said. But, in the giddy hydro world, everything is relative.
In the Bothell shop, because he can’t bear to part with them, Bob has the skeletons of one old Fascination, The Dutchman and the venerable Slo-mo-shun V.
"The best riding boat I ever had was the first Fascination," Gilliam said. "A guy in California bought it and smashed it up against a rock wall on Berryessa Lake."
Gilliam, who put together his first Fascination on a shoestring, now has in mind a new boat with some new gimmicks. He is eager to get his hands into the job.
"It looks like it will run about $42,000 — to start," he said.
(Reprinted from The Seattle Times, August 3, 1973)
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