RICHARD CARL LEHMAN | The hydroplane connection

In the ‘50s, males 18 and older had three choices: Be drafted for two years, enlist three to four years or try to find work. In spite of the impending draft I landed a job that offered excitement like meeting well-known personalities and becoming part of hydroplane racing at Stan Sayres Inc.  Stan Sayres Inc. was a Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth/Desoto dealership on Broadway and Madison (recently demolished to make way for a much needed high-rise).

The lot had a high demand for sales reps but my draft status left that route closed to me.  The employees were friendly but one guy stood head and shoulders above the rest, working on the grease rack, changing oil and lubing cars.  Phil Namma had a real gift for gab, which made him prime for a sales position.  What a salesman he was!  One month his commission was $4,800!  He was a force to be reckoned with. 

My job entailed new and used car inventory and running parts for hydros. Several times during the race season parts and equipment were shuttled to Hunts Point where we witnessed our racer, Slo-mo-shun IV, being raised from the water under covered moorage.  Grinning ear-to-ear, I chatted with the Mopar Parts hydro crew and drivers. Some visitors were able to catch a ride on a “Thunder Boat” and, try as I might, I never got one. But I sure did get drafted.  TV personalities and other celebs got their ride of a lifetime. 

Stan Sayres bought the Slo-mo-shun IV from Anchor Jensen (Jensen Boat Repair at Portage Bay) who built and drove it winning the Detroit River race in 1950 bringing the Gold Cup to Seattle.  Other hydroplane builders were Ron Jones who made boats safer while his brother Ted Jones made them faster. 

A Sayres master mechanic named Wayne and I were sent to 10th and Union to Davis and Hoffman Auto Repair.  There in the basement were several large engines in crates Stan had purchased as military surplus after WWII. Some of the engines had powered tanks, PT boats and airplanes. Allison was the name on the engines so we found one matching serial number, loaded it up on a pickup and drove it to the service department. 

Wayne, like a surgeon, laid several shop towels on a long bench where he dismantled the roller bearings assembly atop the huge engine and removed the packing grease. Each part was carefully cleaned. 

Several days later Stan invited all employees to the second story to view and hear the results of Wayne’s artistry. Standing a safe distance away from what would be the heart of Slo-mo-shun IV the exhaust vented through the ceiling.  He fired the big engine just at idle speed and we all felt the vibes in our chests. 

Days later I drove the engine to Mr. Sayres house on Hunts Point where the crew worked on Slo-Mo IV around the clock readying for the big race.  Crew members were found sleeping on Stan’s carpet.  

Mr. Sayres handed me a heavy block of brass about the size of a brick. He gave me instructions to take it to Lake Union to Anchor Jensen’s Boat Repair, where Mr. Jensen carved a propeller for the Slo-mos. It was nothing short of magic. I tried my best to remember the crew’s names, even writing them down on my hands for future reference.

There was to be a test run and so, when it was announced that the Slo-mos would be running on Lake Washington, many people lined the shores! Hydro fever was everywhere, much like Seahawks fever today.  There were buttons, t-shirts, pins, posters, sun visors and postcards.  Kids pulled wooden hydros behind their bikes and some tried pulling them on the water behind them to get a rooster effect to no avail.

The day of the races people lined the Interstate 90 bridge and, as the boats jockeyed for the best position for the starting gun, the Slo-mo left Hunts Point.  Under the west end of the I-90 bridge everyone started cheering.  The noise from the hydros and the cheering are forever embedded in my brain.

Slo-mo won first of four races.  The boats barely touched the water at top speed with the small window between water conditions and speed. People held portable radios to their ears trying to hear the races. On one occasion, Bill Muncy ran into Coast Guard cutters.  Another time Slo-mo sped under the I-90 bridge, rooster-tailing the Seafair judges’ barge and soaking everyone.  On a sad note, the Quick Silver flipped and sank taking the driver and co-driver with it. Bill Omara, TV broadcaster and newsman, fell to his knees and said a heartfelt prayer on live TV. 

I met Bill Muncey while working for Sayres, driving him and other members of the pit crew to critical meetings. There were some great conversations. Bill owned the Mercer Island Roostertail Grocery store — I told him I really wanted to ride in a hydro.  He laughed, saying simply, “You should have asked!”

On one of those perfect summer days in Seattle I motored my boat to where Keith Jacobsen (owner of Muffler City on Rainer) sat on his 20-foot boat with its full-blown supercharged Pontiac Bonneville engine.  Keith and his girlfriend invited me aboard and, traveling at more than 95 mph, we screamed from Seward Park to the I-90 bridge! Now that’s boating!