Jon Osterberg remembers the first time he saw a hydroplane, more than 50 years ago.
“I was three, maybe four,” Osterberg recalls, “walking by the headquarters of Bardahl Chemical Corporation in Ballard with my dad, and they had a big roll-up steel door.”
The door was open, so Osterberg and his father peeked inside.
“Here was this hydroplane! It was metallic green, sitting on a trailer.”
For Osterberg, it was love at first sight.
His story resonates for tens of thousands of Seattle-era baby boomers. They grew up during the hydroplane heyday, when the thunderboats’ annual visit to Lake Washington drew hundreds of thousands of people to the lakeshore.
Many observers trace the start of hydroplane mania to 1949.
That was the year Boeing engineer Ted Jones, race driver Stan Sayres and their cronies unveiled their innovative hydroplane – the Slo-mo-shun IV. Unlike the hydroplanes that had come before, this wood and metal craft had a flat hull so it could skim across the water.
For extra power, Jones and Sayres tricked out their boat with a surplus World War II fighter engine, mounted just in front of the driver’s seat. (The thunder of that revving engine prompted the moniker 'thunderboat,' which persists to this day despite the fact that the engines have been replaced by quieter turbines.)
Slo-mo-shun IV set a world speed record on Lake Washington – 178 miles per hour over a mile-long straightaway course. So in 1950, Sayres entered the Seattle invention in the biggest event on the power boat racing circuit: the Gold Cup, held in Detroit.
Longtime hydro fan, and former hydro announcer, Steve Montgomery, says that when Sayres pulled into the race pits, the other drivers laughed at the strange contraption he’d brought with him.
“They said, ‘What is that thing?’”
Sayres had the last laugh. He annihilated the competition.
“He was so far ahead (in the race), they didn’t know what hit ‘em!” Montgomery says.
The Slo-mo-shun’s victory meant that the next year, 1951, the prestigious Gold Cup race came to Seattle for the first time. Montgomery was on the shores of Lake Washington that August weekend to watch the hydros; he sums up the public response in one word – “hysteria.”
“You had to pictures this little logging town, which is what they called us,” Montgomery says. “There were no Mariners, Seahawks or Sonics. This was the first major league sport ever to come to Seattle.”
Hundreds of thousands of spectators watched that race; crowds for the spectacle grew every year throughout that decade.
It was hydro-mania, according to Osterberg.
"Every kid in Lake Hills (in Bellevue) where I grew up drug a hydro behind their bikes every chance we could get. The drivers were our heroes!” he says.
Seattle’s success on the hydro race circuit was pivotal to civic identity, says Leonard Garfield, director of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, where the Slo-mo-shun IV is now prominently displayed.
“This was the beginning of Seattle feeling like a grown-up city,” Garfield says.
During World War II, the city had attracted hundreds of great engineers to work in the aviation industry during the war. They designed fighter planes that helped win the war. In peace time, they turned their skills to a new challenge.
In some ways, Garfield sees the Slo-mo-shun IV as the perfect melding of Seattle’s maritime and aerospace industries.
“Why not build the fastest boats in the world? We could do it. We had built the best planes; we could build the best boats.”
And for more than a decade, Seattle hydros dominated the racing circuit. The Slo-mo-shun IV and V were dethroned by the Miss Bardahl and Miss Thriftway, and many more boats with local ties.
By the mid 1960s, though, other pro sports franchises began to chip away at the hydroplanes’ hold on civic loyalty. The Seattle Supersonics arrived in 1967, the short-lived Seattle Pilots baseball team played in 1969. The Seahawks and Mariners arrived in town in the mid-1970s. They were the new kids on the block, and sports fans flocked to see them play.
Not only did people have more diversions to choose from, Montgomery says regional demographic changes over the years means fewer Seattle residents have the same childhood ties to the racing boats.
“If you go through the streets now, and ask, ‘How long have you lived here,’ says Montgomery, “they say five years, nine years. They don’t know a hydroplane from a Volkswagen!”
The annual Seafair hydroplane races still take place every August, but MOHAI’s Leonard Garfield wonders how long they can continue.
“I think the question is, will this tradition continue to be as meaningful in decades to come, where our economy is so different and our population is so much more diverse?”
Lifelong fan Jon Osterberg isn’t ready to let go of his passion for the hydros. He and a buddy will pack a picnic and head to Lake Washington to take in the races this year. Osterberg loves the spectacle and the thrill of the competition.
But for him, the hydro races are more than mere sport. For this self-described romantic, they’re a sweet reminder of his lost youth.
“I tell ya, looking back at the days when hydros were king, those were some pretty good times!”
The hydroplanes race once again this weekend from the Stan Sayres pit on the southwest shore of Lake Washington, with overhead entertainment from the Navy's Blue Angels.