H1 Unlimited class hydroplanes can exceed 200 miles per hour on the straightaway. They are up to 30 feet long and weigh a whopping 6,750 pounds; they need cranes to lift them in and out of the water. At top speed, they literally fly across lakes and rivers with only their propellers touching the surface. Forty-four years have passed since the last official hydroplane race was held in North Idaho. Looking for a local hydroplane fan, I talked with Joe Brown, who was 12 years old when he first caught hydroplane fever. Because his uncle was a member of the Miss Spokane pit crew, Joe wandered in and out of the pits amid boat engines and crew members; it was heaven on earth.
Joe remembers the thrill of the roar. “The noise was intoxicating,” he says. And he remembers being awestruck by the speed. At that time, their jet engines would power the boats to over 100 miles an hour. “Watching was seeing a bird become a plane as it took off from the water,” Joe muses, “sometimes with devastating results.”
The early races attracted large crowds. Hordes of picnickers covered Tubbs Hill, and boatloads of partiers tied up to the log booms. The elements of speed and danger added to the allure of the spectacle. During the races, excitement built as the boats careened around the course. Spectators held their breaths, praying that boats wouldn’t go airborne or crash or collide. But if such a catastrophe should occur, they certainly didn’t want to miss the sight.
Hydroplane drivers faced serious injury if they were thrown from their boats or were caught in a collision. Three drivers were killed in a single race alone on the Potomac River in 1966.
We are assured that drivers today do not face any comparable risks in contemporary hydroplanes. Drivers are now safely bundled in a capsule-shaped cover. In case the boat flips, there’s an escape exit at the bottom of the capsule. Safety has been improved, but danger still exists.
Recently, I wandered down to the tiny Veteran’s Park near the Coeur d’Alene Resort to take another look at the handsome metal sculpture that rises in a sweeping arc to connect a hydroplane on water with a jet plane in the sky. The dedication is specifically in memory of Lt. Col. Warner E. Gardner and “Fellow Drivers Who Devoted So Much To Hydroplane Racing.”
According to hydroplane historian Fred Farley, Col. Gardner flew 63 combat missions in World War II and started his professional hydroplane racing career at the age of 46 in Coeur d’Alene in 1962. The Colonel died in a crash during a race on the Detroit River in 1968.
“So Much” was sometimes “Their All.”
After Coeur d’Alene’s years with hydroplanes, the races inevitably lost their luster. The boats kept breaking down, or running out of gas. Volunteers were increasingly harder to recruit. The overwhelming noise, which had seemed enlivening in the early days, eventually became a nagging background irritation. The thrill eased out of the event like air from a balloon.
After 10 years, in 1968, the race simply folded. It wasn’t profitable, and the negative media publicity served as an embarrassment to the city. In a couple of instances, the post-race crowds turned surly and police stepped in with tear gas. At one point, the New York Times identified riots around the country, most stemming from racial unrest at that tumultuous time. Unfortunately, the hydroplane race riots also made their way onto that newspaper’s graphic.
So the hydroplanes went away with a whimper not a bang. Coeur d’Alene residents, tired of the hubbub, circulated an initiative banning hydroplanes from the city, which was approved by 70 percent of those voting.
The announcement that the hydroplanes may be returning has not caused much of a stir among the locals; the new course is outside city limits and has secured all the proper approvals from public agencies.
Certainly we hope the event, when it happens, will bring visitors to Coeur d’Alene’s restaurants and stores.
But I can’t help wonder if the hydroplane isn’t a leftover from times past — an innocent world that existed before Earth Day and the green movement, before higher oil and gas prices. Could there be any future for a silent, solar-powered hydroplane?
If you need your hydroplane racing fix before next Labor Day, you’re in luck, because the 47th Annual Columbia Cup is this weekend in the Tri Cities. The event runs July 27-29 along the banks of the Columbia River; call (509) 783-4675 for tickets, or check out www.waterfollies.com.