The Long Return

Hydroplanes return to Coeur d’Alene this weekend, but it took 45 years to make that happen

When he was elementary-school age, Mike Fitzsimmons was the envy of all the kids.

Every day after school he spent time at a family friend’s Seattle boat shop learning to build a hydroplane, the Fascination. He’d ride his bike down to watch test runs on Lake Washington. And when the Gold Cup hydroplane race was in town, the north turn of the racecourse was right outside his bedroom window.

That was during the early 1950s, when what had been an East Coast phenomenon from the beginning of the 20th century came to the Northwest. And as it did to so many Seattleites, the hydroplane-racing bug bit Fitzsimmons hard.

“There were no Seahawks,” he says. “There were no Mariners. There was no Sonics basketball. University of Washington was still three up the middle and punt. So this was the sport. And to live near the lake where these boats would come and spend about 10 days each summer was like Christmas.”

The hydroplane fever spread east. Other communities began thinking about hosting races, and one of those was Coeur d’Alene. So in 1958, the city held the first Diamond Cup — a stop on the H1 Unlimited Hydroplane racing circuit — the beginning of a rich, albeit short, history between the city and the sport.

In the 1960s, Fitzsimmons attended the Diamond Cup as a crew member for the Fascination. By 1969, his interest in the sport burgeoned into a 44-year stretch of broadcasting hydroplane races across the country and researching Diamond Cup history.

Now Fitzsimmons sits at a round table in the downtown Coeur d’Alene KXLY broadcast building where he hosts his radio show, Newscope. Memorabilia dot the table where he thumbs through his acquired collection of Diamond Cup relics, including black-and-white photos of hydroplanes and their drivers, crew uniform patches, his own pit pass from 1966, and a picture of the famous boat Miss Spokane, a shovel-nosed “Queen of the Inland Empire.”

“While Coeur d’Alene had no race boat, Spokane had a race boat and Coeur d’Alene had a race,” Fitzsimmons says. “So the Miss Spokane was the unofficial host boat of the first Diamond Cup.”

The Spokane racing team got their boat by petitioning Bill Boeing Jr. (son of the Boeing Company founder) to sell them the duplicate of his boat, Miss Wahoo. But they had to fundraise to buy it, selling ownership certificates for a few dollars and 100-miles-per-hour-and-more rides in the boat. After racing from 1958 to 1961, the team ran out of money and sold the boat.

Eventually, the Diamond Cup fizzled, too. Money and volunteers ran dry. In 1968, Coeur d’Alene held the last Diamond Cup, and there it ended.

Every five to 10 years or so another group tried to revive the races, says Diamond Cup President Doug Miller. But whether it was permit problems or lack of funding, it took until this Labor Day weekend for the races to return.

“That’s how long it’s taken to get the permit process to pose a fully sanctioned H1 Unlimited race,” Miller says.

But added dimensions contributed to the hiatus.

The Coeur d’Alene Press reported on July 29, 1963 that the previous weekend was the “third successive year that disturbances have marred the night before the finals of the Diamond Cup races here.”

Officers wore hardhats and gas masks and used tear gas, nightsticks and fire hoses to clear three blocks of Sherman Avenue. Rocks and bottles were thrown at officers and 80 people in a crowd estimated at 1,000 were taken into custody.

In 1996, during one attempt to bring back the Diamond Cup, the public voted in favor of a ban on unlimited hydroplane racing within Coeur d’Alene city limits.

Dixie Reid, then a city council member, received 200 phone calls from residents opposing the races and was the sole member of city council to declare her opposition to holding the races again, according to a 1996 Spokesman-Review article.

“My vote would have been that, because of my input from the people was that they didn’t want it,” Reid says over the phone, adding that people were angry over the prospect of being charged to go on public land, like Tubbs Hill, and still remembered the disturbances from the ’60s.

Reid recalls the chaos on Sherman Avenue — alcohol-fueled fights and numerous arrests. Later, people wore T-shirts that read: “I survived the Coeur d’Alene riot.”

But those were different times, she says. “The people doing [the race this year] are very passionate and that’s fine,” Reid says. “It may turn out to be a good community event.”

The racecourse will be off Silver Beach — outside of city limits, therefore unaffected by the ban — on state park land, making it a non-alcohol family event, Miller says.

Fitzsimmons, who will work the microphone at the races, says he hopes the Diamond Cup will again become a regular stop on the H1 Unlimited Hydroplane series.

“It is a spectacular sport to witness,” he says. “The rooster tails, the speed, the color, the pageantry of it is the most photogenic sport I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen them for a long, long time.” 

Diamond Cup • Aug. 30-Sept. 1 • Silver Beach • Lake Shore Drive, Coeur d’Alene • $12-$50 •

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