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All Over The Map: Stan Sayres Pits and Ted Jones Race Course commemorate local hydro legends

Detail from a hand-drawn map of Stan Sayres Pits on Lake Washington by Don Sherwood, from his unpublished history of Seattle parks. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

With the Seafair hydroplane races taking place this weekend, here’s a quick primer on two spots you’ll hear mentioned a lot during KONG TV’s live broadcast from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday.

This year is the 70th annual Seafair Festival. It all began in 1950, but it really took off with the addition of unlimited hydroplane racing and the Gold Cup in 1951.

Stan Sayres Pits

Stan Sayres Pits are roughly midway between Mt. Baker Beach and Seward Park, at what used to be called Wetmore Slough, which at one time was envisioned as a waterway that could be dug all the way to Columbia City.

Stan Sayres Pits is the place where all the hydroplanes and crews are based. It’s named for Seattle auto dealer and boat-racing enthusiast Stanley St. Claire Sayres, who owned a series of racing boats call “Slo-mo-shun.” Sayres’ Chrysler dealership was on Capitol Hill at Broadway and Madison.

Slo-mo-shun IV is considered the granddaddy of all modern hydroplanes because it was the first to utilize a three-point hull. That is, the boat is skimming over the waves, with only two tiny areas touching the water, along with about half of the propeller.

This may be obvious to some, but I only learned yesterday from longtime broadcaster and former Washington State Association of Broadcasters director Mark Allen a fun fact about that partially submerged propeller.

Allen, who will be doing the play-by-play on KONG TV, says that the “rooster tail” — that giant arc of water behind each speeding hydro — only happens with hydroplanes because, unlike an ordinary speedboat, the hydroplane’s propeller isn’t completely submerged. The entire boat is literally flying along the tops of the waves, so maybe 40 percent or so of the propeller is above the water when the boat is underway. That’s why it throws up that giant rooster tail.

Stan Sayres was driving Slo-mo-shun IV on Lake Washington on June 26, 1950 when he set a new world speed record of 162.32 miles per hour. It was front-page news, above the fold, and a really big deal in Seattle and around the globe.

That momentous day may also be the first time that the phrase “rooster tail” (regarding a race boat) appeared in print in The Seattle Times. Incidentally, the word “hydroplane” first appeared in the Times much earlier, on October 1, 1908, in reference to an upcoming lecture to be given at the Chamber of Commerce by the local Meacham brothers regarding their patent for a hydroplane design.

Stan Sayres passed away from a heart attack in September 1956. In his memory, the community raised about $20,000 and built the pits at Wetmore Slough in time for the 1957 races.  The old pits had previously been a mile or so north at Mt. Baker Beach from 1951 to 1956.

Ted Jones Race Course

This is the area out in the waters of Lake Washington where the boats will actually compete on Saturday and Sunday.

When he passed away in 2000, the Seattle Times called Ted Jones “the father of hydro racing in Seattle.” He was a Boeing engineer, but his true loves were driving, designing, and building racing boats.

He worked closely with Stan Sayres on the record-breaking Slo-mo IV – Jones designed it, Anchor Jensen built it, and Sayres paid for it — and it was Ted Jones who was behind the wheel of Slo-mo IV when the course of Seattle sports history was changed one summer day in Michigan in 1950.

The Gold Cup was known as the Kentucky Derby of boat racing. When Ted Jones and Slo-mo IV won the Gold Cup in Detroit in 1950, it meant the Gold Cup Race came to Seattle in 1951. In those years, that was almost the equivalent of hosting the Super Bowl.

With that first unlimited race on Lake Washington in August 1951, the city and the entire region took to the sport, and didn’t really look back for about the next 40 years.

Ted Jones drove boats for much of the 1950s, and he designed a number of famous hydros, including the Miss Bardahl, Shanty 1, Maverick, Miss Thriftway, Miss Wahoo, and Hawaii Kai III.

Thanks to efforts of a group of dedicated volunteers, including Mark Allen, the “Ted Jones Race Course” was dedicated in August 1990. It was made official by the City of Seattle and Mayor Norm Rice, and Allen even got formal approval from the Unlimited Racing Commission.

Mark Allen says that Ted Jones was there for the surprise dedication and was very touched. Ted Jones passed away in 2000 at age 90.

For more about local hydro history, it’s always great to see the old boats up close and in person. While it was a rough and tumble sport (sometimes it seems like most of the great hydroplanes burned or sank, or both), a lot of the great ones survive and have been restored. Slo-mo-shun IV is on display at MOHAI, and the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent has a bunch, too.

Or, if you’d like to re-create the thrill of vintage hydro racing without leaving your own neighborhood, the famous Northwest “street hydro” phenomenon is always a good option.

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