Hydroplanes set to return to Coeur d’Alene over Labor Day weekend
For the past 45 years when the unlimited hydroplane fleet made their journey west along Interstate 90 headed for races in the Tri Cities and Seattle they then turned south, usually to head to San Diego.
This year, following Jimmy Shane’s victory a couple of weeks ago at Seafair on Lake Washington, the “thunderboats” are making a U-turn, retracing their tire tracks and returning to Lake Coeur d’Alene for the Labor Day weekend revival of the Diamond Cup.
You’ll likely begin seeing the teams towing their tilted trailers with their turbine-power hydros anytime in the next few days.
A couple of generations have passed since Billy Schumacher piloted the famed checkerboard paint scheme Miss Bardahl to victory over Tommy Fults in the My Gypsy as daylight quickly faded on that Aug. 11 wind-delayed Diamond Cup.
The weather conditions that day were, perhaps, symbolic of the rough waters the race – and the community – experienced over the 10-year run of the race that drew both crowds, and controversy to Coeur d’Alene.
In the essence of full disclosure, I’ve signed on to volunteer where needed, to assist the folks like race chairman Doug Miller to hopefully make the return of this race permanent.
I only vaguely remember as a youngster watching the races, scurrying around Tubbs Hill.
Miller has worked tirelessly for years to try to get the hydros back into a city that had a sour taste in their mouths over the rowdy behavior of 1960s race goers.
He helped bring vintage unlimiteds to the lake over a couple of summers for exhibition runs to remind the locals of how it used to be. He thought he had a race last summer, but funding never fully materialized.
Miller’s group put the final puzzle piece – that a $100,000 guarantee from Keith Kroetch of Kroetch Land and Timber – together in mid-June to guarantee the race which will be run on a new 2-mile course east of the city along Silver Beach, old U.S. Highway 10 and the Centennial Trail.
The change in the venue came after a 1985 citywide referendum made it loud and clear by that hydroplanes would never, ever, ever, ever raise a roostertail off Tubbs Hill and City Beach where the original Diamond Cup ran, with the exception of 1967, from 1958 through 1968.
The bitter taste for boat racing came from the so-called “riots” that took place over a number of race weekends. But think about it, combine the general unrest of the 1960s with dozens of bars within easy walking distance of the races and the recipe was perfect for problems.
What’s different now?
Alcohol is now only offered in controlled areas for one and after 45 years one would expect the kids might have finally matured a bit.
Both society and the sport have grown up.
While the races at Coeur d’Alene never had a driver die in an accident – something that was somewhat common in the 1960s – those old open cockpit hydros like the Miss Exide or Miss Bardahl took their drivers, Mira Slovak and Jack Regas, dangerously close.
Comparing the old boats to the new might best be done by picturing a 1930s bi-plane sitting next to an F-16. Where in the original Diamond Cup the drivers literally drove by the seat of their pants, the new generation literally pilot their boats by punching the throttle and adjusting the wing on the back of the boat.
Today’s hydroplanes are really “planes,” powered by helicopter turbines that allow them to fly over the water on the tips of two sponsons and a propeller. They do so at speeds of over 200 miles-per-hour on the straightaway with that majestic towering plume of water rising behind.
Sometimes they decide to really fly. But unlike in days gone by when a driver wasn’t seat-belted in - for fear of him going to the bottom of the lake should the boat crash - today’s drivers sit inside a protective capsule, and are provided oxygen should they land upside down. There has not been a fatality in the unlimiteds since 2000.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the unlimited hydros were the major-league sport of the Northwest as races in Seattle often saw crowd estimates at over 200,000. Hydros drew other huge crowds in places like Chelan, and of course Coeur d’Alene.
This was long before the Seahawks, Mariners and even the Sonics. And NASCAR was still only a Southern sport.
In another week we’re going to find out if dusting off the Diamond Cup was worth it.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.