1956 Seafair Trophy Remembered
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Seattle, Washington, was a comparative newcomer to the sport of Unlimited hydroplane racing in 1956. The Seattle-based SLO-MO-SHUN IV had won the 1950 APBA Gold Cup in Detroit and won the right to defend the cup on home waters in 1951.
For five years, Seattle hosted the sport's premier event until GALE V--a Detroit challenger--won the Gold Cup in 1955 and took it back to the Motor City for 1956.
All of a sudden, the Pacific Northwest metropolis was without a major Unlimited race as the highlight of its annual Seafair celebration.
The Gold Cup was gone--at least for the time being. In its place was the Seafair Trophy, which had been a secondary event for Limited boats in recent years and run between heats of the Gold Cup main event.
But the Seafair Trophy was more than just another race in 1956. It was designated by the APBA! Inboard Racing Commission as the "National Championship Race" for Unlimiteds. This designation had been applied to Detroit's Silver Cup in 1955.
As an added incentive, a larger than usual cash prize was offered: $25,000 in all. But unlike today, the money was awarded only to the first three finishers in the final heat irrespective of total points for the day: $11,000 for first-place, $8,000 for second, and $6,000 for third.
Although the Gold Cup loss was keenly felt, the 1956 Seafair Trophy had the look and feel of a major event. It was also for the Gold Cup dstance: 90 miles on a 3.75-mile course. (This was at a time when most Unlimited races were 45 miles in length.) Also, in the tradition of the Gold Cup, the boats had to qualify by running three consecutive and continuously run laps instead of the usual one lap.
Seattleites took their hydros seriously in the 1950s. This was in the days before there were any Seahawks, Sonics, or Mariners. The! media build-up to the race was tremendous.
The 1956 Seafair T rophy was the first to feature a sizeable hometown fleet. From 1951 to 1954, only SLO-MO-SHUN IV and SLO-MO-SHUN V represented Seattle; REBEL SUH and MISS THRIFTWAY joined the SLO-MOs in 1955. In 1956, for the first time, the Seattle boats outnumbered all the others. Indeed, six of the twelve qualifiers were locally based: SHANTY I, SLO-MO-SHUN IV, MISS SEATTLE, MISS WAHOO, MISS THRIFTWAY, and TEMPEST.
Four boats from Detroit made the final cut: GALE V, GALE VI, MISS U.S. II, and SUCH CRUST III. These were joined by a pair from Oakland, California: SCOOTER TOO and HAWAII KAI III.
In short, this race may not have been for the Gold Cup. But it was the next best thing and packed plenty of prestige in its own right.
Boat-wise, the 1956 Seafair Trophy was the best attended race that Seattle had ever had. Indeed, seventeen Unlimiteds made an appearance, as opposed to thirteen in 1955. Fourteen Seafair hopefuls jammed the crowded Mt. Baker Boat House pits, just south of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge. SLO-MO-SHUN IV, SCOOTER TOO, and HAWAII KAI III pitted at the Leschi Marina, just north of the bridge. The new pit area, which became known as the Stan Sayres Pits, was in the planning stages at the time but wasn't available until 1957.
It's interesting to note that nine of the seventeen Seafair entrants were designed by Ted Jones, including the winner SHANTY I, which Jones always acknowledged as his all-time favorite.
Jones had been the primary force behind the SLO-MO phenomenon of the early 1950s--as the designer and also as a driver. It was Ted who had piloted the "IV" to victory in the 1950 Gold Cup. He had quite literally been the man most responsible for introducing big-time boat racing to the Pacific Northwest.
Following Jones's acrimonious departure from the SLO-MO team after 1951, he spent several years on the periphery of the sport. Ted then made a triumphant comeback in 1955 as team manager of MISS THRIFTWAY and was responsible for promoting driver Bill Muncey from obscurity to superstar status.
Jones's victory in the 1956 Seafair Trophy with SHANTY I had special meaning for him. August 5, 1956, was probably Ted's all-time happiest "moment" as a boat racer.
SHANTY I driver Russ Schleeh--a USAF Lieutenant Colonel--owed his entire hydroplane career to Ted Jones. Ted had initially hired Schleeh in 1955 to pilot the Jones-owned REBEL SUH in the Gold Cup. "The Flying Colonel" went on to become 1956 National High Point Champion and the only hydroplane personality ever to be featured on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
The 1956 Seafair Regatta marked the end of an era on several counts. This was the final appearance in competition of SLO-MO-SHUN IV, the boat that started it all. Less than a month later, the "IV" was destroyed in a test run on the Detroit River in preparation for another try at the Gold Cup. Owner Stan Sayres died in his sleep just a few days later.
This was also the final use of the 3.75-mile course on Lake Washington. It was one of the biggest courses in Unlimited history with very long straightaways. It was also quite close to shore and offered spectacular viewing areas for the fans. A 3-mile course replaced it in 1957 and was the standard until 1973. This new course was much farther out in the middle of the lake. Only the privileged few on the Judges Stand, which was anchored offshore, could see the whole course. This was a disservice to the fans.
The 1956 Seafair Trophy proved that Seattle fans would support a non-Gold Cup event. Indeed, the 1956 crowd was just as big--if not bigger--than during the Gold Cup years.
Despite the overwhelming success of the 1956 race, the Seafair Trophy disappeared from the Unlimited schedule following MISS THRIFTWAY's controversial victory in the Gold Cup at Detroit on September 1, 1956. The cup returned to its place of honor on the Seattle Yacht Club trophy shelf and stayed there for the next three years.
History repeated itself in 1959. MAVERICK, representing Las Vegas, Nevada, emerged victorious and took the Gold Cup south to Lake Mead as a consequence. The Seattle race committee dusted off the Seafair Trophy to stand in for "the golden goblet" once again in 1960.
An unusual occurrence at the 1956 Seafair Trophy was the large number of rookie drivers who had never before driven in an Unlimited race. The most remarkable of these was MISS WAHOO pilot Mira Slovak who not only drove in his first race but also SAW his first race on that memorable August 5. But that didn't stop Mira from posting two respectable second-place finishes and earning a spot in the final heat.
Other first-timers included Lin Ivey and Norm Evans (MISS SEATTLE), Bill Tonkin (TEMPEST), Bob Gilliam (MISS B & I), and Frank Taylor (MISS SKYWAY).
Evans (father of Mitch and Mark) had zero boat racing experience and, prior to the 1956 Seafair Trophy, had never even been an APBA member. But that didn't stop Norm from successfully outrunning Roy Duby and GALE VI for third-place in a Heat 2-B.
Tonkin, a Seattle Limited competitor, showed a lot of potential when he challenged MISS U.S II for the lead in Heat 2-A. Strangely, this was Bill's first and last appearance as an Unlimited driver.
The veterans comprised Joe Taggart (SLO-MO-SHUN IV), Russ Schleeh (SHANTY I), Don Wilson (MISS U.S. II), Bill Muncey (MISS THRIFTWAY) Bill Cantrell (GALE V), Lee Schoenith and Roy Duby (GALE VI), Fred Alter (SUCH CRUST III), Bud Saile (MISS WAYNE), Bill Stead (MAVERICK), Jay Murphy (BREATHLESS), Jack Regas (SCOOTER TOO), and Howard Gidovlenko (HAWAII KAI III).
The non-qualifiers included MISS B & I, MISS SKYWAY, MISS WAYNE, MAVERICK, and BREATHLESS. Ray Crawford's outlandish ZEPHYR-FURY was a "paper entry" that never arrived at the race site.
MISS B & I had to withdraw after she ran over the logboom during an unauthorized after-hours test run in almost total darkness.
MISS SKYWAY was the infamous "rubberband boat" that could only do about 40 miles per hour on the straightaway. Powered by twin Chevrolet Corvette engines, MISS SKYWAY used a system of V-belts to transfer power to the propeller shaft in lieu of a gearbox.
The following synopsis of the race was written by Bob Walters for SEA AND PACIFIC MOTORBOAT. Please note that Mr.Walters refers to the heats as Heats One, Two, Three, Four, and Five. Inexplicably, the Seafair committee did not identify the heats as "A" and "B" sections. In other words, Heats One and Two were the equivalent of Heats 1-A and 1-B; Heats Three and Four can be regarded as Heats 2-A and 2-B; and Heat Five can be translated as the Final Heat.
SHANTY I WINS 1956 SEAFAIR TROPHY
The roaring, highly successful August Seafair Trophy Race established Seattle as the world's Mecca and Capital of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing. And the whole West warned up with Seattle to make it so.
SHANTY I crescendoed to a stunning victory in the fifth and championship heat at a record of 109.9348 mph average for these 30 miles. Riding into that brilliant victory put SHANTY's name on the Seafair Trophy, gave her the national championship for unlimited hydroplanes and won her the newly-created $11,000 first prize money.
SHANTY I of Seattle duelled famed SLO-MO-SHUN IV of Seattle to the finish. If those two red-hot hulls, running one-two in 90 miles of heats and finals, weren't convincing enough, the frosting on the cake to Northwest boat racing devote! es by the millions was MISS SEATTLE, formerly champion SLO-MO V, owned by an everyman's syndicate. She ran a strong third in the finals. Not an eastern boat was left in the finals after the first lap. The something-new-has-been-added $25,000 pot was split three ways: SHANTY I $11,000; SLO-MO-SHUN IV $8,000; MISS SEATTLE $6,000.
Where did this brand-new SHANTY I boom out of to become National Champ and set new records? Her owner, Bill Waggoner, is a Texan, calls Seattle his summer home, had the Northwest's famed Ted Jones design her, and she flew the burgee of the Seattle Yacht Club. Waggoner plans to go after the 1956 Gold Cup in Detroit and might bring it back to the shores of Lake Washington.
Seventeen thundering unlimited hydros flocked into Seattle for the maddest week in the history of qualifying runs and racing. Only 12 boats could qualify for the big Sunday Seafair Race. Five of the 17 were from Detroit. Nine were from Seattle and Tacoma. Three were f! rom Oakland, California. Of these 12 boats from the Pacific Coast (whi ch shows how they are winning the West all over again with boating), eight qualified for the big day of racing. Four Detroiters qualified.
Would it be safe to say that this 1956 Seafair Race and National Championship constituted the biggest sports spectacle of all time? Lots of supporting facts make that probable. More than a half million people of all ages lined the shores of Lake Washington for the race. Thousands thronged the area on each qualifying day, building up to air estimated 120,000 each of the final two days. Press, radio and TV coverage was complete and overpowering. Before a race driver could even bring his boat to the pit docks at any time during the week, mikes and cameras were ready for each breathless utterance.
Pleasure boats, populated to the gunnels, a fleet of 1,080 craft, tied to the lengthy log boom that lines the open side of the course. Those 1,080 boats in themselves were a record and a spectacle.
Holding back for a moment m! ore on the race details, the course and its management were superb. No Rose Bowl, Speedway or World's Series was ever better handled and none has the complexities. Complete course regulation. No wakes. Debris patrol. Complex communications. Pits. Everything went like clockwork aimed at speed with safety. And in the center of it all was this ideal, beautiful blue-water race course on Lake Washington. Pleasantly warm, bathed in sunshine and lined with trees.
Here's a look at the point scoring
SHANTY I - 1100 points
With SHANTY I and SLO-MO-SHUN IV tied for total number of points at the finish, the trophy and championship went to SHANTY I for having the best total time. She finished ahead of the former great champion by 62.8 seconds. This came about in the north turn of the first lap of the final heat. SHANTY I weathered the start to take a slim lead. SLO-MO stayed hot on her rooster tail. In the north turn melee SHANTY's wake firehosed the SLO-MO enough that she bogged clown for precious seconds while the leading Shanty gained nearly a half lap on her. That settled the race.
GALE VI never got out for the championship fifth heat. MISS U. S. II, which set a great pace in her two heats and was leading in the fastest total time, died in the south turn of the first lap with a broken prop. Bill Boeing's MISS WAHOO from Seattle was running fourth for three laps when she died in the north turn.
MISS SEATT! LE was running in second place, driven by Norm Evans, after SLO-MO was wetted down to a near stop. On lap four, in the backstretch, Joe Taggart in SLO-MO thrilled the crowd when he used her superb acceleration to pass MISS SEATTLE in one quick, roaring thrust.
From then on these three Seattle boats had the course alone and stayed in that order ... SHANTY I, SLO-MO, and MISS SEATTLE.
The 12 top qualifiers, and it was a rough week for qualifying, drew for places in the first two heats--six to each heat. Then the third and fourth heats were established also by draw.
The overall picture quickly shaped up into a running speed battle between SLO-MO-SHUN IV, SHANTY I and MISS U. S. II. These three went into the final heat with points of 800, 700, 700 in that same order. If anyone of the three broke down or faltered, the jig was up. And that's what happened. U. S. broke down, SLO-MO faltered for valuable seconds and SHANTY I stayed solid and furious.
Proof of great western boats on a great western race course lies in t he final speed records which can't become official until the year is over. Previous race record, set in last year's Gold Cup, was 99.552 mph; SHANTY I averaged 105.651 mph (unofficial) for the same 90 miles. The fastest heat record was previously 103.159; and SHANTY did her fifth heat in 109.9398. This means she was consistently burning the course, pressed by the speedy SLO-MO-SHUN IV, which actually beat SHANTY in heat four and averaging 6 mph over the national record.
First heat in brief: Won by SHANTY at 104.6004; WAHOO second, GALE V third, TEMPEST fourth, MISS THRIFTWAY fifth, SUCH CRUST III out. THRIFTWAY took an early lead. SHANTY I took over in first back stretch and stayed there. THRIFTY kept running richer and richer until she coughed out. Was down and started again in seventh lap. WAHOO ran a strong race with good speed.
Second heat briefs: SLO-MO IV, Taggart at the wheel, uncorked a terrific start and it became his pattern for the three start! s he made that clay. Pacing the tough competitors he came wide to the starting line, let the others get across first, then in a terrific burst of speed slid into the pole position prior to the first turn. MISS U. S. II was second and played it tough, GALE VI third , MISS SEATTLE fourth.
Edgar Kaiser's HAWAII KAI III died in the infield; her sister craft, SCOOTER TOO, sank in the third lap. SLO-MO was leading all the way and turned in 103.5176 mph.
Third heat briefs: Won by MISS U. S. II at a crack 106.1425, fastest until fifth heat. MISS WAHOO second, proving her as a good contender, not tops in speed. MISS THRIFTWAY third struggled all the way. Her motor continued to quit and start with carburetion trouble. TEMPEST, the underdog darling, flew at this heat and went out in the third with a broken oil line.
Fourth heat briefs: The draw pits SLO-MO against SHANTY I. The start was a wow. Taggart again paced key boats into the starting line, swung wide, g! ave her Rolls-Royce engine a terrific wallop and shot into the lead an d pole position in the first straightaway. SLO-MO held a 16-second lead most of the way. Results: SLO-MO first at 104.2571, SHANTY second, MISS SEATTLE third, GALE VI and GALE V.
Fifth heat for the money: Those SLO-MO starts had become sensational. Taggart repeated the pattern. As they cleared the starting pole he burst out into lead water again, but couldn't get enough to get over to the inside. He cleared MISS U. S. but not SHANTY. With Col. Russ Schleeh already proved as a terrific driver, SHANTY was ready for that challenging maneuver. Schleeh bent into the south turn of the first lap in the lead. Schleeh was flying and ended the first lap at 115.979 mph. Taggart was hot after him down the back stretch. U. S. suffered a nasty gash in the first south turn when her prop disintegrated. That stopped her. Now it was a two-boat race for the lead. IF Schleeh and Taggart could keep their mechanical mounts revving at the terrifying pace. Into the north turn they flew. SLO! -MO came out of the bend well-wetted down and we've already recorded how it turned into a three boat race of Seattle entries, turning out a record shattering pace ... MISS SEATTLE, a popular craft, in third; SLO-MO-SHUN IV, still a grand and terrific competitor, still the boat that started this all, in second place; Col. Russ Schleeh, leading in SHANTY, to set what will become new records in the national books.
By the time you read this, more than one of these Pacific Coast boats will be in Detroit to try and re-win the Gold Cup. The modern thrillers of the West are now riding 165-mile-an-hour mounts and toting roaring exhausts on each hip.