The Slo-mo-shun Saga
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
In the early hours of June 26, 1950, an event transpired that caught the racing world by surprise. An Unlimited Class hydroplane with the unlikely name of SLO-MO-SHUN IV set a mile straightaway record of 160.323 miles per hour on Lake Washington near Sand Point, which raised the former standard by nearly 19 miles per hour.
A trio of Seattleites, owner/driver Stanley S. Sayres, designer/riding mechanic Ted Jones, and builder Anchor Jensen, had toppled Sir Malcolm Campbell's world mark of 141.740, established in England in 1939 with BLUEBIRD K4. The era of the three-point suspension design of hydroplane had assuredly arrived.
Measuring 28-1/2 feet with an Allison aircraft engine, SLO-MO-SHUN IV was not the first Unlimited hydroplane to "prop-ride" on a semi-submerged propeller. But she was the first to reap championship results in the application of the concept. The days when a Thunderboat could win by plowing through the water with a fully submerged propeller were numbered. For the next twenty years, boats had to pretty much use a SLO-MO-type of design to be competitive.
Stan Sayres bought the first rig to be named SLO-MO-SHUN in 1938 from Jack "Pop" Cooper of St. Louis, Missouri, a famous Mid-West race driver. The former TOPS II, SLO-MO-SHUN I was a Ventnor 225 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane that threw a connecting rod, burned, and sank in Lake Washington in 1941.
Sayres acquired a second Ventnor 225, the TOPS III, from Cooper in 1942. One sponson of SLO-MO-SHUN II was damaged in transit, as the story goes, and Sayres asked Ted Jones, who had been building and racing boats since 1927, to help true up the new sponson. It was at this time that Jones informed Sayres that he had the working design for an extremely fast boat and was seeking a backer.
After World War II, Sayres commissioned Jones to build the 225 Class SLO-MO-SHUN III. Jones, a Boeing Company employee, did so initially in the basement of his own home and later at the Jensen Motor Boat Company in 1947. SLO-MO-SHUN III was similar to other boats that Jones had constructed in recent years but was built heavier to withstand rough usage.
Sayres and Jones discovered that the "III" was capable of speeds almost 10 miles per hour faster than others in its class at the time. She was not campaigned all that extensively due to a lack of local competition, and because her makers were already planning a larger and more powerful boat.
Sayres, Jones, and Jensen attended the 1948 APBA Gold Cup in Detroit. After sizing up the situation there, Jensen recommended to Sayres that they build a boat along the lines of MY SWEETIE, which was a non-propriding two-step hydroplane, designed by John Hacker. But Sayres accepted Jones's suggestion that SLO-MO-SHUN IV should be a three-point proprider.
Construction of SLO-MO commenced at the Jensen Motor Boat Company in the fall of 1948, following the basic design that Jones had envisioned ten years earlier. Anchor Jensen, who had never before built a race boat, was in charge of construction and did much of the work himself.
L.N. "Mike" Welsch, who worked with Jones at Boeing, became the "IV's" crew chief. "The boat was good from the beginning," Welsch told interviewer David Greene, "although we did modify the steering and change the rudder location."
A public subscription drive in the Seattle area enabled SLO-MO-SHUN IV's entry in the Gold Cup race on the Detroit River. Then, as now, the Gold Cup stood as the ultimate power boating prize--the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and the Indy 500, all rolled into one aqua-carnival of speed.
Upon arrival in the Motor City, then the hub of organized boat racing in North America, the oddsmakers conceded that SLO-MO was indeed an awesome sight to behold on the straightaways with that impressive roostertail of spray a football field in length. They doubted, though, the recordholder's ability to effectively corner under competitive conditions and labeled her "A worm in the turn."
This notion vanished quickly when pilot Jones made several high-speed test laps around the 3-mile Detroit River race course and demonstrated that cornering was not a problem.
In those days, the Gold Cup race site was determined by the yacht club of the winning boat rather than by the present method of the city with the highest financial bid.
SLO-MO-SHUN IV won all three 30-mile heats of the 1950 contest with Ted Jones driving. In the first heat of the day, Slo-mo lapped the entire field, which included the 1949 Gold Cup winner MY SWEETIE.
Not once in the 46-year history of the event had the Gold Cup winner hailed from any other locale farther west than Minneapolis (in 1916). Immediately, Sayres announced plans to defend the cup on his home waters of Lake Washington.
Before concluding her maiden year of competition, SLO-MO-SHUN IV also claimed first-place in the Harmsworth International Trophy race in Detroit. Driven this time by Lou Fageol of Kent, Ohio, the "IV" became the first craft in history to be timed at 100 miles per hour in a heat of competition around a closed (5-nautical mile) course.
SLO-MO averaged 100.680 in the second heat of the best two out of three-heat series. She thus became the first boat to win both the Harmsworth and the Gold Cup races, in addition to setting a world straightaway record, during the same calendar year since MISS AMERICA (in 1920).
The response of Seattleites to SLO-MO's success was, in Mike Welsch's words, "Fantastic. That was part of the enjoyment of working on the boat because of the way the public backed us--especially the little kids, five and six years old. That was really something--the reaction of the city--and made working for nothing fun."
The SLO-MO-SHUN mechanical crew was more than just a racing team. It was the most exclusive men's club in the Seattle area in the 1950s. And everyone wanted to join. But very few ever achieved the inner circle. Some of those who did included Elmer Linenschmidt, Joe Schobert, George McKernan, Wes Kiesling, Pete Bertellotti, Rod Fellers, Jack Harshman, Martin Headman, Fred Hearing, Don Ibsen, Jr., Bob Stubbs, and Jack Watts.
Owner Sayres recognized that he would need a second hull in order to compete with the Detroit contingent's numerical superiority. SLO-MO-SHUN V had the same designer, builder, length, and power source as her predecessor, but had a wider beam and a slightly different sponson design that included larger non-trip areas. Unlike her sister, SLO-MO-SHUN V was built for competition rather than for straightaway performance.
For Seattle's Unlimited debut, two major races--for the Gold Cup and the Seafair Trophy--were scheduled for consecutive weekends during the month of August, 1951. SLO-MO-SHUN V won both of them with Lou Fageol driving in the Gold Cup and Ted Jones in the Seafair Trophy. On the first lap of the initial race, Fageol demonstrated acceleration never before witnessed in competition and was credited with a 3-mile mark of 108.633, which raised the former standard by better than 22 miles per hour.
SLO-MO-SHUN IV was run under wraps during the Gold Cup, taking a safe third. She was, however, turned loose in the Seafair Trophy, which was, in effect, a match race between the "IV" and the "V." SLO-MO-SHUN V took the first and third heats; SLO-MO-SHUN IV won the middle stanza in record time for two laps around the 5-nautical mile course at 111.743. This eclipsed the former all-time high for the same distance by better than 4 miles per hour.
Following the 1951 season, Jones left the SLO-MO-SHUN team. (He re-appeared in 1954 as designer of BREATHLESS and in 1955 as designer and team manager of MISS THRIFTWAY and REBEL SUH.) After the split between Jones and Sayres, SLO-MO-SHUN V was rebuilt. The boat was still fast but experienced handling difficulties and was never quite the same.
Sayres entered SLO-MO-SHUN IV in another straightaway trial in 1952--this time on Lake Washington's East Channel near Mercer Island. He felt that the "IV" had not been run to the maximum when he did 160 with her in 1950. With Elmer Linenschmidt alongside as riding mechanic, SLO-MO IV did 178.497 over the measured mile.
In comparing the two boats, Mike Welsch felt that SLO-MO-SHUN V was quicker out of the corners. "Once she came out of the turn, V could get up and clean out faster than 'IV.'
"SLO-MO IV had a tendency to stick in the turn. You had to turn 'IV' right to break it loose before you could get going. 'V' didn't have this tendency. It had some dihedral in the side that we didn't have in the 'IV' until later, when we added a bustle. Anything over 165 mph would cause the bow in the 'V' to start kiting. It would really get hairy. The 'IV' could do 185 with no strain."
SLO-MO-SHUN IV won both of the next two Gold Cup races in Seattle. "The Grand Old Lady," as she was then labeled, took the 1952 event with Stan Dollar at the wheel and the 1953 renewal with Fageol and Joe Taggart alternating in the cockpit.
Dollar had won the 1949 Harmsworth Trophy with his Lake Tahoe, California-based SKIP-A-LONG; Taggart, from Canton, Ohio, was a champion 225 Class pilot and had debuted as an Unlimited driver in 1952 with Albin Fallon's MISS GREAT LAKES II.
SLO-MO-SHUN V experienced mechanical problems at both of the hometown races in 1952 and 1953, but took in the Eastern circuit in 1953. Fageol won the President's Cup with the "V" on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. SLO-MO-SHUN V was probably the fastest competitive boat in the world on smooth water but was something else on the rough Eastern courses and still needed proper trimming after three years of racing.
In 1954, SLO-MO V handed Stan Sayres an unprecedented fifth straight Gold Cup award. Instead of the tried and proven Allison, however, the "V" used a Rolls-Royce Merlin. According to Mike Welsch, "We compared the two engines and the thing that convinced us was the blower and the manifold system. The Rolls also had a very impressive front end and intake system."
The move to Merlin power was a gamble because several prominent teams had experimented with them in the 1940s and found them too temperamental to their liking. "At first, we were just going to test them to see what we had," said Welsch. "But once we tried the Rolls, there was no life in the Allison as far as we were concerned.
"After the performance in 'V,' we figured that we had better put it in 'IV,' too. And we had no trouble getting engines in those days."
Oddly enough, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine used in SLO-MO-SHUN V to win the 1954 Gold Cup was the same power plant used in the ill-fated QUICKSILVER, which crashed to the bottom of Lake Washington in 1951 with fatal consequences.
Lou Fageol announced his retirement from competition after the 1954 Gold Cup. Fageol mentioned the name of the future Unlimited Class superstar, Bill Muncey, to Stan Sayres as a possible replacement. Nothing came of the suggestion as Fageol returned in 1955 for what would prove to be his final appearance as a driver.
While attempting qualification at the Gold Cup in Seattle, SLO-MO-SHUN V turned a complete 360-degree backward somersault at a frightening 160 to 165 miles per hour. Fageol was on the backstretch of his third official lap on the 3.75-mile course after posting identical readings of 117.391 on the first two.
The "V" landed upright minus her pilot and coasted--remarkably intact--to a halt. Rescue teams found the stricken Fageol still conscious but badly injured, his distinguished driving career--which dated back to 1928--at an end.
The winner of 74 first-place trophies in boat racing, Fageol had popularized the chillingly spectacular--and highly controversial--"flying start" from under the Lake Washington Floating Bridge in the early days of Seattle's love affair with Thunderboating.
For years, the Sayres team had yielded to civic pressure to remain active in Gold Cup competition. rather than retire undefeated. But on the eve of the 1955 Gold Cup, Stan announced that the next day's race with Taggart and SLO-MO IV would be his last. As the only five-time consecutive winning owner of that famous cup, he would give it one last try. And he nearly pulled it off.
The "IV" was leading and only three laps from victory when the manifold started to crack. Taggart eased off to nurse "The Old Lady" along. With two laps remaining, the SLO-MO driver elected to save the boat and himself from fire, which had spread to the hull, and shut off the engine, forever dashing the team's hopes for a sixth consecutive triumph in the race of races.
One can only speculate as to what effect the running of several additional hard laps--due to an Official's error--in the confused first heat of the day, may have had on the hometown favorite's inability to finish the grueling 90-mile grind.
Although "retired," Stan Sayres and his crew continued to test SLO-MO IV the following winter as they had in the past. Sayres sold the disabled SLO-MO V to a local syndicate, which repaired and renamed her MISS SEATTLE. The former "V" raced off and on between 1956 and 1966 but was never again the contender that she had been as SLO-MO-SHUN V.
One week before the 1956 Seafair Trophy Regatta on Lake Washington, Sayres announced that he would return for at least one more event. The "IV" ran an extremely competitive race. She tied the winner, SHANTY I, another Ted Jones hull, on points but not on elapsed time. SLO-MO was decisively beaten in the Final Heat showdown, but had managed to defeat SHANTY I in an earlier preliminary skirmish.
The "IV" was obviously not yet ready for the bone yard, and the Sayres team elected to send her to Detroit for one last try at the Gold Cup, which had been captured the previous year by the Motor City's GALE V.
On an early August morning, a radio report broke the sad news to Seattleites that their boat had crashed during a trial run on the Detroit River. At 150 miles per hour, SLO-MO-SHUN IV had encountered the wake of an illegally moving patrol boat and broken apart, inflicting serious injuries on Joe Taggart, who--like Fageol before him--would never race again.
Sorrowful over the misfortune to his boat and driver, Stan Sayres refused to even look at SLO-MO-SHUN IV in her wrecked state. He died in his sleep three weeks later, a truly heartbroken man.
Sayres did, however, leave a final legacy to the sport that he loved, in the form of an offer to HAWAII KAI III owner Edgar Kaiser, who had assisted in transporting SLO-MO to Detroit. Sayres made available his spare Rolls-Royce Merlin engine for use in the KAI, together with his experienced crew to maintain it.
Beginning with the 1956 President's Cup Regatta, the entire team would affiliate with "The Pink Lady" HAWAII KAI III, which, for the next two years, would fill the void as the sympathetic successor to SLO-MO-SHUN IV as far as Seattle fans were concerned. Backed by the SLO-MO crew, HAWAII KAI won eight races--six of them consecutively--and hauled down the 1957 National Championship in addition to upping the mile straightaway record to 187.627 with Jack Regas as driver.
In 1957, the new hydroplane pit area on Lake Washington boulevard was dedicated to the memory of Stan Sayres. And, in 1990, the Seattle race course was dedicated to Ted Jones by a grateful Unlimited hydroplane fraternity. Sayres and Jones were the two men most directly responsible for the SLO-MO legend and for introducing the Pacific Northwest to big-time power boat racing.
The battered hulk of SLO-MO-SHUN IV was eventually restored for display by original builder Anchor Jensen and donated to the Seattle Museum Of History And Industry in 1959.
During the decade of the 1990s, both SLO-MO-SHUN IV and SLO-MO-SHUN V were put back in running condition by the staff of the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum in Seattle, headed by Dr. Ken Muscatel.
In June 1999, SLO-MO-SHUN IV re-enacted her 1950 mile trial at Sand Point in tribute to the 50th year of the Seafair civic celebration with Dr. Muscatel driving.
Fittingly enough, designer Jones and builder Jensen were on hand to witness the latest chapter of the ongoing SLO-MO-SHUN saga.
NOTE: The author is indebted to David Greene, the Associate Unlimited Historian, who contributed to this article.