A Tribute to Bill O'Mara
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Anyone who was an Unlimited hydroplane fan in the Seattle area in the 1950s remembers Bill O'Mara. One of the legends of Pacific Northwest sports broadcasting, O'Mara brought an enthusiasm to his coverage of the races that was contagious.
As an announcer for KING-TV for twelve years, Bill did the play-by-play for the Seattle Seafair races from 1951 to 1959.
KING-TV was the unquestioned leader in hydroplane broadcasting during the O'Mara years. With state-of-the-art photography and Bill's passionate commentary, KING had a winning combination.
A native of Minnesota, O'Mara began his sports announcing career on radio in 1939 in the Mid-West. He made his way to the West Coast in 1948. One of his first broadcasting assignments at KING was coverage of Seattle Rainiers baseball games.
His real name is William Rhodes, Jr. When hired at KING-TV, one of the station's prime sponsors was The Bon Marche, which didn't particularly want a sportscaster bearing the name of a rival department store -- Rhodes.
In 1950, a friend invited O'Mara down to Lake Washington to see "something special." The occasion was a test run by SLO-MO-SHUN IV, the Northwest's first Unlimited hydro. The sight of SLO-MO skimming across the water at tremendous speed, throwing an impressive roostertail of spray, was awe-inspiring. In an instant, Bill was "hooked" on the hydros. He would remain so for the next half century.
SLO-MO-SHUN IV went on to capture the APBA Gold Cup on the Detroit River in 1950 with Ted Jones driving. In those days, the Gold Cup winner had the right to defend his title on home waters. In the twinkling of an eye, Seattle was "Hydro Happy." In the days before there were any Seahawks, Sonics, or Mariners, the boat race was the biggest thing in town, when the Seattle-Detroit rivalry was at its peak.
KING-TV/Channel 5 advertised itself as being "First In The Northwest." And, with O'Mara at the helm, KING was the first to televise a live Unlimited hydroplane race west of the Mississippi River.
Seattle's hydroplane debut occurred on August 4, 1951. Driver Lou Fageol retained the Gold Cup for owner Stan Sayres at the wheel of SLO-MO-SHUN V.
The 1951 Gold Cup was also the occasion of a double fatality. A boat called QUICKSILVER, representing Portland, Oregon, went out of control and crashed while attempting to pass another boat during the Final Heat. Driver Orth Mathiot and riding mechanic Thom Whittaker were killed.
What happened next would become a part of hydroplane lore. A visibly shaken Bill O'Mara faced the camera and led his unseen audience in The Lord's Prayer.
As hydro fever grew in Seattle, O'Mara fanned the flames of this new regional obsession and replaced the rain as a conversational topic.
KING-TV's visual presentation of the races was second to none. Indeed, the introduction of the 100-inch lens seemingly put the viewers right in the cockpit with the hydro drivers.
When announcing a race, Bill would get so excited, fans had to keep their eyes glued to the TV, in order to follow what O'Mara was talking about.
As interest in the sport grew, so did the media coverage. KING was soon competing with two other TV stations and as many as thirteen radio stations in its presentation of the Seattle race.
In 1955, KING-TV pulled off a classic broadcasting coup over rival KOMO-TV/Channel 4.
The Gold Cup had apparently been won that year by Bill Muncey and the Seattle-based MISS THRIFTWAY, which had finished third, first, and first in heat races for a total of 1025 points. Lee Schoenith and the Detroit-based GALE V had finished second, second, and third for a total of 825 points.
The KOMO crew presumed that because Muncey had finished first in two out of three heats that MISS THRIFTWAY had won the race. They announced Muncey as the winner and signed off the air.
The KING crew was likewise about to call it a day when an alert production assistant reminded O'Mara about the matter of Bonus Points. Bill said, "Explain this to me."
Bonus Points were the 400 points that were awarded to the boat that posted the fastest average speed for all three 30-mile heats.
True, Muncey had beaten Schoenith in Heats Two and Three. But Schoenith had finished far ahead of Muncey in Heat One. Who had the faster total elapsed time?
O'Mara chose to stay on the air. And it was a good thing that he did.
After checking and re-checking the times, Gold Cup officials discovered that GALE V had run the 90 miles 4.536 seconds faster than MISS THRIFTWAY. The 400 Bonus Points raised GALE V's point total to 1225, compared to 1025 for MISS THRIFTWAY.
GALE V had won the 1955 Gold Cup without winning a single heat! And viewers got the news first on Channel 5! The Gold Cup would go back to Detroit for 1956.
It was a shining moment for O'Mara and the KING crew and one of supreme embarrassment for their counterparts at KOMO.
In the years ahead, KING-TV's hydro coverage branched out from its Seattle home base.
On September 1, 1956, Channel 5 did a live broadcast of the Gold Cup from Detroit. Moreover, Heats 2-A, 2-B, and the Final were aired live on national television via the ABC Network. This was a famous first for Unlimited hydroplane racing.
KING-TV also found itself unexpectedly caught up in the controversial matter of an alleged buoy foul by the MISS THRIFTWAY at the 1956 Gold Cup.
Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY--for the second year in a row--had apparently won the cup. But the officials wanted to take it away from them for supposedly destroying a buoy on the seventh lap of the Final Heat.
KING-TV came to Muncey's rescue. Television film of the race showed that the buoy was still visible in the spray after MISS THRIFTWAY had passed it. Then, on the following lap, the buoy was no longer upright.
As a result, the disqualification of MISS THRIFTWAY was rescinded and the Gold Cup went back to Seattle for 1957.
Bill O'Mara did four hydro telecasts in 1957. These included the debut of the Apple Cup in Chelan, Washington, the Gold Cup in Seattle, the Silver Cup in Detroit, and the President's Cup in Washington, D.C.
In 1958, O'Mara and KING-TV presented the inaugural Diamond Cup from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Unlimited competition was certainly big business in Seattle in the late-1950s. The races were sacrosanct. No one dared complain about them too loudly. And KING-TV was the sport's most respected medium. No one quite realized that Unlimited racing--as a big-time Seattle sport--had seen its better days.
Over-exposure. Public complacence. Increasing commercialization. The promise of major league sports on the horizon. Whatever the reason, hydro racing was perceived by some as being on a downward slide.
Looking ahead to the 1960s, the KING Broadcasting Company management developed new long-range plans for the station. Bill O'Mara's hydro agenda was not included in those long-range plans. Bill's replacement as Sports Director was a man who openly despised the Unlimiteds. Within two years of O'Mara's departure, live TV coverage of out-of-town races was a thing of the past.
After leaving KING, Bill moved to San Diego where he worked in both radio and television for several years. By 1963, he was back in the Northwest, announcing the Seafair Regatta for Radio Station KOL.
O'Mara still had a considerable fan base. As the often-told story goes, in countless Seattle homes on Seafair Sunday, people would tune their TV sets to Channel 5 but would turn down the volume. They would place a radio, tuned to KOL, on top of the TV. Fans could then enjoy the classic O'Mara commentary together with the superior KING visuals as in days of old.
In 1971, as an employee of Radio Station KFKF in Bellevue, Washington, Bill was presented an award for excellence in broadcast journalism by the APBA Unlimited Racing Commission.
At the 1994 Seattle Seafair Regatta, O'Mara was invited by KIRO-TV/Channel 7 to do the play-by-play for a special exhibition run by the restored SLO-MO-SHUN V. Thirty-nine years earlier, in 1955, Bill had been doing the commentary when the "V" did a spectacular 360-degree flip on Lake Washington during a qualification attempt.
The KIRO experience was a happy one for the man who had set the standard for hydro broadcasting. The smile never left his face all day.
In 1998, O'Mara was inducted into the Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame. Surrounded by several generations of family members, Bill praised his former KING employer, Dorothy Bullitt, and described her as "a broadcast pioneer."
Even after decades in the industry, Bill O'Mara showed no signs of slowing down. As late as 2004, at age 87, he was still going strong as Sports Director of Radio Station KLKI-AM in Anacortes, Washington, where he had worked since 1989.
In a 2004 interview with the SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER, O'Mara affirmed his love for all sports--everything from prep basketball to Unlimited hydroplanes.
"I've never 'worked' a day in my life," he insisted. "I've been tired, I've been worn out, but I've never been bored."