By Danny O'Neil
SLO-MO-SHUN IV, lovingly restored, returned to her natural habitat, Lake Washington when Ken Muscatel took her for a test drive, preparing for the 50th anniversary of Seafair this summer.
Pete Bertellotti watched Slo-mo-shun IV skip twice and nose-dive into the river. His heart sank as the boat buried itself in the water.
More than 30 years later, he remembers the fear that gripped his gut on the Detroit River that early August morning in 1956. As a member of the boat's crew, he was worried about driver Joe Taggart, who suffered serious knee and shoulder injuries.
There was no hope for Seattle's most famous hydroplane.
Owner Stan Sayres never saw the wrecked hull of Slo-mo-shun IV. He walked away from his team's pit, unable to make himself look at the remains of the boat called "The Old Lady." Sayres died of a heart attack less than three weeks later.
Bertellotti is one of three members of the '56 crew still living. Yesterday, he was at Sayres Park, watching Slo-mo-shun IV accelerate beyond 100 mph for the first time since the accident. Ken Muscatel, Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association commissioner, drove the classic hydro on Lake Washington, preparing for the 50th anniversary of Seafair this summer.
On June 26, Muscatel will re-enact Slo-mo-shun IV's record-setting run on Lake Washington off Sand Point. In 1950, the boat set the world straightaway water-speed record, averaging 160.3235 mph on two one-mile runs.
It was the fastest boat in the world from 1950 to '55. It is even faster today, outfitted with a Rolls Royce Merlin engine. Slo-mo-shun IV is fully restored right down to the lack of seat belts and open cockpit.
"If I had lots of guts and no brains, I could go probably close to 200 miles an hour," Muscatel said.
Yesterday, 130 mph was more Muscatel's speed and even then there was a white-knuckle moment in the middle of the boat's second lap.
The prop was too powerful, causing the rear of the boat to raise up and the nose to drop slightly. Slo-mo-shun IV wobbled in the water for a moment, snaking right and left before Muscatel eased off the gas.
"My heart started palpitating," Bertellotti said. "I don't want to see the boat get hurt."
Neither did Jane Cazimero, deputy director of the Museum of History and Industry. Slo-mo-shun IV is part of the museum's collection, and Cazimero was all nerves while the boat was in the water, especially during its second-lap wiggle.
"I almost ate my sunglasses," Cazimero said.
Driving the boat fulfilled one of Muscatel's childhood dreams. Crashing wasn't an option.
"I might as well have been dead," he said.
Although a replica of the boat could be built for $90,000, the original is priceless. Earlier this spring, Seafair was granted permission to use Slo-mo-shun IV by the museum's board of trustees.
Slo-mo-shun IV was part of Seafair in 1990, taking a lap around the course. The boat stayed under 100 mph, fulfilling an agreement with the museum. This year there is no agreement on speed, though Bertellotti would prefer Slo-mo-shun IV stayed in double digits.
"I don't like to see these old ones go over 100 and 110 (mph)," he said. "These boats are museum pieces."
And Slo-mo-shun IV is the cornerstone of Seattle raceboat history. Two months after it set the water-speed record in '50, designer Ted Jones drove Slo-mo-shun IV to victory in the Gold Cup in Detroit, earning Seattle the right to host the race on Lake Washington in '51.
"If it wasn't for Slo-mo-shun IV, there would have been no hydroplane history in Seattle," Muscatel said.
Sayres' boats won five straight Gold Cups from 1950 to '54. Slo-mo-shun IV won three of them.
Muscatel was too young to remember the speed record in '50. But Slo-mo-shun IV was one of the boats he watched roar around Lake Washington from his family's lakeside home in Leschi.
He was at Harrison Hot Springs when he read a newspaper account of Slo-mo-shun IV's crash at the '56 Gold Cup qualifying in Detroit.
The boat was transported back to Seattle and put on display in the KING-TV parking lot. Sayres died the day after thousands of Seattle residents viewed the boat's wrecked hull.
"People went into mourning," Muscatel said.
Bertellotti and other members of the crew sat on the boat in the parking lot, making sure souvenir hunters didn't strip what was left of the boat. Bertellotti got his own memento, a fragment of the sponson bearing part of the boat's number, U-27.
Bertellotti assisted on the initial restoration of Slo-mo-shun IV in 1958. In '90, it returned to the water after extensive work by the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum.
Yesterday, it looked just as it did in '56. The varnished mahogany and rooster-red tail are restored, even details such as the Pegasus decals of sponsor Mobil.
Its number is painted on the sponson in the same shade of bright orange-yellow and the boat's name is scripted on the side in simple cursive.
The piston engine's roar is the final proof this boat is from another era. The same engine used in World War II fighter planes caught and started yesterday with an explosive bang.
"That's music to my ears," Bertellotti said.
The boat sputtered smoke rings of filmy black exhaust into the air as it warmed up and eased away from the dock.
It picked up speed through its first lap. A 15-foot-high roostertail of water in the boat's wake provided a hint of the power Slo-mo-shun IV once wielded over the city's attention and imagination.
"All the memories are coming back," Bertellotti said.
Memorable moments of the Slo-mo-shun IV, Seattle's most famous unlimited hydroplane:
1949: Slo-mo-shun IV is launched. Designed by Ted Jones, built by Anchor Jensen and owned by Stan Sayres.
1950: Sayres sets world straightaway water-speed record of 160.3235 mph, breaking the mark by almost 20 mph.
1950: Jones wins the Gold Cup on the Detroit River in August, the first of five straight Gold Cups won by Sayres' boats.
August 1956: Wake from a police boat triggers a crash during Gold Cup qualifying in Detroit, injuring driver Joe Taggart.
1959: A year after the boat is restored, it goes on display in Museum of History and Industry.
1990: Returns to the water in that summer's Seafair. Taggart is passenger for three ceremonial laps on final day of races.