Earl Wham is an icon in motorsports that few in the area have surpassed. From hyrdoplanes to auto racing Wham has done and seen it all over the course of an impressive career.
With the return of unlimited hydroplane racing to the Columbia River this weekend and the running of the Idaho 200 next week, one Spokane resident has a keen eye on both events – Earl Wham, former Atlas Van Lines hydroplane driver and auto racing engine builder.
Winning in hydroplanes and auto racing with Kong Power, his signature engines built in the Spokane Valley, has earned Wham folklore status in the racing community.
Wham has slowed a bit as he approaches his 80th birthday, but he still does engines for Mark Owens, who won the pole for last weekend’s Montana 200 and maintains weekly conversations with American Boat Racing Association unlimited hydroplane owner Fred Leyland.
The world record-holding driver has many memories amassed in his lifetime of motorsports. When it comes to hydroplanes, the Inland Empire native is a fountain of knowledge.
“I built Fred’s (Leyland) first winning motor back in 1964 and then the boat went on to win several races,” Wham said. “In 1973, I built the first single automobile engine hydroplane motor to qualify for an unlimited race, but when it comes to the Columbia Cup I know we didn’t always have the best of luck down there or more would stick out, but it makes me remember more fondly the time we won the Diamond Cup out on (Lake) Coeur d’Alene.
“The Miss Merion Bluegrass wasn’t even ready to go for me on Monday of race week. Fred Rogers got the hull and propellers ready while I finished the engine and took the boat out to Newman Lake, made a few passes, knew it was good to go and went and ran the Diamond Cup without a paint job. … She had about seven different colors on her that day, everything from pinks and reds to wood-grain mahogany. We used our little 266 cubic-inch engine to beat those big boys with the Chrysler 426s. It was a lot of fun.”
Wham got into boat racing on a lark. When the local circle tracks decided that his racecar engine was too strong and banned it, the seed was planted to run hydroplanes.
“In 1956, my car was so fast that they outlawed me from racing it,” Wham said. “I took the motor out and put it in a boat and then went out and won over 100 races. I guess I showed them back then.”
Car racing went hand in hand with boat racing as Wham built and drove his powerplants in the hydro ranks while supplying Ed Sneva and his sons with engines to take to their auto races.
With time catching up on the motorsports great, Wham admits that he’s had to pass on his knowledge, like Rogers did for him, to a new person – Jeff Bird.
Bird Racing Engines have won Yakima Speedway Fall Classics, lead the ASA Northwest Late Model Tour points standings for 2009 and have many championships.
The Hayden resident’s résumé over the 15 years he’s spent with Wham is scattered with race wins from across the Northwest – something Wham is proud of as he powers down his own services.
“I believe Jeff Bird is one of the top engine builders on the West Coast, if not the entire country,” Wham said. “I’ve spent these last 15 years teaching him everything I know and he’s surpassed me in that time.
“I’m slowing down a little more these days and only work on Owens’ motors. I have even tried to step away from that deal, but those guys won’t let me quit. I don’t go out and look for business anymore and instead send a person to Jeff. I am happy knowing that my engines have won every major race there is, from Fall Classics to Montana and Idaho 200s to NASCAR Winter Heat with (Marc) Groskreutz and everything in between.”
Wham said his motors were simply along for the ride in all of those race victories.
“Those guys that have won with my motors just make me look good,” he said. “An engine builder just helps out a great driver, in my mind. I have had a lot of fun and these guys around here that have used my motors make us all look good.”