Nowadays, the big unlimited hydroplanes that skim across the water on a race course are turbine powered by Chinook helicopter engines. The aged among us (count me in) remember when the big boats were powered by 12-cylinder World War II fighter engines. The sound of a turbine does not satisfy like the piston engine. It is no wonder the old hydroplanes were called thunderboats.
At the recent Tri-Cities big boat race, several of the “vintage unlimiteds” were on display and many ran laps on the race course.
I had the chance to stand next to a vintage thunderboat out of water, when the crew was fiddling with the running engine. They were trying to resolve some mechanical problem. The engine roar made everyone in Pasco, Kennewick and Richland press hands over their ears. I clenched my teeth so the fillings didn’t vibrate out. The hearing-aid salesmen in the Tri-Cities make a lot of money right after the hydroplane races every year.
Unlimited hydroplane racing in Pasco started way back in 1966 with the “Atomic Cup” and unlimited hydroplane races have continued every year since on that wide spot in the Columbia River.
Some may remember when the thunderboats roared on Coeur d’Alene Lake. The Diamond Cup race was held from 1958 to 1968 (except for 1967). The big race hasn’t been held since 1968, due to student riots and crowd misbehavior during the last few races. Several people reading these words probably contributed to that mayhem.
Many of the old piston boats have been restored and now operate again. And they are coming back to Coeur d’Alene Lake this year. Vintage unlimiteds don’t really race but they do roar around the course with the inimitable “rooster tail” rising behind. The sight of Miss Bardahl, Miss Thriftway, Miss Wahoo and other old boats screaming around the buoys makes old hearts flutter.
The Diamond Cup for thunderboats will be held Aug. 20 and 21 at the north end of the lake where the race was held in olden times. The 2011 Diamond Cup is “a running exhibition of vintage unlimited hydroplanes” sponsored by the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum of Coeur d’Alene, which will sell rides as a fundraiser.
However, one of the old thunderboats, the U-25 Miss Spokane, will not be present at this year’s Diamond Cup exhibition. That boat is still in one piece and owned by the son of one of the former crew chiefs, Kent Simonson, who held the Miss Spokane together during her racing years. His son, Kent Richard Simonson II, keeps the old Miss Spokane U-25 at a secret storage chamber located in the Lilac City.
Kent Jr., who has taken on the suspicious moniker “Pancho,” complains that he is only $100,000 short of bringing the old boat to full restoration. Money has always been a problem for the Miss Spokane. The boat ran as a “community boat” but very little funding ever came from the city or its citizens. Most of the expenses were borne by the crew and their families. Unlimited hydroplane racing was and is an expensive game to play.
Never-the-less, it will be a great show. Diamonds are not forever.
An older gentleman, like myself, can feel safe among the crowd watching the Diamond Cup this year. Most of you who misbehaved back in the 1960s don’t have enough energy to riot nowadays. You would need a nap first.