Earl Wham, a motorsports legend in the Spokane area who impacted auto and hydroplane racing for more than half a century, died Friday. He was 87.
A car racer, boat racer and engine builder, the Spokane Valley resident got his start in the 1950s, racing a flathead V8 in a 1937 Ford on tracks at the old Mead Speedway and Joe Albi Stadium.
And he was successful, setting track records and winning championships with the engines he built. Too successful, perhaps.
“In 1956, my car was so fast that they outlawed me from racing it,” Wham was quoted in a 2009 article in The Spokesman-Review. “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.”
In an article in Powerboat Magazine in 1973 titled “Superwham,” the manager of the Eastern Washington Stock Car Racing Association was quoted as saying, “Crowds like closeness in a race – not one driver taking the lead every time.”
That ended Wham’s circle-track racing, but not his racing career. He gave drag racing a try for a year with a dual-motor, gas-powered dragster at the Deer Park Dragstrip, beating everyone in sight, including a nitro-fuel-powered car or two.
But it was his engine-building and boat racing where he really left his mark.
“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,” columnist Doug Pace wrote in The S-R in a May 21, 2010, article.
“Car racing went hand in hand with boat racing as Wham built and drove his power-plants in the hydro ranks while supplying Ed Sneva and his sons with engines to take to their auto races,” Pace added.
Wham had a few stints in the Atlas Van Lines unlimited, getting out when he realized the dangers associated with the open-cockpit boats. His primary hydroplane success came in the 266 and 7-liter classes in boats dubbed “Holy Smoke,” reportedly for his expression following his first hydro run, and “Miss Merion Bluegrass,” named after the grass seed raised by partner Fred Rogers.
He won the Little Diamond Cup on Lake Coeur d’Alene in 1964 in a 266-class boat, then took their 7-liter Miss Merion and became dominant on the American Powerboat Racing Association circuit.
They set the world straightaway speed record in 1967 at 159.217 mph on Devils Lake in Oregon, which held for 3½ years; set the U.S. straightaway speed record in 1970 and ’71; and were APBA High Point National Champions in 1970 and ’71 in the Miss Merion. In 1970, they won every race they entered
Wham retired on the top of his sport after he won in a field of seven boats in a straight-line, quarter-mile drag race on Oct. 7, 1971, at Lake Sammamish, Washington.
All the success didn’t come without a trial or two. The Merion was involved in a collision with another boat during the Pasco Water Follies in 1965 and sank. It was recovered a month later. And in 1969, while in Miami for the Orange Bowl Regatta, which it had won a year earlier, the Merion was stolen. When it was recovered, the engine was missing. It too was later recovered, but Wham theorized the thieves wanted to see what made it tick.
Like any good sportsman – he liked snow and water skiing and was an all-city pingpong champion as well as his racing pursuits – Wham had a fish story that The S-R told in 1999.
He called the newspaper and left a voice-mail saying, “I caught a 66-pound steelhead in Alaska and I thought you might want to know about it.”
The paper did, reporting that the fish was a chinook salmon caught in Alaska’s Kenai River, not a steelhead, “but you can’t really blame Wham for the confusion.
“It’s the only big fish I ever caught in my life, period,” he said. “Actually, I’ve never really been fishing at all. And it was my first time to Alaska.
“This is a big joke with my relatives who fish all time.”
Wham was born in Republic, Washington, but lived most of his life in Spokane, graduating from Lewis and Clark High School. Services have not been announced.