Before or after watching hydroplane races on Lake Washington, a visit to the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent will round out the experience.

Share story

Museum location: 5917 S. 196th St., Kent.

Displays: Before or after watching this weekend’s hydroplane races on Lake Washington, a stop here will round out the experience and leave your head spinning with mid-to-late 20th-century Seattle history. The staff (and museum members on pilgrimage) delight in answering the most amateurish questions about their beloved boats, with an enthusiasm that’s endearingly infectious.

The museum has 13 hydroplanes, all restored to running condition in the museum’s restoration shop (which also restored the Slo-mo-shun IV hydroplane now on display at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry). The boats are rotated in and out of the cavernous 12,000-square-foot museum space (there were eight on display last week), often traveling to be on display or in racing exhibitions. (The Oh Boy! Oberto boat will be on display during this year’s Seafair race weekend at — where else? — the Oh Boy! Oberto Factory Outlet on 1715 Rainier Ave. S.).

Huge, gleaming fiberglass boats fitted with airplane engines dot the exhibition space, and videos of vintage racing clips show hydroplanes powerfully skittering around turns and kicking up tall arching rooster-tails of spray. In this hands-on museum, you can even climb up and sit in the cockpit of the Miss Budweiser — that is, if you’re slim enough. The leather seats were custom-fitted to the drivers to hold them in tightly — although not too snugly. If things went bad suddenly, it was better to be thrown free of a fast-sinking, 2- to 3-ton boat instead of riding it to the bottom of the lake.

Calling amiable museum director David D. Williams a few weeks before Seafair is like “calling Santa a few days before Christmas,” but he was happy to talk. The museum’s goal is to “honor, celebrate and preserve the accomplishments of unlimited hydroplane racing,” he said, a hydroplane driver himself since 1993.

Although unlimited hydroplane racing may now seem a specialized sport, it played a huge part in Seattle’s history and had extremely broad appeal. After the Slo-mo-shun IV won the American Power Boat Association’s elite Gold Cup in 1950, Seattle’s boats became major players in hydroplane races over the next several decades.

According to Williams, who has written six books on the sport, hydroplane racing even opened the door to the World’s Fair and the eventual arrival of organized sports in Seattle.

“At that time, this was a huge phenomenon — and it was a big family event,” said Williams. “In 1956, a crowd of 500,000 people watched the Seafair races — and this when Seattle only had a population of 600,000. The people who care about this sport care very deeply.”

Highlights: Several of the hydroplanes are Hollywood veterans — the museum supplied boats used in the 2001 film “Madison” (starting local star Jim Caviezel). Claiming to be the only public museum dedicated to powerboat racing, it also offers a unique only-around-Seattle workshop. Beginning Sept. 1, kids and their parents can build their own 8-foot-long hydroplane throughout the winter and begin racing next May. Call for details; space is limited.

Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; closed Sundays and Mondays.

Admission: $10 adults; $5 students and seniors; free for ages 5 and younger.

Directions: From Interstate 5 (heading north or south), take Exit 152. Turn east onto 188th St, then turn right onto Orillia Road and head down the hill. After about a half-mile, turn left at the stoplight onto South 200th Street (the road curves to become South 196th Street). The museum is on the right side of the street on a curve.

By bus: Metro Transit route 150 stops near West Valley Highway and South 196th Street, close to the museum (206-553-3000 or http://tripplanner.metrokc.gov).

For more information: 206-764-9453 or www.thunderboats.org.

— Cathy McDonald, Special to The Seattle Times

Renton-based freelancer Cathy McDonald, a former geologist, has written about science and nature travel for 20 years. She’s currently a travel guidebook editor and researcher at Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door. Contact her: nwwriter@hotmail.com.