Visiting a sprint-boat track in tiny St. John in Whitman County, population 550 or so, a farming community in the rich wheat belt, birthplace of former governor Mike Lowry 275 miles east of Seattle.

Share story

 Amanda and Matt Webb wanted their own field of dreams.

So they carved up their wheat field with a three-foot-deep channel and filled it with water.

They knew if they built it, they would come. That took both faith and optimism.

It’s not as if they’re just off Interstate 90. The Webb’s sprint-boat track is in tiny St. John in Whitman County, population 550 or so. It’s a farming community in the rich wheat belt, birthplace of former governor Mike Lowry 275 miles east of Seattle.

The Webb’s site is terraced so fans can line the hillside above the serpentine course.

They can bring their own chairs, coolers, blankets and sun umbrellas.

The food concessions offer everything from corn dogs to teriyaki chicken, and fans can wash it down with a Bud Light or a soda.

Just beyond the race area, RVs and tents cover the land. Across Highway 23 are mocha-toned harvested fields in the Palouse.

There are only two race days a year here, but 3,500 have come to this event.

Sprint boats are high-powered, high-octane, high-decibel machines “no good for anything else,” says owner and driver Bill Reichert from Tulameen, B.C.

“The boats are a little quick for fishing.”

His is around 13 feet long with a bored-out V-8 automobile engine generating a screaming 600-horsepower fed by 115-octane fuel that powers a water jet. There are no propellers.

Only one boat is on the course at a time, racing against the clock.

Two people sit side-by-side in the cockpit, a driver and navigator.

They’re suited up like Grand Prix drivers surrounded by sturdy roll bars and pull 6 or 7 Gs in turns.

It’s a very technical course, a tight maze with little margin for error.

If a boat leaves the channel and goes aground, safety personnel quickly get it back in the water so the course can be cleared for the next competitor.

The goal is to run the course in less than a minute.

Driver Ranae Faircloth and navigator Meighan Condon are the only female team of the 28 crews racing.

Faircloth says, “it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.”

They’re not racing for a huge purse or payout; Reichert says “there’s lots of money in boat racing — it’s all mine.”

Bob Hardy of Tenino provides fuel to the Fear Not team.

He upper arm shows commitment with a Fear Not tattoo.

Hardy says “every other form of racing bores me.”

It’s an often-shared fan perspective with a fair amount of condescension toward hydro racing.

More than one fan compares watching hydros to watching bowling, but less interesting.

There, they say, the spectators are too far away with too much time between heats.

But with sprint boats, Hardy says, you’re really close, hearing the engines roar in a great setting. “You’ll need a plastic surgeon to get the smile off your face.”