The Miss Rock was a fan favorite in the 1980s and 1990s because of its sponsor, radio station KISW 99.9 FM. The wins never materialized, but fans have plenty of good memories of the boat.
Perhaps no origin story better foretold a career than that of the Miss Rock.
The unlimited hydroplane, which became a Seafair fixture in the 1980s and has existed in starts and stops since, has never known success on the water since its slapdash, beat-the-buzzer beginning in 1980. The boat has never won a final and has enjoyed only a handful of heat wins, yet it has enjoyed immense popularity around the Stan Sayres pits.
Well, were you to draw a Venn diagram of hydroplane fans and listeners of the radio station that sponsored it, KISW 99.9 FM, you’d find plenty of overlap. KISW’s hard-rock format was No. 1 in Seattle in the 1980s, and the radio station had plenty of fun with the boat, running outlandish ads and using it as a prop for radio stunts.
“It was the loudest boat out there, kind of indictitive of loud rock music,” former driver Jack Barrie said. “ … We had long hair and beards. We didn’t have the slick uniforms.”
The crew looked liked like it could double as roadies for AC/DC. And add in the Rock girls, scantily clad and posing for photos and handing out swag in the pits, you could see why men in the 18-49 demographic flocked to the boat.
“The station was so big that everything we did was a hit,” said Steve Montgomery, one of the men most responsible of the birth of the boat.
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And it loved to play up to its reputation.
“The Miss Rock was really good at playing up the antihero role,” said David D. Williams, who is the executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent. “In most professional sports … everyone is vying to be the top, be the classiest, be the best. The Miss Rock was pretty good at being tongue in cheek and being OK with not being the best.”
In fact, they reveled in it.
“If we had won, it wouldn’t be us,” said Steve West, who was the KISW general manager during the Miss Rock’s early days. “ … If we had won, they wouldn’t have liked it. We were the rebels.”
And it was pure Seattle: The city’s most popular radio station injecting rock ‘n’ roll into its biggest sporting event. How it could it not endear itself those drinking on the log boom to those watching on TV at home?
“It was very organic,” Williams said. “These were Seattle guys who grew up towing boats behind their bikes, and they’d go to the races with their parents and collect buttons, and they got old enough to run a race boat.”
• • •
Thrown together, thrown in the water
Saturday is the Miss Rock’s birthday.
It was on Aug. 4, 1980, Montgomery was sitting in his cubicle at KISW when West approached him about sponsoring a boat.
That was a Monday. Qualifying for Seafair was Friday.
No boats were in need of a sponsor, so if there was going to be a Miss Rock (for decades most boats titles started with “Miss,” a tradition that’s largely fallen away in recent years), Montgomery would have to find a boat that was on the sidelines.
Lucky for West, he asked the right guy.
Montgomery traces his hydroplane fandom to the original Seafair in 1951 when he was 7 years old.
The man with a radio voice started announcing races, back when he was the program director at KIRO radio, in 1974. He announced the races via public address speakers at the race in Tri-Cities for 15 years. When hydro highlights were shown on ESPN in the 1980s, he was the anchor for the show.
West was also a longtime hydro fan, hooked on the sport at 10 years old when he got to ride in the Tempo VII. He’d even served as the race commissioner at Seafair.
Montgomery remembered the old Miss Timex, which had been run by Doug McIntosh, still existed somewhere. After tracking down McIntosh, he learned the boat was sitting at a shop in Kent.
What they found didn’t seem seaworthy.
It had been sitting out in the rain for several years. There was no engine. Weeds were growing out of the sponsons and you could find a few animals living in the hull.
McIntosh, who died in 2002, insisted it was doable to get the boat on the water by the weekend, and the scramble began.
McIntosh and his four sons served as crew members (a few of whom went on to long careers working with hydros), and they got to work getting an engine together. Montgomery had a co-worker who had painted some cars, and he was dragooned into duty. The artist who had designed the radio station logo was also pressed into service for the finer touches on the boat.
The boat’s first paint job looked black and sleek — until it was left out overnight to dry and dew settled on the paint.
“It looked like primer,” West said. “Black primer.”
While the boat came together, a new wrinkle emerged. It turned out McIntosh didn’t actually own the boat. It belonged to Brian Keogh of Detroit. Keogh said that if the boat was going to run in Seafair, he’d be the one to drive it and hopped on an airplane.
“It was more fun than anything,” said Kelly McIntosh, who was just past high school when the Miss Rock was born. “It’s kind of crazy fun because it was all work, really. But we enjoyed it.”
Kelly McIntosh, who has worked in manufacturing engineering at Boeing in the decades since, still has a photo hanging in his garage of the original Miss Rock crew.
And he has some memories.
He remembers a woman showing up at the pits, saying she was the Miss Rock. As she spent the weekend making sandwiches and helping out, the crew assumed she was from the radio station.
Nobody at KISW had ever heard of her.
McIntosh also has a photo that perfectly encapsulates the Miss Rock image in the 1980s. He’s posing, with long curls sticking out of his trucker hat, next to painting on the transom (back of the boat). It’s a small, gold pot leaf with the phrase “This Bud’s for you” above the station’s “Rock” logo.
The engine arrived at the pits in the back of a pickup owned by a friend of one of the McIntosh sons. After a stop to show it off at a Kent bar, it arrived with the front of the truck sticking up at 45-degree angle because of the weight in the back, West joked.
The boat had to qualify Sunday morning before the heats started. It had to average 100 mph around the course, and Montgomery wasn’t optimistic.
He told Keogh, who died in 2006, that if he didn’t make the qualifying speed, to cut the engine in the north turn. That way the boat, with its sponsorship on display, would have to be towed in front of the crowd.
But the boat was performing better than expected. Montgomery began to wonder if it might have a chance to qualify. Then came a loud pop as the boat hit the north turn and the Miss Rock went dead in the water.
The supercharger had split down the middle. Apparently, the crew knew it was cracked, but they had hoped it would hold together.
Montgomery got his wish and the boat was towed in front of the crowd. West remembered the grandstand looked like it was performing the wave as each section stood and cheered as the boat was towed past. Keogh was floored by the reaction.
“You guys told me you had a hot radio station,” West remembers him saying. “But you didn’t tell me they’d swim out to me with beers in their hands.”
• • •
Bad boys of the pits
The Miss Rock found a new owner the next year, Bob Miller, who also drove the boat. In those years, the boat was more likely to not finish a heat than finish it.
In 1983, Fred Leland took over, and in his first race found the first early success for the Miss Rock. Leland won the consolation race (also called the provisional final, a last-chance heat) at Seafair, which put the Miss Rock in the final.
But in true Miss Rock style, it didn’t behave well in the final. Dean Chenoweth in the Miss Budweiser was lapping Leland (the winner of the provisional isn’t given much of a chance as it starts in the furthest outside lane and well behind in the field). Leland’s sponson hit the Miss Bud’s wake, throwing him from the boat (in those days the boats had open cockpits) and causing the race to be stopped.
It took only a matter of seconds before Leland was back on boat deck. Montgomery learned that day Leland couldn’t swim.
Over the years, the boat further endeared itself to fans by making regular trips to the Bite of Seattle and allowing fans to sign the bottom of the boat. Montgomery said one year 10,000 fans inked signatures. Leland wasn’t pleased when he figured out the ink wasn’t coming off and he had to sand and repaint it.
One year, Def Leppard was in town for a concert. KISW brought the band down to the pits to sign autographs — and to sign the boat. The Miss Rock dedicated its race to the band.
Then there were the annual appearances in the Torchlight Parade.
Barrie remembers in 1989 that fuel started leaking from it. It ran down the trailer, onto the street and toward the gutters. Luckily, nobody smoking along the parade route was immolated.
But that was nothing compared to the next year.
Barrie was qualifying the boat and was coming down the front straightaway. Fire was shooting out of the cowling, but he had no idea. The fire finally burnt enough wiring that it killed the engine, and Barrie, still no idea his ride was aflame, slowly got himself together. That’s when a nitrous bottle blew and hastened his exit from the boat, a moment immortalized on the front page of The Seattle Times the next day.
It was towed back to the pits and Leland called KISW and told him the boat wouldn’t make the parade. The station would have none of it, and so the boat, with the engine pulled, got in line for the parade.
“You could smell the burnt (remains), and everybody was just going wild,” Barrie said. “What else do you expect from the Miss Rock?”
That year for its Christmas card, KISW sent out a photo of the burning boat with a caption that read, “Miss Rock Roasting On An Open Fire.”
The 1980s saw hydroplane racing go from piston-powered boats to faster, more-reliable turbine engines. The Miss Rock was the last boat still rolling out the thunderous Rolls Merlin engines.
Nate Brown built the first turbine for the Miss Rock as he took over as driver in 1992. That first year driving it at Seafair, the Miss Rock left its high-water mark, finishing third in the final (a performance Mark Evans repeated in back-to-back races in Tri-Cities and Seafair in 1995) and earning its first podium (top-three) finish.
The radio station was thrilled, and for his reward, Brown was invited to the station, which wanted to congratulate him on-air.
He turned up at the station as it was running its Nudestock promotion. It was out of character for Brown, but he stripped down and joined the fun. There’s even a photo taken by disc jockey Spike O’Neill.
“It’s more of a reward than you get these days, that’s for sure,” Brown joked, taking a swipe at the purses races pay these days.
KISW sponsored the boat for 15 years, but it didn’t survive an ownership change in the mid 1990s, Montgomery said. There was no Miss Rock when Seafair came around in 1996.
• • •
Miss Rock redux
After seven years on the sideline, the Miss Rock returned.
Ken Muscatel, one of the more interesting figures in hydroplane-racing history, had a sponsor in the Silver Dollar Casino for the boat he owned and drove. The casino teamed up with KISW for a dual sponsorship calling the boat the Silver Dollar Casino presents the Miss Rock in 2003.
Away from the pits, Muscatel is known as Dr. Ken Muscatel, a forensic psychologist who has worked hundreds of homicides.
Muscatel, who grew up on the shores of Lake Washington, said that the only Seafair he missed was in 1968 when he, as a student at the University of Washington, was studying abroad in France.
Over the years, he’s served as president of the hydroplane museum and even as commissioner of unlimited hydroplane racing.
And he always knows what to say to sell his sport.
“The key to being a great hydroplane driver is to have big balls and a tiny helmet,” he said. “You have to be willing to do things no sane person would be willing to do.”
He’s also the owner of several vintage hydroplanes, and he’ll be around Seafair this weekend driving a vintage Miss Pay ‘n Pak.
Muscatel retired in 2011 having never won a final (heats, sure, but never a final) as his was always one of the lower-budget teams in the pits.
Which made him and the Miss Rock a perfect fit.
He certainly had a bigger fan base in those years. KISW once again dispatched the Rock girls to hand out swag and draw attention to the boat.
“You noticed the uptick in fan interest and fun interest,” Muscatel said.
The return of the Miss Rock lasted three years and six races (the casino and radio station sponsored the boat only in Seattle and the Tri-Cities) before the deal with the casino ran out.
“Honestly, everybody was happy, and we all went our separate ways and that was it,” Muscatel said.
• • •
Rockin’ once again
The Miss Rock showed up at the pits at Seafair again in 2016 with familiar ownership.
Leland Racing was without Fred Leland, who died of lung cancer in 2012. His companion Stacey Briseno, whose background was in running restaurants and bars not turbine engines and skid fins, vowed to continue the racing legacy.
The Leland group had a sponsor in CARSTAR, which has 25 auto-body shops in the Puget Sound area. Kevin Parsons owns a few of those locations, and he also does marketing for the group.
Parsons, who is originally from Mercer Island, grew up a hydro fan, and it wouldn’t be unusual to find him out on the log boom during the races. He was talking with KISW about some commercials for his business when he asked: “Why don’t you have the Miss Rock?”
After some more talks, the Miss Rock powered by CARSTAR was born. Or reborn, depending on how you might look at it. The paint job combined the classic black deck of the Miss Rock with a red cowling for CARSTAR.
“Luckily, KISW was crazy enough to do it with me,” Parsons said.
Kevin Eacret, who has a photo of him signing the Miss Rock when he was a child, was the first driver.
“That was my favorite boat back then,” Eacret told the Times in 2016. “I used to drive my friends crazy saying, ‘One of these days, I’m going to drive one of those.’ ”
It’s been an eventful 12 months for the Miss Rock.
Eacret flipped the boat in Detroit last year, and this season, the 50th for Kirkland-based Leland Racing, seemed in doubt. Briseno was resigning herself to sitting out the season.
Briseno tapped rookie Aaron Salmon, 26, who had been building a reputation as a boat builder and repairer, as the new driver. If he could get the boat running, she’d race it.
Salmon came via the recommendation of Scott Raney, who owns the U-11 Unlimited Racing Group. Raney, nicknamed Pyro, has been something of a mentor for Briseno.
“I guess (Raney) thought if somebody was going to make it work, they’d have to be as ornery as me,” Briseno said.
Salmon grew up a hydro fan, and he built his first boat through the hydroplane museum’s Junior Hydro Program, which allows kids under 16 a chance to build their own hydro in an affordable way. He built a J-stock boat at 15 with his dad, David, and started racing.
Salmon, who went to Shorecrest High but lives in Bonney Lake these days, built a larger hydroplane (C-stock) as his senior project in high school. That’s also when he began volunteering with the U-11 Reliable Diamond Toll Presents J & D team, which eventually hired him. As Raney had a veteran driver in Tom Thompson, there was no room for Salmon when he became ready to drive in the unlimited circuit.
The Miss Rock needed to be nearly completely rebuilt as it was nearly broken in half from the flip. Salmon enlisted his family in the rebuild. If you look at the list of crew on the H1 Unlimited website, there’s six with the last name of Salmon listed.
The Miss Rock was on the water when the season began in Guntersville, Ala., in late June.
Because of weather problems and few other issues with an inexperienced team, Salmon wasn’t able to get enough laps to qualify as a driver (15 laps at over 130 mph).
Salmon, who works in the engine department of aerospace company Blue Origin in Kent, got himself and the boat qualified in Madison, Ind., two weeks later and even got a heat under his sponson.
“You couldn’t smack the smile off my face for a week after that,” he said.
Raney even earned the assist, loaning his former team member one of his engines so he could get out on the water. The Miss Rock’s engine had an internal oil leak.
“I did it for all the years of loyalty to me and our team. And I trust the kid,” Raney said on the H1 Unlimited website. “It was a way to give back to him for busting his butt for all the years with our team.”
The boat struggled again at the Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities, finishing just one of the four heats.
But Salmon sees the Miss Rock as his opportunity to build a team and become a contender.
Which is exactly what the Miss Rock has been over the years, an entry point into the sport for many.
Several drivers got their start on the boat before heading off to new boats. Even Leland went on to win a national title with Dave Villwock driving his PICO American Dream in 1996.
“It was a spawning ground,” Williams said.
Rock of Ages
|Here’s who has owned and driven the Miss Rock over the years.|
|1980||Bob Warner/Brian Keogh||Brian Keogh|
|1981-82||Bob Miller||Bob Miller|
|1983-95||Fred Leland||Mark Evans, Tom Hindley, Jack Barrie, Mitch Evans, Ken Dryden, Nate Brown, Fred Leland|
|2003-05||Ken Muscatel||Ken Muscatel|
|2016-18||Stacey Briseno||Kevin Eacret, Aaron Salmon|
|Source: Jim Sharkey|