With Seafair coming up this weekend, and big crowds expected, it would seem hydroplane racing is doing fine. But a closer look shows changes are needed in a sport that now features only five stops on the H1 Unlimited calendar and 10 teams.

Share story

Casual fans of unlimited hydroplane racing in Seattle can be excused for not knowing about the predicament the sport is in. If your only exposure to turbine-powered boats that can reach speeds of 200 mph comes during one weekend a year during Seafair, it’d be easy not to know.

The Albert Lee Appliance Cup at Seafair brings six-figure crowds (just shy of 162,000 for three days last year) to the shores of Lake Washington, and Seattle has 60 years’ worth of history as one of the top stops on the racing circuit.

“Hydroplane was our marquee event and it identified Seattle,” said David D. Williams, who is the executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent. “When people thought about Seattle, they thought about hydros.”

Hydroplanes schedule

Here’s when the boats are in the water this weekend:

Friday

8 a.m.: Grand Prix World Hydroplane testing

9:10 a.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane testing

10:30 a.m.: West Coast F1 Powerboat testing

11:05 a.m.: Vintage Hydroplane exhibition

2:40 p.m.: West Coast F1 Powerboat testing

3:30 p.m.: F1 Unlimited Hydroplane testing

Saturday

8 a.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane testing

10 a.m.: West Coast F1 Powerboat testing

10:25 a.m.: Grand Prix World Hydroplane testing

11:10 a.m.: West Coast F1 Powerboat Heat 1

11:25 a.m.: Vintage Hydroplane Exhibition

11:40 a.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Heat 1A

11:55 a.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Heat 1B

3:40 p.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Heat 2A

3:55 p.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Heat 2B

4:10 p.m.: Grand Pix World Hydroplane Heat 1

4:25 p.m.: West Coast F1 Powerboat Heat 2

4:40 p.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane testing

Sunday

9:30 a.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane testing

10:35 a.m.: Grand Prix World Hydroplane testing

11:30 a.m.: Vintage Hydroplane exhibition

11:45 a.m.: West Coast F1 Powerboat Heat 3

Noon: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Heat 3A

12:15 p.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Heat 3B

12:30 p.m.: Grand Prix World Hydroplane Heat 2

4:15 p.m.: Grand Prix World Hydroplane final

4:30 p.m.: West Coast F1 Powerboat final

4:45 p.m.: H1 Unlimited Hydroplane final

On the air

TV: KIRO Ch. 7 is doing wrap-up special at 7 p.m. Sunday

Radio: KKNW 1150 AM is broadcasting live Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Online: KIROTV.com is livestreaming the event starting 9 a.m. Sunday

Source: Seafair.com

That bubble was pierced in March when it was announced that KIRO would stop broadcasting the races. It’s the first time in the 66-year history of hydroplane racing on Lake Washington the race won’t be shown on live TV.

But if you follow the whole circuit, the fact that Seafair coverage is drawing only a 2.3 rating (meaning 2.3 percent of adults 25-54 watched the coverage) in western Washington isn’t surprising.

The glory days of a dozen boats racing at a dozen stops have been petering out since the 1990s. These days, there’s only five stops on the H1 Unlimited calendar and 10 teams, only a few of which are guaranteed to make every race.

So changes are needed. And they could be coming soon.

Time for new ideas

What’s the biggest challenge unlimited hydroplane racing needs to confront?

To put it politely, the average age of the racing fan has advanced along with the sport. So too have much of the people associated with it.

“We’re a bunch of old people,” said first-year H1 Unlimited chairman Doug Bernstein, who has been attending races on the Detroit River since 1969.

Attracting the next generation of racing fan is a must.

Seafair has approached this by changing the event around the hydroplane racing. Added to goings-on in Genesee Park this year are a BMX stunt bike group and a beach water polo tournament to go with the Hyperlite Wakeboard experience that has become a regular during the racing weekend. There will also be increased play areas for younger kids and a partnership with Ivar’s to add to the food offerings.

Seafair hopes that this will attract a different crowd than what normally shows up for the boat racing and air shows. “It’s not the reason to come to Seafair, but it’s part of the overall critical mass,” said Richard Andersen, who has been president of Seafair for 20 months.

H1 Unlimited has been tinkering with the race format. And for good reason.

The format that’s been in place for decades has grown stale.

Think of Seafair. Friday has qualifying, where it’s a few hours of boats going solo around the course. Saturday features one heat. Fans have to fight for hours to get to the lake for 45 minutes of racing. Sunday has two heats before a provisional (where the boats that didn’t make the final have one last shot) and the final.

That’s, maybe, two hours of racing packed into a seven-hour day.

This year, there will be two preliminary heats on Saturday. Sunday will have one before the 4:45 p.m. final. There’s also two smaller classes of boats on the undercard, which is one more than in recent years.

Madison, Ind., which hosts the season-opening event, experimented with a shootout-style of race, similar to what you’ll find in NHRA.

Detroit is experimenting with a two-race format. Saturday will be the President’s Cup with two qualifying heats and the final. Sunday will be the Gold Cup (the Daytona 500 of the circuit) with three qualifying heats and a final. It’s a format borrowed from IndyCar’s stop in Detroit.

Mix in two other classes of race boats, and Bernstein said the goal in Detroit is to have boats in the water every 20 minutes.

“Nobody has time to go to the john,” Bernstein said jokingly.

‘Tremendous opportunity’

Bernstein knows about rebuilding projects. He’s one of the leading bankruptcy attorneys in the Midwest. He worked with charitable foundations which played a key part in Detroit’s recovery from bankruptcy.

“You hit bottom and you have a tremendous opportunity to get things right,” he said.

Hydroplane racing isn’t at the bottom, Bernstein said. But it’s not far off.

The good news, according to Bernstein, is that unlike Detroit, hydroplane racing still has a product to sell.

But the circuit is in a Catch-22. H1 Unlimited needs more race sites so sponsors, the life blood of the sport, have more reason to invest. But to get more race sites, the sport needs more sponsorship.

That’s where Williams, who has authored eight books on hydroplane racing, points out what’s needed. Races are expensive to put on. So expensive it often stops a city from making the initial investment.

Williams suggests trying to find cheaper ways to put on a race such as a one-day event instead of three.

Bernstein suggests moving away from major cities, where costs boom. He points to the Columbia Cup in Tri-Cities as a perfect example. It’s in a smaller metro area and can draw from an entire region.

Next year, a race in Guntersville, Ala., will be added to the schedule.

Ideally, Bernstein said, the race schedule would have about 10-12 races and at least that many boats.

As for the lack of TV coverage this year, Williams sees a possible silver lining. He thinks of it like how the NFL used to blackout games that didn’t sell out.

The die-hard race fans, he said, tend to watch the coverage from home. If they can’t watch from their couch, will they head to the lake?

“Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised when 200,000 show up for the race,” he said.

Site seeing
Here’s where else hydroplane racing has called home in recent years, and the status of each site.
Site Year(s) Comment
Tri-Cities Since 1956 Despite a slight hitch 10 years ago, the Columbia Cup (once called the Atomic Cup) is one of the most stable stops on the circuit.
Detroit Since 1916 The home of the Gold Cup, the sport’s premier race, seems to have overcome the problems that nearly led to cancellation in 2015.
Madison, Ind. Since 1950 City owns its own team (formerly Oh Boy! Oberto, now called HomeStreet Bank), but future is in doubt as festival is dealing with debt issues.
San Diego Since 1964 The traditional season ender for the hydro season was not held in 2009 after a disagreement over payment.
Evansville, Ind. 1979-2009 For many years it was the traditional season opener of the season; the race ended because of financial problems.
Doha, Qatar 2009-13 Hydroplane racing made its first appearance in the eastern hemisphere thanks to the work of a Qatari sheikh.
Sacramento, Calif. 2013 Hydroplane racing returned to Lake Folsom for the first time in 44 years but a drop in the water level ended that.
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho 2013 The big lake seemed a natural place to expand but sponsorship and permitting issues scuttled the race.