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Thursday, August 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At Kent museum, a hydroplane hero remembers

Special to The Seattle Times

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The Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum is at 5917 S. 196th St., Kent. Summer hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays and 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturdays. Suggested donation: $5 adults, $3 children, younger than 6 free. For more information, call 206-764-9453 or see www.thunderboats.org.

Getting there

From Interstate 5, take Exit 152 (Orillia Road South). Head east on Orillia Road South, then down the hill. About halfway down, turn left at the stoplight on to South 200th. After about a quarter-mile, 200th changes to South 196th (after the bridge). The museum is on the right. (If you go past the railroad crossing, you've gone too far.)

Special event

The museum's annual fund-raising dinner and auction is at 7 p.m. today, with cocktail hour starting at 5 p.m. Tickets are $125. The event might be sold out; call 206-764-9453 for ticket information.

Vintage hydros at Seafair

The museum will showcase four vintage hydroplanes during exhibition laps on the Seafair race course this weekend. The boats will appear on Lake Washington right after the Blue Angels air show. Look for the 1980 Miss Budweiser, the 1982 Atlas Van Lines, the 1956 Miss Hawaii Kai and the 1960 Miss Burien.

KENT — In a museum with the real, live Billy Schumacher surrounded by restored vintage hydroplanes, it's not hard to remember what it was like back then.

In the late 1960s Schumacher was Seattle's unlimited-hydroplane hero: "Billy the Kid," then just 24 years old, could do no wrong at the wheel of Miss Bardahl.

Shy and unassuming, he not only piloted Bardahl — a boat known that year as the Blonde Bombshell — to a Gold Cup on Lake Washington in 1967, he also won the '67 National Championship.

Those were Seattle's hydro heydays, when roaring piston engines muscled open-cockpit boats around the course south of the Lacey V. Murrow floating bridge. We knew their drivers like we know Ichiro today.

Many loyal Seattleites will still crowd the lakeshore as hydros slug it out this weekend. But in the 1960s, if you weren't there, you were square. Remember how it was, before hydros went to quieter turbines and NASCAR ruled the summer?

On race day, those piston boats kicked up a wind of hot oil and fresh water. Two sounds braided together — a deep thrum that rattled the spine, and something else — an oscillating buzz, like bumblebees banging around inside a jelly jar. It was incredibly exciting, as good as liftoff at Cape Canaveral, when the hydros raced for the starting line. Their round-nosed hulls shimmied and bucked, arriving all at once. The gun went off, the sounds exploded and roostertails jumped like the crowd to its feet, roaring.

Billy Schumacher, now 61, remembers — and he agreed to share some memories as he accompanied us on a tour among restored hydroplanes in a place full of Northwest history: Kent's Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum.

The museum, a longtime fixture at its former location in South Seattle, opened in Kent in late May, in much larger quarters. Step inside to see what brought us to this Seafair hydro-race weekend.

Craft that built the sport

Here are the craft that built the sport, and legends of the people who piloted them.

Steering wheels resemble something off a John Deere tractor. Schumacher shows us around an old hydro's cockpit. There's a speedometer, a stopwatch and a button for nitrous oxide — laughing gas. "We'd give it a little shot of nitrous for extra power," Schumacher says. A manifold pressure gauge rounds out cockpit technology. He taps it with his index finger and adds: "You didn't want that to go over 120."

And why not? Schumacher puts his hands together then pulls them apart. "Kaboom," he grins.

"Hydroplanes are central to Seattle's psyche and history," says David Williams, the museum's director. "When we were kids, there were only two holidays — Christmas and Seafair, although if you weren't [living] here then, you might not get it."

Apparently enough of us get it. The museum in its new home has already attracted more than a thousand visitors who wander wide-eyed through canyons of vintage thunderboats displayed on their sides. Williams sees a typical response. "They come in, ooh and ahh and say, 'I remember.' "

Relive the memories with a cockpit view from the refurbished 1968 Miss Budweiser. Wedge yourself into the bucket seat, a tight fit that was no accident, says Schumacher. "It's tight to hold you in," he says. "We didn't have seatbelts.

"These boats sank so quickly that with seatbelts, it's like being strapped to the motor," Williams explains.

Born and raised in Seattle, Schumacher became one of our favorite sons learning to race on Lake Washington and Green Lake, earning the nickname "Billy the Kid" because he was just 19 when he entered his first unlimited race. So young was the Bardahl pit crew, they were dubbed the "teeny-boppers."

He recalls the barest of safety gear in the good old days, but they did use helmets. "Some drivers wore them with face plates, but I always wore it open," he says. "If the helmet filled up with water, I didn't want to drown."

He also wore a parachute clipped to the side of the boat to slow his slap on the water should he be thrown out. And there were other hazards. The cockpit sat in back of a huge piston engine like those in World War II fighter planes. "It gave off a lot of exhaust that poured into the cockpit," says Schumacher.

Minimal windshields often shattered from the blast of roostertails traveling at fire-hose velocity. "Oh, we just pulled her in and fixed the window with duct tape," he laughs.

On the plus side, he carried a good-luck charm.

"My mother gave me a shoe horn before a race. I did so well I never went without it."

A deadly history

How very Mercury-astronaut of him, just the right stuff, casually discussing his demise — "kaboom" — like it's nothing, like Chuck Yeager cracking a rib then breaking the sound barrier. Kaboom figures into a lot of hydro history, sometimes with fatal results. Many have died in this sport, like Ron Musson, in an earlier Miss Bardahl, and the famous Bill Muncey, in a 1981 accident. Schumacher, now a boat broker on Lake Union, was lucky, suffering only one serious mishap, in 1971 driving the Pay 'n Pak in Miami.

"The rudder broke and the boat skidded sideways, throwing me out at 160 miles an hour. The boat spun all the way around and clipped me on the back of my helmet. I was hospitalized for two weeks and couldn't lift my head."

There's a photo of that accident in museum archives, a grainy black and white picture that shows, according to Williams, "a dark blur next to the boat. That's Billy."

In addition to preserving historical photos, the museum holds three decades of racing memorabilia from what is generally regarded as the sport's golden age, the 1950s through the 1970s. Giant blueprints of boats line the museum walls, but the main show is on the 11,000-square-foot floor, filled with seven of 13 hydros in the collection. Even better, the displayed boats actually work.

"We put on shows, running at about two-thirds speed, around 120 to130 miles per hour," Williams says. Four of the boats are to appear in exhibition laps this weekend on the Seafair race course.

It's a miracle the boats made it back to operating condition, since they were falling apart in various barns, fields and back yards all over the nation. "There's really nothing you can do with an old race boat, but when we told people we wanted to restore them, they all agreed it was a good idea."

Each boat cost about $100,000 to restore, so the museum depends heavily on fans and donors to support the effort, plus a loyal band of about 100 volunteers who do the restoration work.

To raise money, the museum hosts parties and events, with the hulking hydros as backdrops (there's an annual fund-raising dinner and auction this evening). It also draws school tours. "School kids come here to learn about a piece of Northwest history as well as math and science," says Williams "These race boats are science applied."

Tapping into memories

There's no denying the nostalgic pull of vintage hydros and the people who raced them.

"We did a display at the Puyallup Fair and handed out questionnaires asking people who was their favorite driver," Williams says. "We got 6,000 responses, and they didn't mention the current hydroplane champion. They wrote down names like Bill Muncey, Billy Schumacher and Chip Hanauer."

The names have changed as the boats have. In the '80s, piston engines were abandoned for faster, more efficient and quieter turbines. But what they gained in technology may have cost a wider popularity. "When we take our boats out for display, people come up and say, 'Man, I miss the noise,' " Williams notes. "They want to feel it in the chest."

Schumacher is glad he was one of the young "gladiators" in the sport.

"There was real competition then, and it was exciting. For me, it wasn't about speed. I was always better in the turns anyway. I thought a guy going fast was out of control. I never wanted to be the fastest guy out there. I just wanted to be fast enough to win."

He retired in 1976, figuring he was lucky to race for 24 years with only one bad accident under his belt. "After a while, you get a little cocky. I got out because it was getting ho-hum. I couldn't wait for the next turn and at those speeds, that kind of thinking is scary. That's when you make mistakes."

Thanks to the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum, Billy the Kid says he's become Billy the Legend, and he looks forward to introducing a new generation to the thrill of thunderboats.

In a surprisingly poetic moment, far from the fly-boy mystique, he explains why he wants to pass it on: "I loved the boats. They made noise and danced on water."

Connie McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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