What Killed Hydro Racing

What Killed Hydroplane Racing?  (Hint:  it’s not TV)

Oh, the hue and cry!  KIRO has chosen not to cover the Seafair Unlimited Hydroplane races live on TV this year, breaking a tradition of decades!  People are angry!  People are appalled!  People say it’s an outrage!  

All such people are wrong.

Look at the schedule for this year.  The two days of “racing” take up about three hours over two days.  What are the TV announcers to talk about?  This year the organizers have added a beach volleyball tournament and all sorts of other non-racing activities to lure race fans, but there is nothing there to entice any TV station to pony up the considerable costs of playing several hours of almost entirely dead air.  None of this is new.

Unlimited hydroplane racing has been dying a slow and preventable death for at least 15 years.  When I hosted “The Motorsports Show” from 2001 to 2004 I did a show on the races every year. The guests were drivers and owners, and even then they worried about the cost of racing and the dwindling supplies of the ex-helicopter turbines that powered the boats, and the lack of sponsorship opportunities.

The solution was obvious then, as it is now, although it may be too late.  Today, a top fuel drag racing engine in the NHRA Funny Car or Top Fuel classes creates about 10,000 horsepower.  Nobody actually knows for sure, as there is no dyno that can handle that much power. Math gives us a good approximation. They are limited to 500ci by the rules, and the challenge is to get all that power to hook up to the track.  There is always enough power. They accelerate from 0 to over 300 mph in 1,000 feet, and it is a show for sure.

Now a hydroplane that needs to run for 15 minutes at a time cannot use a top fuel NHRA engine. For one thing, they have no cooling system. For another, the drag racers usually erupt in flames every few runs.  They only run for less than two minutes at a time.

However, you could put together such an engine that ran on methanol and create 3,000 – 4,000hp with reliability probably greater than the turbines provide now.   Further, such engines, while not cheap, are inexpensive compared to the jet turbines. They also weigh a lot less, and are available from a number of suppliers.

You could, if your head was not stuck deeply into the sands of time, create a new rules structure that mandated the use of V-8 or V-10 or V-12 engines that had their beginnings as car designs. Of any displacement. You could allow the creators to use as many engines as desired, and they could use “power adders” (turbo or turbos, supercharger or superchargers, and nitrous oxide) – either separately or in combinations.  Volvo currently sells a car with both a supercharger and a turbo, for example.

The real benefit?  The use of “car engines” would allow car manufacturers to get involved, both with sponsorship and with “marketing.”  And all of the suppliers and aftermarket companies as well.  Keep in mind that in such engines almost NONE of the parts are used in engines meant for sale to street customers. Makes utterly no difference.

Look at drag racing for a clue.  The “NAPA Dodge” funny car currently leading the current fuel Funny Car rankings has a body that bears very little resemblance to any Dodge ever made. The “hemi” engine contains exactly 0 parts from Dodge. The same with all the rest of the competitors.  This does not slow down the marketing efforts at all, as the manufacturers (Dodge, Chevy, Toyota and several others) bring enormous displays and fan-interactive experiences to each race.

If you created a class of hydros with two big block engines on methanol with superchargers, for example, they would put out 6-8,000 horsepower per boat, and would be far lighter than the current boats that race.  They would put on a show, for sure.  They would also be much less expensive to campaign, and would offer large areas of hull for sponsor logos, etc.

People would flock to the races to root for the “NAPA Chevy,” or the “Mac Tools Ford,” or whatever, and everyone would have a great time.

And the TV people would be back in a flash.

It ain’t KIRO’s fault, in other words. 

And the sound!  Almost forgot that.  A big block with a blower on methanol?  Two of them? Oh. Wow.

Copyright 2017                      David Preston

About david

I am a 74 year old motorsports nut who lives in Snohomish, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Rocket 3 (2020), a 2020 Triumph Bonneville, and a 2016 Ford Focus ST. What else would you like to know?
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2 Responses to What Killed Hydro Racing

  1. Patrick says:

    The problem with boat racing in general is the venue… it’s near impossible to get around to different points of view… Drag Boat racing is not like sitting in the stands at a NHRA event… Nor is hydroplane racing. The viewpoint is kinda one-dimensional… Jet Sprint Racing is more attractive as a spectator sport http://www.ussbaracing.com because the whole track can be seen easily by the spectators and they can easily get different perspectives.

    When I was a very young boy and through my teens in August we generally visited my grandparents that lived here in Seattle and spent summer vacation… The Seafair was a big thing and the hydroplane races were a spectacle to behold, because these were new state-of-the-art designs of boats and we used to bet on the races… My grandfather was a representative of Bardahl products and we would get into the pits to see these wooden beasts… It was different times… Heck there was no speed-limit on Highway 101 during the heydays of hydroplane racing and drag-racing and I-5 was probably being mapped-out…

    Hydroplane racing and Drag Boat racing are fickle events… if the water is not calm enough, then the event is dead-in-the-water (pun intended). I’ve said this before, they should run smaller hydros on GreenLake like they used to do, sort of like horse racing… These hydros could be electric-powered.

    The formula hydroplanes are an anachronism today… Seafair is a unique experience and the hydroplanes are a part of the history…

    Maybe someday we’ll see HydroDrones carving turns that no human pilot could endure… Microsoft vs Apple vs Dell vs Samsung vs Panasonic vs Bosch vs General Electric vs GM vs Ford vs Toyota vs Chrysler/Doge vs Honda vs BMW vs Mercedes vs Ferrari, so on, so forth…

    I think bringing a Formula-E race to Seattle would be a modern spectacle to behold.. The Augmented Reality platform they have for bringing the race to the spectator via connected devices and spectator interactive effect on the race, in real-time, as it is transpiring, is paving the way for the future of motorsports racing in general… Eventually with Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality the spectator will have a ‘driver/rider-like’ perspective of the race in real-time…

    The question will be where will you have that Augmented Reality experience? On your couch, chair or at the event?

    The economics of the region and the attitudes of the local politician/lawmakers, will define how this evolves and the level of the experience… There is still much to be said about the real-time personal/physical experience/spectacle standing around or sitting around a bunch of other folks… and this will be impossible to replace. Sort of like watching a fantastic fire-works display on TV… There is no comparison to the real event… even if you experienced the display in Virtual Reality with 3D audio…


  2. Gerald McCormick says:

    You are exactly right David.
    I am from Madison Indiana. These boats used to be called “thunder boats”. Imagine what 6- 12 cylinder engines sounds like jockeying for position with that sound resonating in the ohio river valley.
    When I go to the Indy 500 you can feel the engines in your chest.
    Not to mention, cheaper to build, maintain, and of course sponsor.

    The V8 Grand Prix boats top out at 172 on the straight away. Imagine what todays engineers could do with the V12. I am on board.

    The sad thing is, your article here, is a lot like hydroplane racing. No body sees it, no body cares

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