Seattle’s Past: The Hydros & Pat O’Day

This article is dedicated to Seattle legend Pat O’Day, one of those great radio personalities who was well-known to listeners in the Pacific NW. Pat was a deejay, a manager and an amazing promoter. He is probably best remembered for his time at KJR, Channel 95. In the sixties he was the programmer behind KJR’s Golden Years. Pat was also a leading force in the sport of hydroplane racing. And that happens to be the topic of this story.

Unlimited hydroplane racing landed in Seattle for the first time in 1951. The Seattle boat Slo-Mo-Shun had won the 1950 “Gold Cup” race in Detroit (Motor City, with it’s Detroit River, was North America’s power boat racing capital). Up until 1963, at which time the next year’s venue was decided by competitive financial bids, the coveted Gold Cup race had rotated amongst cities based on the past season’s champion. With Slo-Mo’s victory in ’50, the race was set for Seattle’s Lake Washington. Slo-Mo won five consecutive Gold Cup regattas, four in Seattle and that first one in Detroit, so Motor City didn’t host another Gold Cup race until 1956.

In those days, Seattle wasn’t a major league sports city. There were no Seahawks, no Mariners, no Sounders, and no Sonics (yes, I know they came and went). All Seattle area teams were minor league or at high school or collegiate level. The hottest sports story would be an appearance by the University of Washington Huskies football team at the Rose Bowl. The unlimited hydros provided Seattle with its first big time sporting event. The rivalry between the longtime boat racing city of Detroit and upstart Seattle was fierce. Whenever a local hydro won a big race against a Detroit boat it was cause for a celebration in Seattle.

Hydroplane fever wasn’t limited to Seattle. The “thunderboats” were the rage of the Pacific Northwest. I was a grade school kid in Bellingham and I still remember Slo-Mo, Hawaii Kai, Miss Thriftway, Miss Bardahl, Notre Dame, Tahoe Miss and others. I recall several of the drivers by name — Bill Muncey, Ron Musson, Rex Manchester and Mira Slovak. Not to leave out Eastern Washington, that side of the state likes unlimited hydroplane racing and since 1966 the Tri-Cities has hosted their “Columbia Cup” on the Columbia River.

In Bellingham, my parents and I were big fans and we watched all of the late ’50s and early ’60s televised races that originated in Seattle. In retrospect, hydro racing probably wasn’t the best sport for a kid to watch. It was dangerous: The hydros skim along the surface of the water at speeds of 130 to 200 mph. Fourteen drivers, many of them the seemingly invincible cream of the crop in the sport, died in flips and collisions between 1951 and the 1990s. Three of those unfortunate drivers died in Seattle (Thom Whitaker and Orth Mathiot in 1951 and Jerry Bangs in 1977).

In the northwest, the hobby stores sold wood hydro kits. I was such a fan I even made my own wooden replica of “Miss Thriftway, Too.” I would pull it with a stick and a string around a wading pool at the neighborhood park. Tack a large staple at the tail end and it would “roostertail.” I built the hydro with my friend Ron Wright. Ron’s dad was a commercial boat builder and years later Ron and his brother took over the company and it became one of the most respected recreational boat manufacturing firms in the country. Go to any waterfront port in the northwest and you will see happy owners of Ron’s popular Sea Sport line of boats. Ron is still the president of a boat building company in Bellingham.

Top: My 60-year-old worse for wear “Miss Thriftway, Too.” Below: Replica of the same hydro. We had the U-number wrong, but my mom did a good job duplicating the name on the side of the boat.

I was making toy hydros in the late ’50s into the ’60s. Life was simpler back then. When I visited at Ron Wright’s house, he’d often have the radio on in the background and, to support my premise that those were simpler times, I’ll mention that a couple of our favorite songs were “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” and “Purple People Eater.”

If you’d like another example of simpler times, here’s one: In those early days of hydro racing in Seattle there was no such thing as purchasing an “exclusive right to broadcast.” Any radio or TV station that wanted to go live from the race simply sent a crew. Often KIRO, KING and KOMO television stations would all be onsite, along with several radio stations.

Steven Smith in Bellingham wasn’t the only youth in the state of Washington hooked on hydros. Paul Berg, a 16 year old in Bremerton, became fascinated with unlimited hydros when they floated into Seattle in 1951. Berg, of course, grew up to become Pat O’Day, a radio icon and a powerful force behind the success of Seafair and unlimited hydroplane racing in the northwest.

In his 2002 biography, “It Was All Just Rock ‘n’ Roll,” O’Day explained his involvement with hydroplane racing. I have that book, but instead of pasting quotes from Pat’s writing into this article, I’d rather let Pat tell the story in his own distinct voice. Ten years ago he appeared with Groz and Gas on Sports Radio KJR (his old alma mater had switched to a sports format in 1991). Below you’ll hear a portion of that interview.

Pat O’Day with Groz & Gas on KJR Sports Radio (2010). Run Time 10:45

One of the highlights of Pat’s first television broadcast from the 1968 hydro race was the appearance of singer and entertainer Wayne Newton. This picture captured Newton meeting two of the leading hydro drivers of the era.

(L-R) Bill Muncey from Seattle, Jerry Schoenith with the Gale boats from Detroit, and Wayne Newton

After Pat’s inaugural hydro broadcast on local television, he took the excitement of live race coverage over to radio station KJR (where he was the general manager). O’Day anchored KJR’s first Seafair Trophy Race broadcast in 1969. His dynamite support team consisted primarily of KJR deejays. The live hydro broadcasts caught on and for many years they became an annual tradition at Channel 95. Here’s a photo of KJR staff from the early ’70s. These guys helped O’Day with the color and the play-by-play from different vantage points.

Early ’70s KJR staff (L-R) Norm Gregory, John Maynard, Gary Shannon, Tom Murphy, Bobby Simon, and Emperor Smith
(L-R) KJR’s Jerry Kaye, Tom Murphy, and Dick Curtis visiting with Bill Muncey on his hydro (1966)

Recently, Puget Sound Media tracked down three former deejays who participated in KJR’s first and second hydro broadcasts. “World Famous” Tom Murphy said, “We were the dominant Top 40 station. During the race ‘heats,’ as the laps were called, we went live to the race. Between heats we played records. I was on the barge the whole time in 1969 and ’70. For some inexplicable reason, for both races, Pat put me in charge of color commentary. Let me admit it wasn’t because I loved the event. I knew nothing about hydros, and I certainly didn’t take any of it too seriously. Based on his remarks back at me during the broadcasts, it was obvious that Pat was unimpressed with the breadth of my knowledge and insight into the sport. However, he said my humor was a ‘hit’ and he enjoyed my contributions to the race coverage.”

“The second year, the hydro broadcast landed me a job in LA radio. Broadcaster Dick Sainte was in town. Dick and I had worked together at KISN in Portland. He was listening to KJR during the race and thought my color commentary was ‘funny as hell.’ When Dick became the program director at KRLA in 1971, he hired me away from KJR.

Gary Shannon, KJR

Gary Shannon was another popular KJR jock. He expressed raw enthusiasm for his role at the Seafair Trophy Races: “As a ‘boomer kid’ caught up with Hydromania from grade school through college and beyond,  I’ll never forget the staff meeting in the KJR conference room in late spring or early summer of 1969. Pat said ‘we’re going to broadcast the upcoming Seafair Trophy Race.’ Surprise turned to excitement and finally, I couldn’t wait. Pat would anchor on the barge.  I was given the north turn and John Maynard the south. Norm Gregory would report from the pits.  I remember that just prior to the Seafair race week Pat took us to the pits to familiarize us with the boats so we would be better prepared to identify them from a distance. This was a dream come true. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep the night before the race. 

“My vantage point was from the deck of a home in the Mt. Baker district. I had a great view of everything from the Stan Sayers Pits to the south…Mercer Island to the east and of course the floating bridge the backdrop to the north turn. I was wound up and ready to go.  I loved it once I realized I was able to describe the boats as each one jockeyed to pick a lane to take the lead without jumping the gun. I’d give Pat an idea of how they were lined up heading to the barge. I was thrilled to be a part of a team including Tom Murphy and the premiere voice of the sport in Pat O’Day.  I still get goosebumps thinking about that first race.”

John Maynard, KJR

Veteran Seattle radio personality John Maynard was less enthusiastic about his role at the big boat race. When I asked if he recalled much about the broadcasts he answered, “Oh yeah, I sure can. I was stuck on top of a van/truck with a microphone in Seward Park covering the south turn. That was for three years running. O’Day would toss it to me for a report and I had no idea what the hell was coming at me. All I saw from that vantage point was a barrage of hulls and spray and nothing else. I contributed little to the live broadcasts.

“I should have expressed my disdain for my position in the field, but that was back when I was a greenhorn at KJR. And, of course, Pat O’Day was his usual brilliant and in command self. I’d like to do it all over today…I’d know just how to treat it. I’ll also probably come down with skin cancer someday from the reflection off the top of the truck. I was burned to a crisp.”

A newspaper ad from 1969 illustrated the locations of various members of the broadcast team. Tom Murphy was at position #3 (Tom says he was actually on the barge), Gary Shannon was at #5, and this ad pre-dates John Maynard’s arrival in Seattle. His awkward spot at the south would have been #6, as occupied by Big Jim Martin.

Legend: #1 is a hydro; #2 is water in the lake; #3 is Tom Murphy (Tom says that location should be shown as on the barge); #4 is binoculars; #5 is Gary Shannon; #6 is Big Jim Martin; #7 is Norm Gregory; #8 is Pat O’Day; #9 is Ted Bryant; #10 is Chuck Bolland; #11 is Nick Anthony; #12 is Frank Thompson; #13 is a transistor radio

For many years, the big hydro race in Seattle was known as the Seafair Trophy Race and it has been part of Seafair festivities. Some of those years it was a Gold Cup regatta. Seattle’s race is currently called the Homestreet Bank Cup. In a complicated world, unlike in those early days of the race, exclusive broadcast rights do apply: KJR Sports Radio and KIRO TV held exclusive rights for the 2019 race.

In 2020, the hydro race and festival were cancelled due to COVID-19. In the summer, at least most summers barring a pandemic, the unlimited hydroplanes still roar in Seattle. However, it’s not the colossally popular extravaganza that attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators in those peak years of the 1950s into the ’70s. The number of accidents and casualties, brought home to fans on June 19, 1996 when three of the top drivers (Ron Musson, Don Wilson and Rex Manchester) died on a single day on the Potomac River, have dampened enthusiasm for the sport. Also, unlimited hydros are loud, which is less acceptable today, and there’s a lot more competition for every entertainment dollar spent.

Below is a classic hydro photo. That’s the KJR crew on their barge.

KJR barge, circa late ’60s/early ’70s (L-R)  Gary Taylor; Tom Murphy; Pat O’Day; Norm Fish (engineer); Homer Pope (office manager); (center front) Jerry O’Day, who is Pat’s son

Puget Sound Media is capable of transporting racing fans back to bygone years. This extended length broadcast from our contributor Sam Lawson allows you to relive 45 minutes of the glorious days of hydro racing in Seattle. It features some of KJR’s most familiar names: O’Day, Murphy, Gregory, Shannon and Maynard on location at Lake Washington with Bobby Simon back at the studio. We hope you’ll enjoy stepping back in time to the 1970 Seafair Trophy Race.

1970 Seafair Trophy Race, Run Time 44:41

Editor’s note: Pat O’Day, the impetus behind so much that happened in Seattle radio and unlimited hydroplane racing, passed away this year. This article commemorates Pat’s many contributions to the quality of life and entertainment in the Pacific Northwest.

Pat with Brenda Jones, driver of the unlimited hydroplane “Miss KYYX.” For a time, O’Day owned KYYX-FM and under his leadership the station funded and raced the KYYX hydro (1981-’83). Photo from 1982.

 

Credit: Listen to many other great audio tracks from the Pacific NW by exploring Sam Lawson’s Audio Vault

 

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Author: Steven Smith

Presently editor and historical writer with Puget Sound Media in Seattle. Former radio broadcaster and radio station owner, 1970-1999. Journalism and speech communications degrees. I enjoy researching articles and online reporting that allows me to meld together words, audio and video. P.S. I appreciate and encourage reader comments and opinions.

29 thoughts on “Seattle’s Past: The Hydros & Pat O’Day

  1. Well…I can appreciate O’Days skills as an ultimate radio promotor….but I never bought the idea that he could just decide to jump in to the coverage of hydro racing…I began watching those amazing boats in the mid 50s, watching Slo Mo V do that complete flip down the backstretch of a qualifying run…To me, the hydros “belonged” only to the local stations who covered the races…Bill O’Mara (the first great race commentator), and later on, the ubiquitous Keith Jackson, were my favorites…Pat was just an interloper, looking for more publicity for his radio empire….Radio coverage just would not get me excited…You had to see those futuristic, flying boats skipping across the water at incredible speeds!….In 1981, years after I had soured on the hydros–mostly due to the introduction of jet engines–the radio announcement came over, that my only real hero from my Seattle youth, Bill Muncey, had died in some goofy race down in Acapulco!…I was on my way to work…I pulled over, and cried my eyes out!…a very touching and meaningful part of my youth was obliterated…how could such a successful, seemingly invulnerable driver like Muncey just die like others had?….But it did teach me a lesson…if you mess with the Bull, you will eventually get the horns…in the end, all heroes are vulnerable, just like the rest of us.

    1. Jack…In 1972, on several occasions, I hitched a ride to news conferences with Bill O’Mara when he was at KTAC and I had a summer job at KIXI in the news department. I honestly did not know of his storied past. Do you recall another sports guy from way back named Bill Mock? As I understand it, O’Day was tight with McCaw..not sure if the dad or Craig. And McCaw had Channel 13. Since their hydro race plans fell apart at the 11th hour, they called him as the best known radio personality to wing it for them. And like you, he had loved the boat races since age 16. So he knew enough to do a respectable broadcast, although the way he described it not very high tech. And being the promoter he was, he got Wayne Newton to appear because Pat had played a Newton song at KJR that “stiffed.” A debt. I was not as emotional as you, having lost interest in hydros, but was totally stunned when Muncey died. I was also stunned when Ron Musson was killed. As a kid I saw the races on black and white TV and it was a crappy picture..getting only KOMO and KING 100 miles away in Bellingham on a rooftop antenna my dad was very proud of having installed. As to the KJR radio broadcasts, I am sure the fans who had to work loved hearing them as would the commuters. I like watching the Mariners, but radio is great if I am tied up.

    2. I agree, Jack. There was a period of time where it seemed to me that hydro drivers were being killed right and left, but Bill Muncey always escaped. He was Prince Valiant, the one we could always trust to come safely home . . . until that day that he didn’t.

      1. I was not very interested in hydros by then. But Muncey was like the Mickey Mantle of hydros. And when he died it was a shock. I think the last of the greats was Chip Hanauer. Probably a good thing he retired when he still could

    3. I wanted to get in a word about another semi-legendary Seattle announcer, Rod Belcher…He was with the KING folks for around 10 years, during the 1960s…he kind of a Bob Robertson type guy–he covered several area sports teams, and even was the announcer for the old Seattle Rainiers, in 1957-58!!….he replaced Leo Lassen…I had forgotten that!…Rod was a college basketball player too! I found his style to be a little bland, but Ms. Bullet clearly liked him!…He had his long stint broadcasting the Hydro races too…he lived to be like 94 years old…died a few years ago.

  2. Great article— just a slight correction— the three hydro drivers were killed on June 19, 1966 on the Potomac River in Washington DC— they were Ron Musson— Rex Manchester— and Don Wilson.

    1. Stan…in that particular paragraph up top it said 14 had died and three in Seattle, which I believe is true. In that first Gold Cup on Lake Washington Orth Mathiot and Tom Whitaker driver and co-pilot of Quicksilver were killed when they lost control. Then in 1977 Jerry Bangs, a Seattle lawyer, in The Squire died on Lake Washington. At the end of the piece I mentioned three who died on the same day, not meaning to imply it was the same three. I will clarify in the story to avoid confusion. If we listed all the deaths who were from WA and Oregon or drove regional boats the list of casualties is long. Here’s a list…second one down. At the far right is the state flag the indicating where drivers came from. Even if he was from CA to us Muncey was a local.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fatal_accidents_in_motorboat_racing

      PS…in making the changes I see my typo…wrong date. Fat fingers I guess because I knew June 19…my birthday!

  3. I remember the Channel 13 broadcast, my brother Jerry laboriously hand made small replicas of each boat in the field for Dad to move around in the broadcast presentation. Jack d. Bell, you were rather snotty in your presentation of my Father’s involvement in the sport; hydroplaning was one of Dad’s passions. We as a family had regular dinners with Bill and Fran Muncy on Mercer Island and Dad delivered a helluva eulogy when he blew over in Acapulco. Dad also with his good friend Jim Clapp (son of Norton) went on to design, build and field the first competitive turbine powered unlimited hydroplane (U-95.) Pat in later years competed with not one but two Miss KYYX Thunderboats culminating with the second Miss KYYX taking the checkered flag of the Bill Muncy Memorial Heat at Seafair in 1982 piloted by the sport’s first woman driver Miss Brenda Jones. Dad didn’t just talk the sport; he walked the walk and you have no right to dis him. -Garry Patrick O’Day

    1. Garry…thanks for commenting. Whenever I was working on an article…whether he was the topic or not…your dad went out of his way to provide memories and nice comments about the guys he had worked with. Or maybe it was information that only he remembered…like who the mystery voice was on all those great sixties KJR promos.

  4. Steve, like many of my “Baby Boomer’ peers, I was immersed, If you will, in the hydros from the first time I heard Bill O’Mara call the race on the radio. I would also enjoy local TV coverage from the likes of Keith Jackson and others. It appears Mr. Bell and I shared the broadcasting history. I grew up in West Seattle and remember watching the races on TV in the early to mid-50s. Of course, you could hear them from where I lived. However, I wasn’t totally hooked until my dad took me out to Lake Washington to watch time trials the day before race day. I believe it was 1956 or 57. The Such Crust slowly chugged by on the lake. My first sighting of a real hydro It was big and noisy even at 30 mph. What did I know about speed? I knew one thing for sure. I had to talk my dad into taking us to the race the next day. I do remember when we finally packed it up to find a spot near the south turn. It may have been 1958. I remember wading out into the water and watching the start of a heat. The boats comin’ straight at us under a blue sky. The colorful hulls. The magnificent rooster tails. The start of an unlimited hydroplane race was like no other sports experience and it was noisy. Sadly, as Jack mentioned, when the sport became muted and less dangerous with the cab over designs it just wasn’t the same. The noise was gone and NASCAR began to take over the speed world.

    As to KJR’s involvement with Seafair’s signature event, personally I was thrilled. I had spent two years at Ft. Bragg and had not been aware of Pat’s interest in the sport. I had been drafted a few weeks after Larry Lujack’s bulletin on KJR concerning that tragic day on the Potomac River at the President’s Cup. I came back and worked at KJRB in Spokane which led to being hired in my home town that summer of 1969. I was surprised when Pat suggested the KJR staff would broadcast the race. In the three or four years that I was involved, I began to appreciate O’Day’s talent and his knowledge of the sport. I already had a sense of his marketing ability. In my mind, he had sprinkled KJR magic over the racecourse. I bought it. I will always acknowledge O’Mara as the pioneer broadcaster who, I’m told, knelt in prayer while broadcasting the first fatal accident on Lake Washington involving the Quicksilver. I believe Pat deserves to be part of the conversation. He had a natural sports voice and exciting delivery custom made for the sport. I remember telling him years later that he could have been a sports announcer.

    1. When the Quicksilver went down in 1955 with her two-man crew, I watched Bill O’Mara, on his knees, recite The Lord’s Prayer. Bill took a lot of criticism from the media and from a lot of viewers for doing that. He also was praised by many people. I was sixteen and had no religion in me whatsoever, but his spontaneous compassion brought me to tears. I have never forgotten that.

          1. Dick…not according to the history of the American Power Boat Assoc. Where I got the info…took place before I was born….”The Saturday afternoon of Seattle’s first Gold Cup Race, August 4, 1951, was warm and clear. In the third heat, Orth Mathiot, 56, and his mechanic, Thompson Whitaker, 27, were riding in Quicksilver, a Rolls-powered, 31-foot hydroplane from Portland, Ore. Without warning-and to the horror of some 250,000 spectators at the lake-the Quicksilver, porpoising badly, suddenly went out of control. It nosed down and dived to the bottom of the lake, taking to their deaths the two occupants unfortunately strapped in with seat belts.”

            1. I appreciate your correction concerning the tragic fate of the Quicksilver…it was in 1951…I was 4 years old, and not yet a confirmed hydromaniac!…a few years later, I was dragging a model I made out of wood–behind my bike…my own Thriftway!…me and my buddies would set up a “course behind the local school, and hold “time trials’!….Such simple times back then.

              1. Geez Jack….up north we did not put wheels on our boats. We took them to the local wading pool and to long docks at the lake. Our boats really floated and if you moved fast, you got a good roostertail. And our boats floated pretty well.

            2. Steve,

              I apologize. You are absolutely right! I stand corrected and embarrassed by my sloppy job of reading an article describing some highlights of both years’ races.

              And I learned something else. We had a TV in 1951.

              1. Dick..Not to worry, I try to carefully research these things, although the crux of the story was Pat’s connection, yet people who were there can find discrepancies. I also satisfied my curiosity as to the names of the three drivers who actually died in Seattle while checking that out. I had not intended for anyone to interpolate that the three that died on June 19, 1966 were the same three killed in Seattle over 14 years. The wikipedia list I posted in a comment does a pretty good job of defining what happened to whom and when. Sometimes I think this kind of local history is difficult to write. So many are around who were there that a minor detail that is off gets caught. Anymore when I write something historical I figure I will have to make a tweak or two after publication. It no longer hurts my pride.

  5. Nice article, Steve, full of memories. In those days, every TV station was live out on the lake, even for the time trials, which ran every day for hours the week before the race.

    Minor clarification: The Gold Cup Race wasn’t “relocated” to Seattle. Whoever won the race got to choose where next year’s would be held. Chrysler-Plymouth dealer and Seattle Yacht Club member Stan Sayres financed construction of a “three point” hydroplane designed by Ted Jones and built by Anchor Jensen at his Portage Bay boat yard. They took the boat to Detroit for the 1950 Gold Cup Race and, with Jones at the wheel, Slo-mo-shun IV made history as the first winner representing a yacht club west of the Mississippi River. They went on to become the first to win five consecutive Gold Cups.

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