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Thundering in the Cockpit of a Hydro

As Seafair races near, unlimited driver says he works out to keep his edge for races that "literally kick the (heck) out of you."

IF YOU'RE claustrophobic, this is not the sport for you.

Don’t like to go fast? Also probably not the best activity.

Afraid of getting banged around and emerging covered with bruises? Don’t even think about taking the wheel.

The world of hydroplane racing is not for the meek. In the unlimited events—which include the Seafair races on Lake Washington Aug. 5-7—drivers careen around lakes at speeds of 200 mph. Though they don’t expect to crash, most have experienced collisions at one time or another.

Yet for hydroplane drivers, marquee races like Seafair are the reason they embrace the sport. Driver Brian Perkins, who will be handling the U-21 Albert Lee Appliance hydroplane during Seafair, recalls watching the races on Lake Washington each year with his entire family. He relishes the chance to be a part of it.

“Hydroplane racing is part of who we are in the Pacific Northwest,” said 26-year-old Perkins, who grew up in Black Diamond.

Indeed, hydroplane races in Seattle date to 1950, when local business leaders organized the city's first annual summer festival. They called it Seafair. That year, star hydroplane driver Stan Sayres brought his Slo Mo Shun IV to race in Seattle. The races became an integral part of Seafair festivities. 

As for Perkins, he began driving hydroplanes at age 15. His parents, longtime Seafair race volunteers, bought him a small vintage boat for $700. The all-wood craft had a 1977 Honda Civic motor in it and lacked a cockpit and decks. With his father’s help, Perkins worked to piece the hydroplane back into working order. 

Though Perkins had never stepped into a hydroplane cockpit before, he took to driving right away. Since Lake Washington only allows hydroplanes during designated race or practice times, he drove on Lake Tapps and American Lake.

Perkins began racing in the limited class (speeds of up to 100 mph) and then graduated to unlimited. He now does a combination of both types of events each year. Several years ago, Perkins was hired by Greg and Brian O’Farrell to race the U-21 Albert Lee Appliance boat.

Though hydroplane’s main racing season takes place during the summer, Perkins trains all year. He stays in shape by running, hiking, biking and lifting weights.

Gym time is key because driving a hydroplane requires significant upper and lower body strength, Perkins explained. The steering wheel turns the boat with a pulley system, and maneuvering a 7,000-pound craft going 200 mph demands muscle force.

A driver also must operate the wings by switching the left foot back and forth between two separate pedals. The pedals, connected to cables, move the wings up and down. Perkins performs leg presses in the weight room to build the strength necessary to push the pedals at high speed.

DRIVERS MUST maintain overall conditioning to handle the lateral force thrown at them while going at top speed. After a few rounds of racing, Perkins finds himself exhausted. Often, he’s covered in bruises from being flung against the seat belts.

“Unlimited races literally kick the crap out of you,” Perkins said. “They are very physically demanding.”

Hydroplane racing can also bring injury. Perkins has never flipped his boat, but has come close. Twice, he has collided with other crafts. In a race in Madison, Wis., he hit the rescue boat. Another time, a teammate and his boat ran over Perkins while he was driving in a hydroplane with an open cockpit. (A design that is no longer legal in racing for safety reasons.) The latter incident left Perkins shaken and with a broken hand.

Since the sport is so physically and mentally demanding, Perkins appreciates taking time away from the cockpit each winter. He works for the local family business, Perkins Glass and Mirror, and distances himself from the pressures of racing.

Perkins is still young in the world of hydroplane racing. While some athletes burn out quickly, other drivers hang in the sport for years. Perkins points to veterans Dave Villwock and Steve David as examples of experienced drivers who take good care of themselves and continue racing for years and years.

“I plan to race until I can’t anymore,” Perkins said.

For Perkins and many of the other drivers, Seafair marks the highlight of racing season. It takes place right in Seattle, receives media and television coverage, and brings out the top drivers. It’s the race everyone wants to win, Perkins said.

“Seafair weekend is better than Christmas for us,” Perkins said.

For those planning to attend hydroplane races at Seafair, here is the full schedule:

2011 Hydroplane Racing Schedule

Friday, Aug. 5
8:30am   GATES OPEN
8:30am   Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Testing 
9:50am   Unlimited Hydroplane Testing Session A
12:30pm Unlimited Light Hydroplane Driver Autograph Session
1 pm       Unlimited Hydroplane Driver Autograph Session
2:35pm   Vintage Hydroplane Practice Session 1
2:45pm   Unlimited Hydroplane Qualifying Session
5:25pm   Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Qualifying 1
6 pm       GATES CLOSE

Saturday, Aug. 6
8:30am    GATES OPEN
8:30am    Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Testing
9:30am    Unlimited Hydroplane Testing

11:05am  Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Racing 1A presented by                     Graham Trucking

11:20am   Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Racing 1B presented by                       Graham Trucking
11:30am   Vintage Hydroplanes
12:30pm   Unlimited Hydroplane Driver Autograph Session
1pm          Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Driver Autograph Session
2:50pm     VintageHydroplanes
3:05pm     Unlimited Hydroplanes Heat 1A Racing presented by                          AT&T and LG Mobile
3:25pm     Unlimited Hydroplanes Heat 1B Racing presented by                         Western Washington Hyundai Dealers
4:45pm     Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Racing 2A presented by                        Sicklesteel Crane
5pm      Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Racing 2B presented by                        Graham Trucking
5:15pm     Vintage Hydroplanes
6pm          GATES CLOSE

Sunday, Aug. 7
7:30am    GATES OPEN
8:30am    Unlimited Hydroplane Testing Session C
9:20am    Unlimited Light Hydroplane Testing Session 3
10am        Opening Ceremonies / National Anthem
10:25am   Vintage Hydroplanes
10:40am   Unlimited Hydroplanes Heat 2A Racing presented by 76
11am        Unlimited Hydroplanes Heat 2B Racing presented by 76
Noon         Unlimited Hydroplanes Heat 3A Racing presented by                         Tulalip Resort Casino
12:20pm   Unlimited Hydroplanes Heat 3B Racing presented by                         Western Washington Hyundai Dealers
12:35pm   Vintage Hydroplanes
3pm          Unlimited Hydroplane Provisional Heat Racing
4:20pm     Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Final Racing presented by                     Graham Trucking
4:40pm     Unlimited Hydroplane Final Racing presented by Albert                      Lee Appliance
5:15pm     Albert Lee Cup Awards Presentation
6pm          GATES CLOSE

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