Boeing, Slovak recall their races
It’s a relationship that began 56 years ago this week, according to Mira Slovak, one of the biggest names in the early days of hydroplane racing.
Bonded over a jet-powered boat, it is a relationship continues to leave both men revved.
Mira Slovak was reunited Thursday at a banquet with Bill Boeing, Jr., the owner of the Miss Wahoo, the hydroplane that made Slovak a household name in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the hydro-racing circuit. And as the night unfolded during the event at the Kent Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum, the two smiled and laughed and talked of the good old days, when racing was a pursuit of volunteers and not the corporations that dominate the game the today.
“It was a different time and a different type of racing,” said Slovak, now 79.
“Those days were very different,” agreed Boeing, 85, calling the era “the great early days of racing.”
The Kent-based museum announced this week a project to relive the glory days of Boeing and Slovak, by reconstructing the hydro that made that made them famous, with plans to launch the replica Miss Wahoo at Seafair 2009.
The original Miss Wahoo was designed by Ted Jones and made its debut in 1956 and, according to a press release from the museum, was not only the first time Slovak drove in a race, but was also the first time he even saw a hydro race was.
Slovak was originally a pilot for the government-controlled airline in his native Czechoslovakia. But one night, during the height of the Cold War, Slovak overpowered his co-pilot and “borrowed” a DC-3 airliner, flying it to West Germany where he surrendered the plane and asked for U.S. political asylum.
After moving to Washington, spending some time as a crop-duster in the eastern part of the state, Slovak was hired as the personal pilot to Boeing, who was functioning an executive for the growing aviation company. Soon after, Boeing got involved in the relatively new sport of hydro racing and Slovak, with his well-honed piloting skills, seemed like a perfect fit.
“So we asked Mira if he’d like to drive the boat,” Boeing said, a smile spreading across his face.
Slovak accepted and one of the most famous partnerships in Seattle hydro history was born.
Slovak’s experience as a pilot made him a natural choice.
“Well, half the time he was in the air, the other half he was on the water,” Boeing recalled Thursday night.
According to banquet attendee Ron Jones, whose father designed the original Miss Wahoo and who will be working on the replica, Slovak took to the craft naturally, requiring only a few instructions.
“We told him ‘when you get to the corner, turn left,’” Jones recalled.
Back then, hydro racing was not the corporate-sponsored sport we know today, according to Boeing and Slovak. The owners were private and there was no advertising on their boats, simply a number and a name. “Miss Wahoo,” named for Boeing’s hometown in Nebraska.
Slovak relished his time in the cockpit, roaring across the water.
“It was pure love,” Slovak said, downplaying his role as a driver, which he called “one of many” on the racing team. “Everybody was learning, everybody was new.
“It was just fun,” he continued. “Winning or losing didn’t make a difference.”
Fun though it was, Boeing and Slovak went on to win several major races, including the 1957 Mapes Trophy, the 1959 Lake Mead Cup and the 1959 President’s Cup, which Boeing remembers as the team’s finest hour. After winning, Boeing and Slovak were presented with the trophy by President Dwight Eisenhower during a ceremony at the White House.
Before that race, Slovak blew a cylinder in his engine, leaving him with only 11 to the other boats’ 12. He won anyway.
“They said ‘That miserable so-and-so, with 11 cylinders beat us!’” Slovak recalled of his competitors.
“There was nothing better than the Wahoo when it hit the water,” agreed Jones.
After an accident in 1960 and the creep of corporate-sponsored hydros, Boeing got out of the sport. Slovak continued to compete but a series of accidents and injuries led him to hang up his helmet in 1968.
Since then, Slovak said he hasn’t followed the sport too much, though his legacy as a top driver continues to follow him today, as evidenced by a fan at the dinner, Marc Connelly, who snapped a photo and told Slovak that if he didn’t shake the driver’s hand, his mother would never forgive him.
“Miss Wahoo, Mira Slovak, that was the biggest story in Seattle that year!” Connelly spouted.
Boeing also is no longer involved as a hydro owner, but he still follows the sport. According to him, the biggest change since Slovak’s days is the addition of a new skid plate to the boats.
“I don’t know where he’d be if he had that fin,” Boeing said of Slovak, before the two launched into a discussion about how the new fin affects the aerodynamics and abilities of the modern hydros.
With the announcement of plans to rebuild the Miss Wahoo, the pair’s legacy is once again cemented into the lore of the area and the sport. Both Boeing and Slovak said they were proud of their time together and their victories nearly 50 years ago.
“It was a lot of fun,” Boeing said, adding “It’s always great to see Mira.”
“It’s like a homecoming,” Slovak said.
The Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum is located at 5917 S. 196th St. in Kent. For more information, visit www.thunderboats.org.