Hydroplane innovator, owner Fred Leland dies

May 22, 2012 

Fred Leland was all about giving people chances, whether you were a new driver or a crew member looking to get started in the sport of unlimited hydroplane racing.

It wasn’t beneath him to give other teams a piece or two of equipment during a race weekend, just so that team could still race and his team could still kick their butts.

His normal operating procedure at Tri-City hydroplane races was to bring at least two boats, sometimes three, to make sure the boat count was up.

He could also be gruff and cut someone off at the knees if he got his dander up.

But underneath that gruff exterior was a man who cared about the people in boat racing and the fans who loved it.

And now he’s gone.

Leland died Sunday night, losing his five-year battle with lung cancer at his Kirkland home. He was 74.

“They broke the mold on that one,” said driver Mark Evans, who raced for Leland during the 1990s and now has his own boat for the upcoming season. “Two things come to mind about him: his gruffness and how innovative he was.”

Leland was also great at allowing new drivers to qualify in an unlimited boat. He’d bring an extra boat to Tri-Cities, letting a newcomer get his 15 laps in to complete the procedure — just as he did last year for Ryan Mallow.

“If you started taking a survey of how many drivers he gave their initial ride to, it would be lengthy,” said Mike Denslow of the Tri-Cities Water Follies and a fellow member of the H1 Unlimited board of directors. “How many of the top drivers drove for him some time in their career, when they were starting their careers or were down on their luck?”

But his teams could also win, especially in the 1990s, when they had the upper hand on the Miss Budweiser team.

His team, Leland Unlimited, won 17 races, including two Gold Cups, and a national championship.

“I enjoyed winning the national high points championship (in 1996 with driver Dave Villwock),” Leland told the Herald back in 2004. “I also enjoyed winning the two Gold Cups and the race titles. Winning isn’t everything, but it is nice.”

He also enjoyed building boats, and the creativity is what he liked most.

“I like the racing aspect of things and building the boats,” he said. “You do have to make everything yourself. But I’ve always had the desire to race.”

Which is why people loved him.

“He was a pure racer,” legendary driver Chip Hanauer told the Seattle Times. “He wasn’t in it to make money or get fame — he just loved the challenge of racing, of coming out with a boat that would be competitive.”

At least six other teams have used his hull design for their boats.

Leland knew his time was coming, but it’s been reported that he wanted to keep his boats running through at least this coming season.

His long-time driver, Greg Hopp, will oversee the program this season.

“Fred will be sorely missed,” Hopp said on Facebook on Monday night. “He has touched everyone in this sport at some point, and had the biggest heart in the world.”

U-17 crew chief and former driver Nate Brown agreed.

“Fred is like a dad to me,” Brown said. “He trusted me to build a boat for him and then he even trusted me to get qualified and run his boat. I race today because of Fred ... and I appreciate all he has taught me.”

Denslow said his loss will be big.

“I think he was a driver’s owner, and he wanted to put on a race,” Denslow said. “He worked behind the scenes to make everything better in boat racing.”

Evans said Leland was “a hell of a pool player. I think half the time he acted like he was drunk, then he would beat everyone and take their money.”

But Evans’ favorite memory might be the flip-and-win while he drove for Leland at Seafair in 1997. Evans flipped the boat in Heat 2A, and the team — with the help of other teams in the pits — pieced the boat back together, and Evans raced it to victory in the final.

“To win Seafair, to flip and win, and have have all those teams jump on board to help — Fred really loved that,” Evans said.

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