Longtime hydroplane fans enjoy the sport for the fond memories it evokes.
Karl Pearson has attended more than 200 races since 1968 but has little opportunity to live in the past because he cannot remember much of it.
Instead, the Tri-City native documents every hydroplane event with his camera and fervently collects memorabilia to help remind him of the sport he so dearly loves.
The 150,000 images he has captured throughout the years are his own version of a photographic memory.
He was 10 years old when his parents took him to the first Atomic Cup, won by Miss Budweiser in 1966. His uncle, Bob Loving, was the race director, and the entire family volunteered on various races on the Columbia River going back to 1958.
The 1975 Pasco High School grad talks passionately about the hydro races and their history around the world, but he can barely remember the details.
"I know I was here," he said. "I've been to all of them."
Pearson, 55, was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 3 months old. In 1984, when he was 28, he began to have grand mal seizures, scary events that include blackouts and violent convulsions.
Brain surgery in 2002 helped control Pearson's seizures, but it also destroyed his short-term memory -- and made his long-term memory sketchy at best. An even bigger issue is severe insomnia: Pearson sleeps only 10 to 20 hours per month.
"It's hard to function," he said. "I haven't been able to work for 14 years."
Most of the jobs he's had paid minimum wage, and he never held one for more than two years because of his medical conditions. It took more than two decades to convince the federal government that he could not function normally, and he now receives modest disability payments from Social Security, which provides enough for him to reside in a Federal Way trailer park.
It does give him a lot of time to involve himself with hydroplanes. He is a charter member of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent, where he has helped in many vintage hydro restoration projects, usually by photographing the process. He's ridden in four hydroplanes and even worked his way into a scene of Madison, a movie about the 1971 Gold Cup.
All of this has allowed him to put together one of the greatest collections of hydroplane memorabilia anywhere. He began buying race pins and buttons in 1968 and has amassed more than 3,000 of them, along with hundreds of race programs, press kits, T-shirts, books, posters, stickers and postcards. He figures he has 90 percent of the memorabilia available and needs multiple storage units to hold it all.
Mark Evans, driver of the U-57 formulaboats.com, met Pearson when he joined the sport in 1979.
"I've always known Karl," he said. "He's one of the major, major fans. He's more like family. He's one of my hydro brothers."
In 1980, Pearson began collecting newspaper articles and has every story the Tri-City Herald, Madison (Ind.) Courier and The Seattle Times have written about hydroplanes since then. His mom, Ilene Ungerecht, still lives in Pasco and clips articles for him throughout the year. In addition to the articles he's collected from more than 100 newspapers across North America, Pearson also has clippings going back to 1948, some of which he has purchased or traded with other enthusiasts.
Most longtime fans will recognize Pearson because of his camera. He began taking photos in 1980 when he got his first 35mm camera. After he had a seizure at a race and broke it, he used duct tape and ingenuity to hold it together until finally switching to a digital camera two years ago. Film became difficult to find, and he could no longer afford to have it processed.
Dealing with the images he takes is not easy. He has difficulty learning anything new because of his memory loss. For example, if someone tries to teach him how to use Photoshop, he will have forgotten it all a week later.
"My brain doesn't allow me to learn new processes," he said matter-of-factly. "That part of my brain was removed. It's pretty frustrating."
But he doesn't let his conditions get him down. If not for the health issues, he thinks he would live a normal life and probably wouldn't attend as many races. But he doesn't dwell; rather, he simply loves to be around the sport. And it loves him back.
"He doesn't let it affect him," Evans said. "For all the adversity he's gone through, he stays happy and keeps a positive attitude. That's what we love about him."
Because he cannot drive, getting to races can be challenging. He scrimps and saves his money to fly to Madison for the first race of the year. From there, he gets a ride with one of the teams or race officials to Detroit for the Gold Cup.
He will fly back home, then catch a bus to Pasco for the Columbia Cup then back for Seafair. He will fly to San Diego, and he even found an inexpensive flight to Houston for the proposed Labor Day weekend race. He will miss Qatar because flying to the Middle East for a hydroplane race is just too much, even for the sport's most ardent fan.
But Pearson will do almost anything to not miss a race. Before his brain surgery, his seizures were more common, and he didn't want to be taken to a hospital if they happened.
Evans said, "He always told me, 'Mark, if this happens, just sit on me and wait until it's over.' There have been numerous times I was sitting there on Karl. People were freaking out, and I was saying, 'It's all right. He does this all the time.' "