KENNEWICK -- The future of unlimited hydroplane racing could hardly have been bleaker 43 years ago when the first race was held in the Tri-Cities.
In the '60s the sport was booming and the Tri-Cities Water Follies planned to include unlimited hydros for the first time in 1965, exanding the event that had included water skiing and other boat racing since 1948.
"It looked like it was going to be an extraordinary year," said David Williams, the executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent and the author of Hydroplane Racing in the Tri-Cities.
Instead the 1966 racing season got off to a disastrous start. Four of the top five drivers were killed within two weeks before the first Atomic Cup race in the Tri-Cities.
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"The teams limped into the Tri-Cities," Williams said. "There was talk of canceling because of all the accidents -- not just the Tri-Cities but canceling the entire series."
The hydros have always relied on engines designed for aircraft, with technology leapfrogging ahead. As the boats get faster, then the drivers want better engines. More powerful engines require better boats, he said.
By the mid '60s the boats were not capable of the speeds at which their engines could power them.
Fortunately, the first Atomic Cup went off without problems with Bernie Little's Miss Budweiser earning its first victory.
The Herald called the race "a success -- financially, artistically and safety wise," Williams wrote in his book.
But within two years of the first race, the boats would start to undergo a major design change to make them safer.
They would continue to evolve over the four-plus decades the hydros have been racing in the Tri-Cities from snub-nosed wooden boats to the sleek, enclosed-cockpit crafts that are racing this weekend on the Columbia River.
At the first Atomic Cup in the Tri-Cities the boats had round noses. But if the boats started to bounce, the nose would hit the water and stick. The end would vault into the air and the boat would flip.
The solution, seen at the races in 1968, was to cut the noses back so the front of the boat had two fins that extended in front of the round nose. Sports writers started calling them "pickle forks."
The next major change in the boats came in 1970 when drivers began moving from seats in the back of the boats to in front of the engines, where they were closer to the boat's center of gravity, Williams said.
Sitting in the back was something like sitting on a teeter-totter, with the driver pitching up and down, he said.
Visibility also improved in front of the engine with drivers having to contend with less exhaust and leaking oil.
The boats at the first Atomic Cup were made of wood. But by the late '70s the switch had begun to the honey-combed aluminum used in the aircraft industry. Two sheets of aluminum sandwiched a honey-comb an inch thick to make a material that was light, strong and filled with air so it couldn't sink, Williams said.
Until then drivers had not used seat belts. The boats had been fragile and the engines heavy. If there was an accident, drivers knew the engine would sink like an anchor and they feared they would go down with it if they were strapped in.
But with new aluminum boats it made sense to belt in the drivers, Williams said.
That started to happen in 1983, and then it was a natural next step to add a canopy to the boats. It gave drivers a little cocoon of air in case of an accident or provided protection to prevent air masks from being torn off, he said.
From 20 years before the first Atomic Cup until 1984 all the major boats used piston models manufactured for airplanes. Most owners chose between Allison or the more powerful Rolls Royce.
But in the mid-'80s, the switch started to turbine engines manufactured for helicopters.
At the first Atomic Cup a fast qualifying boat would have averaged about 110 mph, Williams said. The world straight-away speed record for unlimiteds then was 200 mph.
Today when the hydros race in the Tri-Cities the qualifying speeds are expected to average in the 155 to 156 mph range, Williams said before the start of the weekend. The world speed record is 220 mph.
Williams' photo-packed history of hydros in the Tri-Cities is available at Barnes & Noble in Kennewick and the Bookworm in Richland.
* Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org.