Don Kelson was a respected and prolific builder of hydroplanes. Most of the boats that were produced at his shop, Modern Pattern Works, were for a variety of inboard classes. He did, however, build the second Hallmark Homes in a record 21 days. Kelson was born in Seattle on November 17, 1930, and died on August 24, 2020, a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday. The following interview was conducted by Craig Fjarlie on October 31, 2016.
UNJ: Will you tell us a little about your
early life experiences?
Kelson: My mother died when my brother was born, so we were raised by my dad’s parents. My grandfather worked for the railroad so he was transferred off quite a bit. We lived in North Dakota; we lived in Minnesota; we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, 'til 1945 when we got too old and too ornery for the grandparents to raise us. So, then we moved back with my dad and my stepmother. This was 1945, and 1950 I went into
the service, so I didn’t live with them very long.
With the cancellation of the 2020 season, the H1 board has been working on executing the mission statement established in 2019. That mission statement is, “To maintain, improve and expand the sport of Unlimited hydroplane racing, while being ever mindful of enhancing the fan experience.” Recently, we have been working with Andy Muntz on describing where we think we are today and steps we can take now to help execute the mission.
The following is a summary of our self-assessment.
1. Strengths: H1 is a very established producer of events that center around fast boats and community events. As a member of APBA, the national sanctioning body of boat racing in America for over 100 years, and being associated with UIM, H1 has the ability to hold races in world-wide venues. Strong and professional presentation of the racing teams provides a professional, well-organized program for fans and communities that want to have an event in their towns across America.
2. Weakness: Racing teams at times do not understand that promoting sponsors other than their boat sponsors is essential to the H1 and event organizers. Owners need to support H1 efforts to see the big picture and look past solely their internal interest. Owners also need to commit to supporting as many of the events as possible. Owners need to support H1 management so that we speak with one voice to event promoters.
3. Opportunities: The race programs are very structured and provide event organizers a variety of options to hold an event. H1 management makes every effort to provide a professional event with excitement and fun for all. An H1 race
allows event organizers to market many other activities at the event to increase attendance with many fun items during
the race-day program. Continued, click here...
The Slo-mo-shun IV during its record-breaking run on June 26, 1950.
In 1984, Eddie Kelson is at the wheel of a 145-class hydro designed and built by the Kelson family that was named Gang Green. Note that the two sides of the boat are not symmetrical.
Remembering Don Kelson,
a respected boat builder.
BY ANDY MUNTZ
The unlimited hydros didn’t race on Lake Washington this summer. Perhaps some people didn’t care, but for many, espe-cially those who lived here in the 1950s and ‘60s, the lack of a Seafair race caused a special void. It was missed because hydroplanes were once the city’s greatest passion, a reason to yearn for the coming of summer each year.
The city’s hydro-crazed tradition started 70 years ago.
Before the Sonics, Mariners, Seahawks, Sounders, or Storm, we had hydroplanes. It was the biggest game in town.
Younger generations have had sports heroes such as Gary Payton, Ken Griffey Jr., Sue Bird, and Russell Wilson, but kids growing up in the Puget Sound area during the 1950s and ‘60s had Bill Muncey, Jack Regas, Mira Slovak, and Ron Musson—hydroplane drivers.
We were captivated by the boats. We stood awestruck if we saw one on display at a shopping center or at the boat show,
and we loved watching them in action, throwing spray high into the air and making a thunderous roar that rattled windows three miles away.
That’s why, for us kids, the hydroplane races were a highlight of the year. That’s when we would spend the day near the
racecourse in wonderment. Our dream was to somehow get into the pits, but most of us settled for gazing through the fence, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of our heroes.
And, when the boats weren’t racing, we raced our own little wooden hydroplanes. In every neighborhood, kids created miniature boats from scraps of wood; tied them with string to the backs of their bicycles; and “raced” each other around the block, just like the real boats. The one painted green was the Bardahl, the pink one the Hawaii Kai , and the brown one was Wahoo.
We borrowed a couple of dad’s playing cards and attached them to the bike frame with clothespins stolen from mom’s laundry basket so a proper sound was made as the spokes spun. The most creative among us put a nail at the back of their boats so sparks would fly as it was dragged across the pavement. To us, it looked like the roostertail of a real hydro.
ALL OF THIS passion began with a world-headline-grabbing event that occurred on Lake Washington 70 years ago this summer.
JONES, A SUPERVISOR at Boeing, had spent many years mulling the concepts of aerodynamics and how they could be applied to race boats. He sketched many of those ideas on papers that he kept hidden in his sock drawer. Then, one day in 1942, he heard from Stanley Sayres, a fellow boat racer who owned a successful Chrysler dealership at the corner of Broadway and Madison in Seattle.
Sayres had just purchased one of those Ventnor boats; brought it to the Pacific Northwest; and named it Slomoshun II, a moniker he chose because his wife, Madeleine, had once remarked that his previous hydro was going so fast, it seemed the other boats were in slow motion.
Four days after we celebrated the arrival of 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) first reported that there was a cluster of pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan, China. Within a few days after that, WHO published a technical report about the new virus and media outlets such as Bloomberg News and the Washington Post began reporting on the outbreak. By January 11, the first death from the virus was reported in China, nine days later the first cases outside of China were identified, and on January 30 WHO declared a global health emergency.
Little did we know at the time the huge impact this Covid-19 microorganism would have on our lives this year. We’ve learned what it’s like to be quarantined in our homes and to be unable to eat at restaurants or go to movies. Our kids are
attending school via Zoom, we’ve become accustomed to seeing face masks wherever we go, and we’ve said goodbye to more than a quarter million Americans, a death toll higher than the combined number killed in all wars, excluding the Civil War and World War II, since our nation was founded.
With all of that, it’s no wonder that the H1 Unlimited Racing Series also became a victim.
The plan for 2020 was to have five races. The season would start with the annual Spring Training opportunity on the Columbia River in early June, then the boats would gather in Guntersville, Alabama, later that month for the Guntersville Lake Hydrofest. Races would follow with the Gold Cup in Madison, Indiana, and then with races in the Tri-Cities, Seattle, and
finally San Diego in mid-September.
With an announcement in late March, Guntersville was the first to fall because of Covid-19. With the pandemic underway,
the event organizers there realized that it simply didn’t make sense to have fans gathered together on the beach to watch the action. In April came a similar decision by the race officials in Madison and, a month later, the race in Seattle was canceled.
In early June, the organizers of the Tri-City Water Follies in the Tri-Cities announced that their July event was postponed to later in the year, depending on how the pandemic had progressed by that time. San Diego organizers pulled the plug on their race in mid-June and then, when Tri-Cities officials realized there was no longer any hope for this year, they also pushed off their race until 2021.
It was the first time in 75 years, the last being in 1945 when the nation was ending World War II, that an entire season of
Unlimited-class hydroplane racing was canceled. It wouldn’t be until Kelly Stocklin took his boat to remote Pateros, Washington, on Halloween day that an Unlimited would even so much as touch the water this year.
Meanwhile, the pandemic continues. As families celebrate the holidays, a third wave of Covid-19 infections is underway. While doctors have improved their methods for treating those who come down with the illness, more than a thousand Americans are continuing to die each day.
So, what about next year?
There’s some hope. It’s said that a vaccine will be available to the general public in a few months. Officials at H1 Unlimited and at each of the race sites are making plans for the hydroplanes to return to action this coming summer. But there also
be no guarantees. With the pandemic not yet under control, it’s far too early to be certain.
Don Kelson at work in his Seattle shop.
Before that I’d gone to West Seattle High School and met my future wife at school. We both graduated in 1950 and after, like I said, I went into the Army. After I got out of the Army in 1951, I started an apprenticeship as a pattern maker at Olympic Foundry here in Seattle. In April of 1952 I married my wife of now 64 years. We have three children, two of them most all of you know from boat racing experiences, Eddie and Jerry, and I have a daughter named Jeannette.
That pretty-well brings us up to now.
So, you went to work for Olympic Foundry, what kind of work were you doing there?
I served my apprenticeship there and worked on building patterns for the foundry. Most of the stuff was in the water works type of thing.
We built manhole covers, grates for water pipe fittings, large pipe fittings, we’re talkin’ anything from 12-inch up to 48-inch diameter pipe. Cast iron pipe.
How did you become involved with boat racing?
Well, before, I was still at home, I had a Times paper route. One of the customers on that paper route was a man named Ray Hassleberg. Ray was very, very interested in boat racing, the Unlimiteds, and then he finally got interested in the limiteds. After I left my paper route, we were still friends and he knew that I was working in wood, so he says, “Why don’t you build me a boat?” This was in 1957. He got a hold of a set of plans for a Norm Christiansen 280. That’s what we used; that’s where I started, in my garage at home in White Center.
So, you had tools and equipment to do that?
Well, I used some of the shop equipment where I was workin’ and the rest of it was hand tools. The power tools I was
able to use at work.
Did you mostly build it yourself, or did he help you?
No, he tried to help me, but he was more in the way than anything. [Laughter.]
You said that was a 280-class?
So that was your first boat.
Seattle was in the backwoods of the sports world back then. Oh sure, fans had Husky football and Seattle U basketball. There were the Rainiers of baseball and the Ironmen of hockey, but that was minor-league stuff. It was nothing that could match the big-time happenings in, let’s say—Detroit.
When the U-32 Hallmark Homes was destroyed at the 1971 Gold Cup in Madison, Indiana, Don Kelson was tasked with building a replacement that owner Tony Mulherin wanted to have done
in time for the Seattle Seafair race only five weeks later. Kelson and his team completed the boat’s construction in only 21 days, which many feel is the fastest that an Unlimited has ever been built.
How did it perform? Was he happy
No, it performed, but not well, ‘cause
he didn’t have the resources. He used a
big ol’ DeSoto engine in it. It was way too
heavy by the time we finished.
So, he took care of buying all of the
You know, I don’t even remember
where we got the hardware. I’m sure he
bought it somewhere, ‘cause I didn’t have
the way of making it then.
Ted Jones tested his ideas on prop-riding hydroplanes by designing the Slo-mo-shun III
2020 SEASON REVIEW:
The year that wasn’t.
OK. Now, you also raced? You drove for a while?
No, not up until quite a bit later.
OK. So you started building and you got other…
Well, then we started getting repair work and some alterations. Then we started building other new boats. Then I got tied up with Jack Colcock.
Jack was doing real well about that time and he couldn’t handle all the work that he was getting, so I subcontracted to him. I built, oh, I don’t know, maybe five or six boats for Jack. Here again, at home. [Laughs.]
Were they different classes, or…
No, they’re basically all 280s.
Yeah, they were the big thing starting then.
Yeah, OK. Did you get other classes that you were starting to build also?
Well, yes, after working at Olympic Foundry for about 10 years I went to Coolidge Propeller and stayed there and learned how to make propellers—theirs. Then I had an opportunity to buy Modern Pattern Works with a partner. We lasted together about two years and then he decided to part ways and that’s when I took over the business totally. And from there I was… Continued, click here...
A crowd watches as the new Hallmark Homes is launched in time to compete in the 1971 Seafair Trophy Race.
The Motor City had the Tigers of Major League Baseball, a team that led the American League for most of the 1950 season. Detroit was one of only eight cities in the nation that had a team in the National Football League. As for hockey, it had the Red Wings, an Original Six member of the National Hockey League. Led by hall-of-famer Sid Abel and a young star named Gordie Howe, they had just won the 1949-50 Stanley Cup championship.
Detroit also was the hub of the boat-racing universe. The most renowned event in that sport, the Gold Cup, had been contested on the Detroit River regularly for almost 35 years, since Christopher Columbus Smith built a boat that won the trophy in 1915. (Smith is also known as the founder of Chris-Craft.)
Boat racers in the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, were involved in smaller limited-class contests—again, minor-league
stuff. But a few Seattle racers did have one thing over their brethren in Detroit.
They had an exciting new idea.
Since the days of Chris Smith, the bottoms of the boats had steps that would cause the craft to skip across the surface
and therefore go faster than those that plowed through the water. That idea was refined in the mid-1930s by a pair of boat builders in Ventnor City, New Jersey: Adolph and Arno Apel, who designed a boat that used pontoons (or sponsons) on
either side of the bow to lift it out of the water and reduce drag.
The hydroplanes that the Apels built at Ventnor Boat Works were state-of-the-art for race boats when World War II ended, but Ted Jones, a passionate Seattle-area boat racer and a student of his favorite sport, thought the process of making race boats go faster needed to advance one more step: The boat’s stern needed to be out of the water, too.