Powerboat Racing

Wave goodbye: Live Seafair hydroplane-race TV coverage sputters out after 66 years

Originally published at www.seattletimes.com on March 25, 2017.

Another local tradition falls as KIRO and Seafair are ready to ink a contract ending live TV hydroplane coverage and replacing it with a Sunday evening wrap-up. It ends 66 years of live television coverage of the event.

At the Active Auto Care shop in Auburn the guys don’t just talk engines, they also talk hydroplane racing. They’re locals, you know?

Rich Matkin, 61, Newport High class of 1971, who went to his first hydro race at age 4 or 5, is one of the guys.

They’ve been hearing something disconcerting. KIRO is going to stop live, real-time broadcasting of the Seafair hydro races on Sundays.


Live TV broadcasting of the races is a 66-year tradition, since 1951.

Rich Matkin emails a news tip: “Is it true?”

Yes, it’s true, both KIRO and Seafair confirmed this week.

What can Matkin and the guys at the shop do but sigh.

“It’s a community event,” he says.

Another institution, gone. Get used to the future, as you shuffle to one of those sterile South Lake Union buildings.

The new Seafair hydro contract hasn’t been signed, but unless something unforeseen happens, it’s a done deal, say Greg Bilte, KIRO general manager, and Richard Andersen, Seafair president.

It’s a long ways from when KOMO, KING and KIRO all had competing live coverage of the race. Few local events nationwide other than the Pasadena Rose Parade warrant that.

Those were the days from the 1950s to the 1970s in which hydroplanes and Seattle were one.

We’ll recount in one sentence the often-repeated, and true story of the sport being so popular here that kids would cut toy hydroplanes from plywood and drag them behind their bicycles to race each other.

Time passes and interests change.

KOMO and KING bailed on the costly live TV coverage. KIRO stuck with it, packaging the hydros with coverage of the Torchlight Parade and the Fourth of July fireworks at Gas Works Park.

Through last summer, you could pop a Rainier beer and sit in your living room and watch the vroom, vroom, vroom.

Sure, maybe you’d doze off if you turned down the volume as the hydros went ’round and ’round. But it was the concept.

The problem for KIRO and Seafair was the number 2.3.

That’s the average rating that the Sunday KIRO live coverage of the hydros was getting.

That means that of the some 1.8 million adults ages 25–54 in Western Washington (that’s the advertising sweet spot; too young or too old and you don’t much matter), a measly 2.3 percent watched the live hydros coverage.

So Bilte’s idea is to do a 1½-hour Sunday evening wrap-up that would pre-empt the highly rated “60 Minutes” at 7 p.m.

“I’m thinking prime time is going to be a better showcase for them,” says Bilte. He says that based on figures for the past three years, the early evening time slot would draw 70 percent more 25- to 54-year-old viewers than the afternoon.

Say you did go watch the hydros, which in recent years, according to Seafair, have had a paid attendance of 160,000 to 180,000, depending on whether it was raining.

“You get home, you’ve got nothing to do, and you can watch it on TV,” says Bilte.

Of course, CBS would have to agree to pre-empt in Seattle a gold mine like “60 Minutes” and move it to another time. “They realize this is a big local event,” says Bilte, hoping that piece also falls into place.

Win-win, right?

Says Seafair’s Andersen, “It makes sense. It’s not change for change’s sake.”

Enthusiasm isn’t quite the response from Dave Williams, executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent.

The building housing the museum holds everything from the full-size monsters that raced in Lake Washington to $10 wooden toy versions.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t kinda disappointed and shocked,” says Williams. “It’s a huge tradition to be walking away from.”

He’s also a local, and had one of those toy hydros as a kid.

The way he explains the decision, “It’s like you were a Seahawks fan and found out they weren’t going to cover the game live anymore, just get a recap after the fourth quarter was over.”

Williams remembers those fantastic hydro days, when someone like the legendary sportscaster Keith Jackson got his start at KOMO and called out the hydro races in the mid-1950s to the mid-60s.

“That’s how he earned his chops,” says Williams.

Back then, when the three local stations went against each other in live coverage, an Aug. 10, 1958, Seattle Times story told how KING and KOMO “spend huge sums to bring fans the six-hour live coverage.”

Although the coverage has plenty of commercials, “prestige, not profit, is the aim of the day,” said the story. Yes, the good old days.

The story told how engineers for both stations devised 100- and 110-inch TV lenses for the races. “Cumbersome, immobile and highly limited” is how the lenses were described, “but they will provide an astonishing close-up.”

The stations tried to one-up each other.

A 1954 story told how KOMO put a camera on a 43-foot “industrial monkey” for overhead views of the boat pits.

That same year, KING flew a helicopter directly over the race, filmed the hydros, had the chopper then land on the station’s rooftop, had the film rush-processed and broadcast it between heats.

A large Aug. 7, 1960, ad for KING promised that in between heats (when things got pretty boring) its five hydroplane reporters would meet a panel “of the nation’s top unlimited hydroplane experts” in “a ‘no questions barred’ session.”

That was then.

Says Williams about the end of live hydro coverage, “It’s sad to see it go away. It’s what makes us not Chicago, not Los Angeles.”

But truthfully, say that in 2017 you managed to line up five reporters for a “no questions” barred hydroplane panel.

Could anybody come up with a question?

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.

Originally published at www.seattletimes.com on March 25, 2017.

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