Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fred and Al: Remembering two of the good guys

Unlimited Hydroplane Racing's most valuable asset has always been its people, and the sport lost two of its most valuable assets this week.  The sad news broke this week of the passing of hydroplane "lifers" Fred Leland and Al Thoreson.  These two great men have been eulogized on numerous hydroplane websites so that is not my intention here.  I also won't be writing a comprehensive history of their involvement in the sport, as I have covered that in large part in previous posts on  (see the archives) and once again that has been done on other websites.  For more information on the lives and careers on Thoreson and Leland I would recommend reading Fred Farley's fine writeups that have recently been posted on the H1 Unlimited website.  Instead I would like to offer a few thoughts and personal memories of these two great figures in hydroplane racing.

A term that is thrown around way too much in coverage of sports is calling a person or team a "throwback."  It is usually meant to perpetuate an image, real or perceived, that a person or persons is a gritty hardworker that reminds people of a previous era that presumably had similar gritty hard workers.  Although it is a tired out phrase, Fred Leland truly was a throwback.  Not because he was a gritty hard worker (although he was without a doubt one of the hardest working men in the sport over the last four decades) but also because of what he represented.  Leland's involvement in the sport hearkened back to an earlier era when a number of owners would show up with boats they built themselves in the backyard operating with a few (usually volunteer) crew members and a shoestring budget.  Fred Leland was, for many years, such an owner and his Miss Rock hydroplanes even developed something of a cult following in the Washington races, as they were almost always at the back of the pack but the crowd would give an ovation just at the event of the boat finishing a heat.  That all began to change in 1992 when Leland switched to turbine power and join the national tour then  in 1994 he got strong financial backing for the first time in his career.  It was with this partnership with Pico that Leland was able to show his abilities as a master boatbuilder and innovator within the sport.  Fred Leland unveiling a new hull became almost an annual event for much of the 90's, and a couple years he even would take the unheard of step in the modern era and debut two boats in the same year.  Although he lost Pico's backing after the 1999 season Leland continued his tireless involvement in the sport, continuing to run a national tour although a limited budget meant that success was often hard to come by.  I had the chance to meed Fred Leland once.  It was a chance meeting one year at the Madison Regatta (I can't remember the year) when I was walking past the RV section on my way to Broadway one night after the music on the waterfront and saw him getting into his SUV.  Although he clearly had places to be, he still talked with me for a few minutes.  Needless to say, I probably learned more in that three minute conversation about hydroplane racing than I had in reading a number articles on the sport and it upheld everything I had everything I had ever heard about Fred Leland: a very smart but very approachable man who truly loved hydroplane racing.

Speaking of the previous era of shoestring budget owners that Fred Leland hearkened back to, one of those owners was Al Thoreson.  After being a crew member and crew chief on a number of smaller Allison powered teams for the better part of four decades, Thoreson became his own owner, launching the U-7 Thor Racing team.  The team raced under a number of names during their involvement in the sport, most notably Jackpot Food Marts, Paddock Pools, and the Miss Sundek.  Thoreson's small budget team used an outdated hull (the former Squire Shop hull that is noted for carrying Chip Hanauer to his first couple of Unlimited race wins) powered by an Allison that also held the distinction of being one of the last open cockpit hulls to compete in the Unlimited class, not installing a canopy until the rules required it at the beginning of the 1989 season.  As if the outdated Allison craft wasn't already at enough at a disadvantage, the fact that it raced in the era in which the turbine powered boats raced with no fuel restrictions or N2 restrictions meant the boat was relegated to back of the pack for nearly the entirety of the team's existence.  Seeing the boat getting lapped by its turbine competitors was a common site during much of the late 1980's and early 1990's.  Despite its reputation as a tailender, I always liked the U-7 team.  This team was getting its start at the same time that I was coming of an age that I could watch the sport with some knowledge of what was going on so the Paddock Pools held a place, along  with boats like the Mr. Pringles, Miller American, and Holset Miss Madison as some of the first boats that I remember.  That and the fact that the boat always seemed to be in last place made me cheer for the boat even more, and yell "give him a chance!' at times.  The team hung around until 1992, in the process becoming one of the last piston powered teams to run alongside the U-3 in the Unlimited class.  Although I never met Al Thoreson in person, in later years I have found Jerry Hopp to be one of the friendliest people involved in the sport.  So all of this meant that the Al Thoreson's U-7 Thor Racing will hold a special place in my memory of hydroplane racing.

So Unlimited Hydroplane racing has lost two of its most respected owners this week.  Whether it was Leland, who was an owner for parts of four decades with seventeen wins, a very memorable championship season in 1996, and countless innovations, or Thoreson, whose career as an owner was brief and met with little success, both of these men represent a commitment to the sport that has been present throughout the history of hydroplane racing.  And on a personal level, I would like to thank both of them for being part of a number of great memories I have had in following the sport.  Godspeed Fred and Al.