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August 23, 1954
Stan Sayres's famous "Slo-Mos" have made Seattle the nation's motorboat capital
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August 23, 1954

Fastest Man Afloat

Stan Sayres's famous "Slo-Mos" have made Seattle the nation's motorboat capital

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In early 1950, Slo-Mo IV was tried out for the first time on Lake Washington. To the lakeside residents, she was a spectacular but unloved sight?a roaring skate of a craft that spouted a 30-foot roosterlike tail of water in its wake and scared the daylights out of rowboaters and sailing crews as it zipped past. Sayres's popularity was not increased; neither was his fame in racing circles.

One two-mile run changed all that. On June 26, 1950, Sayres called for official checkers, put on a crash helmet and calmly ran down a one-mile course and back again?at 160.323 mph, a new world's record for anything afloat.

News of the record had barely penetrated the Detroit boating strongholds when Sayres showed up in person with his outlandish craft and his amateur crew. On July 22, Slo-Mo IV resolved whatever doubts the previously complacent Detroiters might have had. She did a 30-mile heat in the Gold Cup at 80.892 mph, a new record, and took the race itself at 78.216, also a new mark. Even the six-knot current, ground swells and floating bottles of the Detroit River didn't faze her unbelievable speed and acceleration. All that other owners saw of Ted Jones, the driver, was the back of his head, for 90 miles.

A week later, after testing and checking the boat, Sayres handed a driver's helmet to Lou Fageol and sat back while Fageol took Slo-Mo IV through the 80 miles of the Harmsworth race. Total average speed: 95.903 mph, a record.

In Detroit, there were grim faces. The Gold Cup and the Harmsworth Trophy had been taken about as far away as they could possibly go within the limits of the continental U.S.A. And it was obvious that it was going to take some doing to get them back again. The trend at Detroit that winter was toward rebuilding?mostly along the lines of Slo-Mo IV.

As for Stan Sayres, he found his life changed radically. When he returned to Seattle with the Gold Cup and the Harmsworth Trophy tucked under his arms, the city promptly fell on his neck. Seattle was trying hard to build up a summer tourist attraction under the name of " Seattle Seafair," and Stanley Sayres the Speedboat King was just what the promotion needed. The Gold Cup was a made-to-order centerpiece for a summer-long show, and Sayres himself rapidly became an institution. Before he knew it, he found himself making speeches, displaying Slo-Mos at fund-raising rallies and?most surprising of all?receiving the benefits of a newspaper campaign designed to keep the Slo-Mos at the top of the U.S. speedboat class.

The logic of this latter undertaking was a simple one: To keep Seattle on the racing map, Seattle had to keep the Gold Cup, and Sayres had to go on turning out Slo-Mos. Thus it happened that Seattle undertook to contribute a goodly share of the expenses involved in manufacturing ultrafast boats?$27,500 in 1952, a large share of the $62,000 needed in 1953 and much of the $45,000 operating costs in 1954. Sayres himself had certain reservations about this. "I wonder," he took to musing, "what will happen if I ever lose a race!"

Meanwhile he went ahead and built Slo-Mo V, to be ready for the Detroiters' attempted comeback in 1951. For this, he planned to use a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, a piece of news which cheered Detroit. The Merlin had been tried before, but nobody had succeeded in getting it to work properly. In closed-course races, an engine has to be flexible enough to shift rapidly from full-throttle acceleration to sudden deceleration and back again, something not required of the airplanes for which the Merlin was built. But Sayres had studied the problem, and figured he knew a way out. It looked as though he did.

From the competition's viewpoint, 1951 was a worse year than the preceding one. Slo-Mo V, after a trial run in Pendleton, ran away in the Gold Cup, tearing around Lake Washington at 90.871 mph to beat the previous year's record.

But troubles soon began to plague Sayres's newest craft, and the 1952 cup race proved the value of a two-boat team, if nothing else. Slo-Mo V was leading the first heat when her cylinder block cracked. Slo-Mo IV also failed to finish when she lost her propeller. For a while the cup seemed to be on its way back to Detroit. The Slo-Mo crew, however, made a lightning switch of propellers between heats and had Slo-Mo IV ready when the next heats began. To the horrified chagrin of his competitors, Sayres's older boat proceeded to run away from the field in the last two heats and hold the trophy in Seattle.

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