AutoMatters+: Unlimited Hydroplane Racing at San Diego Bayfair 2014


By Jan Wagner

What better way to deal with the unseasonably warm temperatures than by heading for the beach? That’s what San Diegans and visitors alike did on the weekend of Sept. 12 – 14, as we all helped celebrate the 50


anniversary of San Diego Bayfair at San Diego’s beautiful Mission Bay.

Following a master plan for Mission Bay that was approved by the City of San Diego in 1958, dredging created East Vacation Island and Fiesta Island. That enabled the creation of a 2.5-mile oval racecourse. San Diego Bayfair was founded by hydroplane racing legend and Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee Bill Muncey.

A visit to Wikipedia reveals that Bill won multiple championships and successfully raced well into his 50s until, in October 1981, his hydroplane blew over in a race, tragically ending his life. That underscores the inherent and ever-present danger of racing at high speed on the water. The track surface – wind-blown water, can and does change, upsetting the boats’ delicate balance between being in and out of control.

The main attraction of the weekend was Unlimited Hydroplane racing, starring what are billed as the fastest boats in the world. San Diego was the final U.S. stop for the H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Tour, where the colorful racing boats with their massive turbine engines, capable of speeds up to 200 mph and fighter pilot G-force loads, thrilled spectators. The racing could be viewed from anywhere along the water’s edge, as the boats skimmed along the surface of the bay and left towering rooster tails of water in their wake.

Unlike in auto racing, water can be a hazard even on a beautiful day. I observed one hydroplane crew in the pits as they hastily performed an engine swap – necessitated when their boat’s race engine was drenched by another’s rooster tail. Afterwards, gigantic cranes hoisted the boats high in the air, moving them from their pits – on land on East Vacation Island, and setting them down in the water at the nearby docks. From there, the drivers belted in, closed their safety canopies and raced.

Unlimited Hydroplane racing was not the only cool thing going on at Mission Bay. Adding to the excitement, off of Crown Point, were classes of smaller racing boats, including K boats, Grand National boats, Comp Jets, Limited Stock Hydros, SSt 45s, Stock Outboards, Runabouts, AX Hydros and Super Stocks.

The Grand Prix West Hydroplanes – smaller versions of the Unlimited boats which ran on a separate race course at the same time as their big brothers raced on theirs, thrilled the fans with exciting racing action. What they lacked in ultimate speed, these boats made up for with the sounds of their high horsepower, piston-powered racing engines.

On display in the Thunder Rod Nationals Car Show, also at Crown Point, was a beautiful 50s station wagon. It was hitched to a gorgeous, color-coordinated pleasure boat from the same era. While the best examples of our present-day cars and boats, often shaped in wind tunnels, are technologically superior, their vintage counterparts are arguably more beautiful and unique. Proceeds from the car show benefitted the Wounded Warriors Homes in San Diego. Mobile Event Radio and The Big Yellow Truck provided the audio entertainment here.

A Kids’ Zone kept the little ones active and entertained. RVs were welcome to stay overnight, with many groups creatively roping off prime viewing areas to watch the races – and enjoy watching as our Chargers defeated the Seattle Seahawks at Qualcomm Stadium on TV on Sunday afternoon!

This was exceptionally affordable for a motorsports and entertainment event of this caliber. Free to the public was live music – including rock, reggae and acoustic, which began on Friday afternoon and continued through Sunday. A dozen bands played sets on the entertainment stage on East Vacation Island, where there was a vendor fair. A small, adult admission fee was required for nearby viewing of the boat races. Saturday was Military Appreciation Day, when active duty military and reservists were welcomed free of charge, in appreciation of their service.

Bayfair, staffed by many volunteers, was a very well run event. Air-conditioned shuttle buses comfortably and quickly moved spectators from the general parking areas on Crown Point to the other event locations. Announcements piped in over loudspeakers all around the venue kept everyone informed as to what was going on.

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Copyright © 2014 by Jan Wagner –