Father of hydro racing in Seattle, Ted Jones, dies

Ted Jones was called a revolutionary hydroplane designer, but for those unconcerned with such formalities he is known simply as the man who brought hydroplane racing to Seattle.

Mr. Jones designed the gleaming mahogany and red-roostertailed Slo-mo-shun IV that he drove to victory in the Gold Cup on the Detroit River in 1950. The feat earned Seattle the right to host the races the following year. Seattle has hosted a hydroplane regatta every year since.

Mr. Jones died yesterday in a Des Moines nursing home after being ill with pneumonia. He was 90.

"He was the most creative man in the history of hydroplane racing," says Mr. Jones' grandson, Tod Steward. "He revolutionized the sport. He loved the speed of it."

Mr. Jones drove the Slo-mo-shun IV to victory in the Gold Cup and went on to design five national-champion boats: Miss Thriftway, Hawaii Kai III, Maverick, Shanty I and Miss Bardahl. Boats designed by Mr. Jones won every national points championship from 1956 to 1965.

"Boat racing is the only thing I got between my ears," Mr. Jones told a Seattle Times sportswriter in an interview last summer.

A lot of Mr. Jones' designs were conceptualized in the middle of the night. Often he awoke from a dream and hastily sketched out a design on a pad he kept next to his bed.

He had faith in his ideas. When he originally designed the Slo-mo-shun IV in 1950, Mr. Jones said he promised to repay owner Stan Sayres for the building costs if the boat didn't break the straightaway water-speed record. It would have been a price the family couldn't afford.

"We weren't eating too well at the time," said Ron Jones, Mr. Jones' only son, in an interview last summer.

But in the five decades since the Slo-mo-shun IV broke the water-speed record that summer of 1950, his innovations have become industry standards.

"All the boats that are being built and designed today are derivative of his basic design," said Chip Hanauer, the winningest active hydroplane driver. "He set the stage technically for what we're doing even today."

But Mr. Jones' legacy can't be captured in a blueprint. His personality had as much impact as his engineering breakthroughs. He was a firecracker who cracked jokes, forgot dates and feuded with Anchor Jensen, who built the Slo-mo-shun IV. Mr. Jones is credited as the designer, but Jensen has said he had a role in modifying Mr. Jones' original sketch.

Last summer, Jensen and Mr. Jones shook hands at a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of Slo-mo-shun IV setting the water-speed record. During an interview a month after their handshake, Mr. Jones showed a flash of his humor.

"I could still take him," he joked.

Boating enthusiasts say Slo-mo-shun IV and its sister ship, Slo-mo-shun V, captured the imagination of Seattle. Before the Seahawks and Sonics were in Seattle, the hydroplane races were the biggest show in town.

"I remember when I was growing up it was the big deal in Seattle," Steward recalls. "The hydroplanes with the old piston engines . . . the places would be packed with people."

According to Hanauer, "the Slo-mo kind of epitomized professional sports when I was a child. It was often spoke of as a being rather than an inanimate thing.

"In many respects, the Slo-mo-shun was the first Seattle professional sports franchise, and he created it."

The course on Lake Washington is named the Ted Jones Race Course. Former Mayor Norm Rice proclaimed Aug. 6, 1990, as Ted Jones Day in Seattle.

His son, Ron, has built 25 hydroplanes and is credited with making boats safer with such innovations as the F-16 canopy and designing the engine behind the driver.

Last month, Mr. Jones was listed among the top 100 people in Washington state sports by a Seattle Times readers' poll. He was included in Sports Illustrated's list of the 50 top sports figures from Washington in the past century.

Slo-mo-shun IV is part of the collection of the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle.

Besides his son, Mr. Jones is survived by daughters JoAnn Rubin, Sharon Nelson and Shirley Steward, all of Seattle. His wife, Jane, died in 1991.

Lynne K. Varner's phone message number is 206-464-3217. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com Danny O'Neil's phone message number is 206-515-5536. His e-mail address is doneil@seattletimes.com