Unlimited hydroplane racing lost one of its most versatile participants on May 21. Fred Leland of Kirkland, Wash., died after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 74.
Throughout his long career, Leland made his presence felt as an owner, a driver, a designer, and a builder. As an owner, he won 17 Unlimited races including the 1999 Indiana Governor's Cup at Madison with Chip Hanauer as driver.
Fred was a fixture on the Pacific Northwest Limited Inboard circuit for many years. He made his Unlimited debut at the 1978 Seattle Seafair Regatta as the rookie driver of Bob Miller's Miss B&L Plumbing.
At Seattle in 1983, Leland was driving an Ed Karelsen-designed hull named KISW Miss Rock. He won the Consolation Heat but was flipped out of the boat during the Final Heat. Fred was not seriously injured but that was the end of his driving career.
As a designer, Leland experimented with a number of interesting concepts including a hull powered by a massive 2,500-cubic-inch Packard PT Boat engine of World War II vintage.
In 1992, Fred upgraded his program with a new hull, powered by a Lycoming turbine engine. With Nate Brown as driver, the craft was instantly competitive.
Some of the Unlimited sport's most respected chauffeurs have taken a turn behind the wheel of a Fred Leland race boat at one time or another. In addition to Brown and Hanauer, Dave Villwock, Mark Evans, Mike Hanson, Scott Pierce, Terry Troxell, and Greg Hopp have all driven for Leland.
his first Unlimited victory at the 1994 Texaco Cup on Seattle's Lake Washington
with Villwock driving.
Fred's most successful season as an owner was 1996 when his PICO American Dream and Villwock swept the competition, claimed six victories, and won the National High Point Championship.
The 1997 season was another triumph. With Mark Evans at the wheel, PICO American Dream won four races in a row at the Tri-Cities, Kelowna, B.C., Seattle, and San Diego.
By far the most memorable moment of 1997 occurred at Seattle. After winning Heat 1B, Mark flipped upside-down in Heat 2A. Evans was uninjured and rebounded to win the Final Heat.
Never before in the history of Unlimited racing had a driver flipped a boat upside-down and come back to win the race, all on the same day.
In 1999, Fred caught the racing world by surprise when he lured Lee "Chip" Hanauer - the winningest living Unlimited driver at the time - out of self-imposed exile to work his particular magic for the Leland Unlimited team.
Chip hadn't driven a U-boat in three years. Hanauer, nevertheless, got back into the spirit of things rather quickly, piloting Miss Pico into the winner's circle at his debut race in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., before also winning at Madison and Detroit.
The 1999 Madison race saw Hanauer leading into the first turn of the final heat. The race was stopped moments later when archrival Villwock and Miss Budweiser became airborne and flipped. Villwock was uninjured but, having caused the stoppage, was ineligible for the re-start, which was won by Miss Pico at 133.351 mph, compared to 132.297 for second-place Mitch Evans and Appian Jeronimo.
The 1999 Detroit race was likewise noteworthy. This one was for the APBA Gold Cup - the ultimate prize - that Leland had won once before in 1996.
The 1999 Gold Cup is perhaps Fred Leland's finest hour as a hydroplane racer.
The boat had sustained damage when it scraped a sponson on a freeway overpass while en route to the race site.
Miss Pico lost a whole day of valuable testing time while the crew, headed by crew chief Ken Dryden, hurried repairs. On Friday, a stiff breeze cursed the Detroit River with white caps and waves and another test day was lost.
The repaired Miss
Pico didn't make it into the water until race day morning. But the Leland team
and Hanauer nevertheless demonstrated their championship mettle and pulled off a
classic victory in the race of races.
Fred built no fewer than eight turbine-powered Unlimited hulls between 1992 and 2000. But he never gave up on internal combustion engines for Unlimiteds - including automotive engines. After several years of development, Leland hoped to water test just such a craft in 2012.
The last appearance in competition of a Fred Leland-owned hydroplane occurred at the 2011 Oryx Cup/UIM World Championship in Doha, Qatar, on the Persian Gulf. The team placed third overall with Hopp as driver.
Leland did not want the team that he founded to die with him so prior to his death, he made arrangements for the Kirkland-based Leland Unlimited organization to continue racing with Hopp as representative owner.