|About 20 years ago a smash hit radio program began like this: "Faster
than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall
buildings with a single bound. Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a
plane! IT'S SUPERMAN!!!!"
About 20 years ago a young fellow was just beginning a smash hit racing career about whom people would ultimately say: "Faster than his competition. More powerful than super-blown engines while giving away 100 cubes. Able to overcome questionable officiating and courses tailored against his boat's design. Look! Out on the water! It's a rocket! It's a winner! IT'S SUPERWHAM!!!!'
SuperWham is Spokane, Washington's triple threat sportsman, Earl Wham - car racer, boat racer and engine builder. Without question Wham lists among this nation's finest racers - Although not currently campaigning a boat, he continues building racing engines for top cars and boats at his home shop just outside Spokane. Because he's a natural to enter either the Unlimited class, or the rumored Grand Prix proposed class, everybody wonders what Wham is doing and where he might race again to match or surpass his records in the 266 and 7-liter limited inboard classes.
Among racing's insiders Wham, 42, is a legend that's never been told before. Too shy to be pushy about publicity, Wham allowed lesser racers to capture the press spotlight even when he won the races and titles! His self-effacing "It's the racing that's fun, not all this interview stuff" and his truthful, plain answers to press questions sent reporters scurrying to the bs artists for headlines and quotes.
Yet, it is a fact that Wham's boat racing engines are regarded by major automotive companies, major car drivers, and major auto racing mechanics as "essentially dragster engines with tremendous power and top end." Because his engine prowess is better known among car than boat racers, his entire $20,000 7-liter rig, Miss Merion Bluegrass, was stolen from his motel parking lot prior to the Orange Bowl Regatta in 1969.
Discovering the theft after midnight, an outraged Wham called the cops. Got no action. Called the mayor in the wee hours. Got no action. Called the governor of Florida, got him out of bed and GOT ACTION. Helicopter search located the Merion hull, but the engine had been removed so drag strip mechanics could learn its secrets. Eventually, the engine, too, was recovered.
But the is nationally-head lined episode occurred after Wham had won the Orange Bowl Grand Prix, the only west coast boat ever to do so. It occurred after he gained fame as a 266 titlist and became the reigning 7-liter champion with a straightaway speed record of 159.217-mph. It occurred long after a restless high school freshman bought his first car, a relic, and spent all his spare time tinkering with it out of sheer curiosity and delight. A grandstand seat at a stock car race ended the tinkering because ". ..I just had to try that racing!"
Wham's method of trying was typical of his approach to any racing. He gathered the top body and engine
experts in town, forged them into "the best pit crew in town," put together a succession of cars and went racing. Although it took him eight races to finish the first one, just four short years later he had won everything possible and everybody else was out for his scalp! One racing association had the honest courage to admit its 1957 rules were changed to make Wham's car ineligible for competition. Said Jack Summers, manager of the Eastern Washington Stock Car Racing Association, "Crowds like closeness in a race - not one driver taking the lead every time." Shocked, angered, hurt, yet finally understanding that his very superiority had made him unwelcome, Wham refused to brood. By 1959 he was running a twin-engine dragster so successfully that he again outclassed his competition and won everything in sight. And, by then, boat racing looked good. "It's by far the toughest kind of racing there is, "Wham reflected. "The track is never the same second by second. The equipment is subject to more unexplained failure, no matter how carefully prepared. There's no way to precalculate with precision what hull and mechanical stresses will occur. You can't entirely depend on the driving of even dependable competitors because of these situations. I consider boat racing variables so numerous and constant that they make it the most total challenge any racer can face."
So, with little money, lots of work, plenty of sacrifice and one fixed goal - winning -the oldest of the five Wham children turned himself into an international boat racing celebrity. Starting with a 266 hydro, Squirrel I, and crew of Don Shane, Johnny White, Fred Rogers and Bob Schultze, Wham took the boat out to test and scared hell out of himself, his crew, casual spectators and any livestock within sight and sound of the activity.
"Holy smoke!" hollered Wham upon return to the beach. "This sure is different! "
Holy Smoke became the name of his ultimate 266 with which he terrorized every course and eventually emerged supreme in this class. This boat and the hard driving Wham were over just twice in their long career of wins, world records and national titles. Despite grumbles from lesser competitors about Wham's flat-out driving, champion George Babcock says simply, "I owe him my life" about one hairy course situation, and champion/designer Hu Entrop regards Wham as one of the most talented drivers around.
Wham's 7-liter was the natural outgrowth of winning everything in the 266 class. His yellow and green Miss Merion Bluegrass was the outgrowth of sponsorship of men Wham affectionately calls, "a bunch of damned fine farmers" who produce Merion Bluegrass seed, a specialty grass for premier golf greens and carriage-trade lawns, etc. Arden Jacklin and his association got far more for their sponsoring money than they expected. Merion and Wham became regional, divisional and national champs. In 1967 they set the Kilo chute record of 159.217-mph. In 1970 they were clocked in Kilo Trials at 166-mph and higher. They were (still are) the only west coast camp to win the Orange Bowl Grand Prix. In one race or another they beat every other 7-liter running, including Babcock's Record 7 during the time it held all five 7-liter records simultaneously and prior to its accidental destruction. And, Merion and Wham were beating Babcock's new Record 7 before it was retired from racing and sold. The last time Merion and Wham campaigned was in October 1971. The duo raced against blown fuel drag boats in the quarter-mile drag portion of a circle/drag regatta. They won Top Eliminator. They were that kind of a team.
It was logical for Wham to try the Unlimited class but his brief experience there was disappointing. He tried out Bob Fendler's Atlas Van Lines but resigned from the cockpit after the unpredictable hull took dangerous bounces which neither wind nor water conditions could cause. Characteristically, he explained nothing to the press at the time, but has since said, "I just figured that when a boat takes a little hop into the air at 150-mph the driver has a right to expect to know which way it's going to come down!" He was pleased and reinforced in his decision when Unlimited champion Bill Schumacher congratulated him for "getting out of an impossible hull."
For years Wham's entire life has been centered and scheduled around boat racing. His friend, Ray LaBrie, insisted that "when Earl went to church to marry Katherine Schultz after a 15-year courtship, we had to fire the one-minute gun to start him down the aisle, and it was the only wedding where the minister wore a referee's shirt to get Earl to report to him!"
Currently Earl and Katherine live in a three bedroom home on 23 acres overlooking the Spokane Valley and city. Said LaBrie, "Earl is using the Spokane area for his personal view, Liberty Lake for his fish pond and Lake Newman for his swimming pool!"
Wham continues to build engines (and recreation rooms and cupboards and shelves and etc.) on the following schedule: Rise at 5 a.m. for home, and (lawn chores plus breakfast; Bell Telephone Co. work 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; chase engine parts until dinner at 5 p.m.; work in engine shop until 11 p.m.; rise again at 5 a.m.! Despite dedication to racing, Wham is no one-talent man. His stocky build disguises a youth spent in gym workouts, the agility and reflexes of a second-place finisher in an all-city ping pong tournament, and a snow and water skier. He doesn't smoke at all and drinks very little. His roomful of trophies is all that remains of the many he gives away to people he likes. Two people he likes beyond adequate description are Bob Schultz and Fred Rogers. "For 20 years they have been my moral support and mechanical help. There's no way I can repay the hours of all-night and all-week volunteer help they've given me. When Marion was on the Columbia River bottom 30 days and I offered a reward to anybody who could find her, these guys each paid one-third of it! After she was raised Bob took her home and dried her out with a hair dryer! How do you compensate men for dedication like that?" said Wham.
Wham is proudest of winning the Bing Crosby Sportsmanship Award trophy in car racing, and the Englehardt Palladium Trophy actually valued at $25,000 for his Grand Prix win. "I traveled more than 32,000 miles in four trips to Florida for that one," grinned Wham. And he's proud of the respect of his competitors wherever he's raced.
Speaking of respect, Wham has that professional faculty of making it all look easy. It was on October 7, 1967 that he and his crew drove Miss Merion Bluegrass to Lincoln City, Oregon for Kilo Trials on D Lake. At breakfast he calmly mentioned to some of us that the boat "was set up to go 160-mph and that's about all, but that should be enough." Later we watched the team launch the craft.
Merion fired up, Wham signaled readiness to go through the traps and with scarcely any in-run, went sizzling through. "Just a test run?" ventured somebody who was unable to believe his eyes. On return, again with almost no in-run, the duo sizzled through and immediately headed for the launch area and trailer. The boat was retrieved without any check with timers to see if a back-up run was necessary.
It wasn't and Wham knew it. The speed posted was 159.217-mph. Hu Entrop, watching the team load up and drive off to inspection, admitted it was.
If the rumored Grand Prix class ever materializes it's virtually certain that the most remarkable assault he'd ever seen.
The entire effort from launch to retrieve took less than 20 minutes!
We submit, readers, that this is classy racing.
SuperWham will be around to repeat some of the foregoing feats if only to illustrate that he's as good as, and perhaps better than, his legends.