Outboard Champ Recalls Her Winning Ways
December 23, 2021 - 11:51pm
An Interview with Janis Lee-Ely
By Craig Fjarlie
In the 1960s, the Lee family was a powerhouse in outboard racing in the Pacific Northwest. Ray Lee drove in B Stock Hydro. He also was a Commodore of Seattle Outboard Association for two years. Ray’s son, Dennis, competed in A Stock Hydro and A Stock Runabout; his daughter, Janis, set records and scored numerous victories in J Stock Hydro and J Runabout. She was born in Seattle on September 22, 1952. In the following interview, conducted on December 14, 2021, Janis recalls her years in the cockpit.
Before you started racing, what were some of your interests? Did you follow the hydroplanes on TV?
Oh, yes. Dad, actually, was a professional photographer. So back in the ‘50s he used to go down to the boat races and take pictures. We used to tag along with him. Other than that, Dad built pleasure boats. We did a lot of water skiing at Lake Chelan and Lake Sammamish, so we’ve always been on the water. We did a lot of that kind of boating. I remember going on vacations on Lake Sammamish at Idylwood Park. We’d stay in the little cabins there for a week, and we’d swim and water ski and hang out there just about every summer.
How did your family start racing?
There was a boat race (at Idylwood) and that’s where my brother Dennis got the bug. Dennis started racing first, about 1961. He got an ASH motor from Jack Holden, and Ed Karelsen helped us find a boat. Dad started a year or two later.
Your dad started in B Stock?
I want to say yes. I was 10 at the time. I’ve got pictures of me in the pits that are kind of funny to look back on.
How did your dad get started racing?
As I recall, at that time he was working for ITT Continental Wonder Bread. He drove a bread truck. He delivered to Sand Point (at the time a Naval Air Station – Ed.). He met somebody who worked there who raced boats, and got to talking to him. You know, he always loved the water and boats. I think we, or Dad, must have gone to a boat race. We used to watch the Sammamish Slough races, too, before any of us started racing.
Boats used to test off Sand Point, too, sometimes.
That could be. We used to test on Sammamish most of the time. I don’t remember watching racing or testing on Lake Washington.
And when did you start racing?
In the winter of ’64, Dad built my first JU. Eddie Karelsen let him use the plans. So that was my first boat. I was 12 years old.
Where did you have your first race?
Let’s see, Long Lake was my first race. I think I got fourth or fifth, I can’t even remember. But my very first trophy – I guess everybody always remembers their first trophy – was at American Lake, in Tacoma. I got second place. I just remember that. I don’t think I placed much that year.
Well, that’s not unusual for a first season.
Right, right. It was a lot of fun, though.
You mostly ran runabouts. Did they run hydros in J at that time?
Not in ’64. The next year my dad built a boat with the little cowl on it. That was my second boat. Then, I think J Hydro started in ’65. I didn’t race it (that year), but I started in ’66. I used Denny’s A Hydro for the first couple of years, probably, ‘til Dad built another Karelsen.
1968 – dad building Janis’s last JSH
So he got plans from Karelsen.
Yeah, they worked together.
Did Ed help him build it?
No, he just gave Dad the plans. I know Dad always put Karelsen stickers on the back of the boat. Ed was such a great guy.
Did you run much hydro in those early years, or was it pretty much straight runabout?
In ’66 I ran both. Let’s see, ’66, ’67, ’68, and then in ’69 I only ran J Stock Hydro.
You won a high point championship.
I was ’66 Region 10 high point champion in J Stock Hydro.
J Stock Hydro.
Yeah, not JU. In ’67 I won high points in J Stock Hydro and JU. And in ’68…
That was a really good year for you.
’68 was my year. It was a great year.
Before we talk about ’68, did you travel around very much, or did you mostly race in the Northwest?
In my first few years most of the races were in Washington and Oregon. They didn’t schedule the Js at all the races. Quincy, in eastern Washington, was just the outboards and alkys, as I recall. We raced at Estacada, Oregon every year, and that first year (1964) the Nationals were in Modesto, California. I went to those Nationals and I placed fourth in JU.
You didn’t run J Hydro.
It wasn’t introduced yet.
What do you remember about the trip?
We had a Ford Fairlane and put my little JU on top of the car and drove down there—the whole family. Denny must not have qualified.
Ah. Did your dad race there?
Not in the Nationals. You know, you have to place in the top in Divisionals to qualify for Nationals. I must have been the only one to qualify, which is pretty good for my first year, I guess.
People have said when you go to the Nationals, you have all the hot dogs from other parts of the country. Did you find the competition a lot more difficult than what you were used to at home?
You know, I was only 12, so I don’t really remember a lot of that. I just remember thinking, “Oh, wow, here’s Ricky Miner and some of the JU champs from the year before or whatever.” As the years went on at the other Nationals, we developed friendships with people, because we went to ’66, ’67, ’68, and ’69. We missed ’65; that’s the one Denny went to.
Dennis had been back to Pennsylvania.
That was the next year, ’65. He did place second. I have a picture of him holding that trophy.
Dennis Lee, with second place trophy for A Stock Hydro at Stock Outboard Nationals in Pennsylvania.
When you got into the J Hydro, was that a different feel than the runabout?
Yeah, it was much smoother! (Laughter.)
That’s what everyone says.
It was much smoother. I liked it, I liked it.
People have said that drivers who go on to other classes—maybe even Unlimiteds, but not necessarily – are better drivers if they have experience in a flatbottom boat or a runabout in outboards. Do you feel that may be true?
Ooo, I never thought of that. No, I don’t know.
It’s the way you have to drive them, they’re more of a handful, it takes a lot of concentration.
Because they kind of spin out more.
You have to plan your moves a little more in advance.
One of the races we really wanted to talk about is the ’68 Nationals on Green Lake, in Seattle. You beat Chip Hanauer by a wide margin.
Yes, in fact Mike Downing was expected to win at Green Lake that year, and he flipped. That was a really good race for me.
That was hydro or runabout?
Hydro. That was pretty exciting. I had placed second, third, fourth, fifth so many times, had never won. So it was a very exciting time.
At Devil’s Lake that year you set a kilo record.
Yes, correct. And then in ’69 is when I bettered my own record.
1969- Janis driving her JSH.
1969- Dennis and Janis testing at Lake Sammamish.
On a more technical side, your brother did most of your engine work?
Yes, he did.
Did you ever get involved with a wrench or anything yourself?
Yes, I had my jobs. When we put the motor on the back of the boat I always put the steering bar on. That was my job. And when we were doing repairs, even as a teenager (I have to go off the subject here a little bit) my car was a ’58 Anglia, an English Ford. When I blew a head gasket, I was in the shop with Denny grinding valves. I was involved. I was, you know, paying my due diligence for him fixing it for me. So, yeah, I helped set everything up.
So you knew where you wanted…
Shims and how high, yeah.
…depending on the course.
Right, exactly. And what propeller you’re running.
You ran two-blade props.
They really didn’t have a lot of three-blades in those days.
No, ours were just two. And a very sad story if we can jump to the ’69 Nationals. I was leading in the second heat. I was hoping to be a repeat National Champion, but with a half-lap to go, I threw a blade. I ended up third overall.
You were able to finish, anyway?
It slowed me way down, but I was able to finish, yeah. That’s the only time (I finished) with half a blade. Dad mounted that on a trophy for me. It used to bother me, but…
It’s all part of racing.
It happens. You get up that high and get going and you get a blade a little too thin.
Did you or your dad or your brother make decisions about thinning the blades down just a bit?
Actually, George Lockhart was our prop guy. He would go testing with us. In the later years I’m not sure if he always came with us, or if Dad maybe learned how to pound ‘em a little bit. I’d look at the RPMs and miles per hour and come back and report what happened. We’d spend a lot of time testing.
Jumping ahead a little, in ’69 you wanted to raise your own record.
That was at Devil’s Lake again, at the kilos?
Yup. That was a kilo.
You also set a five mile competition record.
At Lake Lawrence. Mile course.
And that was in J Hydro.
Yeah, that was J Hydro. I think my interest in JU kinda took a back burner, ‘cause I don’t remember as much. I think I just raced J Stock Hydro. Maybe I didn’t race J Stock Runabout.
As I understand, some of my records are still held because they are retired records. They’ve changed the engine since then.
You ran Mercurys, right?
Then they changed to Evinrude and Johnson.
That was the winning engine (looking at a photo). I think it was Mercury.
The black Mercury.
Yeah. (Looking at more photos.) Dad took that one. I remember we were out at Lake Sammamish. (I’m going off on another aside here.) He was out on the dock, or out in hip waders and he had me go back and forth past him, I swear, for an hour so he could get just the right picture.
There’s another photo of you when you received a UIM award.
That’s the Gulf Marine Hall of Fame. That was for my accomplishments in ’68. In fact I have a copy of the receipt from winning the Nationals. I got a check for $100 from Champion Spark Plugs. Back then that was probably a lot of money.
Yeah, more like $1,000 now, or something.
I don’t know.
How far beyond the Northwest did you go to race, other than the time you went to California?
Let’s see, we went to Hinton, West Virginia, for the Nationals. ’67 was Essex, Maryland. I placed second in JU and sixth in J Stock Hydro. Then in ’68 they were here at home, and ’69 was when we went back to Hinton.
Did you find the courses very different?
They were record courses so they were all about mile laps. All pretty much the same. We piled into our little truck and trailer and took off across the country.
So your family drove to the races.
Yeah, we had a trailer, held three boats and seven motors. We had a little camper with a bed above. Mom and Dad would sleep there and I would sleep in the cab of the truck. I’ve got a picture of Denny somewhere, he’d sleep on the top of the trailer outside as we were driving across. If the weather was bad, I’d sleep on the kitchen bed and he slept inside the truck. Made it work.
1967- the Lees’ boat trailer loaded for travel to the Nationals in Essex, Maryland.
You met other racers from around the country when you went to the Nationals.
Do you remember Billy Giles and Billy Allen? We ended up staying a couple extra days in New York and we went up to Connecticut with them to their annual banquet. Nice guys. These are people we met at the Nationals.
One thing we haven’t talked about is the Sammamish Slough races.
Oh, yeah. As I recall, the Js didn’t go all the way. I couldn’t tell you how far we went. It scared me, quite honestly.
It maybe scared some adults, too.
I’m just a kid and I’m like, if your engine stalled, then the current…I know they had a lot of patrols along the way and everything, but it always scared me. I was always glad when it was over.
You won your class one year.
Yes. I think I got a third and a first.
So that was quite an accomplishment.
Yeah, for somebody that was scared to death!
It had left turns and right turns.
Yes, exactly. And that was in my JU, which I think would be easier in the Slough, actually.
You were Secretary for Seattle Outboard Association in 1970. Do you remember some of your duties, besides getting the newsletter out each month?
I just remember doing that, going to the monthly meetings, taking notes, typing them up.
Where were the meetings in those days?
At the Capo Club in Lake City (a district in Seattle – Ed.). I don’t think it’s there any more. That’s where we had the meetings all the years I raced. That was fun. I think the last time was before Dad passed (he has been gone 10 years now). SOA had what they called an alumni meeting in Kirkland. Is that where they meet now, in Kirkland?
We took Dad there. I think Dennis went, too, but I can’t remember for sure. Oh, my gosh, I hadn’t seen Dean Hobart, Bob Wartinger, Rick Sandstrom, I mean, on and on. It was fun for me and Dad really enjoyed it, too. Kind of his last chance to see everybody.
In 1970, were you done racing?
That was my last year. I was done then. I graduated from high school in ’70, and I had to get into the working world so I quit boat racing.
Did the others in your family pretty much quit at the same time?
No, I found some pictures up to ’71, ’72, I think, of Dad and Denny still racing, but I don’t see anything after that.
Did you go on to college, or what was your career?
No, I started working at Allstate Insurance Company. I was told if I wanted to go to college I needed to pay for it myself, so I figured I’d better work and save some money. Once I started working, I stayed with that. I stayed at Allstate two years, and then I went to work for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. I loved that job.
When you look back at the boat racing you did, how did it factor into your later life? Did it give you encouragement that you could accomplish a lot of things, did it have an effect on what you were able to do later?
Maybe it did subliminally. That’s a hard one to answer. I feel it made me a faster driver in a car! (Laughter.) Back in those days, I had my share of speeding tickets. Blame it all on hydro racing. I don’t know, maybe the need for speed. I would have to add that I believe it made me more competitive. I am very competitive and hate to lose at anything. I also think it has made me more committed to follow through on things I start. I believe those could be related to boat racing.
The name on your boat was Janny’s J.
Janny’s J was the name on both my runabout and my hydro. I had 45-R every year until ’68 when I won the National High Points and that’s how I got 1-US.
Is there anything we haven’t covered that we should talk about?
Well, we did talk on the phone about me being approached by the Unlimiteds.
When did that happen?
I think it was about ’75 or ’76. I was married and 23 at the time. Bill Wurster approached me about being the first female Unlimited driver. We went to dinner with the Oh Boy! Oberto family and discussed my commitment to it. I was afraid of the speed. I would have had to quit my job and I’d only been there a few years at Fred Hutch. I was an assistant editor. I typed manuscripts and grants, protocols, consent forms, etc., and I loved my job. So due to the commitment of it, and the speed, I declined. Couldn’t imagine going that fast. I ran the Powder Puffs a number of years in a Stock Hydro and that was fast to me.
Compared to a J, 15 miles an hour more.
Yeah, so I couldn’t imagine an Unlimited.
It’s a completely different game.
That was the end.
You never drove an inboard or anything like that.
Never rode in a two-person runabout or anything?
The F Racing Runabouts they used to run? No, I never did that either. Nothing past the A Stock Hydro, Powder Puff.
But you didn’t run A in competition.
No, too fast. For a teenager it seemed really fast to me, on the water.
OK, well, thank you very much.
Contemporary photo of Janis Ely.
Apr. 27, 2021