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Return of the Hombre

Jeff Buckley driving Hombre, October 8, 2023, at Chelan. Photo by Craig Fjarlie

By Craig Fjarlie

“It was a wonderful experience.  She rides like she’s on rails and she’s got every bit of power that she needs.  Just a wonderful piece of hardware.”  That is how Jeff Buckley, Chair of APBA’s Vintage and Historic Division, described driving the newly restored 5 Litre F-40 Hombre at Lake Chelan, during the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum’s Mahogany and Merlot vintage event.  The boat is owned by Steve Andrew, who lives near Yakima, Washington.  Hombre has a fascinating history, filled with famous names in racing.  

Jeff Buckley back in the pits after driving the boat. Jennifer Cushing kneeling beside the cockpit, and Steve Andrew in yellow shirt with crane straps over his shoulder.  Photo by Craig Fjarlie

Andrew was born in Seattle.  “I grew up with Leif Borgersen, who used to run Unlimiteds.  Chuck Lyford was our neighbor, so I had a lot of mentors,” he explains.  Andrew began racing outboards in the A Stock class.  “I fell out of one and they used me as a buoy,” he says.  “I figured that inboards stop the heat when you go in the water.  It was a lot safer.”  Following a hitch in the Navy, he went to school for a while.  Then in 1975 he met Steve LaCava.  “We became friends.  I crewed with him.  He introduced me to Fred Leland.  That’s how I got to know Fred.”  

Construction of Hombre started in late 1974.  Leland planned to race it in 1975.  “Fred was a brick mason,” Andrew recalls.  “He started building a brick house.  It was huge, about 3,000 square feet.  It had a great big rec room in it.  He got the walls up, the roof, and heat in it, but he never finished sheet rocking it.  This boat was built in the rec room.  The living room was the machine shop.  The dining room was where we built engines,” he adds with a laugh.

Hombre in its original racing days. Photo courtesy of Steve Andrew

Ed Karelsen designed Hombre.  “He came up every night and supervised,” Andrew remembers.  “It’s got a pretty good pedigree.  It’s a copy of Champagne Lady, a sister boat.”  Among the people who helped build Hombre was Frank Cushing.

The great Fred Leland, who passed away in May 2012, campaigned Hombre early on.  Photos courtesy of Steve Andrew

Leland raced the boat in 1975.  “He had to take a year off when his wife at the time didn’t like living in a 20-foot trailer.  He took a year off and finished the house.  Andrew and LaCava bought the boat from Leland in 1976.  “We campaigned it and did okay, but there was a lot of driver error.  We weren’t very good racers,” Andrew admits.  “Neither of us had any experience to speak of.”  The Andrew/LaCava partnership dissolved and the boat sat for a season.  Then Andrew formed a new partnership with Lynn Montgomery.  “He is a member of the Hall of Champions,” Andrew says.  “He was a world record holder.  We took a whole year off, tore the boat apart, took 250 pounds out of it.  Brought it back out and it was a real rocket then.”  

Montgomery and Glen Davis, who later was a crew member on Bill Muncey’s “Blue Blaster” Atlas Van Lines Unlimited, built engines for Hombre.  The boat was powered by a 302 cubic inch Chevrolet.  “We were running gas and a carburetor,” Andrew says.  “The rules were such that they introduced a 350 engine.  It was a stock engine for the 5 Litre/6 Litre/whatever you want to call it class.  The rules were so vague that we kind of meshed the two rules together.  A lot of people thought we were cheating.  We did really well with it.  Our last race was in San Diego on a one-mile course.  We ran a 93-mile-an-hour lap when the record was 91.”

Hombre was sold to NBA star Tommy Burleson, who took it to the East Coast and raced it there.  “We pretty much lost track of it,” Andrew admits.  “He went to Miami.  I think he tore the right sponson off.  He quit racing and the boat just sat in Florida from about 1988 to 2018.”  The way Andrew located the boat is an amazing story in itself.  “I was on Facebook one day and somebody posted, ‘Look what I found on Ebay.’  I thought, ‘Boy, that boat looks familiar.’  It was all painted up Tommy’s colors.  Back east, they didn’t know what it was.  They didn’t know the history of it, or the history of Ed Karelsen.  Everybody is Lauterbach or Staudacher back east.  I texted Tommy, who gave me the owner’s phone number and address.  He wouldn’t have raced it; he was just a guy that had it.  I flew back to Florida, picked it up, and hauled it out here.”  

Hombre in Jimmy LaBrie’s paint shop during restoration.
Photo courtesy of Steve Andrew

Hombre needed a great deal of work to restore it to running condition.  “Jim Olson went on a two-year project rebuilding it,” Andrew recounts.  “It was just a shell.  If you had walked in the shop, you wouldn’t have known what it was, it was stripped down that far.  He totally rebuilt it.  Jim actually worked for Karelsen at one time.  He was an OPC racer.  Jim also worked for Fred Leland.  He was Fred’s hod carrier.  Fred taught him how to lay bricks and he became a mason.  Bill Cantrell tried to hire him to come out and build boats for him one time.  He had a brick masonry business, so he stayed here.  Now, at this moment, there are probably four or five boats that Jim has restored.  He’s probably the main restorer of hydroplanes and race boats in the area right now.  After Jim was done, he brought it to my place.  I had my eyes much more wide open than I thought.  It took me probably three months to fit all the plumbing in there, and all the systems.  You have to build everything.  There are a lot of brackets and things I had to build.  Then we took it up to Jimmy LaBrie and he did a wonderful job painting it.  We had a concept of what we wanted.  Jimmy worked with it and this is what he came up with.”

The restored boat with a beautiful new paint job.
Photo courtesy of Steve Andrew

The yellow and black paint scheme has produced some nicknames for the boat.  “It was always yellow and black, but Hombre wasn’t on the deck, it was on the nose,” Andrew remembers.  “We used to give Fred a bad time—we called it the school bus.  The crane operators now call it the bumblebee.”

Currently, Hombre is fitted with a Chevrolet engine that Andrew obtained from a business in Spokane, Washington, called The Hot Rod Company.  It has a Mercury propeller.  “Tommy Burleson went to a 3-blade.  It had a little too much lift,” Andrew explains.  “Being vintage, do we really want to spend the money to make the boat perfect?  We’re not going fast anyway.  Why fix something that ain’t broke?  This is pretty much the way it was when it was built in 1974.”

Hombre went back in the water at a vintage event in Entiat, Washington, in July.  “We had a christening which was really fun,” Andrew says.  “Jackie Matheson, who was Fred’s wife, poured Coors Light on it.  (He drank Coors Light.)  She christened it with Coors Light and a Pepsi.  Jack Barrie, who drove the Miss Rock Unlimited, took it out for the first lap.  It was quite a show.”

Jennifer Cushing preparing to take the boat out at Chelan, October 7.
Photo by Craig Fjarlie

At Chelan, Jennifer Cushing, the granddaughter of Frank Cushing and a driver in her own right, took the boat out.   She has raced in the SE class, and currently competes in Crackerbox.  She had driven Randy Christiansen’s vintage hydroplane Water Scamp, but Hombre was her first time in a large vintage inboard.  “I was so excited,” she admits.  “It’s such a great honor.  I was a little nervous at first because it’s not my boat or equipment and, oh, my gosh, I would never want to hurt anything.  After a lap and a half, I was feeling excited and comfortable.”  When she was back in the pits, she readily talked about her grandfather’s friendship with Fred Leland.  “I was a little kid.  He was just always part of our family.  Fun times and memories.  Right before my grandpa passed, when I had gone to see him, the last things we talked about were Fred stories.  There were not very many stories my grandfather had that didn’t involve Fred.  Troublemakers,” she adds with a laugh.

Jeff Buckley could scarcely contain his delight after driving Hombre.  “It was a wonderful experience.  It’s my first Karelsen at that.  We’re at Chelan, Washington, on Lake Chelan, with wonderful water, wonderful weather, and a wonderful spectator crowd.  It was very much a pleasure to drive the boat, and it’s set up very nicely.”

Steve Andrew and the friends of Fred Leland have made a significant contribution to ABPA’s Vintage and Historic Division.  They have set the bar high for others who wish to follow their example.

Jeff Warren driving Hombre on October 7, 2023, at Chelan.
Photo by Gleason Racing Photography.

Photo courtesy of Steve Andrew

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