The way Steve Huff sees it, he “returned to the waters that gave him birth.”
Huff, a 1984 graduate of South Whidbey High School, provided Hydros for Heroes a local flavor last weekend. He was born in the old Seaplane Base Hospital that overlooked Oak Harbor Bay, the site of the hydro races on Aug. 19-20.
“It was surreal looking up at the building I was born in 50 years ago as I crossed the finish line,” he said.
“I used to sit in the Flintstone car eating ice cream cones. This weekend our pit area was right there — it brought back a lot of memories.”
Huff, a Seattle resident, finished second to world champion Jeff Barrett in the five-liter class.
“I reached 108 mph,” Huff said. “That’s the slowest of anything I race, but on the water it felt like I was going twice as fast.”
Huff is new to hydroplaning but not to speed racing.
“First it was cars, then it was motorcycles and now it is boats,” he said. “Racing is racing. Racers don’t favor one sport over the other — it is the competition — man and machine.”
Huff set records in each of his previous racing endeavors, including 11 motorcycle land speed marks. Eight of the records were set at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Now he hopes to put his stamp on hydroplane racing.
“I always wanted to race hydros,” he said. “How could you not, growing up in the Northwest.”
Huff said he was heavily influenced by the community while living on South Whidbey. He added that people shouldn’t be too surprised by the direction his life took, as he was always working on cars in the high school’s shop.
“We had great teachers there on South Whidbey and we had a great community,” Huff said.
He noted his youth was during the heyday of unlimited racing, the major league of the sport. He recently purchased Agitator, a five-liter boat, from Wally Johnston, a highly respected and longtime hydroplane driver.
Agitator holds the current world speed record.
“I feel real fortunate to purchase it,” Huff said. “Wally was really picky on who he was going to sell it to.”
Johnston joined Huff in Eastern Washington recently to help out in Huff’s first hydroplane venture. Hydros for Heroes was only the third time Huff hit the water in Agitator.
“I had a lot of nerves,” Huff said. “We had the fastest driver with a new boat and the newest driver with the fastest boat. He gave me a driving clinic, but we held our own. My team was incredible.”
Huff’s grandfather, Lou Welch, developed property throughout Oak Harbor, including Oak Bowl and much of the Navy housing.
Huff, who attended Olympic View Elementary in Oak Harbor, moved to Camano Island in the fourth grade with his mother, Pamela Huff. In the eighth grade, he moved to South Whidbey.
Coming back to his birthplace to race was a special moment.
“Thanks to all my friends for coming out to support me,” he said. “And thanks to Oak Harbor for the great show. It was the best I had ever seen.”
“On behalf of all the other boats, Oak Harbor is at the top of the list. All the racers are looking forward to coming back.”
Huff added that it was “great to come back home and see a town that still has a sense of community.”
Besides competing, Huff, owner of Steve Huff Motorsports in Sea-Tac, has earned fame as an award-winning designer of custom motorcycles.
“To get to this point in my career,” he said, “I have to thank my friends and teachers who mentored me. When I was growing up and working on farms on the island, there weren’t a lot of stores, so if you needed something, you made it yourself.”
Thus, his designing career blossomed.
“Boat racing is just a bonus,” he said.
Huff will continue competing hyrdo racing this year with races in Spanaway and Chelan in September and October.
Coming back to Oak Harbor rekindled memories of his youth, Huff said.
“The hospital on the hill is where I took my first breath of life.”
Now he races at speeds that take his breath away.
South Whidbey Record reporter Evan Thompson contributed to this story.