Go Fast Turn Left Racing returns to Seafair with three generations ready to race – The Seattle Times

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Greg O’Farrell lives on Lake Washington, and it’s a regular occurrence to see him hop on his Jet Ski and head out to the middle of the lake and just gently ride the waves.
“I turn the thing off and thank God I’ve been so fortunate,” he said.
It’s on Lake Washington this weekend that his unlimited hydroplane racing team, Go Fast Turn Left Racing, will be circling the racecourse at Seafair. That wasn’t the case last year as the O’Farrells, regulars at Seafair for nearly 20 years, sat it out.
The reason why goes back to why O’Farrell contemplates his life as he bobs up and down on the lake.
At this point last year, O’Farrell, 75, was recovering from a kidney transplant, adjusting to the organ donated by his daughter, Jennifer. It was the latest in a long line of health problems, but as Go Fast Turn Left returns to racing for the first time since before the pandemic, he feels like a new man.
“If my son … would let me, I’d go run a paving crew,” he said. “That’s how good I feel.”
O’Farrell ran paving crews for decades with his business, Auburn-based Lakeridge Paving, which is the family business — along with racing.
Friday, when qualifying began just off the Stan Sayres pits, three generations were at work. Greg and his son Brian are the owners, and Brian is the crew chief as well. His son Gunnar will be making his debut as an unlimited-hydroplane driver.
This weekend is something of a reset for Go Fast Turn Left Racing. The O’Farrells debuted a new boat late in the 2019 season. It saw two races. Then there was no Seafair in 2020 and 2021. And we already talked about last year.
So a new boat with a new driver and an owner with a new lease on life has opened a new era for the team racing for motorsports’ oldest trophy in the Gold Cup.
The U-60 will run as The Beast Unleashed Miss Thriftway this weekend. It’s a nostalgic return to racing for Greg.
The Miss Thriftway holds a special place in his heart. It’s a big reason his family races boats.
As Greg tells it, in the late 1950s when he was a kid, his father knew Willard Rhodes, who owned the Miss Thriftway team. They were invited to the home of Ted Jones, the man who designed the Slo-Mo-Shun IV that won the Gold Cup and brought hydroplane racing to Seattle. At the gathering was Bill Muncey, the man many consider the greatest hydroplane driver of all time. Muncey took Greg for a ride in the Miss Thriftway Too, which started a lifelong love affair with the sport.
Brian remembers Seafair being a part of every summer, whether it was watching from the beach or the log boom. He was one of those kids towing a wooden hydroplane behind his bike.
“It was a big deal in our neighborhood,” said Brian, 55, who grew up in Lakeridge.
It wasn’t until 2005 that the O’Farrells’ participation expanded beyond spectating. The legendary and late hydroplane owner Fred Leland needed a driveway paved and, in the process, Greg ended up sponsoring a hydroplane team.
It took only two years to go from sponsors to owners as the O’Farrells bought a boat from Leland. Lakeridge Paving has been one of many sponsors for the team over the years. The Navy was an early sponsor as was PayneWest Insurance, which came from Darrell Strong, who also went from sponsor to owner with the two-boat Strong Racing team. Albert Lee was also a longtime sponsor.
Miss Thriftway is a hallowed name in unlimited hydroplane circles. It was driven by Muncey, the beloved showman who was the sport’s winningest driver when he died in a race in 1981. It was a standout in the golden age of hydro racing in Seattle.
After the Sho-Mo-Shun boats won a record five consecutive Gold Cups, “the team that picks up the mantle, if you will, is the Miss Thriftway,” said David Williams, the executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent. Williams was one of the first drivers for the O’Farrells.
Veteran driver Brian Perkins drove the bulk of the races for the team. He’s since retired and joined the team as a coach for Gunnar.
Go Fast Turn Left Racing is still searching for its first victory in a winner-take-all final. The team does have 10 heat wins and nine podium finishes to brag about. It finished second at the Gold Cup in Detroit in 2014.
The team decided to build a new boat in 2012, working with former Miss Budweiser crewman Dale Van Wierengen. The project advanced in starts and stops until 2019 when it debuted at the Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities.
The boat debuted as the PayneWest and it had an interesting start. In a testing session, the escape hatch on the bottom of the boat opened and was torn off by the force of the water.
Parts from other teams wouldn’t fit quite right. Divers came up empty-handed when they searched for it. Obviously, a boat can’t race with a hole in its hull, and the weekend was shaping up to be a disappointment.
But hydroplane racing is a family unto itself.
Veteran boat racer Mark Evans had an old boat from the Ellstrom team, which ran last as the 96 Spirit of Qatar, sitting in his shop on Lake Chelan. His brother Mitch Evans was at the race and got in touch with his brother, who had an employee drive it to the race.
Perkins did the fiberglass work to get the hatch on the boat — 15 minutes before Heat 1A.
It ran the next week at Seafair as the U.99.9 CARSTAR powered Miss Rock KISW. And other than the annual preseason testing sessions in the Tri-Cities, the boat has been sitting in its Maple Valley shop.
“It’s only got two weekends of racing on it,” Brian said.
Scott Raney, co-owner of the U-11 Unlimited Racing Group, which has run Legend Yacht Transport this season, saw the boat in action at the testing sessions.
“It’s no slouch either,” he said. “They should be right there competing for wins.”
The kidney failure was the last in a long line of health problems for Greg.
He’s had major heart surgery. A bout with thyroid cancer. A ruptured Achilles. He’s had both shoulders rebuilt, the result of a career owning a paving company.
“I spent my career on a shovel,” he said. “Hard labor.”
Years of abusing ibuprofen caused kidney failure, he said.
But he’s proud to note he’s been clean and sober for 40 years. He said it came after his wife, Darlene, threatened to leave. It worked, and they’ve been married for 56 years. They have two kids and four grandchildren.
With a company with so many employees, Greg occasionally encounters employees with addiction problems. He’ll work to get them in treatment and even go to AA meetings with them.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” he said.
Lakeridge Paving traces its origin story back to 1968. After a stint in the Coast Guard and after losing his riveting job at Boeing because of a bad economy, Greg borrowed $500 from his mom to buy a dump truck and started patching potholes in parking lots.
Lakeridge Paving now does $30 million in business each year and has more than 100 employees, Greg said.
Several of those employees have the name O’Farrell. Brian is the operations manager. Gunnar drives a truck and his sister Makenna is in dispatch and operations.
It’s similar setup for the racing team.
Greg is the co-owner along with Brian, who is also the crew chief. Gunnar is the driver and his sister Makenna is the team manager.
“That’s the best part, being around family,” Brian said.
Gunnar’s girlfriend, Marina Bartels, is also part of the crew. They met when she was on the crew in 2019. They both race 2.5-liter modified hydroplanes, and there will be races where they compete against each other. So far, boat problems have kept them from going head-to-head.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” Bartels said about the potential competition.
Don’t expect the Go Fast Turn Left team to try to make headlines this weekend.
Ask the senior members of the team about the race, and you’ll mostly hear, “We’re just looking to have fun.”
Saturday’s first heat was to be the first time Gunnar had been on a racecourse in an unlimited hydroplane with other boats on the water. He’s done the 12 laps over 130 mph that’s required for a new driver to qualify. The next step is to be the “trailer” boat (meaning in the outside lane and a few boat lengths behind) for two heats.
“I don’t want him to have his foot in it all the time,” Greg said. “I want him to learn and take it easy. We’re here to have fun.”
But is that Gunnar’s plan?
“No promises,” he said with a smile.
Gunnar’s boat-racing career started as so many do, building J-stock outboard hydroplanes at the museum with his grandfather and his sister.
“There really wasn’t any other options (for him other than boat racing),” Gunnar, 25, said.
He’s spent the past few years driving in smaller classes to get more and more seat time.
Then it was time to drive the big boat.
“I was really nervous, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I planned to go slow and get used to it. I think as soon as I got into it, I was doing 120 (mph).”
The unlimited hydroplane season ends this year with Seafair. The plan is for the team to do the West Coast races next year, and possibly build from there.
Greg said his wife always asks him if he’s going to retire. He doesn’t think he will.
“It’s a life sentence,” he said.
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