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Originally published Monday, May 21, 2012 at 10:53 AM

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Unlimited hydro fixture Fred Leland dies at 74

Innovative hydro owner, boat builder and driver was linked to Miss Rock and PICO American Dream.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Fred Leland, who earned a reputation as a gruff but lovable underdog who relished beating the odds in more than three decades as an unlimited hydroplane driver, owner and builder, died Monday. Leland was 74 when he lost his battle with lung cancer at his Kirkland home.

Leland ranked second among active owners in victories with 17.

As a driver, he was best-known for piloting the Miss Rock, which despite never being a contender developed a cult following among local hydro fans. He retired from driving after a flip in the Miss Rock in Seattle in 1983.

As an owner, he fielded multiple boats many years under his Leland Unlimited umbrella. He had his best success in the 1990s with the PICO American Dream. Those boats were driven by a trio of the greats of the sport — Dave Villwock, Mark Evans and Chip Hanauer.

"His legacy is his inspiration for underdogs everywhere and he was a testimony to hard work and overcoming the odds," Hanuaer said Monday. "He never really had the budget that he needed. Everything he accomplished, he did it through hard work and creativity and initiative."

Leland was born July 29, 1937, in Cambridge, Iowa, and caught the hydro bug after his family moved to the Seattle area when he was in grade school. Originally a mason by trade, he was a longtime limited driver before breaking into unlimiteds in 1978 and then becoming a team owner and boat builder.

Hanauer said Leland was as old school as they come, preferring working on his boats to courting publicity.

"He was a pure racer," Hanauer said. "He wasn't in it to make money or get fame — he just loved the challenge of racing, of coming out with a boat that would be competitive."

Leland earned his first win as an owner at Seafair in 1994 with Villwock driving. The boat dominated the circuit in 1996, with Villwock again driving, winning six races and the national points title.

Villwock left the following year for the Miss Budweiser, and Leland's team never again won a national season title.

He recorded maybe his most memorable win in the 1997 Seafair when Evans flipped the boat in Heat 2A, then came back to win the final.

Leland hired Hanauer in 1999 and recorded one of his greatest victories that year at the Gold Cup in Detroit.

Leland got his last win in 2001 with Terry Troxell driving in the Tri-Cities Columbia Cup.

While he didn't win as much the past decade, he was a constant presence on the circuit. He finished third in his last race in November at the 2011 Oryx Cup/UIM World Championship in Doha, Qatar, on the Persian Gulf with Greg Hopp driving. Leland had battled cancer for a few years, but continued to work on his latest project, an internal combustion-powered boat he had hoped to debut in 2012.

"There are few people who have made an impact on this sport the way Fred has," H1 Unlimited Chairman Sam Cole said in a statement. "He has always been there for boat racing, in good times and bad. Having known him for more than 30 years, he was an innovator, a competitor, and most of all, a friend. We will all miss Fred for who he was and remember what he meant to boat racing."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @bcondotta.

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