Fastest family on water


The Mirror

Jamie and Jonathan Nilsen aren’t your normal teenage boys. The Federal Way brothers actually look forward to spending time with their father on summer weekends.

But that’s pretty easy to understand when you know what the Nilsens get to do with their dad, Jim. The boys get to race hydroplanes — fast.

“We really stay busy with it,” said Jim Nilsen, who teaches at Todd Beamer High School. “And from my end, I get to spend time with both kids. We enjoy doing it as a family. We have a great time.”

One of the big factors for the fun has been the success the Nilsens have experienced since they started competing seven years ago with the Seattle Outboard Association, an affiliate of the American Power Boat Association (APBA). Jamie, 19, and Jonathan, 16, have a combined five national championships and are both members of the APBA’s Hall of Champions — the highest honor any boat racer can attain. And Jim, 50, is one of the better racers in adult boat categories.

“We have done pretty good,” Jim said. “You are two inches away from the water and you get a real sensation of speed. Unlike the unlimited (hydroplanes), we do a lot of deck-to-deck racing. Things are usually pretty tight.”

The Nilsens race in the Professional Racing Outboard (PRO) category, where their 12-foot hydroplanes have a small, but extremely fast, outboard motor. To operate the PRO category boats, drivers usually kneel inside an open cockpit. The boats can get going as fast as 80 mph, depending on the class.

A bulk of the races the Nilsens travel to during the summer are located in the Pacific Northwest, including this weekend’s race on Silver Lake, near Eatonville. The Silver Lake event is one of the closest races the family will attend this season and will feature some of the best boat racers in the country. The races are free for spectators.

“It’s a pretty busy summer,” Jamie said. “But we like doing it.”

Jim Nilsen had always been a fan of boat racing. Growing up in Ballard, his dad would take him to hydroplane events on Green Lake and the SeaFair race on Lake Washington. But he never stepped into the cockpit of a racing boat until 1997.

At the time, Nilsen was an assistant principal at Decatur High School and had a student who raced on the hydroplane circuit.

“I sat him down and started playing 20 questions with him at lunch time,” he said. “It’s something I’d always followed.”

So Nilsen took his two sons to a couple of outboard hydro races and the family liked what they saw and wanted to get involved.

“We got the OK from their mom to purchase boats and we just went from there,” he said. “We have a great time with it. But I think I’ve created kind of a monster.”

Now, the Nilsen family two-car garage has five hydroplanes stacked on top of each other, numerous pictures of races around the country and trophies galore.

“It’s pretty tough to walk around in there,” Jamie said. “But we showed some interest and have been doing it ever since.”

And the brothers have been doing it better than anybody else around.

The Nilsens have basically put a stranglehold on the K-Pro hydroplane class, winning the last five national championships. The first two came from Jamie and Jonathan has taken the last three. The K-Pro, or junior, class uses a stock 15-horsepower outboard engine and the boats get going about 45 mph. The success made the pair the youngest brothers to become members of the American Power Boat Association’s Hall of Champions.

The Hall of Champions was established in 1974 to honor each seasons most outstanding drivers from each category, which also include unlimited hydroplanes, offshore boats, Jet Skis and others. The honored drivers have won titles, high-point championships and set records.

“It’s a really big accomplishment,” Jamie said. “It’s the highest award in North America. It’s very difficult to do.”

Jamie, who attends Central Washington University, where he plays on the Wildcat baseball team, has since moved up to the C-Stock and OSY-400 classifications, which basically mean bigger outboard engines and faster speeds.

The hydroplanes in these two categories are about 10 1/2-feet long and can get up to 60 mph around the oval course. Jamie finished up in third place at the recent Professional Racing Outboard National Championships held July 30-Aug. 1 in DePue, Il.

“My goal is to race the unlimiteds,” Jamie said. “I want to be at SeaFair and race the whole circuit. I’m getting close. You just have to be a good driver with a good personality and know a lot of people.”

Jamie has been getting a little taste of the racing “big-time” this summer. He worked in the pits of the U-2 Graham Trucking hydro during the Tri-Cities Follies race and the Chevrolet Cup at SeaFair. He is also working full-time during the summer at the Seattle Boat Club.

“Hopefully it will happen in the next year or two,” Jamie said. “It’s slowly starting to come together for me.”

Jonathan, who will be a junior at Beamer in the fall, also has dreams of driving the big boats someday. But he isn’t in a real hurry. Jonathan plays golf, basketball and baseball at Beamer and still has two years of high school left. But he does plan on moving out of the K-Pro class next season, which means more races against his older brother.

“(Boat racing) is just fun,” he said. “And we have a great time with it.”

The Nilsens aren’t the only Federal Way residents who will be racing Saturday and Sunday in Eatonville. Kristina Kelly, Steve Bork and Carl, Kyle and Dylan Lewis will also be a part of the Silver Lake race.

Kelly, a 2004 Decatur High School graduate, finished up in third place behind Jonathan Nilsen in the K-PRO class at the national championships in Illinois. Kelly also has boat racing in her blood. She is the younger sister of J. Michael Kelly, who drove the U-2 Graham Trucking unlimited hydroplane at at SeaFair.

Bork, who works at Boeing, has been racing for the past 15 years and plans to compete at the Eatonville race in several classes.

The Lewises are similar to the Nilsens. Carl, the father, got his two sons involved in the sport. Kyle Lewis will be a freshman at Todd Beamer High School and Dylan is entering his sixth-grade year at Illahee Middle School.

“It’s really family-oriented,” Jim Nilsen said. “We race out on the course and then come back and have fun with everyone.”

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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