SEATTLE — Ron Jones Sr. once estimated he built more than 500 boats in many different classes of racing.
But it was the more than two dozen unlimited hydroplanes he constructed — some that helped usher in the age of the enclosed cockpits and forward-seating boats that remain the dominant design today — that Jones might have been best remembered for when he passed away on Jan. 19 of natural causes at the age of 84.
Legendary driver Dave Villwock, though, said it would be impossible to point to just one boat or design as his greatest legacy.
“There was a little bit of him in all of them,’’ said Villwock, the winningest driver in unlimited history, of Jones’ impact on hydroplane boat design.
Jones, a 1950 graduate of Highline High School in Burien, was the son of Ted Jones, the legendary driver and race-boat designer whose win in the 1950 Gold Cup helped bring unlimited hydro racing to Seattle.
When Ted Jones piloted the Slo-mo-shun IV to a win in the Gold Cup in Detroit that year, Seattle got the right to host the Gold Cup in 1951. There has been a hydro race in Seattle every year since, with the course now named in Ted Jones’ honor.
While Ron Jones once said he drove every boat he built at least once, he preferred to build and not drive.
One of his first significant hulls was the 1958 Miss Bardahl that topped the hydroplane national points standings. Maybe his most famous was the Miss Pay ’n Pak, nicknamed the Winged Wonder, which dominated the sport from 1973-76.
Longtime driver Chip Hanauer said he marveled at the artistry in the boats that Jones designed.
“He was a master,’’ Hanauer said. “As a driver, I was the violinist. But he was Stradivarius. A violinist, when they play a Stradivarius, they know that they are not just playing an amazing instrument but a work of art.’’
Hanauer and Villwock, though, said Jones also cared deeply about safety, which ultimately might be his greatest contribution to the sport.
He was among the first to champion the idea that cockpits should be in front of the engine instead of behind it, which he thought would make the boats more aerodynamically sound.
Jones introduced a Miss Bardahl boat with that design to much fanfare in 1966. The boat, though, was involved in an accident on the sport’s worst day at the President’s Cup in Washington, D.C., when it lost a propeller and took flight and then nose-dived into the water, killing driver Ron Musson. Two other drivers would also be killed that day.
Jones once told The Seattle Times he lost 50 pounds in the three months after the accident, and it was said he didn’t build another unlimited for four years.
“He cared so much about the people and the drivers that were in his boats,’’ Hanauer said. “I think that was very difficult for him. He did everything he could with the technology available to try to improve driver safety.’’
By the ’80s, the forward-seating hull had become the primary design, with Jones at the forefront of another innovation that greatly improved safety in the sport — enclosed cockpits.
Jones installed an F-16 canopy on the Miss Budweiser and the Miss 7-Eleven in the mid-’80s in the wake of the death of Miss Budweiser driver Dean Chenoweth in an accident in the Tri-Cities in 1982, and within a few years the safety capsules were mandatory.
Only one unlimited hydroplane driver has been killed since then.
“If I haven’t done anything else, getting canopies on boats that would allow drivers to survive has been something of a great accomplishment,” Jones, whose son Ron Jones Jr. would also become a famed boat designer, told The Seattle Times in 1999.
“He was a brilliant guy that had some good ideas and was willing to open his mind to what others had to say, as well,’’ said Villwock of Jones, who was inducted into the hydroplane racing Hall of Fame in 2004. “And the result was something revolutionary.’’