Leonard Ellis works as a Janitor at Bellevue College, but his real job lies in the pits at Seafair.
Ellis has loved hydroplanes since he was a young boy living near the shores of lake Washington, listening to the boat races on the radio while watching them through the windows of his home. His van is a canvas for his hydroplane art, and his home could be mistaken for a museum dedicated to the fastest of water sports.
Ellis was a member of the Miss Beacon Plumbing crew for years, along with his two daughters. They worked with the Schumacher racing team in the 2.5 liter stock class, invited by the group after going to a number of their races. The job Ellis and his daughters did was often thankless but essential for a hydroplane to run. It included the manual labor, like preparing the ship for a race, and the little things, like finding replacement equipment when their boat encountered problems or crashes.
In 2006, the Schumacher team ran through a string of successes, including both the Gold Cup in Detroit and the Seafair championship. Ellis got the opportunity to stand up on the podium and hold up the trophy with the rest of his team.
Ellis is unable to work with the team anymore due to numerous issues including diabetes and arthritis in his hands, but that doesn’t stop him from continuing to love his passion. Instead of heading to the waterfront, his new hangout is the Hydroplane and Race Boat Museum in Kent, the only dedicated Hydroplane museum in the United States.
“For me, it would be almost the same as someone else going to church. It’s got a church-like feel to it for me.” Ellis said. “There’s no doubt, usually on a Thursday, there’s one place I’m going to be, and that’s down [at the museum].”
The way that Ellis contributes to the sport these days is a little different than how he used to. Ellis never took formal art classes, yet these days he is a leader in hydroplane art. His van is covered with paintings of famous boats from history racing in front of a backdrop of Lake Washington, and his vehicle even includes a few models glued to the roof and doors.
“It’s neat because it is a smile machine no matter where I go. I’ve stopped little league baseball games just driving by.” Ellis said.
Ellis’ pieces have been sold in auctions at the hydroplane museum for about the last nine years, and have made some good money for the museum. While he doesn’t have a website that he makes a name for himself on, he generally gives away pieces of art to people he meets, which has lead to his art decorating homes in countries all over the world.
“My teachers used to say ‘You aren’t getting anywhere just painting hydroplanes,’ and now I kind of have” He said, “I really feel like a Johnny Hydroplane Seed.”
Johnny Hydroplane Seed is a fitting title. Ellis has spread his love of the sport all around the country, surely creating new fans along the way. While working with the team is may be out of reach, Ellis has found other ways to show how much hydroplanes mean to him.