Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tri-Cities Recap: An unpredictable weekend with a predictable result.

                After a weekend full of dramatic racing and surprise winners, there was a familiar site in the top two places on the podium.
David Villwock drove the Spirit of Qatar to another victory this weekend, with Steve David finishing second in the Oh Boy! Oberto.  The 2011 Columbia Cup, however, should be remembered for much more than yet another 1-2 finish for the two teams who have all but dominated Unlimited Hydroplane racing the last five seasons.  It was a weekend full of great deck to deck battles, a number of surprise heat wins, a great amount of controversy, and a number of drivers and teams emerging or turning the corner.  In short, it was an extraordinary weekend of racing with an ordinary finish.
A fourteen boat fleet for the weekend meant every section of heats this weekend would be of the A, B, and C variety.  In heat 1A J. Michael  Kelly put the Degree Men boat in lane one and was first coming out of the turn, but Villwock quickly pulled away in the Qatar boat Kelly finishing second, Myers finishing third in the Peters & May, Evans fourth, and Hopp trailing the field in the newly named Beacon Plumbing after his boat went dead in the water during the score up period and he was late to the start.  Heat 1B saw the weekend’s first great deck to deck battle as teammates Jeff Bernard and Scott Liddycoat battled it out for three laps.  Bernard came out on top in the Graham Trucking.  Liddycoat finished second in the Valken Sports but was docked 50 points due to encroaching on the U-21 (by the way, I still hate point penalties).  Brian Perkins finished third in the Albert Lee while Mike Webster trailed the field in the U-22 Project WSU. The U-99 HAPO Credit Union was supposed to start with Greg Hopp in the seat but recorded a DNS.   1C saw the first big drama of the weekend as Steve David was early to the scoreup buoy and was penalized a lap.  This dropped the Oh Boy! Oberto to fourth and allowed Kip Brown to get yet another heat victory in the Miss Red Dot.  Jon Zimmerman finished second in the Miss and Ken Muskatel scored his first points of the year in the 97 Rock. 
Heat 2A takes the prize for this weekend’s controversial heat.  I was just getting home from work so I missed watching it live, but from what I understand this is what happened: The U-11 washed down both the U-17 and the U-1 prior to the start.  The U-17 was able to quickly refire but the U-1 struggled and was very late to the start.  Kip Brown was able to win once again with Steve David finishing second on the water after making a great comeback, but that was nowhere near the end of it.  After the race was over, it was determined that.  Steve David encroached on the U-21 and was assessed a one minute penalty, thus dropping him to fifth.  So the final order was this: 1st U-17, 2nd U-11 with a 50 point penalty, 3rd U-9, 4th U-21, 5th U-1.  This heat is a perfect example of why I feel H1 should do away with point penalties.  There’s no real rhyme or reason to them.  In this heat there were two infractions similar in nature, and yet one as a 50 point penalty and one is a one minute penalty.  Also, somewhere on the drive from Detroit to Tri-Cities 150 point penalties became 50 point penalties.  I’m a huge supporter of H1 and what they have done for the sport, but this is one inconsistency that drives me mad.  The system of penalizing boats one lap (or one minute if an infraction was caught after the heat was completed) or a disqualification depending on the infraction worked just fine.  Yes it will always come down to a judgment call on whether or not a penalty was committed, but the penalty itself shouldn’t be a decision between one or the other.  There really is no need to penalize teams points when there are other alternatives.
Heat 2B saw another great deck to deck battle between Bernard and Liddycoat, but this time Liddycoat came out on top.  Hopp finished third while Muskatel finished fourth and Ryan Mallow, who was set to make his Unlimited debut, did not start in the U-99.  Heat 2C saw Dave Villwock pull away from the field early for an easy heat win.  Kelly finished second while Webster finished third.  Evans finished fourth and was penalized twice in the for lane infractions, one a monetary fine and one a point penalty (no comment…).
Steve David came into Heat 3A desperately needing a Heat win and did just that, pulling away from the field early.  Kelly had the inside lane and finished second while Webster finished third, Jon Zimmerman fourth, and Greg Hopp fifth.  I must say that the Webster team should be commended for making such a huge improvement from their first two races of the year.  After trailing the field in Madison and scoring no points in Detroit, the U-22 was right there this weekend.  The purchase of the former Miss Madison hull is starting to show itself as a benefit for the team and they should improve at every race as they get more comfortable with their new ride.  Heat 3A saw something that has never occurred in history:  The current Miss Madison hull, and two former Miss Madison hulls, all competing in the same heat.  Heat 3B was another victory for the Miss Red Dot as Kip Brown led wire to wire.  Brian Perkins turned in another strong performance and was second, while Mark Evans was third and Ken Muskatel fourth.  In Heat 3C Villwock led wire to wire followed by Bernard, Liddycoat, and Myers. 
As the points for the Final Heat were tabulated, it was revealed that the U-1 had scored just enough points to make it to the final.  There was talk in the broadcast that “everything went the way it needed” for the Oberto to make the Final, this isn’t the case.  A look at the Heat 3 results shows there weren’t any huge surprises in any of the heats.  After a weekend where nothing went right for the U-1, Steve David had to win his heat, and he did just that to take his rightful spot in the final.
The Final Heat was a barn burner.  I think I said this before, but the new starting procedures have made this year’s heat starts some of the most exciting since I started following the sport.  The score up period saw the U-5, U-7, and the U-88 all slow to a crawl, then the U-5 sped up and did another lap, then the U-1 joined them.  After passing the one minute buoy everyone seemed to charge down the backstretch then slow to a crawl again.  The starts to Final Heats are always excitable times for me, but this was downright nuts!  I love it.  After all the craziness ended, the U-7 and U-88 were in lanes one and two but made crawling starts, the U-1 made a perfect start from lane three, the U-96 was late to the start in lane four, while the U-17 and the U-5 were on the outside.  For the first two laps, it appeared to be Steve David’s race, as he had more than a roostertail lead at the backstretch of the second lap, but then Villwock closed the gap and David was only ahead by a few boat lengths at the start of the fourth lap.  Then something weird happened.  Steve David’s roostertail  went way down as he slowed considerably, the two boats were very close going into the corner, but on the backstretch Villwock had opened up a two roostertail lead.  Villwock went on to the victory with Steve David finishing second.  Kip Brown grabbed third.  The U-5 and the U-88 had a great battle for fourth, with Bernard nipping Kelly at the line.  Liddycoat finished sixth.  Brian Perkins finished sixth on the water but was penalized a lap due to striking a buoy and was dropped to seventh.
This was an all-around fantastic weekend of racing.  Yes there was some controversy but that will happen and it shouldn’t take away from a great day on the water and on the beach.  The Tri-Cities Water Follies always puts on a whale of a show and this year was no different.  It should also be mentioned that the Grand Prix West boats put on a good show, although only six boats showed up.  Greg Hopp won the Final for the GPW’s.  And of course the Vintage boats put on a good exhibition as well.
Another thing that should be mentioned is that Kip Brown and the U-17 Our Gang Racing team has been nothing short of spectacular so far this season.  Although it was expected for the team to turn a corner this season, I didn’t expect this.  I must say that after Tri-Cities, I’m a believer.  The team has shown it can beat some of the best boats out there on the water.  The hydro media, people on hydroplane forums, or even humble hydroplane bloggers can no longer say that the U-17 is just getting easy heat draws.  They’re winning their heats and running with the big boys.
What is left to be seen, however, is if ANYONE can compete with the U-1 or the U-96.  These last three races have seen everything imaginable being thrown at the two top teams in the sport, and yet Oberto won at Madison and Qatar won at Detroit and Tri-Cities.  Villwock and the U-96 team obviously deserve a lot of credit for their perfect weekend, but Steve David and the Miss Madison team likewise deserve credit for nearly winning the race after horrendous first and second heats.  At the end of a wild weekend in Tri-Cities, the two top teams have once again shown their dominance.  On to Seattle.

As a quick note, if you’re a regular or even a casual reader of this blog you’ll want to make sure to check in quite often this week.  Between Monday and Friday I plan to write at least three posts barring unforeseen circumstances, and there could easily be more than three posts in the likely case that news breaks this week in the world of Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  So if you haven’t already please either bookmark or become a follower of Thunder The Bridge, as this week there will be multiple posts and multiple updates to read.

And finally, Thunder The Bridge wants to wish you and yours the happiest of Shark Weeks.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tri-Cities Preview: Will Recent History Repeat Itself?

The H1 Unlimited Air National Guard Series resumes this weekend in Tri-Cities.  After stops in Madison and Detroit that were by no means left wanting for drama and excitement, the tour heads to the site that has, in recent years, served as a turning point in the season.  Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison has won the last three Columbia Cups, and all three years the Tri-Cities race has played a crucial role in the Oberto-Madison team's winning of the High Point Championship.  In fact, six of the last seven Tri-Cities race winners have gone on to win the High Point Championship.  So will Tri-Cities be another triumph for Oberto?  Or will another team have a big weekend to solidify their campaign for the High Point title?  Or will a boat buck the trend of recent history and pull of an upset?  Only time will tell.

Tri-Cities does quite possibly the best job in the country of promoting their Unlimited Hydroplane race, and this year is no different.  This year, H1 Unlimited has partnered with WSU-Tri-Cities for a "Fueling for Follies" event with a focus on biofuels  and alternative energy.  Of course the Miss Boeing has done exhibitions in the past using biofuels so now H1 is apparently going to expand their interest, and I feel this is great.  The more enviromentally conscience H1 chooses to be the better in my opinion, and not to mention H1 could be at the forefront of developing alternative energy not only for racing but perhaps even for commercial use if they choose to go that route. 

No less than fourteen boats will be in the pits at Tri-Cities, and not only that but all fourteen boats have at the very least local sponsorship for this weekend's race.  The added media exposure is clearly paying dividends for all the teams this season, and a pits full of boats with sponsors is a welcome site.

The U-17 Miss Red Dot comes into Tri-Cities with a scant 82 point lead.  This is a team that has clearly turned a corner, but it is also no secret that they have benefitted from some good heat draws at Detroit and especially at Madison.  This boat should be a contender in Tri-Cities, although it is left to be seen if they can run with the top-flight boats on the water.

The first two races has been a tale of two cities for the U-96 Spirit of Qatar, as they have experienced a horrific accident in Madison but then scored a historic victory for Dave Villwock at the Detroit Gold Cup.  The team showed a lot of grit in Detroit when they were able to not only do major repairs between the Madison and Detroit races but quickly replace a broken gearbox in Detroit in between heats.  The Ellstrom-Qatar team has had a rough go of it the last two years in Tri-Cities, where costly penalties left the door open for the Oberto-Madison team to win the races and take the lead in the High Point standings.  If there is one team that doesn't want recent history to repeat itself in Tri-Cities, it's the U-96.

The U-5 Graham Trucking has arguably been the most consistent boat so far this season aside from the U-17, scoring a good number of points at both races while finishing fourth at Madison and third in Detroit.  The new rule changes have been a large benefit for Jeff Bernard, who has shown his unique abilities at the start of a heat.  The move he pulled off at the Final Heat in Detroit was marvelous, and if he hadn't gotten into Villwock's roostertail during the heat then he could have scored the victory.  Jeff Bernard has performed well in the Tri-Cities, scoring podium finishes each of the last three seasons.  They still haven't finished at the top of the podium though, although it wouldn't be a surprise if that changed this weekend.

The U-7 has like its teammate been very consistent at the beginning of the season.  Scott Liddycoat has been nothing less than phenomenal over the first two races of his rookie season and has consistently put the T-6 hull at the front of the pack.  If he scores his first career victory, at Tri-Cities or at any of the remaining races in 2011, noone will be that shocked.

After having to lease the Jones Racing hull and missing the cut for the Final Heat at Detroit, the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison team finds themselves in unfamiliar territory: fifth place in the High Points and over 600 points from the lead.  The shark boat has undergone extensive repair and will be ready for Tri-Cities, although it won't be completely painted.  Tri-Cities serves as the best site for a potential rebound for the team, as they have won this race three times in a row.  If they are going to get back on track for a fourth straight title, this weekend is the time to do it.

A popular sponsor is returning to the sport in Tri-Cities, as Fred Leland's first entry will run as the U-100 Beacon Plumbing.  The Leland team has been solid if not spectacular at the beginning of the season, and Greg Hopp has scored a good number of points at both races.  The U-100 could very well find themselves on the front row of the Final Heat in Tri-Cities

The URG picked up local sponsorship for Tri-Cities and will run as the U-11 Stevenson Roofing presents Miss Peters & May.  The team has had an uneven start to the season, failing to qualify for either Final Heat although they did win a preliminary heat in Detroit (although it should be noted that the "winner" of that heat also doubled as "the only boat that finished").  Tri-Cities could be a breakout performance for this team, and noone should count JW Myers out of any race.

The 88 Degree Men had a great showing in Detroit after showing up late to Madison and not being able to score any points.  There is still clearly work to be done on dialing in the new hull, but when J. Michael Kelly and the crew get more accustomed to the boat the rest of the fleet should look out.  Especially impressive has been Kelly's ability to put the boat on the inside lane and keep it on the buoys.  This boat could finish on the podium at Tri-Cities and perhaps even walk away with the Columbia Cup when all is said and done this weekend.

The U-21 Albert Lee has had perhaps the worst luck of any team so far this season, where untimely penalties, difficult heat draws, and a horrific accident in Madison has put the team in ninth place in the High Points.  Albert Lee appliances returns as a sponsor for this team, and Brian Perkins certainly has the talent to drive the team to a turnaround.  Their luck has to improve at some point (because to be blunt it can't get much worse), and Tri-Cities could be just the place to do that.

The U-57 has performed well so far this season.  Although they haven't made the cut for either Final Heat, Mark Evans has pefrormed well in a comeback role and to be honest the team has their hull running better than it has in a decade.  Bianca Bononcini should get some more laps in during testing runs, although I would guess she is quite a ways off from heat action or even being officially qualified as a driver.  Mark Evans and the crew will continue to plug away and do exceptionally well, considering what they have to run with.

The U-22 Great Scott! Presents Campaign WSU has also been a victim of some bad luck to start the year, finishing third and fourth in their two heats at Madison and failing to score a single point in Detroit.  Clearly the crew still needs time to dial in their newly acquired hull.  The relatively new team made it to their first Final Heat at the 2009 Columbia Cup, but for a repeat performance they will need to rebound in a big way.

Ken Muskatel's entry will run in Tri-Cities as the U-25 97 Rock.  This isn't the same radio station that sponsored the "Miss Rock" Hydroplanes for much of the 1990's, but it's always nice to have another sponsor on board.  The team has yet to score a point or even start a heat in 2011 so clearly there's room for improvement.  All in all, this is a team that deserves credit just for showing up after Muskatel's surgery in the off season.  Here's to hoping that they're able to finish some heats in the Tri-Cities.

The U-9 Mis will officially be making its debut this weekend, although both the boat and the driver were in Detroit filling in for Oh Boy! Oberto and Steve David.  The Jones Racing team has years of experience, although they have only been a sporadic presence on the tour since 2003.  Jon Zimmerman, only in his second year, has shown a great amount of ability behind the wheel of an Unlimited.  Although the boat and driver missed the cut for the final in Detroit, the team and driver has the potential to sneak into the Final Heat in Tri-Cities.

A second Leland hull will race in Tri-Cities as the U-99 Miss HAPO Credit Union.  GP regular Ryan Mallow will get the opportunity to qualify as a driver this weekend.  Early indications are the team will be using the black and maroon hull that the Lelands used over the previous two seasons as their primary hull.  Mallow is a talented driver and this should be the first of many Unlimited rides for his career.  As for this weekend, they shouldn't expect much, but rookies have surprised us in the past.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tales from Detroit's "Hydro Compound"

When one is a regular attendee of hydroplane regattas, through the years one comes to realize that what happens along the shore line is just as important as what happens on the water.  Unlimited Hydroplane races serve as a reunion, a fair, and a weekend long party where new and old friends meet.  Michigan native and hydroplane enthusiast Roger Schaaf shared his thoughts on this year's Gold Cup as well as memories of the Hydro Compound in Detroit:

This year was my 29th race in Detroit. It should have been my 30th, but I got married and missed the 2002 race. The things we do for love!
Gold Cup Weekend is an obsession, a passion, a rite of Summer, a reunion of sorts, and one of those events that one doesn’t fully understand until they experience it for themselves. Each year the crew from St. Clair, hometown of Chuck Thompson, gathers along the Detroit River to reunite and tell lies. We come from as close as the Grosse Pointe area and as far away as Grand Rapids. No major travels involved.
Most of the weekend is spent at the Hydro Compound! If there aren’t any boats on the water, we are at the HC having a beverage or 2, but more importantly getting out of the sun. You can’t miss us! Combined hydro experience has to be around 300+ years…no kidding! With a former Gale V Crew Member and friend/brother as our honorary Commodore! The stunning conversation is a thing of beauty…or was it B.S. Regardless; we know how to have fun. It is often said that if any of us became famous, 2 minutes with this group and you will get “knocked” back to reality.
The hydro stories get repeated every year. Some are good, some are ok, and some are “oh brother, not again”! They range from Bill Cantrell’s dog peeing on a leg to making a printed ad and radio spot (an actual recording) promoting “a match race” between Chip Hanauer and Bill S. The stories from the 1984 Evansville trip are usually a good source of humor.  The bus trip in ’84 to Detroit provides many laughs, too! Regardless we all share a passion for the unlimited. This could go on for pages, but I prefer to keep it simple. Maybe another time!

Hydroplane racing is a passion for a number of fans who have similar stories.  Feel free to share you own.  Thanks to Roger for being Thunder The Bridge's Detroit correspondent!  On to Tri-Cities.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Unlimited Hydroplane Racing on the East Coast: Remembering the past, hopes for the future.

Barring any surprise announcements, the Eastern United States swing of the 2011 H1 Unlimited season has concluded.  For this post I’m going to look at some of the races that have taken place on the East Coast throughout the years.  The focus will be not on the traditional “Eastern Tour” stops of Madison, Detroit, and Evansville but instead races that have taken place in the northeast and on the Eastern Seaboard.  As a region it is the one large and vastly populated area of the country without an Unlimited race (with the exception of the South, which I will discuss in a post at a later date) on the tour and it hasn’t had one since 1999.  So what I’m going to do is review the race site on the East Coast throughout the years from the early 1950’s until the present, and my take on how likely the Unlimited Hydroplanes are to return to this site.  Also, I’m going to throw in a few cities I can see as potential hosts of an Unlimited Hydroplane race.  Starting with the most recent first:

Norfolk, Virginia:
A race that was run from 1997-1999 on the base of the US Navy’s Atlantic fleet, the Norfolk race was essentially the sister race to the Honolulu race that was also run on a Navy base.  Both the Norfolk and Honolulu races were made possible by the US Department of Defense’s efforts to provide entertainment for soldiers and sailors although both races were open to the public as well.  The race seemed to always have a rough go of it.  First, the inaugural event in 1997 had to be postponed from May until July due to high winds.  The race course was situated in an area where the beach came to a point, which left few good viewing areas and also provided some confusion for the drivers.  In 1998 only six boats decided to come to Norfolk for the race rather than race in Norfolk then make a cross country trek for the Tri-Cities race the following weekend.  Despite all of this, organizers reported large crowds for all three years.  Defense budget cuts meant an end to many events intended for the entertainment of active duty personnel, and both the Norfolk and Honolulu races were off the schedule after 1999.
Chances of it coming back: Unlikely.  Since the race was on a Naval Base and was funded with the Defense budget, spending tax money on an Unlimited Hydroplane race would come under intense scrutiny with how hot-button the issue of the budget is right now.  Its best chance at a revival would probably be a local organizer looking for an event that would bring more people and tourism money into the Norfolk-Virginia Beach region, but I’m not sure if there would be a feasible site outside of the Naval base.
Syracuse, New York
            The Finger Lakes of Upstate New York actually hosted races at three different sites in the 1980’s, with a race in Geneva in 1982, Romulus in 1983, and Syracuse from 1984-1990.  Long Branch Park provided a great setting for a hydroplane race, but the race always seemed to have bad luck.  The 1987 race was plagued with weather issues and had to be declared no contest.   In 1989 there were more high winds and the Mr. Pringles and Miss Circus Circus both had spectacular blowovers.  Despite the bad luck, the race had pretty decent crowds and boat totals all seven years of the event.
Chances of it coming back: Probably better than anywhere else in the Eastern United States.  The Upstate New York/lower Ontario and Quebec region is a hotbed for limited Hydroplane racing and Syracuse has hosted a number of hydroplane races through the years (although the GP’s had their own horrific accident in Syracuse in 2009).  The fans are there, the venue is there, it’s just a question of if the people, effort, and money are there to stage an Unlimited event.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
                The second largest city on the Eastern Seaboard barely makes the list of former venues of Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  Only one race was ever run there, and it was declared a no contest.    In 1986 only six boats came to Philadelphia for a race that was ultimately cancelled due to high winds, although there were two exhibition heats between the three turbine boats and the three piston boats that showed up.  According to an Unlimited News Journal account of the race, an estimated crowd of between 50,000 and 200,000 showed up for the event (how can an estimate be so vague?) and were enthusiastic, but high winds forced a cancellation of the race.  The article also mentions that the intention was to have the Unlimiteds return in 1987, but apparently discouraged by the low boat count and cancelled event no return engagement was ever scheduled.
Chances of it coming back:  Less likely than I would like to believe.  First off, I’m a Philadelphia resident.  I’m a native of Madison, Indiana but I moved to Philadelphia a few years ago and live in Philly most of the year.  Naturally I would love to see an Unlimited race in my adopted hometown to go along with the race in the place I grew up in.  So smoke is in my eyes a little bit on this topic.  With that said, Philadelphia would be a great venue, but it would take some work.  The Delaware River is very wide in Philadelphia, but also very rough much of the time.  The banks of the river on both sides provide lots of room for spectators, but getting permits for such an event would prove difficult since there is a lot of barge and oceanliner traffic in Philadelphia.  According to the UNJ article on the 1986 Philadelphia race the pits were across the river in Camden.  If that’s the case then any kind of return engagement would require 24 hour security to ensure that none of the boats or equipment are vandalized or stolen (if you’ve been to Camden you’d understand why).  Finally, there is no way to tell how excited people in the Philadelphia area would be about an Unlimited Hydroplane race.  It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle sports-wise when the city has four major sports teams, six NCAA Division I teams, a great high school basketball tradition, and a number of minor league baseball and hockey teams close by.  There isn’t much interest in terms of motorsports, but it’s possible that what motorsports there are would flock to a major event in the area since they are usually few and far between.  So while I would love for an Unlimited race to come to Philadelphia, I realize it will take a lot of work.  Maybe I should get to work….
Washington, DC
                For many years the President’s Cup Race was second only to the Gold Cup in terms of prestige. The first race was in 1926 and held nearly every year until 1977.  Up to that point, Washington, DC was, along with Detroit,  Madison, Seattle, and (from 1966 on) Tri-Cities as the stops on the Unlimited tour that were always on the schedule.  There were, of course, struggles along the way.  This was the site of the infamous “black Sunday” where three Unlimited drivers lost their lives in 1966.  The race wasn’t held in 1967 but returned in 1968, although many longtime fans will say the race was never the same.  After 1977 the race was off the schedule and this time for good.
Chances of it coming back: Good.  There have been many efforts to bring the classic race back over the years by a number of people.  Ken Muskatel was spearheading an effort for a number of years, but I haven’t seen or heard much about that the last few years.  The biggest obstacle seems to be getting the proper permits and river time for the event, which undoubtedly has to be quite a task in the District of Columbia.  There is lots of tradition here, though, and any event in Washington, DC is almost guaranteed to draw a huge crowd.  With so many efforts going into bringing a race to Washington, DC, it would seem to be a matter of time until one of those efforts is successful.
Buffalo, New York
The Buffalo Launch Club, much like their counterparts in the Detroit Yacht Club, sponsored an Unlimited Hydroplane race through much of the 1950’s up until 1960.  There was even a boat known as the Miss Buffalo that was driven in Bob Schroeder and showed up to a handful of races in 1959 and 1960.
Chances of it coming back: Difficult, but possible.  Buffalo is right in the middle of the limited hydroplane hotbed that is the Great Lakes region.  I am not sure if the Niagara River course would be wide enough for a modern Unlimited race, but it seems possible.  The biggest question would seem to be the city’s interest and getting the proper permits.  I wonder if it will be a situation similar to the 2004 St. Clair race when permits proved difficult to obtain and the hydroplanes had to yield the course to passing oceanliners, who would often turn the course until a rough and almost undriveable mess.  All of this is speculation on my part, though.  With the recent struggles of the Bills and Sabers, Buffalo sports fans might want something else to stir up civic pride.  Also, the Buffalo Launch Club’s website even to this day still makes a mention of the fact that it once hosted a hydroplane race more than fifty years after the fact.  Maybe they’ll want to do so again?
Red Bank, New Jersey
                The National Sweepstakes Regatta was one of the most prestigious annual powerboat races in the years preceding World War II.  In those years only the Gold Cup, President’s Cup, and Harmsworth Trophy garnered more media attention, and indeed in 1946 the major races that took place were the Gold Cup in Detroit, the President’s Cup in Washington DC, and the National Sweepstakes Regatta in Red Bank, NJ.  In those haphazard post World War II days of Unlimited Hydroplane racing, Red Bank actually hosted two concurrent races, the National Sweepstakes Regatta and the Red Bank Gold Cup, with the same boats often competing in both races (My Sweetie won both races in 1949, a limited boat known as You All did the same in 1952).  The short, narrow course, however, was a bit of a safety concern for the newer Unlimited Hydroplanes of the time and many boats began skipping Red Bank altogether.  From 1950-1953, the High Point champion skipped the Red Bank race that was experiencing an ever-dwindling number of boats showing up for the event.  Finally in 1954, according to a National Sweepstakes program that has been reprinted on a vintage hydroplane website, the Unlimiteds had to be omitted “due to course facilities and safety measures.”  A limited hydroplane race was held for a number of years in Red Bank, but apparently that’s fizzled out as well.
Chances of it coming back: Unlikely.  If the Navesnik River Course was too small for an Unlimited Hydroplane race in the early 1950’s then the same is probably true today (although races have been tried on short tracks before, with mixed results).  Red Bank is a small community, actually smaller than Madison, although it is possible to get there from New York and Philadelphia by train.  Although Red Bank has a rich racing tradition, it’s been so many years ago by now there are probably very few people living in the small community who remember it.  The current political situation in New Jersey is a mess, OK the political situation in New Jersey is ALWAYS a mess so financing an Unlimited Hydroplane event could prove tough.  The best chance here would seem to be an outside group heavy on the nostalgia looking to revive the classic race that finds a group in Red Bank looking to increase tourism.  With the recent decline in tourism on the Jersey shore, such an effort could be successful, but a lot of things would have to fall into place.
Baltimore, Maryland: Baltimore hosted an Unlimited race for two years known as the Star Spangled Banner Regatta in 1949 and 1950.  Only three Unlimited boats showed up both years to race on the small Patapsco River course where the drivers also had to contend with a low-lying bridge.
Chances of it coming back: Better than you would think.  Baltimore’s inner harbor has undergone a tremendous revitalization over the last decade or so, hosting a number of largely attended events regular basis.  Included in these events is an upcoming IndyCar race around the streets of the inner harbor and around Camden Yards that is creating a lot of buzz in the area, so the appeal for a motorsports event is there.  A race course could easily be laid out in this area and have some great spectator viewing areas.  All of this, along with the fact that Baltimore is a short drive or train ride away from Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York City, means that Baltimore could be an ideal location for an Unlimited Hydroplane race.  There’s no real way to gauge local interest in such an event, but with so many festivals and activities happening in the inner harbor, talking to the right organizer could mean that race could be quickly staged there.

I used 1950 as a cutoff point due to the haphazard nature of Unlimited Hydroplane racing in the 1940’s.  There were a number of official races on the East Coast during this period, but usually with very low boat counts and sometimes even on the same date as an official race elsewhere.  For this reason I also omitted Cambridge, Maryland, a race site that staged a race in 1949 and 1950 but didn’t have an Unlimited Hydroplane attend either event.  I also left off the 1950 races at New York and Ocean City, New Jersey because those races were more in line with the offshore tradition, especially the New York race where the boats raced around Manhattan Island.
Some other potential Race Sites
Albany, New York: The Hudson River would provide an ideal race course for this city that is largely becoming a bedroom community.  Albany, once a thriving sports community with a number of lower level sports teams, now only has a minor league hockey team and a short season A baseball team in nearby Troy, New York.  This is a city that clearly needs some kind of event to draw people to the area, so why not an Unlimited Hydroplane race?  Permits would be tough to get for the Hudson River, but certainly a lot easier than they would be for New York City.  An Unlimited Hydroplane race could likely wake up a sleeping city.

Boston, Massachusetts: Like Baltimore, Boston has a harbor that could potentially host an Unlimited race. If the harbor is unavailable then there could possibly be a race at the Charles River.  As would be the case with any race in a big city, getting permits would be very difficult.  Also, although Boston is one of the greatest sports towns in the United States, an Unlimited Hydroplane race runs the risk of getting lost in the shuffle in a city with a huge number of distractions when it comes to sports.  And finally it should be mentioned that “regatta” in this part of the country usually means rowing competitions involving prestigious prep schools or Universities.   With that said, at the very least the Boston Harbor would be ideal for a race and having an event in a major media market would provide an uptick in attention for the sport.
Delaware (Wilmington or Dover): Dover, Delaware could make a claim as the “racing capitol of the East,” with its horse racing and speedway.  Dover’s “Monster Mile” is the only NASCAR stop on the Eastern seaboard and along with Loudon and Watkins Glen one of only three NASCAR tracks in the entire northeast.  As a result of this, the NASCAR race in Dover draws fans from all around the Eastern Seaboard.   So racing fans are used to coming to Dover, there is only one problem when it comes to possibly hosting an Unlimited Hydroplane race: no good venue.  There is the Silver Lake, but I’m not sure if that would be big or deep enough to host an Unlimited Hydroplane race.  Perhaps organizers could have more luck in Wilmington, which is situated on the Delaware River and, like Albany, could use such an event to draw people to a city that is largely a bedroom community.  So there would need to be some work to be done to bring a race to Delaware, but the fans would be there.

So there’s a recap of ten potential sites, seven former and three possible future, on the East Coast.  One thing that sticks out is that nearly all of the East Coast races had a problem of low boat counts, as many West Coast boats didn’t wish to make the long trek east.  That issue could be easily fixed by assuring that any potential East Coast race happens early in the season along with the other eastern races.  Even if that doesn’t happen, more than likely boat counts will be up now since the teams have the added bonus of racing for a potential spot in the Qatar race.  Finally, although I’ve discussed ten race sites I don’t expect there to be a race at all ten of them.  In all honesty, I would be happy for a race at only one or two of these sites and think that would be a huge help for the Unlimiteds.  I just hope there is one, since I’m now an East Coast resident and would like to have a nearby race to attend.  Since H1 hopes to expand internationally, having only one or two races on the East Coast would be about all that would be needed, but it would still be a big help to the sport.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Life After Budweiser

Since the H1 Unlimited Air National Guard Series is off this weekend and next weekend I figured I would take some time to review what has been one of the biggest stories so far this season.  Arguably the biggest story so far in the young season, aside from Dave Villwock breaking the alltime race wins record and the accidents at Madison, has been the recent resurgence of sponsors into the sport.  Of the twelve teams who compete on the national tour, nine of them currently have fulltime national sponsorship of some sort.  Of those nine, one (Valken) is brand new and one (Degree Men) is now a fulltime national sponsor after being a one race sponsor last season.  To top it all off, the Air National Guard has come on board as series sponsor.  This, of course, marks the first time that the Unlimited Hydroplane tour has had a series sponsor since Enviroply sponsored the second half of the 2006 season.  Anyone who has been to the Madison and/or Detroit race this season has seen how big of a difference the Air Guard's involvement has been for the sport.  Needless to say, the Air Guard has gotten involved in a big way with the display boat, flyovers, inflatables, recruiters, etc.

All of this is a huge and immediately noticeable change from even a couple seasons ago and a nice change of pace from what has been seen in Unlimited Hydroplane racing really over the last decade.  It wasn't too long ago when it seemed like nearly every boat rolled into the pits with a plain white or yellow paint job and would race either with small time sponsors, depend on local sponsors at each race site, or without any sponsors at all.  For an example of this, look at the list of Gold Cup winners from 2001-2006:

2001: Tubby's Grilled Submarines U-9
2002: Miss Budweiser U-1
2003: Miss Fox Hills Chrysler-Jeep U-3
2004: Miss DYC U-10
2005: Miss Al Deeby Dodge U-13
2006: Miss Beacon Plumbing U-37

As can be seen, for a six year stretch only one team with a major sponsor won the Gold Cup and four of the six winners during this time were carrying sponsors local to Detroit (as you'll recall, Beacon Plumbing is a sponsor local to the Northwest but the U-37 carried the name on the national tour for most of 2006 then all of 2007 and 2008).  Now to be fair this was an anomaly and a handful of other teams did have national sponsorship during this time period, but needless to say those with major sponsors were few at this time and the names inscribed on the Gold Cup during this period are a testament of this.

So what caused the decline in sponsorships, and what has caused the recent uptick in sponsorship?  First off to be fair there has never been a a time in the history of Unlimited Hydroplane racing where every single boat in the pits had major national sponsorship.  There have always been the haves and the have nots.  Throughout much of the 1970’s 1980's there were roughly 6-8 teams that had national sponsorship.  That number held for the most part in the early 1990's but then started to tail off in the mid 1990’s and continued to decline into the 2000's until there were only four in 2004 and 2005.  There have been a number of explanations for this.  These explanations run the gamut from the ridiculous: the contingency of fans who blame every single "problem" in Unlimited Hydroplane racing on the switch from piston to turbine power blamed the perceived decline in sponsorship on this as well, to the obvious: the lack of national TV coverage up until this season.  An oft-quoted phrase is that auto racing sponsorship is the greatest value in marketing, with the extra and continuous exposure that comes from sponsoring any form of auto racing, but for that to be true there needs to be a TV audience to see the sponsored boats/cars/etc.

 Many smart analysts, however, explain it with the sport's dependency on one major sponsor for a number of decades.  Budweiser sponsored the team that was, from the early 1960's to the mid 1980's the one team that was consistently at or near the top of  the sport and then, from the mid 1980's to the mid 2000's, the team that flat out dominated Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  Not only did Budweiser sponsor the most visible team in Unlimited Hydroplane racing but also made their presence felt at nearly every stop on the tour.  Picking one year at random, take a look at the schedule for the 1986 season:

June 15: Budweiser Regatta, Miami FL
June 29: Budweiser APBA Gold Cup, Detroit, MI
July 6:    Budweiser Indiana Governor's Cup, Madison, IN
July 13:  Budweiser Thunder on the Ohio, Evansville, IN
July 27:  Budweiser Columbia Cup, Tri-Cities, WA
August 3: Budweiser Emerald Cup, Seattle, WA
August 17: Miller American Thunderboat Classic, Syracuse, NY
August 24: Budweiser Hydrocade, Philadelphia, PA
September 21: Miller American Thunderboat Regatta, San Diego, CA
September 28: Budweiser Las Vegas Silver Cup, Las Vegas, NV

Lots of beer there huh?  Needless to say, Budweiser was a constant presence at all the race sites and on the water throughout this period of time and then the tour itself became known as the "Budweiser Unlimited Hydroplane Series."  With Bernie Little's Miss Budweiser winning the majority of races and almost all of the High Point championships and Budweiser sponsorship everywhere in Unlimited Hydroplane racing during this period of time, a train of thought developed that Budweiser money was holding the sport up.  An oft-repeated statement throughout the 1980's, 1990's, and early 2000's went something like "yeah it would be nice if someone other than the Miss Budweiser would win, but they're all that's keeping the sport going.  If Bernie Little and Budweiser got out of the sport then hydroplane racing would cease to exist."  Also, for a number of years this presumption that Budweiser money was the only thing holding the sport up there was another presumption that the Budweiser money would always be there.  Then in early 2003 Bernie Little passed away and his son Joe took over operation of the Miss Budweiser team.  A year later the unthinkable happened, as it was announced that Budweiser would be ending its sponsorship of Joe Little's team and hydroplane racing at the conclusion of the 2004 season.  This, along with a number of other issues during hydroplane racing's most tumultuous year (I'm currently working on a larger piece for this blog that will cover 2004 and all the conflict in hydroplane racing that year more in depth) led many to presume that Unlimited Hydroplane racing would soon fall by the wayside.

Hydroplane racing didn't, and indeed there was and is life after Budweiser.  With the revival of TV coverage, International expansion, a strong promotional model being put forth by H1 Unlimited, and a group of hydroplane owners who are willing to see the big picture and do what is good not only for their own team but for the sport as a whole, the fruits of all this effort has been a tremendous rise in sponsors for the racing teams.  Now nearly every team in the pits has fulltime and/or national sponsorship, and a great paint job to go along with it.

With that said, however, there is still work to be done.  While it is true there are a greater number of sponsors now there are really only two (Oh Boy! Oberto and Degree Men) that the average hydroplane fan could purchase on a routine trip to the grocery store.  Put this in comparison to the early 1990's when there were teams sponsored by Budweiser, Winston, Tide, and Frosted Flakes and essentially one's entire grocery list could be influenced by hydroplane sponsorship.  And if one had any car troubles on the way to the market they could pick up some T Plus engine treatment along the way.  While Peters & May and the Spirit of Qatar are representative of the sport's new international direction, Red Dot, Graham Trucking, and Formula Boats sponsorships could influence a fan's larger purchases, and I presume a fan who is into paintballing could buy Valken products (I've never been paintballing myself, but if I did Valken would be my paintball of choice), there is still a need for more sponsors that the average fan can identify with and purchase on a regular basis.  Also, there is still a need for more race site sponsors.  Detroit ran this year without a title sponsor although the DYC was a presenting sponsor.  Representatives from Lucas Oil expressed concern over the amount of dead time at the Madison race.  So clearly as a sport we aren't quite where we need to be yet, but we're getting close.  I should mention that this is in no way a slight against Budweiser.  They were a great supporter of Unlimited Hydroplane racing for decades and continue on even today as a smaller sponsor.  In Madison Budweiser is the "official beer" and is a heat sponsor, they have similar arrangements at other race sites.  This is only to show that Unlimited Hydroplane racing can not only survive but thrive without the one major sponsor there was for so many years.  Life after Budweiser has been rough at times for the sport but no less rough than it was during the times when Budweiser was sponsoring everything in sight.  The recovery of Unlimited Hydroplane racing hasn't been huge and sudden but it has been steady and incremental, with things getting a little better each year since 2005.  As I mentioned to a friend at the Madison Regatta, with the TV coverage, lots of national sponsors, and a national title sponsor for the series complete with flyovers, "we're starting to feel like a major league sport again."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The men who have been at the top

Have you ever heard of Roger Connor?  He's a Baseball hall of famer, but even many of the most hardcore baseball fans have never heard the name.  He was one of the premiere ballplayers in the nineteenth century but his name and accomplishments had largely been lost to time as the twentieth century progressed.  For a brief time though in the mid-1970's Roger Connor was getting quite a bit of publicity.  As Hank Aaron inched closer to Babe Ruth's career home run record that had previously seemed unreachable a question began to arise among fans and baseball historians: who was the leader in career home runs before Babe Ruth?  Ruth had, of course, been the undisputed home run king for over a half a century as Hank Aaron approached his alltime mark, so the thought of anyone other than Ruth being at the top of the list, but now with Aaron coming along people began to realize that there was a leader in home runs before Ruth just like there would be one after Ruth.  After a bit of research, attention turned to Roger Connor, an Irish American from Connecticut who played most of his career with the New York Giants.  He played in an era when home runs were extremely rare but Connor still managed to hit 138 home runs.  This record would stand after Connor retired in 1897 until Babe Ruth broke it in 1921 (Ruth's second season with the Yankees and only his third year as a fulltime position player) in an event that got very little recognition at the time, as people were more enamored with the amazing single season home run numbers that Ruth was putting up at the time.  As Aaron approached Ruth's record Connor finally got the recognition that was due him and in 1976 Roger Connor finally took his rightful spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame, two years after Aaron broke Ruth's record and forty five years after Connor passed away.  Roger Connor, the former alltime leader in home runs, now sits tied for 483rd on the list of career home run leaders.

Roger Connor, the one tme career leader in Major League home runs.

So why do I bring this up?  Villwock's surpassing of Bill Muncey's record this week got me to thinking about something:  Who held the record BEFORE Bill Muncey?  It's almost strange to think that anyone else besides Bill Muncey was ever the career leader in Unlimited victories.  Muncey had been an almost regular figure in the pits from the 1950's until his untimely death in 1981 and he had the highest career victory total longer than anyone could remember.  When Muncey passed away in the accident at Acapulco in 1981, he had accumulated more than twice as many race wins than any other Unlimited driver up to that point.

So whose record did Muncey break?  For many years I had presumed it was Ron Musson, who had won 16 races until he was killed on "Black Sunday" at Washington, DC in 1966.  However, I once read an article on the unfortunate events of that tragic day that made mention of the fact that Bill Muncey was already the alltime leader in wins at that point.  A look at Muncey's career win total will show that, indeed, Bill Muncey had won 20 races at that point, four more than Musson at the time of his death.  So while there are still many longtime fans who will contend that had Musson not met an untimely death he would have gone down as the undisputed greatest driver in Unlimited Hydroplane history, he was never at the top of the career wins list.

The next possibility would be Chuck Thompson, who won fifteen races in his career, including eight before Bill Muncey's first career win at the 1956 APBA Gold Cup.  Thompson's career has a bit of a gap in it, however.  He only won two races between 1953 and 1962 before he enjoyed a resurgance from 1963-1965 behind the wheel of the Tahoe Miss.  By that point Muncey had surpassed Thompson's win total and there was no looking back.

That leaves only one person:  Danny Foster.  Foster had fourteen career victories, all of which came before Muncey's first career win.  Therefore, when Bill Muncey's career began it was Danny Foster who sat atop the career wins total and it was Foster whose record Bill Muncey broke.  Fred Farley begins his biography of Danny Foster by stating that Foster "was to Unlimited racing in the 40's and 50's what Bill Muncey was to the 60's and 70's and what Chip Hanauer was to the 80's and 90's."  Indeed the career  race wins record, and its progression over time, is an example of this.

 Foster's career began with the founding of the Unlimited class in 1946 and he was an immediate winner as he drove the Miss Great Lakes to the President's Cup that year.  By the way, if you were wondering who had the career post-war win record before Foster, I suppose you could say Guy Lombardo, who won the first two races of 1946 as he won the Red Bank National Sweepstakes Regatta and the Detroit Gold Cup that year.  The next season Danny Foster won six races en route to a National Championship while driving the Miss Peps V and there was no question as to who the superstar was in Unlimited Hydroplane racing.

  From then on Danny Foster's career was more uneven, but that is more indicative of the haphazard era of Unlimited Hydroplane racing Foster raced in than Foster himself.  This was a time when Unlimited Hydroplane racing was more of a regional affair and very few if any boats would compete on the full national tour.  The Gold Cup was usually the only race that would attract hydroplanes from throughout the United States.  It was not uncommon in that era for over twenty boats to race for the Gold Cup, but in truth only a handfull had any real shot at winning the race.  In fact, many hydroplane owners and drivers at that time treated the Gold Cup as many Indycar teams have approached the Indianapolis 500 throughout the years, with many boats and drivers only competing in the Gold Cup and no other races.   Danny Foster entered only one race in 1948, where he drove the Miss Great Lakes to the Gold Cup.  After sitting out all of 1949, Foster drove no less than seven Unlimited Hydroplanes from 1950-1954, collecting a couple wins along the way but never driving a boat for the full national tour.  Then in 1955 Foster finally got a fulltime ride adnd made his presense felt.  Behind the wheel of the Tempo VIII, Foster overcame a disappointing Gold Cup where an onboard fire ended the team's day and went on to win five races (which also happened to be the last five races the team entered that season).  Foster captured his fourteenth and final victory at the 1955 Indiana Governor's Cup at Madison and would then go into semi-retirement, only doing spot duty behind numerous Unlimiteds and never winning another major race, although he did win a secondary race at the 1965 Lake Tahoe Regatta.

As Bill Muncey's career took off in a big way in the late 1950's and early 1960's, his accomplishments would seemingly dwarf what anyone else in Unlimited Hydroplane racing had done up to that point.  Muncey would break Foster's record of fourteen career wins at the 1962 Spirit of Detroit Regatta behind the wheel of the Miss Century 21 (breaking the record in Detroit, coincidence?).  None of the articles I have read about that race make any mention of the fact that Muncey had set the new bar for Unlimited race victories, much like Babe Ruth becoming the career home runs leader received little if any publicity.  It was seen as just another dominating victory by the driver and boat that were seemingly unstoppable at that point.  Muncey's long career would go through a lot of peaks and valleys, but when his life ended in 1981 his career victory total of 62 race wins seemed safe.

And for many years, Muncey's record was safe.  At the time of Bill Muncey's death, nobody was even close to his total.  However, a young driver who already had three race wins under his belt would take over the seat of the Atlas Van Lines and would make a serious chase at Bill Muncey's record.  Something that drove me nuts at the Madison Regatta this year was that at least twice the PA announcers talked at length about how Villwock was about to break a record that seemed unreachable up until now and there were NO mentions of Chip Hanauer.  One of them even said "the one guy I thought who ever had a shot at breaking the record was Dean Chenoweth" but once again there was no mention of how painstakingly close Hanauer came to breaking the record.  At the approach of the 1996 season, the consensus around hydroplane racing was that it was only a matter of time until Hanaur broke the record.  He sat at 58 race wins, four behind Muncey and when he was healthy he was nothing less than dominant behind the wheel of the Miss Budweiser.  It wouldn't come to be, of course.  After Hanauer suffered injuries in yet another horrific accident in the Miss Budweiser at Detroit, he resigned from the team and likewise sat out for 1997 and 1998.   Then, when he returned to drive for Fred Leland's Miss Pico and won his third race of the year (and 61st career win, one less than Muncey) in Detroit, the question became not if Hanauer would surpass Muncey's career total, but when.  Once again it wouldn't come to be, as Hanauer was sidelined in a blowover at Tri-Cities and wouldn't win any more races for the rest of the season.  At the end of 1999 Chip Hanauer once again retired and this time for good, only one race win behind his mentor.  If Hanauer had not temporarily left the Unlimiteds in 1991 to pursue auto racing or went on hiatus for nearly three full years  in the late 1990's, then more than likely we would right now be discussing Villwock approaching Hanauer's alltime win total.  There has been speculation over the years that Chip Hanauer did not wish to surpass Bill Muncey, the man who served as a mentor early in his career.  Personally though I feel that it was health concerns, as Hanauer suffered a number of accidents throughout the 1990's that resulted in him missing  time behind the wheel or making a trip to the hospital, especialy during his time with the Miss Budweiser where one or both of these scenarios happened at least once every year he was with the team.  After numerous injuries, I feel Hanauer saw his health as more valuable than a career wins record and stepped away.

With Chip Hanauer out of the sport, attention quickly turned to Dave Villwock in terms of if or when he would break Bill Muncey's record.  I heard it predicted as early as 2000 that Villwock eventually getting the record was "inevitible."  For a brief period it appeared that Bill Muncey's record was safe, as Dave Villwock announced his retirement at the conclusion of 2004 season with the departure of the Miss Budweiser team from the sport.  Villwock had 47 career wins at that point.  Then, in the middle of 2005, it was announced that Villwock was taking over driving duties for the Miss E-Lam Plus, a boat that already had the High Point lead at that point in the season, and more race victories followed.  Finally last week Muncey's record fell and Villwock took his place at the top.  For the first time in forty eight years, there is somebody new at the top of the last in career race victories.

As the career leader in Unlimited race victories has passed from Guy Lombardo to Danny Foster to Bill Muncey to Dave Villwock, we are reminded that records were meant to be broken but also that those who have held the record should never be forgotten.  Danny Foster, like Roger Connor in baseball, never got due credit for his record setting performance as his accomplishments were overshaddowed by those who came after him.  However many race victories Dave Villwock has at the end of his career (and he certainly shows no signs of slowing down, no pun intended), there will certainly be questions of who if anyone has a chance to approach his record.  I feel that two people who are racing now have a serious chance of someday being atop the list:  Jeff Bernard and J. Michael Kelly.  While at this point in their careers Bernard only has three wins and Kelly has one they are both young drivers early in their careers and have both shown a keen ability to put any boat in a position to win.  They have the potential to be dominant in the coming  years and perhaps even challenge Dave Villwock's record in the coming decades.  What Bill Muncey's and Babe Ruth's longstanding and seemingly insurmountible records being broken show is that even the most unreachable records can be broken but the people who set those records will always be remembered as one of the people who have been at the top.

All images taken from the web.  Thanks to Leslie Field's Hydroplane History website and to Fred Farley's fine article on the career of Danny Foster for being a fine source of information for this post.  Also, many thanks to the men who have raced and won in Unlimited Hydroplanes throughout the years.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A note on NASCAR in Kentucky

I realize that this is a blog about hydroplane racing, but I still feel obligated to comment on the happenings of this past weekend's NASCAR race at Kentucky Speedway since there has been so much talk about in recent days.  First off to be fair, while I enjoy NASCAR racing I would not call myself a NASCAR fan.  I'm first and foremost an Unlimited Hydroplane racing fan, and in general I prever almost all forms of powerboat racing over almost all forms of auto racing for the pure spectacle of racing on water and the festive atmosphere that comes with attending a powerboat regatta.  Even in auto racing I am less interested in NASCAR than I am in IndyCar, Formula 1, and dirt track racing, although I do like NASCAR better than drag racing.  With that said there is no way of denying NASCAR's popularity and I'm not one of these gearheads who writes it off as "not real racing."  In general I was happy that Kentucky Speedway was awarded a Sprint Cup series race, not because I planned to attend the race but I saw it as bringing lots of money and people into the local area (Kentucky Speedway is a little more than an hour's drive from Madison) and I know how long people have waited to see a Cup series race in the now ten year old track.

As you have probably already heard, the event was a disaster.  Traffic conditions were horrendous, with reports of a traffic jam as long as twenty miles waiting to get into the track.  Many people simply got out of their cars and walked, and many others decided it wasn't worth it and turned around for home.  Perhaps worst of all a number of fans made it through the hours long traffic conditions got to the exit for the speedway only to be told to go home as the police were now reversing traffic on I-71 in order to begin letting people out of the track.  There are varying numbers as to how many people who had tickets for the race were not actually able to make it to the race.  The tickets were sold out (largely due to a last minute sales push) but large empty portions of the bleachers could be seen on television. 

The fans who did make it through the eight hour traffic jam to the speedway were treated to a race that itself resembled little more than a traffic jam.  It was almost as if someone decided to put together a race that would exhibit everything that NASCAR detractors deride about modern NASCAR racing.  The racing was almost exclusively single file with little passing and ZERO passes for the lead under the green flag.  Think about that for a moment, a 400 mile, 267 lap race that was over three hours long did not have a single green flag lead change.  One would almost have to try to ensure such a result.  Now, I realize that one of the biggest complaints about Unlimited Hydroplane racing is that many of the races resemble parades, but at least there is the jockying for lanes before the heat begins and even then the stereotypical heat where the boat favored to win makes a perfect start and wins the race going away will only last five laps, not 267.  Along with a "competition caution" after thirty laps, a caution for phantom debris a few laps later (noone had blown an engine or a tire, and whatever the debris was there wasn't anyone on the track to pick it up), and the only drama of the race being manufactured with a green white checkered finish, it was a race that many race fans would write of as yet another stereotypical snoozer of a NASCAR race on a 1.5 mile tri-oval.

So where does the blame lie for such a promising event that went so wrong?  There is plenty to go around, and not surprisingly the person who took much of the credit for bringing a Cup race to Kentucky Speedway is now taking none of the blame.  Bruton Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. that owns a number of NASCAR tracks throughout the country (including Kentucky Speedway)  was at the forefront of accepting credit for Kentucky Speedway getting a Cup race.  He used his usual tactics of strongarming state and local governments in order to get tax incentives and construction of new roads.  Chances are that a small farmer in Gallatin County, Kentucky is paying more in taxes for his or her farmland than Bruton Smith is paying in taxes for Kentucky Speedway.  After nearly a decade of debates, tax incentives, legal action, and ownership changs, Kentucky Speedway finally got a Cup race when Bruton Smith merely transferred one of the two races from Atlanta Speedway (another track he owns) to Kentucky Speedway.  After the debacle this past weekend, Bruton Smith's solution was simple: ask for more public funds.  He has called I-71 the "worst road in America" and called for the widening of the road.  He has even pushed for an airport to be built in the sparsely populated area in order to accomodate the racetrack.  All early indications are, however, that the traffic problems began at Kentucky Speedway.  The traffic bottlenecked at the speedway parking lot with too few people directing traffic at a parking lot that was too small for the large crowd.  There have also been many horror stories of the facilities at the track itself, including too few port a pots for such a large crowd, people being sold tickets for a seat that wasn't there then being offered a metal folding chair instead, and the ban on coolers inside the speedway.  One thing that is clear is that while Bruton Smith did bring a Cup race to Kentucky Speed way his company did very little to invest money to ensure that it would be a top notch show.  Smith's idea of making up for the Kentucky debacle speaks of even more greed, as they will be offering those fans who had tickets but were turned away from Saturday's race either free tickets to next year's Cup race at Kentucky or a free pass to any of this year's races at a track owned by SMI, a move that seems to be an effort to get attendance numbers to increase at a time when NASCAR races have seen a steep decline in paid customers.  With Bruton Smith's SMI getting millions in tax incentives while simultaneously investing as little money as possible into ensuring the race runs smoothly, the economic fruits for the area are minimalized.

The biggest problem with having a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, however, is probably Kentucky Speedway itself.  After all the fanfare and promotion Kentucky Speedway is just another 1.5 mile tri-oval track.  It has very little if anything to distinct itself from the cookie cutter 1.5 mile tri-ovals that were built in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Kansas City, Southern California, Miami, and Las Vegas metropolitan areas around the same time of Kentucky Speeday's construction, the only difference being Kentucky Speedway is in a remote area of Northern Kentucky that is near two small-market cities.  Furthermore, while the track is in the south, it is not in a traditional stock car racing hotbed.  So Kentucky Speedway is a cookie cutter track in the middle of nowhere in an area that does not have deep NASCAR roots.

One thing that is often brought up when discussing hydroplane racing is that H1 Unlimited should change a rule or try a different form of marketing on the grounds of "That's the way NASCAR does it."  From one side it would seem to make sense.  NASCAR is the most commercially successful form of racing in the United States, so if Hydroplane racing does it then they will be more commercially successful.  What this argument ignores is that these are two forms of racing with completely different traditions, hotbeds, rules, history, and fanbases.  If this past weekend's debacle in Kentucky shows anything it shows that the NASCAR way is not always the right way.  For me at least, sitting in an eight hour long traffic jam to watch an over three hour long  single file race does not sound nearly as exciting as walking down to the beach with my lawn chair and cooler and enjoying a day of fun where I get to see the boats and drivers up close, make new friends and reconnect with old ones, and watch multiple exciting boat races throughout the day.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday at Detroit, Villwock gets 63

First off, congratulations to Dave Villwock on the all time wins record.  I realize that there is no more divisive figure in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing than Villwock, with fans seemingly seeing him as either the greatest person to ever walk into an Unlimited pits who only loses when he lets someone wins or an insufferable jerk who only got lucky and never gets a penalty called on him.  I am by no means a Villwock fan, but there is no denying the fact that he belongs in the discussion of all time greats, and today's race solidifies that (even if it wasn't without controversy).  I don't think this in any way settles the argument that Dave Villwock is now the greatest Unlimited driver ever, I doubt that it's fair to compare Villwock to Hanauer even though their careers overlapped let alone compare Villwock to Muncey.  The truth that remains though is that for the first time in over forty years there is someone not named Bill Muncey atop the all time Unlimited wins list.

Aside from Villwock capturing the record, the 2011 Gold Cup will be rememberred for some exciting deck to deck races in heat action as well as some of the most exciting starts that have been seen in quite some time.  The new starting procedures have made for a lot of excitement already this season.  The six Saturday heats saw six different winners and no shortage of storylines.  I'm not going to go over every result of every heat (if you're reading this you probably already know, if you don't go to H1 Unlimited's website) but we saw everything from a classic deck to deck battle between two exciting young drivers with great new sponsors to a heat that saw only one boat finish the heat (I can't remember the last time that happened, it would happen from time to time in the piston era but rarely if ever in the turbine era).  The first section of heats also saw the Qatar team lose a gearbox and record a DNS for their heats, and just for getting out there in the next heat the Ellstrom team deserves a lot of credit.  Losing a gearbox often means that a team is done for the weekend, but the Ellstrom team has shown that they are willing to put the time, effort, and yes the money into putting a winner on the water and has seen that bear fruit.  The second set of heats saw more great racing as Villwock drove to an easy victory with his replacement gearbox.  In heat 2B Jeff Bernard made a great start and out ran the 88, U-11, and U-1.  The U-1 was running third but was forced to run an extra lap after hitting a buoy.  In heat 2C Brian Perkins and the U-21 jumped the gun and it looked like Scott Liddycoat and the U-7 appeared to be on his way to his first Unlimited heat win, but was penalized one lap for bearing out along with a 150 point penalty (I hate 150 point penalties) and the heat went to Greg Hopp and the U-100.

The historic Sunday of racing becan with Cal Phipps getting his second heat win of the weekend in heat 3A, followed by the U-88, U-7, U-57, and the U-21 who was penalized a lap along with a 150 point penalty (by the way, I hate 150 point penalties).  Villwock won heat 3B followed by the U-5, the U-100, the U-1, and the U-11.  In heat 4At the U-88 and the U-7had another great deck to deck duel, but this time Scott Liddycoat and the Valken came out on top.  I must say that it is an exciting site to see these two boats with sponsors who are getting involved in Unlimited racing in a big way.  Once the U-88 gets dialed in, it could be at the front of the pack.  Villwock won heat 4B but not without controversy.  During the score up period the U-96 cut a corner and missed a buoy.  While teams have always been allowed to cut the course in the warm up period before heats, the area near the turns is always off limits but the U-96 went into this DMZ.  The infraction resulted in a monetary fine as the U-96 scored the victory, followed by  the U-5, the U-100, and the U-1 which lost power during the warm up period and made a late start.

The Final Heat featured the U-17, the U-88, the U-96, the U-5, and the U-100 as a trailer.  This lineup is notable in who it was missing: The Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison. I had to break out Jim Sharkey's book, and this is the first time this has happened in quite a while.  If there had been a Final Heat at the 2006 Madison race than the Oberto hull wouldn't be there due to its accident but of course the Final Heat that year was cancelled.  In the 2005 Gold Cup the Oberto was in the first running of the Final Heat but was disqualified and missed the rerun.  Oberto wasn't in the 2004 Final Heat at Evansville but that's because they skipped that year's unsanctioned race.  Finally at San Diego in 2003 we find a race where the Oh Boy! Oberto was there, the race had a Final Heat, and the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison didn't qualify for the Final Heat. The score up period saw the U-88, U-96, and U-7 all go slowly to the first turn but then the U-17 tried to go wide for an old-style flying start and Jeff Bernard in the U-5 tried something even more daring  where he sped around the field and then cut in front of the boats on the backstretch.  I have never seen anything like this tried in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, and the only other form of racing I've ever seen such a move is in track bike racing when a boat tries to "break away" from the draft to win the race.  As the boats turned for the starting line the U-88 was in lane one, the U-5 in lane two, the U-96 in lane three, the U-7 in lane four and the U-17 on the far outside.  The race was a good three boat race for a couple laps until an incident coming out of the roostertail turn when the U-5 ran out of room and got into the U-96 roostertail.  The officials deemed the U-88 guilty and gave Kelly a one lap penalty and docked him 150 points (have I meantioned that I hate 150 point penalties).  The U-96 coasted to victory from there on out, followed by the U-7, the U-5, the U-17, and the U-88.  The U-100 didn't finish.

The Gold Cup will be remembered undoubtedly for Villwock passing Muncey's long standing all time record.  Dave Villwock is one of those people that everyone involved with hydroplane racing seems to have a strong opinion on, and I'll be the first to admit that many times I've criticized his actions and rooted for "anybody but Villwock" to win a particular race.  I've also rolled my eyes when Villwock has been anything but approachable in the past, but I must say that he gives some of the best educational interviews to media who are not overly familiar with Unlimited Racing.  Also, while he will probably never be one like Steve Reynolds, Ron Snyder, or Steve David who is happy to have extended conversations with fans, despite his reputation as a jerk I have found him pleasant the few times I have talked with him.  I am not going to try to say who is better between Villwock, Muncey, and Hanauer.  As I said before it isn't fair to try to rank these drivers from different eras and different circumstances.  Although it was broken by a driver whom I have rooted against for much of his career, it is nice to see someone new atop the alltime Unlimited wins list.  An old adage in baseball is that for a record to mean something it has to be challenged or broken once a generation.  Baseball fans all care and know about the alltime leaders in Home Runs, Hits, stolen bases, and consecutive games played because those records have all been broken over the last few decades.  On the other hand, who cares or can even name the all time leader in triples?  Villwock breaking Muncey's record means that racers now have a newer and higher goal to shoot for, and hopefully in the next couple decades or so we will all be watching another Driver pursue whatever Villwock's final win total might be.  In short, what Villwock accomplished today in Detroit quite literally rose the bar in Unlimited Hydroplane racing.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Detroit Preview: Is it Villwock's Race to Lose?

On Paper, It appears that the 2011 Gold Cup race has two groups of contenders: Spirit of Qatar and everybody else.  With the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison team forced to race with a leased boat and a backup driver this weekend, it becomes a question of whether or not anyone in the field can even hope to compete with Dave Villwock.  Before we begin the coronation, however, remember that the Detroit River is probably the most unpredictable venue and race course on the Unlimited Hydroplane tour.  On more than one occasion, a team has rolled into the Horace Dodge pits in Detroit the hands on favorite to win the Gold Cup and ended the Sunday races with a lot of broken boat parts and questions of what might have been.  Added to the facts that the Qatar boat just underwent major repairs and a number of teams are likely to pull out all the stops in order to win the Gold Cup that means that while Villwock is the clear-cut favorite to win the Gold Cup this weekend for his record breaking 63rd win, it is by no means a shoo-in

The U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison repeated at Madison but in the costliest of manners.  After their frightening accident in last week's Final Heat, the team is forced to go with a leased hull (the U-9) and a backup driver (Jon Zimmerman).  While both the hull and driver are definitely able and U-1 crew chief Mike Hanson probably knows more about the U-9 hull than anyone alive, it is no secret that there will be a dropoff in performance from what the team is used to.  Zimmerman showed last year that he is able to perform well in seemingly impossible situations though and it shouldn't be a surprise to see this boat in the final heat.
The U-17 Miss Red Dot grabbed a surprising second place finish last week that put the cap on a great weekend where Kip Brown was able to win two heats, although Kip would be those first to say that the U-17 benefitted from some generous heat draws.  Cal Phipps takes the wheel for Detroit and although he showed last year that he is capable of handling an Unlimited it is hard to tell how he will handle the new assignment.  The team is coming into Detroit with a lot of questions, but could potentially be a Dark Horse.

The U-96 Spirit of Qatar Rolls into Detroit the hands on favorite and it would almost appear that the 2011 Gold Cup is setting up as a type of exhibition for Dave Villwock's 63rd win.  With a team that has won in Detroit the last three years and the Oberto-Madison team forced to use a leased boat, it's their race to lose.  Of course, they don't race on paper and the boat did just undergo major repairs (albeit with a very skilled crew) so it is left to be seen how the boat will respond.

Few Unlimited drivers have given as strong debut performance in recent years as Scott Liddycoat in the U-7 did in Madison.  Liddycoat and the U-7 showed that they will be a force to be reckoned with this season.  It shouldn't be a surprise for Liddycoat to score his first heat win in Detrot, and with teammate Jeff Bernard who will more than likely be there to do some "team driving" in the Final it's not outside the realm of possibility that a rookie could be raising the Gold Cup on Sunday

Liddycoat's teammate Jeff Bernard and the U-5 Graham Trucking has perhaps even a better shot at the Gold Cup.  Bernard showed in Madison that he can grab the lane he wants and was running away with the win in Heat 3A before the heat had to be stopped.  Although he was left out on the front row of Madison he should have no trouble getting there for Detroit, and if his teammate is there they could make a move to grab lanes one and two.  Aside from the U-96, the U-5 probably has the best chance of winning the Gold Cup.

The U-21 Go Fast, Turn Left Racing was putting together a respectable day at Madison until a horrific accident ended their day.  The boat sustained a damaged sponson but as of Thursday the boat is repaired and they are on their way to Detroit.  It is left to be seen how Brian Perkins and the team will respond after their accident in Madison, but this team could make a strong showing.  It is not outside the realm of possibility for the U-21 to win a heat or two in Detroit.

The U-11 Peters & May looked good in qualifying at Madison but had to settle for two third places in the preliminary heats when the boat was put into some very difficult draws.  The U-11 hull (the former U-25) showed improvement over last season with a new look and different setups.  JW Myers is coming back to the site of his accident  from last season and will probably be ready to make an impact.  If the U-11 can improve upon their heat performances from last week they should be able to make it to the Final Heat and perhaps even finish on the podium.

Mark Evans drove the U-57 to two third place finishes in heat racing in his first race back in Madison since 2003.  This week Evans returns to the place where in 2003 he had a blowover accident that left him with a badly broken leg and put his career on hiatus.  Detroit could see the first fruits of the New Driver Development Program if Bianca Bononcini gets some time behind the wheel.  The U-57 could sneak into the Final Heat.

The U-100 Leland Unlimited made a respectable showing in Madison but also had a gearbox issue.  It is unclear at this point how much of an improvement that the switching of hulls made for the U-100 team but there is a step up.  Greg Hopp is a skilled driver in the fighting for lanes format and in rough water so the team should be able to turn in respectable performance at Detroit.

Speaking of teams with different boats this season, the U-22 Webster Racing showed they still have some bugs to iron out in their newly acquired hull.  Although the team's performance was a step up from previous seasons, it is cleat that the team still needs to get used to their new hull.  Of course, the former Miss Madison hull has always performed well in rough water and if the Detroit River is its usual self then Mike Webster could find himself in the Final Heat.

The U-88 Degree Men's new hull comes into Detroit almost completely untested after they were only to lay down one hot lap in testing at Madison.  Presumably they will fix the issue with their canopy door that forced the team to return from their maiden voyage and record a DNS in heat 2B.  While the new hull clearly needs some more testing, J. Michael Kelly could find himself in the Final Heat and perhaps even on the podium if the boat and the river cooperate.

Ken Mukatel's U-25 Superior Racing never left the trailer in Madison and the driver and crew will still need some getting used to their new hull.  Muskatel's team has made some solid showings in the past (remember in 2006 when they were leading in points after the Saturday heats?) but not much should be expected from the U-25 this year.  If the U-25 is able to get in the water and finish their heats then that would be considered a good day for the team, and Ken Muskatel should be commended just for showing up after his major heart surgery in the off season.