Sunday, February 19, 2012

Looking Ahead to the H1 Meetings: Some Rule Changes I'd Like to See

It's hard to believe, but we're less than a week away from the annual H1 Meetings & Banquet. If you haven't read the official release yet you can go here:

There are always plenty of interesting developments coming out of the meetings, ranging from rule changes to new teams to new sponsors or race sites.  I'm not sure what to expect out of this year's meetings, but no doubt it will be something worth commenting on here once the meetings are concluded.  Compared to recent years, the annual "silly season" in the hydroplane world has been relatively quiet this year with the obvious exception of the news that Ted Porter is leaving the sport.  While what will happen to the equipment of Precision Performance Engineering is left to be seen, much of the anticipation around this year's meetings circles around the possibility of last year's exhibitions in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. growing into full races for the 2012 season.  For this post, however, I'm going to focus on rule changes I'd like to see.  First off, I should make it a point that I don't anticipate all or even any of these rules to be employed in this year's meetings.  These are merely things that I, as a fan, would improve the overall quality of an  already great sport.  So without further adieu here are some rule changes I'd like to see, broken down by category:


Lower the minimum weight for an Unlimited:  This is something I wanted for a long time.  The minimum wet weight is, in my opinion, set much too high at 6,500 pounds.  I have a few reasons for believing this.  First off, when compared to other hydroplane classes the Unlimited's already high minimum weight looks astronomical.  Consider that the Unlimited Light and Grand Prix classes, which are the step below Unlimiteds on the hydroplane ladder, both have a minimum weight of 2,700 pounds.  So an Unlimited Hydroplane is quite literally more than twice as heavy as a hydroplane in any other class.  Another reason is that when a new Unlimited is built one will almost inevitably hear of how they needed to add extra weight to the boat in order to meet the minimum weight requirement.  Now, I'm guessing this would be the case no matter how low the minimum weight is set (there are, after all, very skilled people working on the Unlimiteds) but the fact that they are forced to sometimes add hundreds of pounds of weight to a boat shows that the technology and design is there to race at much lower weights.  So let's put all the Unlimiteds on a diet and lower the minimum weight by a few hundred pounds.

Allow more development with turbine engines With the competitive results over the last twenty years and the way the rules are written now, the Unlimiteds are pretty much limited to racing with one type of turbine engine.  Although the rule book is left wide open for automotive engines (no doubt as a means to encourage development) nearly every team has gone the turbine route over the last two decades.  Historically, the Unlimited class has been one of research and development, a place where new ideas are tried out in a competitive setting.  Many of these ideas fail, but there have also been a number of breakthrough innovations to come from the Unlimited class due to this tradition .  Innovation still rules the day in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, but the combination of restrictive rules on engines and competitive results while using these restricted engines means that for nearly twenty years now every team except Ed Cooper's U-3 team has been limited to a Lycoming T-55 L7C engine.  Now, just to clarify I'm not advocating getting rid of fuel restrictions or N2 restrictions, which are necessary for the sustainability of these engines, but instead I'm advocating for the rules to allow teams to use turbine engines other than the Lycoming T-55.  The rules should be relaxed in order to allow teams to experiment with other turbine engines and different setups for said engine.  With the right ingenuity, a team could develop the next go to engine for the sport.

Curbing the competitive advantage of the "thin prop" Speaking of innovations, the biggest development spec-wise in the sport over the last decade or so has no doubt been the use of thinner and thinner propellers.  Sure, its importance is sometimes overstated  (and the accusations that some of the bigger budget teams use a prop for one heat then throws it away are down right ludicrous) but no doubt thin props have been at the forefront of innovation in recent years.  At the same time, however, it has also represented a gap between the haves and the have nots in the sport.  While some teams could use the more brittle thin props knowing they have spare propellers in case it breaks or is unusable for future heats, other teams are forced to go with more sturdy props, as they usually do not have the luxury of burning through multiple propellers that can cost in excess of $10,000.  One proposal I've read  which makes a lot of sense is instituting a minimum weight for propellers, which would effectively ban the thin prop.  Another rule which I think might be worth a try is something similar to NASCAR's one engine per race weekend rule, only instead of engines, make it so that a team has to use the same propeller through the weekend.  If a team changes a prop due to damage or any other reason during the weekend, make it so they have to start from the outside lane for the rest of the weekend (similar to how a NASCAR team starts at the back of the field if they change engines during the weekend).  I'm not sure if such a rule would be viable in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, but I think it's at least worth looking into.

On the shore

Implement the Hughes Plan at all races Something that was tried at Madison for a few years (as well as Nashville for its lone event in 2005) was something known as the Hughes Plan.  Named after Miss Madison owner rep Bob Hughes who came up with the idea, the way it worked was that boats were assigned to heats based on their spot on the qualification ladder.  The intention was to take the randomness of the heat draw and make it so every boat faced every other boat at least once in heat competition.  Although it didn't gain wide acceptance, personally I would like to see this used for all races.  With how tight the competition is on the water now, the Hughes plan is a perfect way of  ensuring that all the top teams will face each other at least once in the prelims.  Likewise it also ensures that no teams will be able to take a backdoor way into the Final Heat by getting easy heat draws throughout the prelims.  Most importantly in my opinion, however, is that the Hughes plan takes away any possibility of the High Point championship being influenced in any way by the drawing of ping pong balls.  The Hughes plan does have some criticisms, one which holds some merit is that if a boat withdraws then that boat's heats will have one less boat in its already determined heat draws.  I would say though that that one demerit is not enough to toss out heat assignments in favor of deciding participants by drawing ping pong balls out of a bucket.

On the Water

Starting Procedure Seemingly every possible starting procedure has been used in Unlimited racing throughout the years, ranging from clock starts to flag starts to fighting for lanes to assigning lanes by seemingly every method thinkable to off plane rules to score up buoys.  I'll start off by saying that I prefer fighting for lanes, and I think the majority of fans prefer this.  Also, although many fans groan about it, I've never had a huge issue with the "crawling starts" with boats slowing down, sometimes for minutes at a time, in order to hold the lane they want behind the starting line or score up buoy.  To me this is all part of the strategy of hydroplane racing, just like leapfrogging a slow boat is also part of the strategy.  I have to say, of all the starting procedures that Unlimited hydroplane racing has used throughout the years, my favorite just might be the one that was used for the first four races this season.  With its four checkpoints (crossing the starting line at speed during the milling period, the one minute score up buoy at the exit pin of the first turn, the lane commitment buoy at the entrance pin of the second  turn, and of course the starting line as time expired) gave drivers no shortage of things to do before the race began and in turn gave the fans no shortage of things to watch.  I realize the trolling behind the score up buoy received  lot of criticism but as I said above it is all part of the strategy and as Steve David showed in Seattle this year it's a strategy that's susceptible to an outside boat willing to take a chance and leapfrog the field.
So while I loved the starting procedure used in the first four races, I was in no way a fan of what was used for the last two races of basing lane choice based on the order in which boats were drawn.  I wouldn't call it my least favorite starting procedure ever used (nothing is as bad as the flag start) I felt it was a way of cheapening the results and taking the race out of the drivers' hands.  Sure, there were complaints about the starting procedure, but I felt what was put in its place was an overreaction and there's no reason that they couldn't have gone back to the lane assignment format that was used in 2009 and 2010.
So it's left to be seen what starting procedure will be approved for 2012.  First off, I think it goes without saying that the sport should have one starting procedure for all races and not have freshwater rules and saltwater rules.  I would hope that fighting for lanes returns in some form, but if we must have lane assignments then the format used in 2009 and 2010 of inverting the order for the second set of heats while giving lane choice to the highest in points for the other heats worked well.  I don't think that minimum speed or off plane rules, which have been proposed or implemented, will not work because it leaves too much to judgment (how long was the boat below the normal speed? was the boat going off plane caused by another boat? if so who is penalized?).  At the end of the day, perhaps it wouldn't be the worst idea to turn back the clock to the time before score up buoys or off plane rules and just make it a free for all fight for lanes.

Make all heats 5 laps Doesn't really need much explanation.   Extending the length of preliminary heats has been toyed with in the past and should be something that's made full term.  Three laps for prelims just seems too short, and for whatever reason five laps for any hydroplane heat just seems to work out nicely.  Just to be clear, I don't want to make the Final Heat any longer, but instead making all heats five laps.

Double the points awarded for the Final Heat Something that's always kind of stuck in my craw is the fact that the same amount of points is awarded for the Final Heat as they are for the preliminary heats.  To understand why this is one has to look at how the format for Unlimited races has evolved over the years: Three heats involving all boats entered with the winner being the boat that scored the most points in all heats, two split heats and a Final with the winner being the boat that scored the most points in all heats, two split heats and a Final with the winner being the winner of the Final Heat, to our current format of three split heats and a Final with the winner being the winner of the Final Heat.  So while the race format has evolved over time, the format for awarding points is still a relic of the time when all three heats were of equal importance.  First off, I love the APBA's format of points descending in three fourths intervals so I don't want to change anything there.  So with that in mind I think the best choice is to double the points for the Final Heat (800 for first, 600 for second, 450 for third, etc.).  It goes without saying that the Final Heat is the most important heat of the day and the one in which most fans and people involved with the sport judge the race and one's importance, so the points should reflect this.

So there is my list of rule changes or modifications I'd like to see.  I welcome your comments or anything you might want to change yourself.  I doubt that any of these will be implemented for 2012 (the only major rule alteration I expect for 2012 is a clarification on the starting procedure) but maybe some of these will be considered down the road. Unlimited Hydroplane racing is a fantastic form of motorsports that continues to head in the right direction under the leadership of H1 Unlimited, but as the old saying goes, there is always room for improvement.