A long and busy offseason is coming to a close and we are now less than two weeks away from the Green Flag flying at Madison. This season is gearing up to be an exciting one with twelve teams, a potential new race at Houston, and Versus covering all the action. For a preview of the season I will rank the twelve teams who plan to race the full season. This ranking is part prediction on how I see the teams finishing in the National High Point race and part “power rankings” on which teams I see in the strongest (and weakest) position going into the 2011 season. It should also be noted that the emphasis of these rankings is on how I see the High Point standings shaking out and not necessarily how I see the order of finish of any particular heat on the water. So without further ado here are my 2011 preseason rankings
1: U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison Steve David and the Miss Madison team have found a winning formula and the three time defending champions are the favorites to win it all again in 2011. What has to be scary for any team looking to take the U-1 from the Miss Madison team is that the rule changes announced in the offseason have probably done more to benefit the U-1 team than any other team. One will remember that the Miss Madison VI was built so it could plane at low speeds thus giving it an advantage in grabbing inside lanes, and veteran Steve David has always had a knack for grabbing the inside lane, so the return of fighting for lanes puts this advantage of the U-1 back into play. This, along with the new emphasis on a two hour qualifying window where the U-1 is always strong, means that it will be extra difficult to defeat the Oberto team this season. The rest of the field is catching up and it certainly won’t be a cakewalk for the Miss Madison team to capture a fourth straight championship. With that said though a team needs to show that it can give the strong performance at every single race and knock the U-1 off its perch. Until that happens the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison is still the favorite to win the High Point title.
2: U-96 Spirit of Qatar Over the last two seasons, the Qatar-Ellstrom team has consistently been the fastest competitor on the water, but has fallen short to the more consistent Oberto-Madison team in the High Point chase due to costly penalties and accidents that have resulted in a huge loss in points and opened the window just enough for the U-1. After falling short the last two seasons I expect the U-96 to come out poised to win the championship this season. Unless something unforeseen happens, Dave Villwock will surpass Bill Muncey for the all-time lead in race victories at some point this season. The team has strong financial backing, an all-time great behind the wheel, and one of the best crews in the sport, but it is left to be seen how fighting for lanes will affect this superfast boat and if the team can catch the U-1 in the High Point chase.
3: U-5 Graham Trucking The Graham Trucking sponsorship has transferred from the U-7 to the U-5 team this season and the U-5 comes into 2011 with a striking new paint job and a focus on making its mark on the H1 tour. Jeff Bernard, now in his sixth season, is fast becoming one of the top drivers in the sport. He also showed a knack for grabbing the inside lane in 2008 so with the new rules he should be a threat to win at any race, especially considering that he will have one and possibly even two teammates that can team up with him to grab the inside lanes in the Final Heat (he will be on his own in the preliminary heats, as per a new rule that doesn’t allow teammates to be drawn into the same preliminary heat). 2010 was largely a struggle for the U-5 in comparison to their strong performances in 2008 and 2009 but with another year of experience, one of the best hulls ever built in Unlimited Hydroplane history, and new rules that should be an advantage to the team I expect 2011 to be a huge rebound year. If anyone can give the U-1 and U-96 a run for their money, it’s the U-5.
4: U-88 Degree Men Few Unlimited teams in history have ever had as dramatic an offseason as Schumacher Racing did this past Winter. The team is now entering 2011 with a new boat, new driver, new manager, new crew chief, new sponsor, new number, and perhaps in an even better position than it was in 2010 when the team entered the season with a lot of promise. The Degree Men sponsorship will obviously be a huge support to this team. Jim Harvey brings decades of expertise and J. Michael Kelly has shown over the last two seasons that he can consistently put a boat in a position to win. Once the team gets comfortable with their new hydroplane this team could be right at the top. Of course with an untested boat that will take some getting used to and a team with so many new members who haven’t all worked together before it is hard telling how it will all mesh together, but the end result could be spectacular. This team has all the pieces of a championship-caliber team; it’s just a matter of putting those pieces together.
5: U-11 Peters & May Not since Ted Porter’s Formula Boats team in 2006 has a brand new team come into the sport with this much anticipation. The partnership of Scott Raney and J.W. Myers brought a lot of excitement into the offseason and for good reason. Few people are as respected in Unlimited Hydroplane racing as Scott Raney, the longtime crew chief for the U-8 and the U-37. J.W. Myers has shown that he is one of the most talented as well as one of the most likable drivers in Unlimited Hydroplane racing. Add the former (and relatively new) U-25 hull and strong financial backing from Peters & May, and the Unlimited Racing Group could be a contender right out of the box. The 2009-25 hull is still largely unproven and it is left to be seen how Raney and Myers will take on their new role as team co-owners, but their experience and expertise means that this team is in a good place to make a strong statement in its first season.
6: U-21 Lakeridge Paving This still relatively new team showed a lot of promise in 2010 in their first season racing with the 2007-21 hull. Brian Perkins has shown that he is one of the best up and coming drivers in Unlimited Hydroplane racing and the O’Farrells have shown a deep commitment to the sport. The team has already shown that they are able to consistently make Final Heats and with another offseason of preparing their state of the art hull they should be able to make it to the podium a few times this season. One thing, however, stands between them and becoming true contenders: money. The team will once again be racing without major sponsorship so this puts them at a disadvantage with their better financed competitors. Perhaps with the expanded media coverage of H1 this season the team can land a sponsor wanting to get in on motorsports marketing. If that happens, this team could be right there with the big boys.
7: U-7 Formulaboats.com Of the five teams who have won at least one race the last five seasons, none of them come into 2011 with more questions than the U-7. With all the news surrounding the Graham Trucking sponsorship being transferred to the U-5 and the U-57’s new driver development program, the U-7 has almost become an afterthought. Add to that the departure of J. Michael Kelly and the team will head into 2011 with a rookie driver. Rookie driver Scott Liddycoat does show a lot of promise, with his championships in multiple limited classes. The team still has a solid crew and should still consistently be able to qualify for final heats and make it to the podium from time to time, but with a rookie driver and the emphasis around Precision Performance Engineering seemingly being shifted to the U-5, the U-7 should see a dropoff from their strong showings of the last two seasons.
8: U-17 Miss Red Dot The Our Gang Racing Team is now in its fifth season and is poised for a breakout year. The team comes into 2011 with Red Dot as a full season sponsor and looking to build on its 2010 season when it was able to lay down some great qualifying speeds and persistently make it to the Final Heat. Driver Kip Brown continues to get more experienced and more comfortable behind the wheel of an Unlimited Hydroplane, and Cal Phipps will drive for the team in Detroit after his strong rookie season. Inconsistency has plagued this team in recent years, and the U-17 might find itself getting lost in the shuffle of a sport that is suddenly crowded with top flight teams. With everyone in the operation getting more experience in their roles and the support from Red Dot, however, this team should be able to build of its 2010 campaign and make a much better showing in the National High Point race.
9: U-22 Great Scott! In only its third season, the family run operation of Webster Racing out of Pennsylvania has made its mark as a consistent performer. Despite being far from the fastest hull in the fleet, Mike Webster has been able to finish almost every heat he’s entered and make the cut for a handful of Final Heats while finishing seventh in the High Point standings in 2010. 2011 should bring an even stronger performance from this team as they have purchased one of the most reliable boats built in recent decades, the 1988 Miss Madison hull. This is still a small and relatively inexperienced operation, and it’s hard telling what a twenty three year old hull that has been doing display work the last four seasons has left as a competitor. With another year of experience and the inevitable assistance from the Miss Madison team showing the ins and outs of their old boat, this team could very easily turn some heads in 2011.
10: U-100 Leland Racing The team that won the 1996 championship and once was regularly in the upper echelon of the sport, Leland Racing has almost become an afterthought in H1 Unlimited. Greg Hopp is one of the most talented drivers in Hydroplane racing, as is shown from his performance in the Unlimited Lights and Grand Prix circuits. The U-100 has been plagued by mechanical issues and inconsistency the last few seasons. Also, it appears that Leland racing will be entering 2011 without major sponsorship so that curtails their ability to put together a winning team. The team is still capable of turning in strong performances, however, and with Greg Hopp at the wheel it is not outside the realm of possibility for this team to put together a strong weekend and finish on the podium or perhaps even win a race.
11: U-57 Formulaboats.com Popular and experienced Mark Evans returns to race a full season in 2011 and serve as mentor to promising young driver Bianca Bononcini. With its emphasis on the driver development program, it should be expected that the U-57 will make a bigger impact in the pits and during testing sessions than it will on the water during heat competition. The U-57 will also be racing a hull that has been unreliable since its debut in the early 1990’s. With the involvement of Mark Evans and the backing of the Formula Boats team, though, the U-57 should make it to a few final heats in 2011
12: U-25 Superior Racing Ken Muskatel is quite possibly the hardest working man in Unlimited Hydroplane racing. After an offseason when he underwent major heart surgery and sold his primary hull to the U-11, he is returning to competitive racing with a leased hull from the O’Farrells that has raced as the U-48 in recent years. If Jon Zimmerman gets some seat time the team could make a strong showing and make it to a couple Final Heats. If Ken Muskatel chooses to drive the boat himself no one should expect much from the team as a competitor, but that’s alright. No other current driver, except perhaps Steve David and Dave Villwock, has done more for Unlimited Hydroplane racing than Muskatel. If this offseason has shown anything, it shows that nothing will dampen his passion for the sport, and he has definitely earned his spot in the pits.
So there is how I see the boat teams standing at the beginning of the season. I realize that not everyone will agree with my projections, so I invite your input on who you think is at the advantage or disadvantage heading into 2011. Let’s go Racing!