Monday, June 13, 2011

Good Idea, Bad Idea: the 2010-2011 off season

   With the 2011 season fast approaching, we are seeing one of the busiest offseasons for Unlimited Hydroplane racing in years come to a close.  There have been many new developments come about, most of them positive but some of them negative.  I’ll go over some of those developments here, with my own commentary on each of them.  Feel free to add your own commentary or comment on mine:
Good Idea: A National sponsor and expanded media coverage
Two things that have been a glaring need for the series in the last five years or so have been the need to get the races on television and the need for a National title sponsor for the series.  Both of these things have been addressed in the offseason with the Air National Guard coming on as series sponsor and that the races will be broadcast via tape delay on Versus.  Along with the television coverage it was announced that streaming internet coverage will expand to cover all qualifying session and heat races at every race site.  This expansion of media coverage is a huge step in the right direction, as can be seen with the uptick in sponsorship for the upcoming season.
Bad Idea: The 1.65 mile course at Madison
In the early Winter it was announced that the Madison Regatta course would be shifted to the east and shortened to two miles in order to accommodate the construction of the new Madison-Milton bridge.  While I will miss seeing the boats race under the bridge this year, one of the most photogenic moments in all of Unlimited racing (as well as the inspiration for the name of this blog), anyone who has lived or even been to Madison in the last twenty five years will recognize that building a new bridge for the community is long overdue and I am glad to see it finally being done.  Then a few months later the Regatta committee inexplicably decided to shorten the course even further to 1.65 miles.  This is a terrible idea for a number of reasons.  First and foremost are worries about the safety of the drivers.  The Bill Cantrell Memorial Race Course is already one of the roughest courses in the H1 series at 2.5 miles long.  Making the course that short will mean much rougher water, larger wakes, and a tougher to navigate course.  Next, it means that speeds will be way down.  When races were held on similarly short courses in the past, qualifying speeds sometimes didn’t even break the 120 barrier.  Needless to say, a rougher course will also mean that it will be rougher on equipment, so it would be a shame if a team is denied a chance to compete for the Gold Cup the week after the Madison event because of damage sustained while racing on a needlessly too short course.  There is some home that a shorter course will mean tighter competition, but this is a bit of a false hope.  Yes the boats might be closer together, but slower speeds around a smaller course only means that the slow boats will be going that much slower and have even less chance of catching their quicker competitors due to the shortened races.  Anyone who remembers when the course was shortened to two miles in the late 80’s and early 90’s will remember a lot of boats spinning out and a lot of damaged equipment but also that the shorter course did little to curb the success of the big budget teams.  During that era only one smaller budgeted team managed to win in Madison (American Spirit in 1991).  Hopefully this is only a one year change and the Madison course will be back to its 2.5 traditional mile configuration after bridge construction is completed.  I also hope but realize it’s unlikely that every team will make it out of Madison without any major damage this year.  Every year teams consider themselves lucky to get out of Madison unscathed, but this year it might be considered a miracle.
Good Idea: The partnership with P1, and possible new Race Sites
This Spring brought the news that H1 had partnered with P1 Powerboat racing, a form of outboard racing that is quickly growing in popularity worldwide that is set to make its USA debut this season.  This partnership looks like a beneficial situation for everyone involved.  Both series are now able to share broadcast resources.  Many of the traditional Unlimited race sites now have another form of racing for the fans to watch.  Finally it means that the door is now open for H1 to expand to new race sites in North America.  A September race in Houston has all but been formally announced.  All in all, this is an exciting development that should benefit both racing series in the USA as well as internationally.
Bad Idea: Still no race in Evansville
 2010 marked the first time since 1978 that there was no Unlimited race in Evansville, and it appears that there won’t be one in 2011 either.  The current political situation in Evansville is a mess and the Evansville Freedom Festival, once one of the greatest events in the Midwest, is now a shell of its former self with seemingly no one willing to admit that taking the hydroplane racing out of an event built around hydroplane racing took the heart out of one of Evansville’s biggest annual events.  All of this is a shame, especially considering that Evansville’s wide two mile course made it perfect as a season opener for teams to work out the offseason bugs.  It would be nice if there would be a grassroots effort to bring back the race, much like there was for San Diego in 2010.  There has even been some talk of Owensboro, the race site which Evansville replaced, rejoining the tour.  For the time being, however, Evansville fans are left without a race and one of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing’s most natural venues remains unused.
Good Idea: New Teams and New Boats
Early 2011 brought the news that Scott Raney and J.W. Myers would be forming their own team known as the U-11 Unlimited Racing Group sponsored by Peters & May and that they would be acquiring Ken Muskatel’s hull.  For a moment it looked as if Schumacher racing was dead in the water, but soon came the news that Degree Men would be joining as a sponsor, then that J. Michael Kelly would be the new Driver, and then that the team intended to complete the hull that it has been working on the past few years and go racing.  While there has been much disputation and criticism around this situation on different Hydroplane websites during the offseason, what we are left with are two teams with major sponsorship with two state of the art raceboats being driven by two extremely talented young drivers and a natural rivalry between these two teams.  All of that makes for good racing.
Bad Idea: No Fulltime Rides for Jon Zimmerman or Cal Phipps
 Almost forgotten in all the excitement around the U-11 and the U-88 is that it is leaving one of the sports best young drivers on the sidelines.  After qualifying as a driver in Ken Muskatel’s boat in Madison, Jon Zimmerman did a commendable job as a backup driver for the Schumacher team after their horrific accident in Detroit.  Driving an old, leased Leland hydroplane, Zimmerman qualified for three straight final heats and won Rookie of the Year honors.  Meanwhile Cal Phipps, driving for the U-13 team, didn’t make any Final Heats but turned in a respectable performance while driving the oldest boat in the fleet.  As the 2011 season approaches, it appears that the U-13 is on hiatus and that Zimmerman has been left out of the U-11/U-88 equation, leaving two of the most promising young drivers on the sidelines, although it has been announced that Phipps will drive the U-17 in Detroit.  It has always been a truth in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing that there are more talented drivers than there are seats for the drivers to fill, but it would be nice to see something open up for these two fine drivers.
Good Idea: Progressive Performance Engineering’s “Driver Development Program”
Since joining the sport as an owner in 2006, Formula Boats’ Ted Porter has shown a deep commitment to not only building a winning Unlimited racing team but also to making a positive contribution to the sport as a whole.  The latest evidence of both of these things is the introduction of a Driver Development Program.  On the surface it appears that this program will essentially function as an apprenticeship, with Bianca Bononcini studying under veteran Mark Evans and eventually getting some seat time in the U-57.  While the Formula Boats team should be applauded for this, it also puts the light on a glaring need in hydroplane racing: a ladder system.  Although there is no shortage of classes of powerboat racing for racers to choose from, there isn’t  a certain class of racing meant to draw drivers who are looking to prove what they have what it takes to be Unlimited Hydroplane drivers.  In recent years new talent in the Unlimited class has come from everything from Grand Prix and 5-litre hydroplanes to outboard and flatbottom classes.  In the future it would be nice to see a class of racing, new or already in existence, function as the Unlimited’s underclass, much in the same way that the Nationwide series functions for NASCAR or how IndyLights functions for IndyCar.  With that said, however, the Formula Boats Team’s Driver Development Program is certainly a step in the right direction and it should be a way to bring new and exciting drivers into the sport.
Good Idea: Friday’s Fast Qualifier session, and the return of fighting for lanes
Two exciting Rule changes were announced for the upcoming season and both of them should prove beneficial to the sport.  First there is the announcement that all qualifying for points will now take place in a two hour window on Friday.  Anyone who has watched pole day qualifying at the Indianapolis 500 can attest to the excitement that comes with teams trying to one up one another and post the best possible time before the session ends.  This format was used in Madison this year and the fans were treated to the excitement of the U-1 and the U-96 going down to the wire and trying to post the best possible time.  It also gives teams the opportunity to focus completely on posting the best qualifying time on Friday while using the Saturday practice sessions to work on race setup.  All in all this is an exciting and beneficial rule to be put into place for the upcoming season.
Another new rule change is the long awaited return of fighting for lanes.  Lane assignments were put into place before the 2009 season, a move I personally saw as an overreaction to the controversial final heat finishes at Seattle and San Diego in 2008.  While it is true that the last two seasons have been void of many of the issues surrounding  fighting for lanes (crawling starts, races without a clear winner after the race has been completed, etc.), it also meant that Unlimited racing was without much of what makes hydroplane racing unique.  Haphazard as it may be, fighting for lanes is an undeniable part of the tradition as well as the excitement of Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  Not to mention, with the U-1 and the U-96 setting the pace for the field, the U-5 and the U-7 not far behind, and the U-11, U-88, U-21, and U-17 all poised to make the jump to major competitor, the sport enters 2011 with no less than eight top flight teams with state of the art equipment.  The new starting format means that any of these eight teams can make a good move to grab the inside lane and go on to a Final Heat victory.
So there’s my take on the major news stories surrounding the H1 offseason.  I must confess that some of my “bad ideas” were a bit of a stretch and I definitely feel that this was a positive offseason for Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  Here’s to a great 2011 season.

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