Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Day in the Life: July 11, 1999

This is the first of what I hope will be a regular series on this blog where I will reflect on a particular memorable race weekend.  What I will do is discuss the events leading up to the weekend, the race weekend along with my own personal reflections on the event, and the aftermath of this very memorable race.  To kick this series off, I will look at the 1999 Gold Cup race.   For this and future posts like this one I would invite readers to share their own memories of the event.  If you have a story to share about the 1999 Gold Cup race feel free to leave a comment. 

                Every Gold Cup is a highly anticipated and a hotly contested event, but how many Gold Cup races are the culmination of a rivalry that has been brewing for over three years?  How many Gold Cups are the capstone to a brilliant two decades career?  The 1999 APBA Gold Cup race in Detroit was both of these things.  While the result of the race didn’t represent a changing of the guard as had been imagined at the time, the race remains memorable due to its thrilling Final Heat and for being the final race victory of one of Unlimited Hydroplane racing’s all-time greats.
The Build Up The story of the 1999 Gold Cup begins at the 1996 Gold Cup.  The 1996 season started with a bit of an upset when Dave Villwock and the Pico American Dream, who hadn’t won a race for all of the 1995 season, beat Chip Hanauer and the Miss Budweiser in the Final Heat of the Phoenix match races.  At the next race in Detroit, Hanauer was in a scary accident when the Miss Budweiser collided with, then flipped over, Mark Tate and the Smokin’ Joe’s boat.  Once again Chip Hanauer was involved in a horrific crash in the Miss Budweiser that resulted in him being injured.
Undoubtedly frustrated by this latest in a long line of accidents behind the wheel of the Miss Budweiser, along with the fact that he made no secret of his opposition to the T-3, T-4, and T-5, all of which he saw as needlessly dangerous, Chip Hanauer resigned as the driver of the Miss Budweiser.  Dave Villwock would go on to win the Gold Cup that year on a very rough Detroit River.  Villwock would win six of the ten races in the 1996 season and drive the Pico American Dream to the High Point title. 

It would be the crowning achievement for longtime boatbuilder and owner Fred Leland, but the celebration wouldn’t last long.  Before the boats had even left the pits at the final race of the season in Honolulu, it was announced that Dave Villwock would be leaving Leland’s team to drive for the Miss Budweiser.  This naturally created an intense rivalry between the two teams, adding to the rivalry was the announcement that Mark Evans, who had driven the Miss Budweiser after Chip Hanauer’s departure, would be the new driver for the Pico American Dream.

The announcements of Dave Villwock becoming the new Miss Budweiser driver come after the Final Heat

  Villwock would go on to win the first six races of the 1997 season but then had his own horrific accident behind the wheel of the Miss Budweiser in Tri-Cities.  This allowed Mark Evans to drive the Pico American Dream to four straight race wins, but Mark Weber would win in Las Vegas in the Miss Budweiser and would score enough points in Villwock’s absence to clinch the High Point title.  Villwock returned in 1998 and quite frankly dominated the field, winning eight of ten races.  Mark Evans would win at Kelowna but after frustrating days at a delayed Madison race and at San Diego, the Pico American Dream would skip the last two races of the 1998 season.
                 The 1998-1999 offseason brought the news that Chip Hanauer would be returning to drive for Fred Leland’s team.  In the first race of the year in Lake Havasu, Arizona, Chip Hanauer first had to requalify as a driver but then in the final heat he sped by Dave Villwock who had to slow way down at the start in order to not jump the gun and Hanauer won his first race back.  In the next race at Barrie, Ontario, Hanauer made another great start in the Miss Pico in the Final Heat but that was negated when the race had to be stopped due to an accident.  In the restart Hanauer was late to the line while Villwock made good start and drove the Miss Budweiser to victory.  In the next race at Evansville Hanauer jumped the gun at the final which allowed the Miss Budweiser to win the race.  In the next week at Madison, Villwock rolled the boat in the first turn of the first lap of the Final Heat, and Chip Hanauer drove the Miss Pico to an easy victory in the restart.  Going into Detroit Gold Cup race, both the Miss Budweiser and the Miss Pico had two race wins for the season but in every Final Heat there had been an accident or a mistimed start by one driver that allowed the other driver to claim the victory.  There had yet to be a true head to head Final Heat race between the Miss Budweiser and the Miss Pico in 1999.
The Race
                The Miss Pico team had to be feeling good after their race win in Madison, but on the drive from Madison to Detroit the Miss Pico would scrape its sponson on a freeway overpass.  The boat would be forced to do repairs and miss Thursday testing (this was back when the Gold Cup was a four day event).  Then on Friday, high winds meant that no one was able to get in the water so the Miss Pico would have to wait another day.  On Saturday the Miss Pico was finally able to get in the water and qualified third, a full eleven mph behind the pace set by the Miss Budweiser.  In the first set of heats on Saturday the Miss Pico and Miss Budweiser were drawn into separate heats and each boat won their respective heat.   Both boats were drawn into heat 2B.  Before the start of the heat Villwock sprayed down Hanauer, causing him to nearly lose power but no penalty was called.  Miss Budweiser slid into a roostertail before the start which allowed the Miss Pico to take the lead, but Villwock caught up to Hanauer on the backstretch of the final lap and took the victory.  After each boat won their respective heats in the third section, they were once again matched in heat 4A and this time the Miss Budweiser won the heat going away without incident.  Heading into the final it appeared that the Miss Budweiser had the advantage, especially after its decisive victory over the Miss Pico in heat 4A.

                What happened in the Final was one of the most exciting Gold Cup races in anyone’s memory.  For the first time in the 1999 season, both the Miss Pico and the Miss Budweiser were able to make good flying starts and get through the first turn without incident.  Chip Hanauer jumped out to an early lead, but the speculation was that it was only a matter of time before Dave Villwock would catch up with him and pass him.  That wouldn’t happen, however.  The Miss Pico showed a speed that seemed lacking in previous heats and, although the Miss Budweiser challenged at times, the Miss Pico would go on to claim the victory.  The Gold Cup win set off a wild celebration in the pits and in the crowd, which undoubtedly included many employees of the Detroit based Pico.  The race showed that Dave Villwock and the Miss Budweiser, which had proven to be a seemingly unbeatable combination in the late 1990’s, could be beaten head to head in the Final Heat.

My own recollection of the 1999 Detroit race
                After an extremely exciting Madison Regatta that I will probably discuss in a post similar to this one at a later date, I couldn’t wait to listen to the next week’s Detroit race on the radio.  In those days, national same day coverage of Unlimited Hydroplane races was usually limited to radio updates by Jim Hendrick on Friday and Saturday afternoons, then on Sunday there would be a recap of the day’s heats followed by a live play by play of the final.  It was around this time that WORX started doing the Hydro Show on the Sundays of race weekends so it was nice to have that little bit more of hydroplane coverage, and as always Jeff Ayler and Tim Torrance did a fine job with that show.  Listening to the final heat on the radio was truly a heart pounding experience.  Jim Hendrick did a great job of recounting the excitement of the final.  He might have made the race sound closer than it actually was, but that also could have been a result of the speculation that the Miss Budweiser was going to overtake the Miss Pico eventually.  It never happened though and the Miss Pico got the win.  I, for one, was thrilled.  Chip Hanauer, always one of my favorite drivers, was a different man when he came to Madison in 1999.  He was much more approachable and much more willing to converse with fans and pose for pictures.  His race win in Madison was very popular and he was grateful to the town and the people and it was great that he was able to repeat the next week.
The Aftermath
                After the Detroit race, many people expected a yearlong battle for the High Point title between the Miss Pico and the Miss Budweiser and perhaps even a changing of the guard from the Miss Budweiser to the Miss Pico as the leading team in Unlimited Racing.  It never came to be.  The Miss Budweiser would go on to an easy victory the next week at Norfolk.  Then in a preliminary race at Tri-Cities the Miss Pico rode up the Miss Budweiser’s roostertail and blew over. 

 Chip Hanauer would miss the next few races due to injuries from the blowover, but was back in the cockpit in San Diego where he finished second to Villwock.  Then in the last race of the year at Honolulu, the Miss Pico suffered mechanical difficulties in the first two heats, and the Miss Budweiser intentionally went slow and wide in Heat 3A, allowing the other boats to move up in order and eliminate the Miss Pico from any chance of making the front row of the final.  Infuriated, Chip Hanauer and the Miss Pico refused to go out for Heat 3B and their season was over. 

 Villwock would win the Final Heat in Honolulu, as he had every Final Heat in the 1999 season after Detroit  on his way to driving the Miss Budweiser to another championship.  1999 was part of a four year stretch when Dave Villwock won 28 of 35 (80%) of the races he entered as the driver of the Miss Budweiser.  Chip Hanauer would retire at the end of the season, the race in Detroit proving to be his record setting eleventh Gold Cup victory and 61st and last race victory, one win shy of Bill Muncey’s all-time victory total.  In 2000 Pico ended its sponsorship and the season would bring more frustrations for the Leland team when they were given a controversial disqualification at Evansville, skipped Madison and Detroit, then struggled through the rest of the season.  Leland Unlimited would never again make a serious challenge for the High Point title and have only won one race (2001 in Tri-Cities) since winning the 1999 Gold Cup.  So while both teams went in different directions after the 1999 Gold Cup race the Leland team does have that one day when they faced the mighty Miss Budweiser team head to head, and came out on top.  It was also clearly the culmination of a rivalry that had been brewing since Dave Villwock left the team at the close of the 1996 season and had to give them a feeling of payback.  So although that day on Detroit proved to be the apex instead of the turning point of the Budweiser-Pico rivalry, that doesn’t take away from what Chip Hanauer or Leland Unlimited accomplished.  July 11, 1999 truly was one of the most memorable days in Unlimited Hydroplane history.

Thanks to Fred Farley's "A Century of Gold Cup Racing" and Jim Sharkey's "Hydros Who's Who" for being a fine source of information for this post.  And also, thank you to Tom Ace for his YouTube videos of hydroplane broadcasts.

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