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."