Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Miss Madison, Ellstrom Racing, and Moneyball

First off my apologies for not writing a recap of San Diego.  I actually missed the majority of the race weekend due to work and a family event.  I'm sure you already know the results but I always enjoy writing the recaps.

The movie "Moneyball" is set to premiere this weekend.  It is based on the Michael Lewis book of the same title which is possibly the most talked about, most controversial, and (in my opinion) the bes book written about baseball in the last decade.  It is the story of the Oakland Athletics of the late 1990's and early 2000's.  The A's, despite having one of the smallest payrolls in baseball over this period, made the playoffs four straight seasons including 100+ win seasons in 2002 and 2003.  The A's did this by focusing on what other teams undervalued, such as Pitchers who could control the strike zone, hitters who had a keen ability to draw a lot of walks, and drafting College players who were routinely overlooked in the draft but were a safer bet to make the majors than High School players.  Within a few tears the other teams began to adopt similar principles, as well as more complex measures of evaluating players (a field known as sabermetrics) and soon even richer teams were able to reap the rewards of a system that the A's created almost out of necessity.

So what does this have to do with hydroplane racing?  Quite a bit actually.  Over a decade ago the two teams who currently dominate the H1 series were in a situation similar to that of the A's.  Miss Madison, Inc. and Marine Technologies were small, low budget teams in a sport full of big budget entries.  For these teams to be competitive, they needed to spend their money wisely. 

In the Miss Madison's case this was by no means something new.  For almost all of their history the Miss Madison had operated on what was effectively a shoestring budget but always found ways to be competitive.  Like Billy Beane and the A's, the Miss Madison was able to be competitive many years by focusing their efforts on an often undervalued commodity in racing: consistency.  The U-6, playing it safe and ensuring that they finished nearly every heat, often found itself ahead in the High Point standings of teams whose budget dwarfed that of the Miss Madison team.

Likewise, Marine Technologies had to make do with a smaller budget for much of the late 1990's.  The Ellstrom Family ran what was effectively an Unlimited Hydroplane version of a mom and pop operation with members of the Ellstrom family making up many of the key people on the team.  The team was an exclusively West Coast entry through much of its early years, but after winning in Tri-Cities in 2000 the decision was made to build a new boat and join the national tour.  Lacking a national sponsor who would spend millions to finance the new boat construction, the Ellstroms used their own expertise, which was an undervalued commodity for many years in Unlimited Racing but was also the one thing that the Marine Technologies team had in large quantities.  The result was a boat that was fast and successful right out of the box, winning the second race it ever run at Seattle in 2001 and following it up with a brilliant 2002 where they were the top qualifier at every race, won two races along the way, and finished second in the High Point chase that season.

Despite the successes of the U-6 and the U-16 over the years, they were unable to win the big prize in Unlimited Racing and so their efforts were often overlooked.  For years the presumed method of winning in Unlimited Racing was to get a big time sponsorship and invest as much money as possible by building new boats and hiring a high profile driver and a professional crew.  Hydroplanes, Inc. of course is the prime example of this, and so the other teams found themselves spending more money in order to be competitive against a team with a seemingly unlimited budget.  A lot of money fell by the wayside in this chase.  One famous example is Bob Taylor's Lite All Star Team, who spent a lot of money building a new turbine powered hydroplane back when turbines were still being figured out, but the team could never quite get a handle on the new technology and soon the team was soon out of business.  Another was the Circus Circus team, who was able to win the championship in 1990 but spent so much money in the process that many of the casino's investors and board members began to question the expenditure which led to the team being sold off.  The building of new hulls, the most expensive (and probably the most overvalued) expenditure that any hydroplane can undertake, was a common theme among these big budget teams.  Showing up to a race site with multiple hulls became a way for the haves to distinguish themselves from the have nots. While some hulls were not well thought out experiments that should have never left the drawing board like the three wing Circus Circus, the Winston Eagle "lobster boat" and perhaps even the two wing Miss Budweiser T-4 which the Miss Budweiser team wound up using in only one race (although it had a successful second life as the primary hull for Wurster and Schumacher Racing for many years after it was reconfigured as a one wing hull).  Hundreds of thousands of dollars was sunk into each of these boats which failed as competitors, money that no doubt could have been better used elsewhere within their respective organizations.  Instead they became sympols of the opulence of the big budget teams.  Despite the drawbacks, it is no secret that the richest team was also the most successful of the time, as the Miss Budweiser was able to outspend and outrun everybody.  As was memorably said in the Madison movie: Every now and then, a pocket full of cash will beat the pants off of plain old hard work..

As the years passed by, many of the big budget teams ceased to exist.  Less television and media coverage meant fewer sponsors.  This, along with the the fact that many teams saw their spending efforts futile when another team was willing to outspend everyone, meant a dwindling number of teams in the sport.  Then in 2004 the Miss Budweiser team ceased to exist.  No one was sure what happened, there was even concern that the sport as a whole would fall by the wayside (for more on this, read my previous post "Life After Budweiser, and be watching for a future post on the last days of Hydro-Prop).  The question became how could the sport survive with the lack of a big budget team, its lifeblood for so many years?  The answer was two teams who had made do with less for years would step to the forefront.  Miss E-Lam Plus, without major sponsorship, and Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison, who had a sponsor  that allowed the team to show up for races but were using an ancient hull, were suddenly the top two teams in the sport.  The two teams who had learned to make do with less became dominant when less money was available.

Things just built from there.  The Ellstrom team was already leading in points halfway through the 2005 season but then scored a major coup when Dave Villwock joined their team.  Miss Madison, despite using one of the oldest boats in the fleet, finished second in High Points in 2005 and 2006.  Much of this was due to the leadership of Mike Hanson.  In his role as Crew Chief, long one of the most undervalued assets in hydroplane racing, he was able to get the most out of the old boat.  When the new hull was built for the Miss Madison in 2007, suddenly one of the hardest working teams in the business, which had to make do with an outdated hull for almost all of its history, had a state of the art hull.  Using the same tactics of focusing on consistent finishes which had worked for the Miss Madison team for so many years, the team was able to win three straight championships.

Marine Technologies was never far behind.  Consistently the fastest team in the fleet, they were able to find speed by exploiting another often overlooked commodity: propellers.  Propeller technology has often lagged behind other developments in Unlimited Hydroplane racing and was even the victim of a strange prejudice.  For many years teams refused to put a three blade propeller on their boat, thinking that it was a sign of something wrong with the boat.  That line of thought had changed when Jim Lucero's boats proved dominant using a three bladed prop, but the technology was still underdeveloped.  Marine Technologies, once again using their valuable expertise, found they had an advantage using thinner props in an era of fuel and N2 restrictions.  Soon, everyone saw this advantage and wanted an Ellstrom built thin prop on their hydroplane.

As can be seen, the Miss Madison and Ellstrom teams, like the Oakland A's of a decade ago, have been able to have success not by spending lots of money but by using the assets that they have.  Be it concepts like consistency and expertise or more visible elements such as hiring a top notch Crew Chief and focusing on propeller development, these two teams were able to exploit elements of the sport often undervalued by other teams and use them to their advantage.  Now, it is no secret that money has played a part as well.  The Miss Madison team wouldn't have acheived what they did if it werent for the support of the Oberto family.  Likewise the Ellstrom team has been greatly assisted by the support of the QMSF.  What differs, however, is that this financial support doesn't dwarf that of the other teams, which was so often the case of championship winning teams throughout the history of Unlimited racing.  While money is still an important factor, the Madison and Ellstrom teams have shown that, like Billy Beane and the Moneyball-era A's, knowledge and the ability to exploit an undervalued asset can often have the upper hand on extravagant spending.

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