Thursday, September 15, 2011

San Diego Preview: Will There be an Upset?

After the past few weeks have been dominated by news of exhibition races, the San Diego Bayfair race has almost become an afterthought.  There will be a full race this weekend, however, and ten Unlimiteds will show up for what is often the most unpredictable race on H1's North American tour.  It is no secret that recent years have been dominated by two boats.  Since the sixth Miss Madison made its debut in 2007, there have been 23 races in which both the current Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison hull and the Qatar/Ellstrom hull have made an appearance, and in those 23 races one of those two boats has won 21 times.

So will someone among the "also rans" step up and pull off an upset?  It's likely in San Diego.  First, a number of hydroplanes have made strong showings throughout the year although they have yet to find the winner's circle, something that could easily change this weekend.  Furthermore, San Diego has seen a number of upsets in recent years.  Regular readers of this blog might remember in the Tri-Cities preview that I noted that six of the last seven Columbia Cup winners went on to be High Point Champions (a trend that will more than likely continue this year unless there's a huge turnaround in the standings).  San Diego has been the exact opposite, with only two winners in San Diego going on to be High Point champions since 2001.  The saltwater, high speeds, and unpredictable wind patterns have always meant that attrition is high in San Diego so the course lends itself to very fast but very unpredictable racing that often sees an upset winner.

Finally, and most notably, a new starting procedure has been introduced for the San Diego and Doha races.  Gone is the fighting for lane procedure amid concerns on what the slow speeds and high water intake would do to the engines and propellers on the saltwater courses.  Lane choice is back, but in a different form than what has been used in recent years, with lane choice being decided by the order of a draw.  This hasn't been without controversy, but for the purposes of this blog that's a different discussion for a different post.  Undoubtedly, however, it adds the already unpredictable nature of the San Diego race.

The U-96 Spirit of Qatar saw their heat winning streak snapped with a third place finish at the Final Heat in Seattle, largely due to some spectacular strategic driving by Steve David and Scott Liddycoat.  The boat still has a large lead in the High Point standings, and Dave Villwock and the boat have always been strong on large fast courses like San Diego.  Although the lane assignment by blind draw rule was undoubtedly put in place to increase parity, the new rule might actually benefit the U-96 more than any other team.  This rule allows the team to prepare the boat in anticicpation of a specific lane, which allows them to use their expertise in propeller and gear ration combinations.  Also, Villwock has shown ability to win races from the outside in the past, often leaving a boat on the inside just the amount of room the rulebook requires.  So although the new rules might put the U-96 in an outside lane, that doesn't put them out of the race.

The U-5 Graham Trucking has moved to second in the High Point standings.  Despite a strong performance in preliminary heats this season, the U-5 has essentially been a non-factor in Final Heats this season (with the possible exception of Detroit).  Jeff Bernard has won in  San Diego before, and it seems like only a matter of time before this team breaks through with a strong Final Heat performance with all of its preliminary heat victories so far this season.  The new  rules might hamstring this team more than others, since Jeff Bernard has shown a keen ability to leapfrog into an inside lane this season.

The U-17 Miss Red Dot saw much of its luck turn around in Seattle, where the team was disqualified in one preliminary heat and was left out of the running in the Final Heat for the first time this season.  Whether or not there will be a rebound this weekend is left to be seen.  Kip Brown is no doubt the most improved driver on the tour this season, and it would be out of the question for Kip and the U-17 team to score their first victory in San Diego.

The U-7 Valken had another strong day at Seattle, with a second place finish.  Scott Liddycoat is having one of the most spectacular rookie seasons in recent memory, putting the U-7 in a place to win in almost every heat.  Driving a boat that has won in San Diego multiple times, Scott Liddycoat could become the first driver since Mike Allen to win a race in his rookie season.

The U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison made a great showing in the Final Heat at Seattle, winning the race going away.  The team did not make up much ground in the standings, however, and still finds itself fifth in High Points.  Steve David has made some fantastic starts this season, but always seems to have bad luck in San Diego, where he has only won once.  Despite this, it is always foolish to count out the Miss Madison team and the U-1 should make up some ground in the High Point race, perhaps even move up to second before the weekend is over.

The 88 Degree Men continues to improve in the hull's first season and finds itself sixth in points despite failing to score any points at the season opener in Madison.  The team is in the middle of a very busy three weekend cross country trip that started in Sacramento last weekend, continues this weekend in San Diego, and finishes next weekend in Washington, DC.  J. Michael Kelly made a strong showing in the Final in Seattle, finishing fourth after starting as the trailer, and the boat looked strong again in the exhibition at Sacramento.  The new hull seems to get better every time it goes out and that should continue this weekend.

Another new sponsor is on board, and the Go Fast Turn Left Racing team will race this weekend as the U-21 TapouT.  As always, it's nice to see a big time recognizable sponsor support one of the racing teams, and it will be interesting to see if this results in a full year sponsorship next season (much like the Degree Men sponsorship did for Schumacher racing last year).  The boat qualified for both of the Final Heats in Washington, but had issues with fuel flow in Sacramento that saw the boat go dead in the water numerous times.  Brian Perkins continues to get more experienced and more comfortable behind the wheel and it would be nice to see this team turn in a strong performance for its new sponsor.  TapouT is a brand that is instantly recognizable with many younger fans (it's a sponsor of Mixed Martial Arts events as well as a marketer of different products and clothing for the sport) so the boat could go a long way in appealing to a younger generation.

The U-100 Leland Unlimited team is making yet another change this weekend, switching back to the maroon and black hydroplane they have used in recent years and leaving the all white "dustbuster" boat in the garage.  Although this boat raced this season as the U-99 in Tri-Cities and as the U-100 in Sacramento, this will be the hull's first appearance as the U-100 in a point race this season.  Greg Hopp will also be pulling double duty, as the GP West boats will also be competing in San Diego.  More than likely the team's strategy will be to play it safe in anticipation of the Doha race, but it isn't out of the question for the team to sneak into the Final Heat and with the new rules in place they might even find themselves in contention.

The U-57 had their best race of the year in Seattle, scoring more points than it had in any previous race and finishing sixth in the Final Heat.  Veteran Mark Evans continues his fine comeback season and now finds himself coming back to the race that he won in 1996 and 1997.  It is left to be seen how this boat will perform in salt water (it has usually struggled in San Diego) but Mark Evans and the crew have shown throughout the year that they are able to get the most out of this old hull.  Bianca Bononcini should also get some more seat time this weekend.

The U-11 Peters & May had a nightmarish day in Seattle that saw the team unable to score a single point, but the team rebounded with a strong showing at Sacramento.  JW Myers hasn't raced many times in San Diego, but always seems to perform well on fast courses.  Up to this point in the season, the team's focus has seemingly been on getting more experience in the team's first year of existence, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see more of the same with the trip to Doha around the corner.

Also in San Diego: The P1 Superstocks will see their first USA tour come to a close.  The boats have put on a fantastic show throughout the year, including at the Unlimited race sites of Madison and Detroit.  Leading the way will be the Oregon Custom Marine, who has a scant one point lead over the Miss Madison, who has won two events so far this season including its "home" race in Madison.  Also expected to compete are the Peters & May, JD Byrider, K Way, Mandigo Bay, Ocala Grand Prix, and United States Coast Guard.  The boat count has nearly doubled since the series made its United States debut in Madison earlier this year, and has been a hit everywhere they've raced so far this season.  All in all, it's been a very successful first year for the P1 Superstock Panther class in the United States.

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