Tuesday, November 22, 2011

2011 in Review. Or: Why I should never try to make predictions

   The final checkered flag has flown on one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory so it is time to look back on 2011.  For this review I won't be looking at individual races, since I've already done that in my race recaps, instead I'll be looking at how each team did this season as well as some stories of significance.  Since I'll be focusing on how each team did this season I thought it would be a decent time to look at how I predicted the order of finish in the High Point standings going into 2011 and how they actually finished:

              Predicted finisher              Actual finisher

1st          Oh Boy! Oberto                   Spirit of Qatar
2nd          Spirit of Qatar                     Oh Boy! Oberto
3rd          Graham Trucking                 Graham Trucking
4th           Degree Men                        Valken.com
5th          Peters & May                      Miss Red Dot
6th          TapouT                               Degree Men
7th         Valken.com                         TapouT
8th         Miss Red Dot                      Leland Unlimited
9th         Great Scott                         Formulaboats.com
10th      Leland Unlimited                 Peters & May
11th     Formulaboats.com              Great Scott
12th     Superior Racing                  Miss VisitTriCities.com
13th     (no Selection)                     Superior Racing
14th    (no selection)                      Miss Hapo Credit union

    Hey, one out of fourteen isn't bad right?  Needless to say my predictions were a little off base, which is one part indicative of how unpredictable this season but mostly a sign that such predictions are pretty much useless.  So how did we get here?  Let's look at how each team fared in 2011.

U-96 Spirit of Qatar  2011 will always have a spot in the history books thanks to Dave Villwock's historic victory in Detroit, which gave him sole possession of the all time career Unlimited victories record.  Bill Muncey's career mark of 62 wins,  which for many years was thought to be unreachable, was tied by Villwock at the last race of 2010 and surpassed by the second race of 2011.  Villwock now has 65 wins and for the first time in over forty years Bill Muncey does not have the career lead in career Unlimited wins.  Aside from Villwock's historic achievement, this was another banner year for the Ellstrom team.  The boat was once again the class of the field, earning fastest qualifier honors at every race this year.  With this in mind it's no accident that the team swept the season's large track races of Detroit, Tri-Cities, and San Diego.  Most importantly, however, is the fact that the team was able to capture the High Point Title for the first time since 2007.  Although some chinks in their armor of perceived invincibility showed up at Seattle and in Doha, this boat is still the class of the field as going into the 2012 the question becomes how many race wins can Villwock rack up before retiring for good.

U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto It says something about the resiliency of the Miss Madison team that 2011 saw the team leave the first race with damage to both sponsons so severe that they  were forced to use a leased boat for the Detroit race, then suffered setbacks in the forms of penalties in the next two races, yet still rebounded to be the clear cut runner up in the High Point chase.  It was indeed a season of dramatic ups and downs for the Miss Madison team, with victories in Madison and Seattle but a number of dramatic happenings along the way that ended with a perceived victory in Doha only to be reversed when it was discovered that the boat did indeed jump the gun before the start which, in a way, became a microcosm for the team's entire 2011 season.  Despite these setbacks the most reliable and consistent boat in the field continued to be just that and Steve David was able to pilot the boat to some brilliant performances in the Final Heats at Tri-Cities and Seattle before the rule changes took away his ability to fight for lanes.  All in all, this was another year is becoming one of the more memorable runs in recent hydroplane history.  Since Mike Hanson rejoined the team as Crew Chief the team finished third in High Points in 2004 and then has gone on to finish first or second in High Points for seven consecutive seasons, with the team winning three championships and Steve David winning five driving titles along the way.  Early indications are that the Oberto family and the Madison team are looking to extend their dedication and their performance for the 2012 season, so that is something that the rest of the field should be concerned about.

U-5 Graham Trucking Despite not winning a race in 2011, the case could be made that Jeff Bernard and the U-5 team were 2011's most consistent performers in the preliminary heats.  With the fight for lanes in place for the first four races, 5 liter veteran Jeff Bernard was able to park his boat in an inside lane and grab a heat win multiple times this season.  For whatever reason, however, that same success in the preliminary heats was not seen in the finals and the team only had two podium finishes this season at Detroit and Doha.  Nonetheless the team had a strong performance throughout the season, as indicated by their third place finish in the High Points.  It's reminiscent of the Miss Madison seasons in the 1980's and 1990's when the boat was nowhere near the top of the qualifying ladder and only had a couple of podium finishes throughout the year but were a consistent finisher at all their races  and wound up finishing near the top of the High Points.  With that said, PPE isn't interested in finishing near the top of the High Point standings, they're interested in finishing at the top.  This team should come out in 2012 looking to be a contender for the championship.

U-7 Valken.com Time for my first apology in this piece: I tremendously underestimated the U-7 team and especially Scott Liddycoat coming into this season.  Sure, Liddycoat was a rookie in the Unlimited class coming into this season, but he came into the season's first race in Madison looking like he had been doing this for years as a testament to his decades of experience in smaller boats.  In many ways, the U-7 team's performance was the opposite of their teammates in the U-5, in that the U-7 was able to finish on the podium in four of the season's six races, but penalties and a few inconsistent preliminary heat finishes prevented the team from finishing higher in the High Point race.  Like their teammates, I'm sure the team will want to build off of their win in Doha and perhaps even be thinking championship coming into 2012.  It seems like Ted Porter's team always likes to make a lot of waves in the off season through personnel moves, sponsorship announcements, new internal programs, etc. so I'm guessing we'll be hearing news about the team long before the first race of 2012.

U-17 Miss Red Dot Time for another apology: I underestimated this team as well, almost to the point that I'm embarrassed about it.  Kip Brown was finally able to get his first heat win in the team's first heat of the year in Madison, and the season just kept getting better from there, with a number of heat wins and three podium finishes (including seconds in Madison and San Diego) along the way.  The team was actually leading the High Points coming out of Detroit and was second for much of the year, but tumbled to fifth in the final standings after Doha proved to be a struggle.  If H1 had an award for most improved Driver, Kip Brown would win this year's award going away.  The still relatively new driver made his presence felt in a big way and the team as a whole stepped up their game, taking the U-17 from a likable and talented also ran to a legit contender (although they're still likable, don't worry).  Undoubtedly the team will be in high spirits going into 2012 and looking to not only get a race win or two under their belts but looking to take the next step and join the upper echelon of the sport.

U-88 Degree Men The fact that this team went through a tumultuous off season that saw their longtime crew chief leave the team, finished their new hull with hardly any time to spare before the season started, was late rolling into Madison, wasn't able to start a heat or even do any kind of real testing in Madison, and still was able to climb to sixth in the final High Point standings speaks volumes of the talent of J. Michael Kelly and the crew.  The team got what one would want from a new hull just starting out: a consistent performance with flashes of brilliance that could be a sign of things to come.  Despite being shut out from the podium, J. Michael Kelly was able to qualify the boat for the Final Heat in the final five races of the year and seemed to be in the mix of things in every preliminary heat he was drawn into.  Degree Men showed a lot of commitment in its first full season sponsoring the team.  With continued support from Degree Men and a full of season to further tweak their new boat, the team should expect vast improvement in 2012.

U-21 TapouT Brian Perkins and the U-21 were involved in a horrific accident in Madison where they crashed into a patrol boat, and their season never really did seem to get on track thereafter.  Despite consistent finishes throughout the year in preliminary heats the U-21 only managed to make it to two Final Heats where they finished seventh in Tri-Cities and didn't finish in Seattle.  Needless to say the team would like to improve on their performance, and there's good reason for hope.  Early indications are that TapouT and MusclePharm will be back with the team in 2012 and the extra financial support should be a huge help for this small and still relatively new team.  With the added financial support and Brian Perkins steadily improving as an Unlimited driver, the U-21 could experience a U-17 style breakthrough next season.

U-100 Leland Unlimited The Leland team spent the first five races of 2011 continuing its recent trend as a consistent but underwhelming also ran, failing to qualify for any Final Heats along the way.  Then came Doha and the team put together a performance that, in short, has not been seen by the Leland team since its days of being sponsored by Pico then Znetix.  The boat was right in the mix of things in the preliminary heats, finishing in second place in two heats, then was able to grab a third place in the Final Heat after three other boats went over the line at the start.  It was Greg Hopp and the U-100's first podium finish since getting second in Madison in 2004.  The performance at Doha really came down to a brilliant driving performance by Greg Hopp, which has shown up in flashes over the last decade but has never really been on full display for quite some time the way it was in Madison.  So will the team be able to put together some similar performances in 2012?  It's left to be seen.  With a couple races similar to the team's 2011 Doha performance and hopefully the assistance of a sponsor who might step up, the team could make its presence felt in 2012.  It's also left to be seen if the team's long discussed automotive powered Unlimited will make its debut in 2012.

U-57 Formulaboats.com Ted Porter's Precision Performance Engineering team is just crazy good.  Sure, they can take the old T-5 and T-6 hulls and have two competitive teams on the water at once, but almost as noteworthy is what the team was able to do with this twenty year old hull that has seemed to be snakebit for most of its life.  Sure, there were a couple of DNF's along the way, but the fact that the old boat with an infamous reputation of being consistent finished most of its heats and even find its way into the Final Heats at Seattle and Doha is indicative of the team's expertise.  Mark Evans showed his veteran skill for much of the season, and Jimmy Shane did a fine job as a relief driver in Doha.  It's unclear what the team can expect in 2012, but more of the same is a good possibility for this team.  In a broader sense, this boat could represent a sea change of sorts in Unlimited racing.  While it has usually been the case in Unlimited racing that even the biggest budget teams would only field one boat team on the water, Ted Porter's team is showing that one team could field two or even three competitive hulls at once.

U-11 Peters & May Any new team is going to go through growing pains, even one with as much experience as the U-11 team.  Although the Unlimited Racing Group came on to the scene with a lot of promise including a highly talented driver and crew chief as well as strong financial sport from Peters & May, 2011 proved to be an exercise in frustration for the new U-11 team.  The team failed to qualify for a Final Heat, only won one  heat all season, and failed to score any points in its home Seattle race.  Their still relatively new hull still has a lot of bugs to iron out, especially considering that the boat underwent a lot of changes prior to the 2011 season.  Despite the struggles of this year, nobody expect this team to stay down for long.  The partnership of Scott Raney and J.W. Myers should prove to be very fruitful in future years.  2012 should show marked improvement for the team and should be able to contend before too long.  After a frustrating first season this team has nowhere to go but up, and they should go way up.

U-22 Great Scott Speaking of struggles and growing pains, this still relatively young team experienced much of that in 2011.  While trying to adjust to their "new" boat which is actually the oldest boat in the field and hadn't raced in four years, the U-22 team failed to qualify for a Final Heat and was unable to even score points in two races this year (Detroit and Doha).  This is another  team that shouldn't expect to be down for very long.  Their former Miss Madison hull, although old, has a long history of being one of the most consistent finishers in the field and should improve with a full off season of preparation and shaking off the rust so to speak the team should see an improvement in 2012.

U-9 Miss VisitTriCities.com The primary U-9 hull and Jon Zimmerman got an unexpected early start on the season when they were both called into service in Detroit for Steve David and the Miss Madison team after their accident in their hometown race.  After that, the team played their usual role of an additional boat for the Washington race.  The team finished all of its heats along the way and even made it to the Final of the Seattle race.  It appears that, if the team will be back in 2012, it will continue to be on a temporary basis.  Hopefully Jon Zimmerman, who has a knack for getting the most out of the boat he is driving, will land a fulltime seat for the following season.

U-25 Superior Racing Ken Muskatel has had a long career as an owner/driver in the Unlimited Class, playing the role of an also ran and a field filler for most of that time.  The team failed to qualify for a Final Heat in 2011, in truth they didn't even come close.  2011 was perhaps the least successful season in the long history of this team, but in truth Muskatel deserves credit for even making an appearance in this season considering that he underwent major heart surgery in the winter and didn't even have a boat in the weeks leading up to the season.  Of course, this is nothing new for the Superior Racing team.  There many lean times over the last couple of decades when boat counts were in the single digits, but Ken Muskatel's boat   was always there.  It's unclear what the future will be for this team, but I for one hope to see Ken Muskatel at least continue as an owner, as he has done an extraordinary amount of good for the sport.

U-99 Miss Hapo Credit Union A second Leland hull was another addition to the field at Tri-Cities.  Although the team failed to score any points, Ryan Mallow was able to qualify as an Unlimited driver over the weekend.

Stories of Significance, and Looking Ahead

   It's all but impossible to judge a season's historical significance after the season has just concluded.  Just as an example, after the conclusion of the 1992 season it was probably thought that the most historically significant development was the first year of what at the time was thought to be years of dominance of Chip Hanauer behind the wheel of the Miss Budweiser.  Whenever that year is brought up in recent times, however, it always seems to be that year's San Diego race where Dave Villwock made his Unlimited debut and went on to win the race.  So how will 2011 be remembered?  No doubt Villwock passing Bill Muncey's record was a historic moment, but in the future 2011 could also be remembered for the first of many race wins by Scott Liddycoat or perhaps even the first appearance by Bianca Bononcini in an Unlimited.

    There were many developments for H1 this season, and most of them were positive.  First was the partnership with Air National Guard, which at long last gave the series a national sponsor.  Hopefully this will continue for many years.  There was also the long awaited return of television coverage on Versus, whose broadcasts seemed to get better every week as the season went along.  There was also the involvement of a number of new sponsors for teams on a number of levels.

    Not all developments were positive, however.  For the purposes of this blog I have mostly held off on my opinion of how the rule changes went about this season, but for the season review I figured I'd let it out.  First off, I think the starting procedure for the first four races was great.  I realize that the "park and race" strategy used by many teams was widely criticized and even had the harrowing tag of "not real racing" attached to them, but personally I thought it was intriguing.  It turned the start into part game of chicken, part chess match, part game of dare, but all parts interesting.  Also, the strategy was shown that it could backfire as Steve David executed a successful leapfrog of the entire field before the start of his win in Seattle.

     All good things must come to an end, however, and these exciting starts were gone for the last two races of the year to be replaced by lane choices determined by the order that a team's ping pong ball was picked out of a bucket.  Now, I'm not necessarily opposed to lane choice being determined on the shore, at least not in the form that was used in 2009 and 2010.  While I would prefer the traditional fight for lanes I can understand why the teams and officials would want lane choice.  What bothered me about the ordeal was the idea of lane choice being determined by a draw.  It was, in my opinion way to gimmicky.  True, it made for some exciting heats in San Diego and Doha, but manufactured excitement is not a good substitute for naturally happening excitement.  Also, it's not like the issues it was claiming to fix (boats going too slow before the start, boats getting in front of each other, fewer boats going down on power due to ingesting salt water, etc.) were entirely washed away thanks to this new starting procedure.  So where does H1 go from here?  First off, I hope whatever is done that H1 decides to have the same starting procedure for all races, as having "fresh water rules" and "salt water rules' would not be beneficial for the teams in the long term.  One idea which has been thrown around is having boats maintain a minimum speed before the start, but I don't think this would work either.  Consider a situation when one boat gets in front of another boat, forcing the other boat to slow down, then who would the penalty be called on?  It would come down to a judgment call, and the H1 officials already have enough on their plate without having another aspect of the sport coming down to an unclear judgment call.  Personally I feel that H1 should keep the fight for lanes and the score up buoy, and perhaps extend the legal overlap to, say, twelve boat lengths and/or make the penalty more severe for violation of this rule (like say a flagrant or repeated violation of the overlap results in disqualification).  As for the worries about trolling in salt water, one quote came up during the change that makes a lot of sense: if a driver is foolish enough to go so slow that he burns up a turbine engine, chances are he isn't going to have his ride for very long.

  With that rant, however, one cannot look at 2011 as a whole without feeling positive.  The racing was exciting, there were some spectacular driving performances, some great rookies, and a number of developments that showed the sport was moving in the right direction.  I was in conversation with a fellow hydro fanatic in Madison and we were talking about how the sport now has a national sponsor, national TV coverage, etc. and I blurted out "it's like we're a real sport again."  Not only that, it's an expanding sport.  With 2011's exhibitions in Sacramento and Washington D.C. holding the very real possibility of becoming full races for 2012 and the expected running of the Houston race after water levels  forced the cancellation of the 2011 Houston event, there's a very good chance of their being eight domestic races for 2012.  With the added possibility of added international races, if not for 2012 then in the very near future, then the Unlimited calendar could become very crowded soon.  All in all 2011 was a great season, and while it went beyond my expectations, obviously I should refrain from such a foolish undertaking in the future.

Expect a prediction post prior to the beginning of the 2012 season.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Doha Recap: In the end, the right thing was done.

   For whatever reason, controversy is as much a part of motorsports as speed and technology.  Whenever NASCAR makes even the most minuscule change it seems to be immediately written off as "not real racing" and there are always cries of bias for a certain driver, sponsor, or even manufacturer.  Formula 1 has a long history of infighting between teams as well as officials and of course there seems to be the annual rumors or mentions of Team Ferrari having enough of the FIA and leaving to form its own organization.  Also, there was of course the notorious split between CART and IRL during the 1990's which caused damage to IndyCar that which the sport still hasn't really recovered.  With this in mind, hydroplane racing is not without controversy of its own.  Any change is met with dissent and criticism (which I sometimes take part in).  It seems like every year there is at least one and usually multiple races with controversial endings and the winner being declared upon the rules.  In the end, however, if these rules are not followed then the sport then the sport loses legitimacy, and more important than having a quick decision, a strong decision, and especially a popular decision is having a right decision.  Today in Doha, an hour after the race and after a tireless review process, the right decision was made by the H1 officials.  Despite the criticism and even the baseless attacks on H1 and what went down today, I can only hope that in the end the majority of the hydroplane fanbase will come to realize that what happened today was good for the sport, and not an example of some kind of weakness within.
    In its brief history, the Oryx Cup has shown to be not only a major event for the Unlimited tour but also produces some of the most exciting pure racing seen in H1 Unlimited.  This year was no different.  The Friday heats featured a deal of exciting moments in six heats.  A twelve boat field meant that there would be three heats per section on Friday, but unfortunately neither the U-22 or U-25 were able to make a start all weekend so only ten boats were able to score points.  The only heat in which the issue was never really in doubt was Heat 2C, when Jeff Bernard was able to drive the U-5 to an easy victory over the U-57 as the U-11 and U-22 were not able to make a start in the heat, and the heat wasn't shown anyway due to technical difficulties (more on that in a moment).

  For Saturday the heats were contracted to two heats per section and more exciting racing followed.  In heat 3A Dave Villwock was able to drive the U-96 to a relatively easy victory, but the story was what was happening behind him.  The U-100, looking better this weekend than it has in years, was able to grab a second place finish over a hard charging U-88 and U-5.  Greg Hopp was able to hold his boat to the buoys and beat boats that he had finished well behind all year.  The U-11 struggled at the start and finished well behind the field.  In heat 3B, the U-17 was the apparent winner, but upon further review it was determined that Kip Brown had jumped the gun, thus giving the heat win to Steve David and the U-1.   The U-17's penalty also moved the U-7 up to second, which raced side by side with the U-1 for much of the heat.  The U-57 continued a strong weekend with a third place finish and the U-21 finished fourth.

   Heat 4A saw the U-88 take a favorable heat draw and finish ahead of the field, thus securing a spot in the Final for J. Michael Kelly and the team after a relatively frustrating weekend.  Steve David followed in the U-1, apparently willing to settle for second and take his chances in the final.  The U-17 actually lead for nearly two laps, but salt water got into the engine in the second turn of the second lap, causing the boat to go dead in the water and putting an early end to the team's brilliant season.  The U-5 trailed ant the U-57 went dead in the water on the first lap.  Heat 4B was probably the most exciting preliminary heat of the weekend, with the U-7 and U-96 going deck to deck for three laps.  The finish was so close it took a few minutes to determine that Scott Liddycoat had beaten Dave Villwock at the line, thus putting Liddycoat in a rare class of current drivers (Steve David and J. Michael Kelly) who have beaten Villwock head to head in recent years.  Brian Perkins was able to overcome yet another unfavorable draw and steer the U-21 to third and the U-11 and U-100 trailed.
   Now at this point the technical issues should be mentioned. Watching this exciting heat at home was a frustrating experience with the video stopping to buffer multiple times per minute.  First off, the live feed was much improved over last year, where multiple heats (including the final) were not able to be viewed.  There were still some frustrations, however, with the video stopping to buffer multiple times.  This is something that needs to be addressed and will hopefully improve in the future, but I almost wonder (in my very non-technical mind) if this will always be an issue due to multiple people attempting to view the video at once and overloading the system.  I also can't help but think of Formula 1 who, even with the millions of dollars that pass through that sport, still can't manage to put together a decent regular U.S. television broadcast.  I'm old enough to remember a time when hydroplane results often weren't known until the Monday afternoon edition of the Madison Courier (sometimes followed by an "oh there was a race this weekend?" moment since there was nothing about the race leading up to that).  That evolved into being able to listen to results same day on the WORX Radio, although there was no way of knowing when the results would be given so one would need to spend the day listening to the station;s (ahem) fine selection of music in order to get the results.  Finally there were radio broadcasts of the Final Heat, although those were often postponed or not broadcast at all due to technical issues.  So the sport has come a long way, but still in a society on information overdrive instant results are expected so yes even a live feed with buffering issues will be considered "not enough" for many fans.  Hopefully in the future this will be addressed and live feed will be a regular part of further international expansion in hydroplane racing.
     The Final Heat was another memorable moment for the event for a number of reasons.  The decision was made to race the final with six boats on the front and one trailer, which I thought was only asking for trouble on the salty two mile Doha Bay course but the heat was run with no major issues due to that.  As the boats approached the line, Greg Hopp pulled off one of the classic old school moves in the U-100 and charged the line from the outside lane and then suddenly slowed down in an effort to draw the other boats into jumping the gun, but it wasn't immediately clear who if anyone had jumped the gun.  On the water, Steve David drove the U-1 to the lead with Scott Liddycoat in pursuit and the U-96 running in third.  By the fourth lap Steve David had driven out to a comfortable lead and it was announced that it was a "clean start."  The feed went offline with Steve David as the apparent winner.
  When I did my routine Facebook check before work this morning, the first thing I saw was Scott Liddycoat raising the Oryx Cup.  Needless to say I was slightly confused. so after some digging I saw that it had been determined that the U-1, U-96, and U-88 had all jumped the gun, moving the U-7 into first, the U-5 second, the U-100 third, and the U-57 fourth.  This was no controversial and probably could have been handled better.  The broadcast was depending on the radios declaring it a "clean start," so hopefully in the future such a start won't be declared a clean start when it is clearly still under review (the U-1 was never declared the official winner and the awards ceremony was delayed as the officials took time to review the start).  In the video on the H1 site it clearly shows all three boats going over the line, although hopefully in the future such a determination can be made quicker.  With that said, however, the right thing was done and H1 deserves credit for doing the right thing and taking the time to make the right call instead of taking the easy way out.

   Now for a brief rant.  As can be expected in any questionable call there was much stirring online among hydroplane fans.  Although some discussion and debate is to be expected, I have read and seen some downright vile comments from many people on multiple websites complaining about the feed, how the Final was handled, and even going as far as saying that the Doha race should not happen anymore.  While some of these opinions are fringe and downright silly, I have seen some reasonable people and even some publishers of some of the web's most popular websites dedicated to hydroplane racing say some rather off the wall things about what happened this weekend and even about H1 as a whole.  Listen, I don't pretend that H1 is perfect because it's not, there are a number of things that I disagree with within the sport.  With that said I keep it all in perspective.  In seven years time the ABRA/H1 has taken a sport that was on the brink of demise and put it in a place where it is probably healthier now than it has been at any point over the last three decades.  When the organization came into being there were questions as to if the sport would even be around for 2005 so having a race in the Middle East would be considered a pie in the sky dream.  Sure there have been a number of growing pains along the way, but the sport has indeed come a long way.  So while many fans and sites will relish in every perceived flaw or shortcoming of H1 I will not take part in it.  This blog isn't a place to be nothing but critical of what's going on in the sport or make the sport look bad or to take part in some kind of journalism oneupsmanship or even as a primary news source.  I maintain this blog for a very simple reason: I love hydroplane racing and I love the rich, colorful, and sometimes crazy history of hydroplane racing.  I don't doubt that others offer their commentary online for much the same reasons, and I only hope in time that cooler heads will prevail.  Because in the end the 2011 Oryx Cup will not be remembered for the issues with the feed and the time it took to review the Final will largely be an afterthought.  In the end the 2011 Oryx Cup should be remembered for another great show put on by H1 and the QMSF.  In the future, the race could easily be remembered as the first of many race victories for Scott Liddycoat.
        With this historical perspective in mind,  I should mention that while the 2011 season has come to a conclusion this will still be an active blog.  Within the next week or so I should have a longer review of the whole 2011 season.  Also, I have a number of longer historical pieces planned for the Winter months so hopefully there will be something to read  on here every couple weeks or so.  And of course if any major news breaks in the offseason (and it always does) I'll be on here to offer my own commentary.  I thank everyone who reads the blog regularly and have offered so much positive feedback for this blog.  Hydroplane racing truly is a fantastic sport with the foundation of an amazing history.  I only ask that as hydroplane fans we keep that in perspective.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Doha Preview: Who will end their season on a high note?

    One of the more interesting Unlimited Hydroplane seasons in recent memory comes to a conclusion this weekend in Doha, Qatar.  In about four years time, having an Unlimited race in the Middle East has gone from a seemingly impossible dream to an exciting anomaly to a regular stop for the H1 Unlimited tour.  The impact that the Doha race has had on the sport as a whole in such a short time has been so immense that it's almost easy to forget that an actual race is taking place over the weekend.
    There is, of course, a race this weekend and over the last two seasons the Doha race has proven to be one of the more exciting races on the calendar.  Doha Bay's salty two mile course has shown to be very fast but also quite treacherous in the first two editions of the Oryx Cup, with a number of incidents happening in the second turn.  Although this year's race doesn't have the added drama of a tight High Point race there is sure to be some exciting twists and turns by week's end.

The U-96 Spirit of Qatar comes into its "home" race as the favorite but also the team with the most to lose.  The team needs only 397 points to secure its first High Point Championship in four years (and the first title in four years for any team not based in Madison) so that should be secured by Friday's heats unless something unforeseen happens.  The team showed in San Diego that the "lane assignments by draw" were actually an advantage for them, as they have shown time and again that they are the best in the sport in preparing to run in a specific lane.  With this method being used again in Doha it only adds to their advantage, but this also means that the team will have the most pressure on them to win.  Dave Villwock has shown throughout his career that he is apt to thriving in such pressure situations so this weekend should be no different.

The U-17 Miss Red Dot looks to finish their stellar season in Doha.  The team has, hands down, been far and away the most improved team for the 2011 season, but all that is missing is a first place finish in the Final Heat.  Kip Brown, who came into 2011 without even a single heat victory in the Unlimited Class, has won a number of heats and had two overall second place finishes in the four races he's competed in this year.  A victory in Doha would obviously be the perfect cap on a magical season for the team, and with a boat that performs well on fast courses it isn't out of the question, especially if they receive favorable draws.  Even without a race win in 2011 however the team can only be positive about their performance this season.

The U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison team has had one of its most up and down seasons in a fifty year history full of ups and downs for the Miss Madison.  Although the team has won two races this season, a horrific accident in Madison that forced the team to use a leased boat for Detroit and a number of untimely penalties along the way has left the Oberto-Madison boat all but mathematically eliminated from the possibility of winning its fourth straight championship.  Steve David and the team have performed well in Doha but have also been stricken by some bad luck in both races, with a blowover in 2009 (although they were able to rebound and finish second in the Final) and engine issues in the 2010 Final that relegated the team to a third place finish.  Taking away the fight for lanes also took away a big advantage for Steve David, but the veteran driver should have the boat in a position to win on Saturday's Final Heat.

The U-7 Valken.com is another team looking to put a cap on a fine season.  Scott Liddycoat has had the most impressive rookie season since Mike Allen drove the same U-7 team (albeit a different boat) to the championship in 2006.  With a number of heat wins and podium finishes already under their belt, all that is needed is a race win to put a cap on the season.  Much like the U-17 team, the U-7 team can look at 2011 as a building block to bigger and better things for the team.

The U-5 Graham Trucking has had a bit of an up and down season as well and would like to make a strong showing in Doha.  The team has performed extremely well in preliminary heats but always seems to have an issue in the Final including the previous race in San Diego when they were forced to settle for a sixth place finish.  The draw for lanes rule took away a huge advantage for Jeff Bernard, who has a knack of grabbing the inside lanes prior to a start in any class of boats he's racing in.  While Final Heats have been a struggle all year for the U-5 team, it isn't outside the realm of possibility for the team to put it all together and walk away with the Oryx Cup on Saturday.

The 88 Degree Men team has seen a strong debut for its new hull in 2011.  Since being unable to score any points in Madison, the boat has been right in the mix of things and has made a stellar showing for a sponsor that has been getting involved in the sport in a big way.  Although the team was only able to finish fifth in San Diego, J. Michael Kelly is returning to the race that he won in 2009 (which, consequentially, was the last race won by someone not named Steve David or Dave Villwock).  Kelly and the boat have shown that the can perform extremely well in rough water, so the team could have an advantage when Doha's two mile course gets a little bumpy.

The U-21 TapouT has struggled through much of the 2011 season, but has the added advantage of a new sponsor for the Doha race.  Not only is TapouT continuing their support from the San Diego race, MusclePharm has also joined the team for Doha.  The team failed to make the Final Heat in San Diego and has been an also ran for much of the year, but Brian Perkins has shown his skill on short courses before.  A Final Heat appearance isn't out of the question.

The U-100 Leland Racing team has been a solid if not spectacular performer for much of 2011.  When the team is able to avoid mechanical gremlins they have laid down some solid showings this season.  Greg Hopp made a great showing in Doha last season, running deck to deck with the Miss Madison for a heat until the salt water got the boat.  This is another team looking to make the Final Heat for the 2011 finale.

The U-57 Formulaboats.com has been another solid racer for 2011, although they were unable to score any points beyond qualifying points in the previous race in San Diego.  Mark Evans will not be available to drive the U-57 in Doha, which means that  Jimmy Shane will return to the Unlimited class driving the boat in which he made his Unlimited debut in 2007.  With an expanded field for this year's Oryx Cup and a backup driver, I'm sure the Formulaboats team is realistic about their goals for this race, but one of the most skilled crews in the game should never be counted out.

The U-22 Webster Racing team is back on the tour after missing the San Diego race in order to make an appearance at the UIM General Assembly in Abu Dhabi.  This still relatively new team has gone through some growing pains this season as they have adjusted to their recently purchased hull that hadn't raced the previous four seasons.  Mike Webster has been a solid performer throughout his Unlimited career, and with favorable draws and some luck the former Miss Madison hull could make it to the Final Heat alongside its current counterpart.

The 2011 season for the U-25 Superior Racing team can not be defined as anything but a struggle.  After securing a hull only a few weeks before the season started, never leaving the trailer in Madison, failing to score any points in Detroit, and being relegated to a trailer in Seattle, missing the San Diego race in order to be displayed at the UIM General Assembly in Abu Dhabi might have been seen as a relief for a team that has had one of its worst seasons for one of the longest tenured owners and drivers in the sport.  Ken Muskatel was seminal in getting the deal struck for the Oryx Cup a few years ago so the fact that he will be there seems right, and while the team shouldn't expect anything spectacular they deserve credit for being persistent when so many other teams would have folded the tent.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

International Expansion: What it has meant so far and where it goes from here

The H1 Unlimited Series is one week away from the third annual Oryx Cup in Doha, Qatar.  With this in mind I thought it would be a good time to review the role of international expansion in Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  In a way, it’s hard to believe that it has only been three years, as many things have changed in Unlimited racing since the advent of the Oryx Cup race.  Many new developments continue to happen, with some that could be happening sooner than one might think.
In late 2007, many hydroplane websites began reporting rumors and negotiations with a number of parties in the Middle East who were interested in bringing the Unlimiteds over for a race in their country.  I’ll admit now that at the time I thought there really was nothing to these rumors.  Not only had there never been an Unlimited Hydroplane race off of the American Continent, there hadn’t been much variation away from the schedule of the six traditional race sites of Evansville, Madison, Detroit, Tri-Cities, Seattle, and San Diego since 2001.  The only difference on the six traditional race site schedule during the 2000’s were sites that did not stay on the schedule for very long: Lake Havasu City, Arizona in 2000 (which had its debut in 1999), St. Clair, Michigan in 2004, Nashville in 2005, and Valleyfield, Quebec in 2006.  With this in mind, talk of having an Unlimited Hydroplane race halfway around the world seemed at best far-fetched and at worst downright delusional.  Even when the Ellstrom team announced in 2008 they would be racing an abbreviated schedule in order to concentrate efforts on preparing for potential international expansion, I couldn’t help but be skeptical.
Then, it happened.  In December 2008 it was announced that the American Boat Racing Association (as it was still called at the time) had reached in agreement to race in Doha, Qatar as part of a three year deal between the ABRA and the Qatar Marine Sports Federation (QMSF).  It almost seemed too good to be true, and I suppose in a way it still is.  Much of the discussion on hydroplane websites throughout 2009 was whether the Doha deal was for real and if the race was truly going to happen.  The deal was finalized at the Seattle race that year and soon the boats were on their way to Qatar.  Along with the usual excitement that comes from a new race site there was also the promises of new revenue and potentially more international races in the future.  Another thing, which has been fun for me personally, is the opportunity to get up in the wee hours of the morning in order to watch a hydroplane race online.  In my life as a sports fan this is something I had previously only done for World Cup matches and Formula 1 races, so this was a small gesture that was another sign that Unlimited Hydroplane racing truly was going big time.
The growth in just these last three years has been ever present.  First, there was the cosmetic change of the sanctioning body changing its name from the ABRA to H1 Unlimited, which brought the body’s name more in line with other international powerboat racing classes such as Class One (offshore racing) and F1H2O (Tunnel Boat racing).  There has also been the uptick in sponsorship.  The Ellstrom team’s partnership with the QMSF and the sponsorship of Peters & May are direct results of the international expansion, and I would argue that the recent uptick in sponsors for other teams is at least partially due to the sport going global.  There have been growing pains as well.  Some of the traditional domestic race sites saw struggles recently, with San Diego not having a race in 2009 and needing a last minute deal to happen in 2010, the Evansville race in limbo for much of 2009 and no race in 2010, 2011, and no sign that it will be coming back any time soon, and even such stalwarts as Detroit and Seattle having financial questions come up before deals were finalized.  I would say in the end, however, most traditional race sites are strengthened because of international expansion.    They serve as the base from which the sport grows and in the end there is just something cool about race sites such as Madison, Indiana and Tri-Cities, Washington being part of a sport that also races in far off exotic locales.
With all the growth, there is still work to be done.  I feel there still needs to be at least one more race in the Middle East in order for the sport to continue growth and not have the Doha race become an outlier that happens two months after H1’s domestic season ends.  Recently H1 Unlimited signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the leadership of the UIM which should pave the road for further International expansion.  Logistics will always be an issue for potential international races, as will the ability to have proper crew for these races.  Although there are many obstacles, there are probably fewer than there were three years ago when the Qatar race was first announce, and the QMSF deserves a lot of credit for realizing the potential of growth with Unlimited Hydroplane racing and taking that chance.  Also, even if further international expansion means merely the addition of a second Middle Eastern race would a huge benefit, as it would mean more revenue and effectively give the series a North American leg and a Middle Eastern leg.  So although there is still much work to be done, international expansion has all in all been a positive for every aspect of the sport and should mean more benefits in the future.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Putting a Lid on it: The Canopy, and what other Racing Classes can Learn from the Unlimiteds

      It was initially my intention to include a talk about canopy in a larger piece focusing on innovations throughout the history of Unlimited Hydroplane racing, but recent events have meant that canopies should be looked at in more detail.  As I am sure you already know, the racing world has suffered the tragic loss of Dan Wheldon last weekend at the IndyCar race in Las Vegas.  As is almost always the case with any tragedy in racing, the attention quickly turns to safety and what could be done to avoid a similar tragedy in the future.
   With this in mind, the sport of Unlimited Hydroplane racing has garnered some attention in recent weeks with its greatest safety innovation being at the forefront: the canopy.

   The enclosed cockpit, or the use of the F-16 canopy, truly is the greatest innovation in the history of Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  True, other innovations have been more glamorous or even more technologically advanced, but the canopy took what was previously one of the most dangerous forms of racing and made it one of the safest.  It's hard to imagine now, but for previous generations the loss of life of drivers was a sad reality of the sport.  Since the introduction of the canopy, however, there has only been one casualty in the Unlimited class when George Stratton crashedin shallow water while testing  in San Diego in 2000.

   With the overwhelming success that the canopy has proven to be, one might think that it had an easy route to acceptance.  This was not the case, however.  From the introduction of the Unlimited class in 1946 through the 1970's all Unlimited Hydroplanes had open cockpits and only a few had seatbelts.  The thinking at the time, which in hindsight almost seems primitive, was that a driver would be the safest if he were actually thrown from the boat in the event of an accident.  Although the danger was always there, safety was not a top priority in the Unlimited Class.

   This began to change in the early 1980's when Bill Muncey was killed in an accident in 1981 in Acapulco and Dean Chenoweth was lost in 1982 in a blowover in Tri-Cities.  With the loss of Unlimited Hydroplane racing's two winningest and most legendary drivers at that time, attention quickly turned to how such tragic losses could be prevented in the future.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the two teams who suffered the loss of these legendary drivers stepped to the forefront of this noble cause.  First in 1983 the Atlas Van Lines team introduced a cockpit that set the driver lower in the boat and employed seatbelts, helping both of these safety aspects finally gain wide acceptance for the Unlimited Class.

   The biggest safety innovations, however, were coming from the Miss Budweiser team.  After the loss of Dean Chenoweth Jeff Neff, who was not only the Miss Budweiser Crew Chief but also a close friend and brother in law of Chenoweth, set about in developing a way in order to make sure such a loss wouldn't happen again.  In 1986 Neff installed a plexiglass canopy around the driver.  The "Bubble Bud," as it would come to be known, would win in San Diego that year while finishing second in the High Points.  The following season the next step was taken and Ron Jones had an F-16 canopy installed on the Miss Budweiser team's first turbine powered craft.  The Unlimited Racing Commission quickly saw the benefit and passed a new rule requiring all new boats to have an F-16 canopy installed on all new hydroplanes while all Unlimiteds built before 1987 were given until 1989 to make the change.  In a short amount of time, one of the most dangerous  forms of racing became one of the safest.  In the two plus decades since the canopy mandate, there has been only one loss of life in an Unlimited: George Stratton, who crashed in shallow water in San Diego in 2000.  The canopy truly is the greatest innovation in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, and the benefits of this innovation are felt at nearly every race.  For more on this I would highly recommend reading Fred Farley's fine article on the development of the F-16 canopy.


   Moving to current events, I'm sure by now you have heard of the tragic loss of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas.  As is usually the case in accidents like this, the attention quickly turns to safety and how such tragic losses can be prevented in the future.  Some of the proposals have included attempting to slow the cars down, which would only be effective as long as it would take for engineers to figure out how to speed the cars up again.  Another more extreme proposal has been that IndyCar should no longer race on banked ovals or perhaps on ovals altogether.  This won't work for a number of reasons, first off obviously IndyCar's biggest event takes place on an oval and beyond that part of IndyCar's culture is a mixture of oval and road races.  Without oval races IndyCar would be nothing more than an underclass to Formula 1. On Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain (which, in my opinion, is not only the best racing talk show but the best sports talk show of any kind on television) a discussion took place questioning whether a canopy similar to that used in Unlimited Hydroplane racing should be used in IndyCar racing.  One big worry is oil getting on the windshield of such a canopy.  While it will never be known if a canopy would have saved the life of Dan Wheldon I think it should at least be looked into.  Personally I think that IndyCar races can still happen on high banked ovals but perhaps there should be a chicane put on the backstretch, similar to what Daytona uses for sports car races.  While it's true that such a layout could be written off "not a real oval race" having such a chicane would mean the cars would need to slow down to negotiate the turns and could slow down the cars enough so that a race on a high banked oval could be safely held.    I'm not sure if canopies will make IndyCar racing much safer, but it's something that should at least be looked into.  The success of the canopy in Unlimited Hydroplane racing is obvious, and if it proves to have similar success in other forms of racing then the greatest innovation in the history of hydroplane racing could see benefits throughout racing.