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.