Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unlimited Racing in the South: Remembering the Past. Hopes for the Future.

  It's no secret that motorsports is more popular in the Southern United States than anywhere else in the country and really there are few areas in the world where motorsports have a wider following than in the south.  With this in mind, it's ironic that Unlimited Hydroplane races in the south are few and far between.  There have been a handful of Unlimited race sites in the south through the years, even fewer in larger communities, and really only one southern race site that could be considered a "regular" on the Unlimited schedule.  In the last sixteen years, there has only been one Unlimited race in the south.  That does not mean, however that Unlimited racing cannot return to the South.  Much like I did for a similar post on races on the East coast, I'll briefly review each race site and discuss the chances of a return visit of the Unlimiteds to that site.  Starting with the most recent first:

Nashville, Tennessee: There was a general good feeling around Unlimited Hydroplanes in 2005.  The sport had survived the tumultuous 2004 season that saw a number of teams and race sites taking sides with or against Hydro-Prop and started the new year with a new organization in place (the ABRA, which would eventually become H1 Unlimited), a feeling that anybody could win with the departure of the Miss Budweiser team, and the affirmation that the sport had survived and was on the road to recovery.  To top it all off there was the added excitement of a new race site in the major metropolitan area of Nashville which would bring the sport back to a region it hadn't visited in over a decade.

The Nashville race, however, would show that not everything the new organization touched automatically turned to gold.  First among the issues was the organizers of the Nashville race were unable to effectively promote the race.  Relying on highway billboards, few people in the area even knew a race was going on, or even what an Unlimited Hydroplane was or why they should come to watch them race.  I've seen a number of attendance estimates for the race, but even the highest estimates still put the number somewhere under 5,000 attendees to the race.  Also, the course was probably too small for a modern Unlimited race.  The course was nearly circular in shape in order to fit the course onto Percy Priest Lake, and the course was still so narrow that only four boats could race on the front line.  It was purported to be a 2 mile course, but that was largely questioned when boats began to post "official" lap speeds that would have been fast even for San Diego in the pre-fuel restriction turbine era.  Despite the drawbacks, the race wasn't all that bad.  The few people who did come out to watch the race were treated to a number of tight heat races and a Final that, although confusing with a number of penalties, was an exciting heat where the U-3 was apparently on the way to victory until the boat lost its prop a few yards from the finish line, giving the victory to Jean Theoret and the U-8 LLumar Window Film.

After the inaugural event, the organizers decided to take their losses and not make a second go of it.  The Unlimiteds never returned to Nashville.

Chances of Coming Back: Perhaps.  There was a concerted effort to bring the race back in 2008.  This was largely spearheaded by then U-3 team manager Rick Bowles, who had started an LLC known as Boat Racing Venues, Inc. with the purpose of developing new race sites for the Unlimiteds.  Initially the group actually claimed a tentative agreement for two races in 2008, one in May and one later in the year after the San Diego race.  Once again, however, getting the word out that there was to be a race in Nashville, with few in the city or even the city's Event & Conventions Bureau unaware of the event.  For a rather tongue in cheek article about the tentative 2008 Nashville race, check out this gem from Hydro Insider:

Eventually both tentative races were quietly cancelled, and nothing more was ever heard from Boat Racing Venues, Inc.  So with all of these issues it seems like having a race in Nashville is a non-starter, right?  Well not exactly.  First, Nashville is a hotbed for racing, with a NASCAR Nationwide race, a NASCAR Truck Series race, and a number of stock car and dirt track races happening around Nashville.  The city is also one of many in the south that just seems to keep getting bigger so it's a thriving area.  The biggest issue lies with getting the word out about Unlimited Hydroplanes, which hopefully could be accomplished with a more aggressive marketing campaign than what was used for the previous Nashville race.  So although it would take work, I wouldn't completely write off a return to Nashville.

Lewisville, Texas For a one off event in 1971and for a number of years in the early 1990's the Unlimiteds came to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  In 1971 the hydroplanes raced for the Atlas Van Lines Trophy that saw Billy Schumacher drive the Pride of Pay'N Pak to victory.  The modern race was on the schedule for three years and in general had good racing but also had some drawbacks.  First, all three races struggled with the elements, usually in the form of high winds and rough water.  When watching some of the heat racing from this event it's almost like watching a Detroit race, only a little more rough.

Another drawback was that the organizers always seemed to pick a different weekend to hold the event.  The race was held the last weekend in May in 1993, the second weekend in June in 1994, and the third weekend in July in 1995.  This was perhaps an effort to find a weekend in which the boats could race safely, but still it's hard to build up a crowd for an annual event when the weekend for the event keeps changing.

Chances of coming back: Probably not.  As mentioned before Lewisville Lake was an extremely rough course and could even be considered unsafe.  Also, although the Dallas-Fort Worth area is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, it also means it is one of the busiest with lots of distractions so it might be a tough market to break into.  There is, however, definitely a market for racing there.  Texas Motor Speedway opened the year after the final Lewisville race and the track hosts an IndyCar race as well as two races of all three of the major NASCAR circuts.  So while it would be tough to reintroduce hydroplanes to this area, it wouldn't be impossible.

Miami, Florida There was a time when Miami had a spot along with Madison, Detroit, Tri-Cities, Seattle, and San Diego as one of the race sites that the Unlimiteds visited nearly every single year.  Starting its string of modern Unlimited races in 1971, Miami was usually the annual kickoff to the Unlimited season and the Marine Stadium offered spectators an  up close and personal view of the hydros that few other race sites could boast.  I've heard multiple people say they could quite literally feel the mist coming off the roostertails when sitting in the stands.  The narrow saltwater course and the fact that the first race of the year meant that many teams were still working out some bugs also meant that the attrition level was abnormally high for this race.  Most notoriously, in 1978 the Final Heat only had one legal starter as Bill Muncey drove the Atlas Van Lines to five uncontested laps while the other five Final Heat entries sat dead in the water.  Attrition was also high in the 1980's when saltwater proved to be a constant foe of turbine engines, but this also lent the race to some surprise results during this time.  Scott Pierce scored his first career victory in the Executone in Miami in 1985.  The Miss Madison was able to finish second in its outdated "Winged Wonder" hull in 1985 and 1986. Fellow Madison entry and perennial also ran U-22 owned by Jim Sedam also scored a surprise second place finish in 1987 racing as Pantry Pride.  The race was strong throughout the 1970's and 1980's, but that began to change as the 1990's came along.  The course, already narrow, was shortened from a 2.5 mile configuration to a less than two mile configuration and the question began to be openly asked if the course was safe for modern Unlimited Hydroplanes to race on.  There was also the question of what danger the hydroplanes and other boats in Biscayne Bay posed to the wildlife in the area, particularly the manatees, an endangered specie which many worried could not swim away fast enough to avoid harm from passing boats.  Another thing that should not be overlooked is that within about a five year period the NBA's Miami Heat, baseball's Florida Marlins, and the NHL's Florida Panthers were all added as expansion team, so a city that previously only had the Dolphins suddenly had a number of professional sports distractions.  The race was off the schedule in 1991 but came back for 1992.  Then in the Summer of 1992 Miami suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew.  Marine Stadium was hit hard and was actually condemned by the city.  Organizers went ahead with the 1993 race, which proved to be a rather surreal event where the boats raced in front of a crowd gathered on either side of an empty stadium.  After suffering a seemingly insurmountable number of odds, the Miami race was off the schedule for 1994 and hasn't been back since.
Chances of it coming back: Decent.  There is a concerted effort to restore and reopen Marine Stadium in Miami.  If you haven't already I would highly recommend checking out their website and facebook group:
Obviously if they are successful in their preservation effort there will be a desire to once again have major events in the stadium, so Unlimiteds would be at the top of this list.  The questions still linger if modern Unlimiteds could safely run on the course, but hopefully these could be answered in time.  Also, the danger that the hydroplanes pose to manatees is still a concern.  I'm all for having more Unlimited Hydroplane races, but not if it comes at the price of putting an endangered animal at risk.  Hopefully these concerns could be answered in time and the Unlimiteds could make a long awaited return to Miami.

Houston, Texas The largest city in Texas was an Unlimited stop for a time in the 1980's.  The race represented a return of the UIM World Championship into the Unlimited class.  Starting in 1982, the race was usually the event on the Unlimited schedule so it had the added bonus of also seeing the year's High Point champion decided for much of its history.  There were a number of upsets at this site with Renault winning in 1983 and Miss Tosti Asti taking the win in 1984.  It was also home to perhaps the greatest controversy of the 1980's: It was here where in 1983 Chip Hanauer's boat went dead in the water in the Final Heat  and Jim Kropfield was apparently on his way to a High Point championship in the Miss Budweiser, but then Chip Hanauer jumped in the water, forcing a red flag stop.  The Miss Budweiser went dead in the water during the rerun of the Final, and the championship went to the Atlas Van Lines.  The plan was for the race to host the Gold Cup in 1985, but financial troubles meant that not only would the organizers not be able to host the Gold Cup but the race itself was off the schedule.  There was a brief revival in 1989 with the race called the Exxon Blast Off, this time as the first race of the year rather than the last that saw the Miss Budweiser win, but this was a one time event and once again Houston was off the schedule.

Chances of it coming back: See you in 2012, hopefully.  Initially the Unlimiteds were scheduled to return in 2011 as part of H1's partnership with the P1 Superstock series, but the historic drought in the area meant that Clear Lake fell to levels unsafe to host an event and both the H1 and P1 races were cancelled for this year.  The drought has, for the most part, subsided although it will take time for the area to recover from the seven months of no rain.  Early indications point to the race happening in 2012 for both H1 and P1, but I will wait until the official announcement before I put a definite yes or no in here.  Houston is a thriving market and, unlike most former Unlimited race sites in the South, does not have a plethora of different sporting distractions from when the race happened.  The sports scene in modern Houston is pretty much the same it was in the 1980's.  So hopefully the race will be back in 2012 and the Unlimiteds will make a long awaited return to the south.

Owensboro, Kentucky: I went back and forth as to whether or not Owensboro technically qualified as a Southern race but I decided to included it in this post.  It is, after all, a race site that is held in fond memory by many within the hydroplane community.  The race was held from 1969-1978 and in many ways it was the counterpart to the Madison race.  Both races were on the Ohio River and were noted for having a race course that went near or even underneath a bridge that crossed the river.  The Madison race was and is for the Indiana Governor's Cup, while the Owensboro race was for the Kentucky Governor's Cup.  Jim McCormick, most famous for driving the Miss Madison to a Gold Cup victory in front of that boat's hometown fans, provided the home boat for many years for the Owensboro race in his role as team owner.  The race site also saw some great performances by a hydroplane legend.  Bill Muncey won the event three straight times twice from 1970-1972 and from 1976-1978, meaning that six of the event's ten total races had the same winner.  That last year was also the only year that the event hosted the Gold Cup.  Although ten boats showed up in the Owensboro pits for that race, only six qualified, giving the event one of the smallest Gold Cup fields in the modern era.  The event was essentially a walkaway for Bill Muncey and the Atlas Van Lines, especially after his only real competition in that time (Dean Chenoweth in the Miss Budweiser) struck a submerged log and lost a sponson in the third heat.  The Owensboro Gold Cup also boasted the highest cash prize of any Gold Cup to that date, but apparently it proved to be too much of a burden for the race site as Owensboro was off the schedule for 1979, being effectively replaced by the Evansville race.

Chances of coming back: Pretty good.  As I mentioned before, this race site is held in fond memory by many within the hydroplane community, especially those with roots in the Ohio River Valley. With Evansville now off the schedule and no real signs of coming back anytime soon there is a thought that Owensboro could return the favor of sorts and take Evansville's spot on the schedule.  Add to that the fact that Owensboro has recently seen a massive effort to make its riverfront a more attractive tourist spot through new building and a beautification effort and the city is all but begging to be brought back onto the schedule.  That does not mean there are drawbacks, however.  First and foremost there has yet to be a person or committee with ample capital who has actively campaigned for an Unlimited race in Owensboro. There are safety concerns of racing modern Unlimiteds, but at least from what I can tell the river is no more narrow at Owensboro as it is in Madison.  Also, in a way starting a new race site develop in a mid-sized city in western Kentucky is a contrast to the current direction of H1 to develop new race sites in large cities or international race sites.  So it will take work, but there is a decent chance that Owensboro could come back sometime in the future.

Jacksonville, Florida The north Florida city hosted a one off event in 1974.  The race known as the Admiral's Cup served as the season finale for that season.  I haven't been able to find much information on this race, other than the Miss Budweiser won and the Pay N Pak finished an overall second despite finishing first in the Final Heat.  To be perfectly blunt, I can't even definitively say what body of water the race took place on.  If you have any more information on this feel free to share.
Chances of it coming back: Unlikely.  Jacksonville, like many cities in the south, has trouble getting people to come out to the sporting events that already take place in the city.  There seems to be a rumor of the NFL's Jaguars leaving the city every year, and there really isn't much racing tradition going on in the area to speak of.  Also, it's hard telling that the city has a venue suitable for modern Unlimited racing.  There is a chance of a race happening in Jacksonville if local organizers take interest, but that could be said of any city in North America.

Tampa, Florida The Florida Gulf Coast metropolitan area had three events spread over five years.  The 1966, 1967, and 1970 seasons kicked off on the Courtney Campbell Causeway in the Tampa Bay area and was in many ways intended to be a "home" race for Tampa resident Bernie Little's Miss Budweiser team.  The inaugural event was won by Bill Muncey in the Miss US.  The 1967 event was marred by tragedy when Bill Brow was thrown from the cockpit of the Miss Budweiser and died a couple hours later.  Billy Schumacher drove the Miss Bardahl  to victory in that race, but Brow's death (as well as similar tragedies that marred the 1966 season) put a black mark on the event and Tampa was off the schedule for two years thereafter.  A decent sized crowd showed up for the 1970 event, but little else went right.  High winds and rough water plagued the event, as did numerous delays.  A few heats were run in rough water, but then the decision was made to postpone the final until 8am the following Monday (could you imagine that happening today?) and a sparse crowd came to see the Miss Budweiser put a cap on a crazy weekend that ended with Dean Chenoweth drive the boat to victory in its "home" race. Organizers decided to not hold another event, but the next year was the first modern Miami race largely through the efforts of Bernie Little so Florida held its spot as the Unlimited Hydroplane season kickoff for the next two decades.
Chances of coming back: Probably not.  There are a number of offshore events in the area so the interest is there for powerboat racing, but as is often the case a venue that's good for offshore racing is way too rough for Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  The Tampa race was also before a time there were the Buccaneers, Rays, and Lightning in Tampa so any new event would have to compete for attention in a way that they didn't before.  There would also be the issues of getting the proper permits in what is a very busy seaway.  So why the Tampa Bay area is growing and there are a number of powerboat races in the area, having an Unlimited race there would take quite a bit of work.

Guntersville, Alabama The small northern Alabama community held a race for much of the 1960's.  I've already covered much of what I wanted to say about the Guntersville in my post "When Small Towns go Big Time," but for the purposes of this post I think it should be noted that Guntersville was in many ways Unlimited racing's "race of the south" during the sport's golden era.  The race was known as the Dixie Cup for much of its existence and enjoyed the media attention that comes from being the season's first race for much of its lifespan.  The event always received much attention, apparently had good attendance for the event's lifespan as well as payouts for the participants, and didn't seem to have any major weather or safety issues during the event.  Unfortunately, Guntersville is a very small town (it has a population of around 5,000) in an isolated area so although it is a good natural venue for Unlimited racing the fact that it was such a sparsely populated area meant that the sport was able to overlook the area and Guntersville was off the schedule after the 1969 season.
Chances of it coming back: Perhaps.  Guntersville is still a natural venue for Unlimited racing, and is in a hotbed for racing (Talladega Superspeedway is not far from Guntersville).  Obviously the worries of having the Unlimiteds race in such a sparsely populated area are still there.  Sam Cole mentioned a possible return to Guntersville in passing in an interview a few years ago, but nothing more really came of that.  So it's left to be seen whether there is room in the future of H1 for a place that had the advantage of being a great venue for the sport but the disadvantage of being in the middle of nowhere.

Elizabeth City, North Carolina  The small northeastern North Carolina port town was regular stop for the Unlimiteds during the 1950's.  The race, known as the International Cup, served as the hometown race for longtime hydro personality Henry Lauterbach.  Although the race had a couple events after the formation of the Unlimited Racing Commission in 1957, the event still had the feel of a pre-URC era race in that it was usually only attended by a handful of Unlimiteds which were exclusively Eastern boats.  The Gale V won the inagural event in 1954 attended by five boats from Detroit.  Danny Foster won the 1955 race behind the wheel of the Tempo VII 1956 International Cup in the Miss US I.  In 1957 the race was officially an exhibition and actually took place on the same week as the Madison race.  The Miss US IV was the only Unlimited to show up that week and was declared the winner by default.  The last International Cup race was in 1958, with the Miss US taking first in a field of four boats.
Chances of it coming back: Probably not.  As can be seen, the Elizabeth City race was never a "major" Unlimited race and only brought a handful of participants, so it's not like the race has deep boat racing roots.  There are a number of offshore events in the area and the P1 Panther boats had a race in Morehead City, North Carolina this year, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a return of the Unlimiteds to Elizabeth City.

So there you have it.  Nine, and really only eight, Unlimited race venues in the Southern United States during the modern era.  Despite being the hotbed for racing in this country, for whatever reason there simply haven't been many Unlimited races in this area.  Looking to the future, I figured I would look at some other areas that could be possible venues for the future.  This isn't a prediction of a race happening at any of these places, but merely places I think would be good for an Unlimited race.

Chattanooga, Tennessee The southern Tennessee city has hosted a number of powerboat races in recent years, including offshore and smaller class hydroplanes. Chickamauga Lake is like many TVA projects in that it is a long, narrow lake that provides a lot of good vantage points from the shore.  A possible Unlimited exhibition was mentioned here a few years ago although nothing more really came of that.  With the exception of Houston and Miami, I would be least surprised if an Unlimited race for Chattanooga was announced than anywhere else in the south.

North Georgia Atlanta is often called the capitol of the South, and it could easily be called the motorsports capitol of the nation (although Charlotte and Indianapolis might have something to say about that).  Along with one of the most popular NASCAR tracks, there are drag races, tractor pulls, and probably the hottest hotbed for dirt track racing around the Atlanta area.  So the interest for racing is there, but it is also easy for events to get lost in the shuffle of this large metropolitan area.  There is also the issue of the sporting events that already take place in Atlanta struggling with attendance.  The Braves often play in front of large sections of empty bleachers despite being in contention seemingly every single season.  The NHL Thrashers struggled with attendance for their entire existence and finally abandoned the city for Winnipeg.  With that said the interest is still there for a motorsports event and NASCAR provided a golden opportunity for H1 (and any other motorsport body for that matter) when it inexplicably made the decision to take one of Atlanta's two Cup races away and give it to Kentucky Speedway.  So a fanbase used to having two Cup races in their backyard could look elsewhere for their racing fix.  The biggest drawback to having a race at least right within Atlanta is that there are no real natural venues for the sport in the city.  There are, however, a number of TVA lakes around Atlanta and the Atlanta suburbs have seen huge growth over the last decade or so.  So the North Georgia area provides a decent opportunity for the sport to grow.

Mobile, Alabama This one is a bit of a stretch.  I've never actually been to Mobile, but I've heard great things from people who have visited the Alabama coast.  I've seen commercials trying to get people to visit the Alabama coast on TV stations as far north as Cleveland, so H1 could provide the area an event to promote in such commercials.  I'm sure getting the permits to race in such a busy port might be a struggle, but with a little work this could be a good event.

So while there haven't been many Southern venues throughout the years, that doesn't mean the sport can't grow there.  The Houston race, if it does go off as planned for 2012, should be beneficial in infiltrating the market.  If Miami or another venue come back there could even be a "southern swing," and the Unlimited Hydroplanes can take their place in the motorsports hotbed of the United States.