Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Madison Movie: Deciphering Fact from Fiction

“It’s a movie.”  It’s a phrase one often says or hears when a movie has moments that are unbelievable, impossible, or just plain silly.  And for the majority of the time, I have no issue with this assessment.  After all, a major part of the appeal of movies is that it gives one an escape from their otherwise routine everyday life.  When “movie magic” becomes an issue, however, is when inaccurate or untrue parts of a movie covering a historical event are accepted as historical fact.  For this post, I will be focusing on the issues that arise from the movie “Madison.”  The movie has a plethora of parts that are historically inaccurate, spanning the movie quite literally from start to finish.  I’ve usually overlooked these, but in recent weeks I’ve heard people say things like Madison hosted the “first professional boat race” (it didn’t) or that the Madison Regatta “dates back to 1903” (it doesn’t , the first known organized boat race in Madison was in 1911, while the first modern Madison Regatta was in 1949) with the grounds of these claims being “well it’s in the movie…” so hopefully I can put some of these falsehoods to rest.
                Since the release of “Rudy’ in 1993, sports movies that are based on a true story have followed a very similar pattern: Take a memorable sports moment, twist  and add facts and events until the plot of the movie barely resembles the story it was based off of,  add a bunch of clichés about how the story’s protagonist refueses to give up on his or her goal although seemingly everyone around him or her is telling him or her to give up, and throughout the movie play licensed music from the time period of the movie as a constant reminder of when the movie was taking place.  The movie “Madison” certainly falls into this category.   As for the inaccuracies of the movie, let’s begin by looking at some of the major plot themes.

                Jim McCormick was not a Madison native nor did he ever live in Madison.  Although he was a regular in Madison and was well known and liked around the community (especially after the 1971 Gold Cup) he lived in Owensboro, Kentucky for most of his life.  The theme of a hometown hero with deep roots within the town driving his hometown boat to victory out of love for his community is simply false.
                The movie’s major theme of a town that is dying due to the declining use of river transport is more fitting for the Madison of 1871, not 1971.  While Madison was by no means an economic powerhouse during this time period (or any other period in post-Civil War America for that matter) it wasn’t because of the loss of barge traffic.  If anything, Madison was experiencing a bit of a small economic boom in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The IKE Powerplant came on line, bringing a number of jobs and actually increasing river traffic in Madison as barges delivered coal to the new plant.  Historic Madison, Inc. was founded in 1961 and with it the groundwork for the town’s modern tourism industry was put into place.  Also, a number of factories were opened in Madison at this time.  I’ve heard a number of people say that when they were attending Madison High School teachers had to all but beg the older students to stay in school and care about their grades because the promise of a decent paying factory job was always there.  While the warning of “most of those factory jobs will be gone” largely came true in later decades, in 1971 the economy of Madison wasn’t quite as difficult as it was shown.  Sure, the absence of an interstate in the town hurt back then like it does now, but the idea that the city was hurting due to the decrease in river shipping was about a century too late for this movie.
                The Miss Madison was nowhere near the struggling laughingstock as it is portrayed in the movie.  The team already had three podium finishes on the season coming into the Madison Gold Cup and the case could easily be made that the team was “due” for a victory.  Sure, the Miss Madison had some very lean years in the late 1960’s but the old hull was enjoying a bit of a renaissance as the decade turned.  A highway accident en route to the 1970 season opener in Miami proved to be a bit of a blessing in disguise  when boat designer  Les Staudacher came to help with the rebuild, and was able to correct and iron out many other knicks and imperfections that the boat had picked up in over a decade of racing.  When the boat rejoined the tour an obvious increase in speed could be seen by anyone within the sport.  That isn’t to say the Miss Madison wasn’t an underdog coming into the 1971 Gold Cup.  The team was, after all, still a small operation competing against deep pocketed owners with corporate sponsorship.  Despite this, the Miss Madison, as has often been the case throughout much of the team’s history, was able to compete with wealthier teams on the water and the idea that they were barely able to even make a showing in the previous races is stretching the truth.
                Jim McCormick didn’t leave the sport in the years previous to 1971 due to a wreck that took the life of his best friend.  McCormick did leave the Miss Madison team after briefly driving for them in 1966, but that was simply because he left to drive for other teams.  McCormick was also never the Crew Chief of the Miss Madison, although he was an owner for a number of years and during the 1971 season he was actually splitting time between driving duties for the Miss Madison and the responsibilities of owner of the Miss Timex entry.  With this in mind, the Skip Prosser and Buddy Baker characters in the movie are also fabricated.
                Harry Volpi did come to the aid of the Miss Madison team prior to the Gold Cup, but not in the manner which is shown in the movie.  The idea of using nitrous oxide for a boost in RPM’s was an accepted practice in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing by 1971, not the outrageous and dangerous idea that was shown in the movie.  In fact, the Miss Madison was one of the few teams to NOT use nitrous oxide boosters during the 1971 Gold Cup.  Instead, the Miss Madison team experimented with a fuel-alcohol system for a boost in performance.  This is where Harry Volpi comes in.  Volpi was one of the sport’s most renowned experts on Allison engines during this time, but was also without a team due to the fact that the team he had previously worked for  (the Miss Smirnoff) had left the sport.  The Miss Madison team brought in Volpi to assist in getting the bugs worked out of their fuel alcohol system, and the rest is history.
                Madison didn’t get the right to host the Gold Cup thanks to a blind draw, but the story behind how they got to host the Gold Cup is convoluted in and of itself.  The Madison Regatta committee put up a smaller than usual $30,000 bid to host the Gold Cup for 1971, but thanks to a confusion in when the date for when the bids were due, along with the fact that many race sites were timid to bid for the Gold Cup after the financial struggles San Diego faced in hosting the 1970 Gold Cup meant they weren’t going to be on the schedule for 1971 (by the way, San Diego trying to get on the schedule by knocking Madison off the schedule is another inaccuracy) meant that Madison’s bid was the only one in to the APBA offices at the time.  Of course, all of that might be difficult and slightly boring to put into a movie, so I’m willing to give the makers of Madison a pass on this one.  However, the story of Jim McCormick writing a check for money the city didn’t have and then the city scrambling to raise that money is simply made up.
                The 1971 Gold Cup race took place on July 4, not Labor Day Weekend.  The Sunday before Labor Day was the traditional date for the Madison Regatta for a number of years, but Fourth of July weekend has been the date for the Madison Regatta for every season since 1967, with the exception of 1998 when river conditions forced the event to be postponed until Labor Day Weekend.  I suspect this was done due to the fact that most of the riverside and crowd scenes of the movie were filmed during Labor Day Weekend, but the leaves don’t really start changing in Madison until late September so I don’t think that really made much difference.
                As far as I know, the Miss Madison crew never stole an engine out of a fighter plane on display and to be honest I can’t believe this scene made it past the original draft of the script let alone a filmed part of the movie that was included in the final edit .  Nearly every critic’s review I’ve read of “Madison” talks about how ridiculous this scene is, and to be blunt I would have to agree with them.
                The ABC Wide World of Sports broadcast of the 1971 Gold Cup was recorded, not live as was shown in the bar.  Very few Unlimited Hydroplane races have been broadcast on live television to a national audience.  The only one I can remember right off the top of my head was the 1997 Gold Cup race, which was shown live on ESPN 2 back in the days when that station was only carried on higher tier cable packages.  Obviously the main reason for this is that Unlimited Hydroplane racing doesn’t really have a wide national appeal, but also the unpredictable nature of the sport does as well.  Just look at this year so far when both the Madison and Detroit Final Heats took place more than an hour after they were scheduled due to water conditions.  Could you imagine the logistics and explanations that would have to take place if a network was demanding the Final be shown live at a certain point?
                Even in the epilogue there are inaccuracies.  First, the comment that the Miss Madison hadn’t “won a race since 1973” obviously isn’t the case.  When the movie was originally filmed in 1999 the team hadn’t won a race since 1993.  I’m not sure why they just didn’t say this, but maybe 1973 just sounds better.  Also, in between the filming and the release of the movie the Miss Madison won at Madison in 2001.  They were actually showing a trailer of the movie that year on the riverfront, and after Steve David drove the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison to victory a few people said “now they can film a sequel!”  Also, although Mike McCormick competed for a few years in the Unlimited Lights, he never competed in the Unlimited Class (although he was a crew member for many of his dad’s entries in the 1970’s and 1980’s, rising to the title of Crew Chief).
                These are just a few, like I said.  If I were to go over every inaccuracy in the move I’d pretty much have to go over every scene and the entire plot.  So the question becomes: what in the movie actually is accurate?  Aside from the obvious of the Miss Madison won the Gold Cup in Madison, one scene in particular always comes to mind.  In the opening scene where Mike McCormick hears the engine on the river then races down to the riverfront on his bicycle to watch the boats practice was an integral part of any Madisonian’s childhood for a number of years.  Anymore with expanded social media coverage of the sport, it seems like we know three weeks in advance whenever a team is planning on trailer firing their boat, but in the years before the internet there really wasn’t any way of knowing when the boats would be testing until they actually did it.  Therefore, the scene of hearing the Miss Madison’s engine then riding your bike down to the river to watch it do some testing laps became something of a rite of Spring for a number of years.  Aside from that, there was one point in the movie where a man pronounces Louisville “LOUGH-vul” and yes, that’s how people from Madison (myself included) pronounce it.  So there are at least two points of the movie that are accurate.
                So with all my critiques of the movie, one might be wondering of my opinion of the movie.  First off, it’s all but impossible for me to be objective on this film.  I love movies, I love hydroplane racing, and I love my hometown, so therefore the only major motion picture that has hydroplane racing as a main plot point, as well as one of only two movies to be filmed in my hometown, is going to be appealing no matter what.  If that wasn’t enough, I’m actually an extra in the movie (I’m in the crowd shots when the races are taking place and when the Miss Madison is coming back to the docks) so once again this movie is going to hold a special place for me no matter the quality.  With that said, “Madison” is by no means a great movie.  The numerous plot holes, script writing that swings from very cliché to downright ridiculous, and the numerous historical inaccuracies keep it from being so.   A couple times I’ve shown it to friends who aren’t familiar with hydroplane racing who have said something along the lines of “this is stupid, can we watch something else” about 45 minutes into the movie.  One strong point, however, is that the movie is very well acted.  Jim Caviezel, Mary MacCormack, and Bruce Dern all make the most of some shoddy writing and turn in great performances.  Even Jake Lloyd, who was much maligned for his performance in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” turns in a respectable showing and portrays a kid that really anyone who grew up in a small town can relate to.  “Madison” does have its appeal, especially for hydroplane fans but also for those who grew up in small towns or have fond memories of Summers with their dad.  So it’s a decent movie, just don’t use it as a reference for a historical argument.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Going for the Gold: When Powerboat Racing was an Olympic Sport

The Olympics are in full swing and with that many sports are brought into the limelight that are, shall we say, questionable in their inclusion on the Olympic program.  Some of the usual targets are Synchronized Swimming, Synchronized Diving, Table Tennis, Dressage, and a seemingly endless line of shooting and gymnastics events.  With that said, a look into the Olympics’ past finds even more less than deserving “sports.”  Among these include Croquet, Basque Pelota (whatever that is),Rogue, Polo, Tug of War, and even powerboat racing.  It’s hard to believe now, but for one year powerboat racing had a place on the Olympic program.  In the 1908 London games, medals for powerboat racing were awarded along with the other sports that many have long associated with the Summer Olympics.
                Before looking at the action of the 1908 Olympic Water Motorsports (as it was more commonly called back then) events, it should be duly noted that the Olympics in those early were quite different from the two week festival they have grown to be.  The Summer Olympics in those early years were often spread out over months and were often tied to World’s Fair exhibitions with Olympic competitions merely being another event on the program of these multimonth events.  The 1908 London Games were spread out over seven months, with the Opening Ceremonies being held on April 27 and the Closing Ceremonies held on October 31.  Instead of representing their country, athletes often wore the colors of their athletic club, University, or simply what they chose to wear, although the 1908 Opening Ceremonies were the first time that Olympic athletes marched behind their nation’s flags.  The events on the Olympic program often had a local flavor, sometimes even hosting events that were rarely if ever played outside their host nation.  For example, in the 1904 St. Louis Games Basketball, which was a sport that was thirteen years old but was quickly spreading in popularity through American YMCA’s, was staged as a demonstration sport.  With this in mind, powerboat racing was wildly popular in Great Britain at this time.  The first Harmsworth Trophy race (officially the International Motorboat Trophy) was held in Queenstown, Ireland in 1903, over two decades before the first British Grand Prix.  These Harmsworth Trophy races were often huge events that drew crowds of over a half a million spectators.  Despite the wide popularity in Great Britain, the footprint of powerboat racing in the early 20th century didn’t go much further than France and the United States.  So despite the fact that the sport was rarely if ever staged outside of these three nations, the fact that the Olympics were held in the hotbed of powerboat racing of that time was enough to get the sport on the program.  It should also be of note that, despite these were the London Games, the races were held 75 miles south of London in Southampton, another example of the wide open feel of the Olympics of that time.
The Water Motorsports events were scheduled for August 28 and 29, 1908in Southampton.    

       Plans for the event were apparently optimistic, as three different classes of boats were scheduled to compete for medals: an open class, an under 60 feet class, and a 6.5-8 meter class which essentially broke the competition down into a “large, medium, small” event.  Despite the seemingly optimistic staging of the event with three different medal competitions, the boat attendance had to damper that optimism.  Only six boats showed up to compete in the events, five of which were British boats and one of which was a French craft.  Only two boats entered the three events, and the events were, shall we say, less than competitive.
                The first event to be held was the Open Class (officially Class A).  Two boats, the Dylan and the Woleseley-Siddely, answered the starting gun.  The race was scheduled for eight laps around the five mile course, but before one lap was completed the Dylan withdrew.  The Wolseley-Siddeley completed one lap, but then returned to the dock after it was determined that the weather was too severe to continue.
The Wolseley-Siddeley making its way through the rough Southampton course

                Despite the first race being called due to inclement weather, later on that day the Under Sixty Foot class (officially Class B) event was held later that day.  Once again only two boats entered, the Quicksilver and the Gyrinus.  Just to clarify, the Quicksilver that competed in this class was an offshore style boat that would cut through the water, and was not the same Quicksilver boat that would compete in the Unlimited Class many years later.  The Gyrinus boat was a pioneer, and early attempt at having a boat plane over the water.  The Quicksilver boat was noteworthy at the time for having a female member on the crew who rode along.  Wife of Quicksilver driver J.M. Gorham, identified only as Mrs. Gorham, was described by a contemporary account as “worthy of special remark as an example of female endurance” for being able to endure a ride on the rough Southampton waters that day.  Both boats ended the first lap pretty much even, but on the second lap the Quicksilver began to take on water and was forced to retire.  The Gyrinus also took on water, but crew members Bernard Boverton Redwood and John Field-Richards were able to dump water off the boat quicker than it was coming on allowing Isaac Thomas Thornycroft to win the first Gold Medal ever awarded for Water Motorsports.  Later in the day a third race, a handicap race between larger and smaller boats, was ran but was not an official part of the Olympic program.
                The next day’s activities began with a Class C (6.5-8 meters) race.  The competitors this time was a small craft known as the Sea Dog, and once again the Gyrinus boat.  For the first few laps it appeared to once again be a very competitive race, with both boats exchanging the lead and officially scored as less than a second between them.  The Sea, Dog, however, had a faulty valve and wound up breaking down on the course.  Thus Thornycroft once again was able to drive to a Gold Medal with no running competition.
Gyrinus II, one of the first examples of a boat that attempted to plane over the water

                After another exhibition handicap race and a sailing race, and other races featuring yacht dinghies and another handicap powerboat competition, the rerun of the Class A “open” class took place.  Once again, the race was seen as a letdown.  The London Times account of the event noted “It will be noted that nothing has been said of the Olympic Race for motorboats of any length or power.  But really, there is very little to be said.”  Once again only two boats entered the event.  The Wolseley-Siddeley returned from before, and the lone French entry the Camille, driven by Emile Thubron.  During the course of the race, the Wolseley-Siddeley ran and was unable to continue, govomg the race to Thubron and the Camille.  The inaugural Olympic powerboat competition was done: three events, six entries, only three finishers.  Before the following Olympics in Stockholm, the International Olympic Committee passed a rule that said no events on the program will include motorized vehicles (a rule that still stands to this day) which ended powerboat racing as an Olympic Sport.  However, considering the nature of the Olympic Water Motorsports racing I’m guessing the news was met with little disappointment.
                What’s just as noteworthy about the Olympic Powerboat competition is how little attention it got, certainly not what one would expect of an Olympic Sport.  Few contemporary accounts exist of the event.  No major competitors were drawn to the competition, as none of the six boats that competed ever won the Harmsworth Trophy, and as far as I know none of them had even entered the competition.  Even during the actual events, the other races held seemed to attain more attention from the spectators and from the newspaper writers covering the event.   So the 1908 Olympic Water Motorsports event exists as a historical anomaly that gets little attention and even in the most complete Olympic accounts.  So while it got little attention, the races were far from a crowdpleaser, and they’re more exemplary of the wide open days of the early Olympics, it should be noted that, yes, the Olympics once really did have powerboat racing on the official program.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Seattle Preview: Will Home Waters be defended?

The H1 Unlimited Tour turns its attention to Seattle this weekend.  The race is almost always one of the biggest and most attended races of the year, and it serves as a homecoming for the majority of Unlimited Hydroplanes teams in the sport's post-World War II era.  Since the Slo-Mo-Shun III won the Gold Cup on home waters in 1951, nearly every Unlimited race in Seattle has been won by a "hometown" boat.  This, of course, has changed in recent years. For the last two Seattle races, and three of the last five, the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison has been able to win the race going away and capture a road win for its fans in Southern Indiana (although to be fair the team has a Seattle sponsor and the boat itself was largely built in Seattle).  This of course does not mean the race will be a cakewalk and a very fast fleet of thirteen boats, eleven of which are based in Washington, are looking to capture one of the sport's most coveted prizes.

The U-1 Spirit of Qatar 96 comes into Seattle with a points lead that was much more narrow than it was the previous week and a sudden sense a vulnerability.  It's hard to imagine that just last week there was talk of the Qatar boat sweeping the season series, but after a blown engine, a blown gearbox, and a disappointing third place finish in both its final preliminary heat and in the Final Heat the seemingly unbeatable team suddenly looks very beatable.  Of course this is a very prideful hardworking team and in previous years when the Qatar team has looked beatable they have responded with a dominating performance in the next race (see: 2008 and 2009 Seattle and 2010 and 2011 San Diego).  Fans should expect nothing less than for this team to come all out for a win this weekend, especially considering that the team has lost the Final in Seattle two years in a row in head to head fashion.

Despite what has largely been an uneven season up to this point, the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison finds itself a scant 190 points behind the leader thanks to consistent performances and numerous heat wins.   In fact, the team finds itself in a place where they would be in the lead in the High Points if it weren't for a couple of untimely penalties in Detroit and Tri-Cities.  The season's midpoint no doubt presents a turning point for the Oberto-Madison team.  If they can put the mistakes behind them and perform well on a course it has been the class of the field the last few years, then the team could be en route to a fourth High Point title.  Otherwise it might just have to be written off as "just one of those years."

Coming off a win, the U-5 Graham Trucking has to be feeling good about its chances coming into Seattle.  Jimmy Shane continues to get more comfortable behind the wheel of his very fast ride, and the results are showing with multiple heat wins in both Detroit and Tri-Cities.  Of course, Seattle is a very different course from Detroit and Tri-Cities and the team struggled in the one other short track race this year in Madison.  If the team can turn in another strong performance this weekend, getting back into the High Point race is not out of the question.

The U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing comes into Seattle showing marked signs of improvement on a weekend that saw the team come out on the short end of the closest finish in a Final Heat in Unlimited Hydroplane history.  In theory, the team should do even better in Seattle with the boat's ability to hold tight in the corners but lack of top end speed.  The boat finished fourth in its Seattle debut last season, and as the team continues to dial in their still new hull an improvement should be expected.

The U-88 Degree Men had a nice rebound weekend in Tri-Cities after their blowover in Detroit.  Scott Liddycoat returns to Seattle where he drove his former ride to an impressive second place that saw him cross Steve David's wake and throw a hip check on Villwock in order to preserve that second place.  Much like the rest of this year's schedule, Seattle is much of an unknown for the team after their long hiatus, but no doubt Liddycoat and the team will be looking to come out for a podium finish and perhaps even a win in the Final.

Arguably the most consistent performer thus far, the U-9 Sun Tan Presents Sound Propeller Systems has found its way to the Final Heat in both Detroit and Tri-Cities.  The Jones Racing entry has been a regular in Seattle even in years when it ran a reduced schedule and has turned in some solid performances despite never winning in Seattle.  While a win in Seattle might be out of the question this weekend, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Jon Zimmerman drive the U-9 to the front row of the Final once again.

The U-17 Miss Red Dot had quite the adventurous day in Tri-Cities that saw Kip Brown break a leg bone in qualifying and force Nate Brown to fill in as driver once again.  Nate will be driving in Seattle, once again acting as de facto owner, driver, and crew chief of the U-17.  The team got a little media attention this week with news that the boat might be up for sale.  While the boat might be changing hands in the future, the focus on this weekend will be getting the U-17 into the Final of its hometown race for the first time.

Unlimited Racing Group has picked up local sponsorship for the weekend wand will be racing as U-11 Acura of Bellevue presents Miss Peters & May in Seattle.  The team had a bit of an uneven day  in Tri-Cities when they finished third, fifth, and sixth in the preliminary heats.  Also, the team would certainly like to do better than their 2011 performance in Seattle where the team failed to finish a heat and actually lost points thanks to penalties.  Obviously, J.W. Myers and the team would like a rebound in Seattle, and this team will come out shooting for a spot in the Final Heat

The U-100 Fox Hill Plumbing had another solid day in Tri-Cities  where the team qualified for the Final but didn't start, although it will probably best remembered for the very hot start the boat had in the third section of heats.  If you haven't seen the video already, go on to the H1 Unlimited site and see the video that looks like something out of a Michael Bay movie.  This has been an emotional season for the Leland Unlimited team, and this race will no doubt be full of emotions, as Fred Leland's entry was a longtime fan favorite in Seattle and was also the site of the team's first win in 1994.  No doubt Greg Hopp will be looking to get into the Final,but this weekend will probably be fondly remembered by the team regardless of the result.

The Evans Brothers racing has secured a number of local sponsors for Seattle and will race as the U-57 Miss DiJulio although attention will always be on Mark Evans thanks to his personality, on the course the team has largely been an also ran and has yet to make it to a Final.  Of course, Evans has turned in some solid performances in Seattle before highlighted by the famous "flip and win" of 1997.  While another victory might be out of the question this weekend, Mark Evans having the U-57 on the front row of the Final isn't.

The U-21 Go Fast Turn Left entry rolls into Seattle after a solid debut at Tri-Cities.  With Seattle being the probable season finale and the team planning on building a new boat for 2013, it could be possible to see the team go all out this weekend.  Brian Perkins has shown a knack for putting a boat in the right place in the right time during his Unlimited career, so with some luck the team could be in the Final and perhaps even finish on the podium.

The second Leland entry, the U-99 Fox Hill Plumbing Too is looking to build off its performance in Tri-Cities.  Driver Ryan Mallow, still relatively new to the Unlimiteds, will be looking for more experience as he continues to get his feet wet in the Unlimited Class.  The team will once again use the "dustbuster" hydro, so in Fred's hometown the team will be paying a sort of silent tribute to Fred Leland's innovative nature and desire to try out new ideas.

Rounding out the field is the U-18 Bucket List Racing.  Kelly Stocklin came into Tri-Cities with very few expectations, but turned heads with a qualifying speed of over 130 mph.  Despite nearly getting lapped in its one heat of competition, it was no doubt a solid performance for this team using the still largely untested T-53 in hydroplane competition.  For Seattle, the team will probably look to build off its performance and get some more testing laps in.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Detroit Preview: Will History be Made or Repeated?

The H1 Unlimited Series comes to Detroit this weekend for its version of the Indianapolis 500.  For over a century, the APBA Gold Cup has served as not only the top one race prize in hydroplane racing but really in powerboat racing as a whole.  All of the sport's legendary, with the exception of one glaring omission, have hoisted the Gold Cup at least once in their career.  Whether or not this will be the year that one legend will finally get the chance to win his Gold Cup is left to be seen, but no doubt his toughest competitor will be tougher to beat on the Detroit River than anywhere else.  Not only that, a number of owners and drivers are looking to capture their first Gold Cup, or repeat an unlikely win from years before.

For the last four times the Gold Cup has been awarded, it has been given to the U-1 Spirit of Qatar 96.  In a somewhat ironic twist, had the Gold Cup been a completed event in 2008 the Ellstrom team would not have won it, as they were not competing in Detroit that year.  Driver Dave Villwock has won the Gold Cup nine times, trailing only former mentor then rival Chip Hanauer's eleven wins.  With its long straightaways, wide first turn, and odd shape, the Detroit River course is often advantageous to the team who is the most skilled at setting up their boat, which is another advantage for this team.  Of course, the Detroit River is also far and away the roughest course on the circut and it isn't unheard of for a team to roll into the Horace Dodge pits as the favorites only to end the weekend with a broken boat and wonders of what might have been.  This, along with their perennial rivals in the Miss Madison camp all but obsessed with winning the Gold Cup, means that a fifth straight Detroit win will be anything but easy for this team.

The APBA Gold Cup has become something of a Moby Dick for driver Steve David and the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison team.  Although the team won the 1971 Gold Cup on home waters, Miss Madison has never won in Detroit in the nearly fifty times it has competed there.  Steve David is facing much the same situation at the twilight of his career that Dale Earnhardt was near the end of his: he has more than established his spot among the sport's legends and has won everything imaginable with one glaring exception: the sport's biggest race.  Although he has a number of second place finishes in Detroit through the years, the top spot on the podium has become elusive.  Also, sponsor Oh Boy! Oberto have yet to see their name etched on the Gold Cup despite a number of runner up finishes by Oberto sponsored boats through the years.  The Miss Madison team showed at last week's race that they are all but evenly matched with their rivals in the Ellstrom camp, so whether or not they can cap a string of second place finishes in Detroit to their top rivals with a victory is left to be seen.

If the USA Racing Partners had any rust after their three year hiatus, it didn't show last week with their U-88 Degree Men entry.  Now they return to the site of the team's most recent, and most memorable win.  It was in 2004 that the USA Racing Partners benefited from a last second penalty call that literally took the Gold Cup out of Dave Villwock's hands and gave the victory to driver Nate Brown and Kim Gregory's team.  Scott Liddycoat once again showed off his phenomenal skills in Madison, capturing two heat wins and   finishing third in the Final.  Liddycoat will also be behind the wheel of a boat that has won the Gold Cup multiple times as the primary Miss Budweiser hull. Liddycoat already has a UIM World Championship in his still young Unlimited career, so adding an APBA Gold Cup to his mantle this weekend is not out of the question.

The U-17 Miss Red Dot comes into Detroit after another solid day in Madison.  Kip Brown will be competing in Detroit for the first time since 2009, having skipped the previous two Gold Cup races to compete in the 5 litre nationals.  Obviously, the Our Gang Racing team has improved by leaps and bounds since that 2009 race so this will be Kip Brown's first legitimate shot at winning the sport's top prize.  The growing story for this team seems to be that they are still chasing that elusive first race win.  It has happened before that a team has captured their first win at the APBA Gold Cup, so history could repeat itself for the U-17.

The U-11 Miss Peters & May also had a solid day at Madison.  In many ways, it could be said that the still new team had its most complete day at Madison, hooking up in some memorable duels with the U-17 and U-88 in preliminary heats and finishing fifth in the Final.  Driver JW Myers has finished on the podium before, and team co-owner Scott Raney has raised the Gold Cup in 2006 in his role as Crew Chief of the Schumacher Racing team.  A podium finish is not out of the question for the U-11, and with the right amount of luck they could find themselves raising the Gold Cup on Sunday afternoon.

The U-100 Leland Unlimited also had a good day at Madison and would have been in the final if the decision had been made to have two trailers in the Final Heat.  Not only that, the team made a great sentimental statement by wearing plaid shirts in tribute to the late Fred Leland.  The team has won the Gold Cup in 1996 and 1999, but driver Greg Hopp is still chasing that elusive first race win in his long career.  A solid season finale in 2011 followed by a decent showing in the season premiere in 2012 would seem to allude to the fact that the team might have turned the corner after years of being an also ran, but whether or not they could follow that up by getting into the Final Heat at Detroit is left to be seen.

The U-5 Graham Trucking had a bit of an uneven weekend at Madison.  After a Heat 1B where the boat finished second and actually led the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison for nearly a lap, a penalty in Heat 2B and a Heat 3A that saw the boat crowded out of the first turn  left the team out of the Final Heat and in eighth place in High Points.  Obviously, driver Jimmy Shane would like to see a better performance in his second race in his role as a fulltime driver.  Owner Ted Porter has won about everything available to him in his time as an owner, with the exception of the Gold Cup, although the team has had some good showings including finishing second and third at the Gold Cup last year.  A first Gold Cup for owner Ted Porter and driver Jimmy Shane isn't out of the question for the team this year.

The U-9 Jones Racing is competing in Detroit for the first time since 2003, although both the hull and driver Jon Zimmerman were there last year in a relief role for the Miss Madison team.  After being in semi-retirement for years, the U-9 team had a decent if not spectacular day at Madison, scoring third place finishes in all three of its preliminary heats.  Now they return to the site of the team's greatest triumph: a 2001 Gold Cup win with Mike Hanson at the wheel of the same hull that the team uses to this day.  Although a repeat performance might be out of the question (unless the team experiences some amazing good luck) a start on the front row of the Final is not out of the question.  In his brief Unlimited career, driver Jon Zimmerman has shown a knack of sneaking into Final Heats with solid heat finishes, so this weekend could be another example of that.

The U-57 comes into Detroit after a day at Madison where they finished all three of their heats but wasn't really in the picture in any of them.  Newlywed Mark Evans has never won a Gold Cup  in his long career and barring an absolutely disastrous day for a number of teams he probably won't win one this year.  If the first race of the year is any indication, it would appear that the purpose of the team's first year is to get their feet wet and let everyone get used to their new roles, much like the U-11 team last year.  Despite this, Mark Evans is about as fiery competitor as anyone on the water so it isn't out of the question for him to sneak into the Final.

The U-22 Great Scott! didn't start its first heat in Madison, but rebounded with a showing in the two Sunday heats with a speed and performance that bluntly has been missing from the team in the last few years.  Driver Mike Webster and the team are looking to build off of this with an even better showing.  The team's hull is well known for performing extremely well in rough water, so an appearance in the Final Heat is possible for Webster racing.

The U-37 Beacon Plumbing experienced both ends of the spectrum at Madison last weekend.  The team turned some hot laps during testing and won Heat 2B going away, but spent much of the weekend sitting dead in the water and recorded DNS's in its other two preliminary heats.  Of course, the team had a very uneven day at Madison last year and followed that up with a solid day at Detroit where the team won a preliminary heat and challenged for the lead before getting into Dave Villwock's roostertail in the Final.  Of course, the team also has a Gold Cup to their credit, as Jean Theoret drove the team's previous hull to the 2006 Gold Cup.  With a little bit of luck and a lot more consistency, a repeat performance could be in store for this year's installment.

Coming into its hometown race, the U-13 Spirit of Detroit is looking to rebound from a day of struggles in Madison.  The story is that the team decided to get together and race only a couple months previous to the start of the season, and to be perfectly blunt the team's showing at Madison bore the fruits of this quick turnaround.  Perhaps the team could take solace in the fact that they're returning to the site of their biggest triumph.  The 2005 Gold Cup victory by Dave Bartush's Spirit of Detroit entry was perhaps the most surprising Gold Cup win in recent history and showed that the newly formed team truly meant business.  Despite no wins since then, the fact that it has all happened before, along with the fact that Cal Phipps has a knack for getting the most out of the equipment underneath him, could inspire the team to shoot for a showing in the Final Heat.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Madison Recap: A Hot Start to the Season and a Continuation of a Heated Rivalry

Another Madison Regatta is in the books and although the result was somewhat predictable, the journey there was anything but.  The majority of the heat racing this weekend was tight and exciting for the most part and the weekend was, start to finish, full of great action.  The fans who braved record setting temperatures this weekend saw a great start to the season and nearly every boat in the pits ran the race without incident.  Despite the great showing by the rest of the field, one thing that is obvious is that the class of the field are still the Spirit of Qatar and the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison teams.  The sport truly has one of the most competitive fields top to bottom that it has ever had.  The only catch is that the rest of the field finds itself having to compete against two of the greatest drivers in the sport's history behind the wheel of two of the best boats in the sport's history.  Of course, the rivalry between these two teams is intense, but fortunately it is also cordial.  The respect that Steve David and Dave Villwock (and by extension the Miss Madison and Ellstrom racing camps) is relevant to anyone close to the sport, but that doesn't mean they don't want to beat each other and won't engage in some great rounds of oneupsmanship.  The rivalry between the Qatar-Ellstrom and the Oberto-Madison camps has become one of the best, if not the best, rivalries in the history of Unlimited Hydroplane racing.

I have a lot to do between now and when my bus leaves for Philadelphia tomorrow so I'll keep this brief.  There were a few heats in particular I wanted to concentrate on.  Heat 2C saw the Oh Boy! Oberto and Spirit of Qatar drawn into the same heat and was another great matchup between the two giants.  Steve David had the inside used the track to his advantage, holding a slight lead for a lap and a half.  On the second turn of lap two, Steve David veered out to make Villwock run a longer track, at which point Villwock saw the chase as futile and backed off to take second place points.  The first head to head matchup of the year went to Steve David.

Heat 3C was another barn burner.  It was almost like a last chance heat in that it was a last heat before the running of the Final Heat, and the U-11 and U-88 were running for a spot on the front row of the final.  The two boats did not disappoint.  For two laps the boats ran practically deck to deck before Scott Liddycoat was able to pull out to a comfortable lead and take the win.

The front row for the Final was the U-6, U-1, U-17, and U-88 with the U-11 as a trailer.  The U-6 followed the U-1 for a while, then cut the course on to the frontstretch and trolled up to the score up buoy.  The U-1 took lane two.  The U-88 tried to sneak into an inside lane, but wasn't able to find a lane and was forced to the outside.  At the start the U-1 had about a two boat length lead with the rest of the field closely bunched together.  Coming out of the first turn, the U-1 had a slight lead and crowded the U-6 in a perfectly legal manner that forced the U-6 to briefly come off the throttle, at which point Villwock was off to the races with his ninth Indiana Governor's Cup.  For a couple laps it looked like there would be a nice race for third place between the U-88 and U-17, but the U-17 went dead in the water in the first turn of the third lap, although he was able to get back running.  The final order of finish was the U-1, U-6, U-88, U-17, and U-11.

A couple random thoughts:

Another great day for the U-17.  In my preview I said that they might be the most prepared boat in the pits and they did not disappoint with a first and two seconds in the preliminary heats.  Although some bad luck in the Final kept them off the podium, a fourth place finish in both the Final and in points is nothing to be ashamed of.

The U-88 also had a day to be proud of, especially considering it was their first race back after a long hiatus.  Not only is Scott Liddycoat quickly establishing himself as one of the most talented drivers in H1, but also as one of the best interviews in the sport.  His two heat victory acceptance speeches were great, and paid a great tribute to USA Racing Partners.

The U-37 had a day that was reminiscent of the days that early turbine boats would have.  The boat was rarely running, but when it was it truly was a sight to see.  Obviously, the new boat is not fully dialed in yet, but when it is they should be right there with the top contenders in the sport.

I guess it goes without saying that the heat was certainly an issue.  A number of people, including Billy Schumacher, had to be taken to the hospital for heat-related illnesses.  A few boats could be seen with smoking engines when they returned to the pits.  One thing I will say though is that at least from my perspective it didn't look like the crowd was down at all due to the heat, so hopefully the expected financial hit the Madison Regatta committee thought they would be taking this year will be negated.

The new course layout worked magnificently.  I still hope to see the course extended to race under the bridge once construction is completed on the new bridge, but it would also be nice to see the first turn kept where it is.  The first turn, although more narrow than in previous years, was without the notorious rollers and rough water that is usually found in that turn.  So hopefully in the future the course will be 2 1/2 miles and shifted slightly to the east, or have the second turn back where it was before and extended to 2 5/6 miles.

In the end, it was another great week for the sport and for the city of Madison, Indiana.  The regatta is always the biggest weekend in the city and this year is no different.  It's always great to see the numerous people I see only once a year since I don't live in Madison full time now.  As for the rest of the season, Madison certainly set the table for what could be an exciting season.  A scant twenty points separate the First and Second place boats, and the rest of the field turned in strong showings.  Of the twelve boats in the pits, all scored points, eleven finished at least one heat, and nine finished all three heats.  Along with one of the most competitive fleets, this might be one of the most reliable fleets that the sport has ever seen.  On to Detroit.

Monday, July 2, 2012

2012 Preview

A long and sometimes tumultuous offseason is finally coming to an end and the season opener in Madison is now a week away.  It was an offseason that had its downs: with the litigation stemming from last year's accident involving the U-21 and potential races in not coming to fruition.  There were also some interesting developments, with new rule changes, new technologies, and the strange saga of the Precision Performance Engineering team where Ted Porter announced that he was putting his entire inventory of hydroplane equipment up for sale, an announcement that was quickly followed by rumors that he would be back for 2012 and finally the announcement that the team would continue as a single entity.
The big news this year, at least in terms of on the water action, is the new starting procedure that brings back fighting for lanes but requires all teams to maintain a minimum speed of 100 mph (with some leeway).  Personally, I'm glad for the return of fighting for lanes, as I feel it is part of what makes powerboat unique.  As for the minimum speed rule, I'm taking a bit of a "wait and see" approach to see how the rule plays out on the water.  I think I would prefer an unregulated fight for lanes approach, but if a minimum speed rule is needed for such a procedure then so be it, and who knows I might like the procedure once I see it in practice.
As for the preview of the teams, I will review every team that scored points the previous season and what their prospects are for 2012, then look at the teams that are new or returning to the circut for this season.  The teams will be reviewed in the order in which they finished in the High Point standings in 2011.

U-1 Spirit of Qatar The team is coming off a historic 2011 that saw Dave Villwock break Bill Muncey's longstanding record for all time career wins and, depending on who you believe, the Ellstrom's primary hull might have broken the record as all time winningest hull as well (much of the controversy surrounds whether or not the T-3 has been the same hull for its entire lifespan).  The crew also showed great resiliency in repairing a boat that was severely damaged at Madison and had it ready for the next week so the team could win the Gold Cup in Detroit.  With that accident in mind, that leads into the biggest news coming out of the team in the off season.  Anyone who has been up close to the Qatar boat in recent years could notice how beat up the boat was, a result of numerous years of hard racing.  To remedy this, the boat was stripped of essential parts, with many being rebuilt or replaced and as a result the boat will be a little lighter going forward to 2012.  Obviously, the goal for any team at the top of their sport is to repeat the following season and the Ellstrom-Qatar team are no different.  The major rebuild should lead to an increase in speed, but might also require some time for the team to get the boat fully dialed in.  Also, with their perennial rivals in the Oberto-Madison camp stepping up their game for 2012 repeating as champions will by no means be easy.  Of course, with the boat that has consistently been the fastest boat in the fleet the last few years potentially getting even faster is bad news for the rest of the fleet and makes the U-1 a favorite to repeat as High Point champions this season.

U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison 2011 was a season of incredible highs and lows for the Miss Madison team.  The season started with a win in the team's hometown race in a costly (and highly controversial) manner that forced the Madison team to lease a backup hull for Detroit where it was largely an also ran.  The Washington swing brought more frustrations after numerous penalties and mechanical issues in the preliminary heats left the team scrambling to make the Final Heat in both races, but the Final Heat of both  races saw brilliant performances by driver Steve David, as he nearly won in Tri-Cities after leading the race for three laps, then won the Seattle race after leading the race wire to wire.  After a solid if not spectacular third place in San Diego, the season apparently ended on a high note with the team capturing its first ever UIM World Championship, but further review showed that the boat had jumped the gun and the long strange season was over.  One sign of the team's skill and experience is that they were able to face so many obstacles and yet still overcome them to win two races and finish second in the High Point race.  With that said, however, finishing second has to be viewed a letdown after winning three straight championships and surely the team will come out with all guns blazing trying to recapture the top spot in the sport.  The big news coming from the Oberto-Madison camp this season is that the Oberto family is increasing their support of the team for the upcoming season, although at the moment it is unclear how exactly the Miss Madison team will be using that extra support.  Much of the offseason work has involved replacing the temporary repairs made following the accident in Madison with more permanent ones, which in turn improves the boat's weight distribution.The last three seasons have shown that the Oberto-Madison camp and the Ellstrom-Qatar camp are competing in a class by themselves with the rest of the field competing for third place, and whomever comes out on top between the two titans often comes down to which camp makes the fewest mistakes and who is able to avoid the most bad luck as the season progresses.  In terms of the High Point championship, it is probably a toss up between the U-1 and the U-6 in terms of who will be the champion, but trying to decide who has the advantage over the other is an exercise in futility.

U-5 Graham Trucking/U-7 The best one two punch in the history of the sport has been consolidated to one team that could make a huge impact on the sport.  2011 was another banner year for Ted Porter and Precision Performance engineering, with three teams competing the full season , the U-7 being right in the mix of things for much of the year, and a historic finish in Qatar that saw the team finish first, second, and fourth.  Then came the off season, which in recent years has been filled with personnel moves from the PPE team and this year was no different.  The moves were covered and analyzed on numerous hydroplane media outlets, this blog included, so there is no need to go over them again.  Instead, the point should be looking forward and needless to say an already great team could be getting better this season.  For the past six seasons Ted Porter has been able to support two teams that are consistently at the upper echelon of the sport, so having all of the resources of PPE going into one team makes them a force to be reckoned with.  There are still some questions going into this season, however.  The biggest question mark has to be that in the driver's seat.  Jimmy Shane, although accomplished in the lower classes, has seen little more than spot duty in the Unlimited Class.  With that said, though, he probably had the U-57 perform better at Doha last year than it did at any other race.  So while he's inexperienced he's certainly talented.  Also, it's left to be seen how a tumultuous off season where the status of PPE was largely in limbo will do to the team's preparation for the season.  It wouldn't be surprising to see the team get off to a slow start on the season, but it also wouldn't be surprising to anyone if the U-5 finds its way to the top of the podium or challenges for the title this season.

U-17 Miss Red Dot One of the feel good stories of 2011 had to be the fact that the already popular Our Gang Racing team shed their also ran status and joined the upper echelon of the sport.  The team finished second in Madison and San Diego, third in Tri-Cities, and actually had the lead in High Points coming out of Detroit, but tough days in Seattle and Doha relegated the team to a fifth place finish in the High Point standings.  The team comes into 2012 with high hopes, hoping to build off of a successful 2011 and also because the team finds themselves in a unique position among its competitors.  The U-17 is the only team among those who finished in the top ten in last year's High Point standings who are coming into 2012 without any major changes made in the off season.  Because of this, Our Gang Racing just might be the most prepared team coming into 2012 and could see some great performances early on.  Equipment depth and finances remain an issue, but the team has already shown they do a masterful job of doing more with less.  Will the team finally get that elusive first race win in 2012?  That's left to be seen.

U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing Schumacher Racing might as well change its name to Rasputin Racing.  The last few off seasons have seen multiple fans, media outlets, and even former team members and sponsors openly deride the team and predict that they were on the brink of folding the tent and leaving the sport.  The team has responded by simply turning in great performances on the water and continuing on as one of the upper echelon teams in the sport.  2011 saw the team introduce a new hull and had a season that one might expect with a new boat: the team continued to get more consistent and better performances as the season wore on, with some flashes of brilliance thrown in seemingly to show what the boat is capable of when it is fully dialed in.  Obviously, the loss of Degree Men as sponsor means that the team will be taking a huge hit financially for the upcoming season, although I’m sure the team is happy to have Beacon Plumbing back as sponsor.  J. Michael Kelly is possibly the best young driver in the sport and, once the boat is fully dialed in, could have the U-37 right at the front of the pack.  A race win for the U-37 is not out of the question this year.  There has been a lot of talk of people hoping to see this team fail or simply go away due to some of the personnel issues, but personally I hope this team does well in 2012, as I always enjoy it when someone gets the chance to prove his or her critics wrong.

U-21 Go Fast Turn Left Racing The U-21 came into 2011 hoping to build off the decent showing put forth in previous years, but left Madison with a damaged boat after a horrific accident and the season never really got off the ground from there.  Even the one bit of good news for the team in 2011, financial backing from TapouT, turned sour and they won’t be back for this season.  All indicators are that the team will be significantly scaling back their participation for the upcoming season, only competing in the Washington races.  The team is in the process of building a new boat, however, and hopefully the U-21 team and a brand new hull will be back for a full season in 2013.

U-100 Leland Unlimited 2011 was a tale of two nations for Leland Unlimited.  The American races were largely a struggle, with the U-100 effectively being an also ran and a non-factor at most of the races and failing to qualify for a single Final Heat.  Then in Qatar, Greg Hopp and the team turned in a performance that showed all the promise and praise that has been given to the driver and team over the last through years but hadn’t shown through in the results.  The U-100 was right in the mix of things all day and in the final Greg Hopp showed some masterful driving that caused three of his competitors to jump the gun and allowed him to finish third, Hopp and the U-100’s first podium finish since 2004 at Madison.  The off season brought the news that Fred Leland lost his long battle with cancer.  The loss of the team’s patriarch is obviously a huge blow not only to Leland Unlimited but the sport as a whole, but the team has made the commitment to carry on in his memory.  Greg Hopp, who has for many years co-owned a boat with his father Jerry that has competed and won in the Unlimited Lights and Grand Prix West classes, will step into the role as team manager.  No doubt the team will be sentimental favorites in 2012.  As for a prospectus, the team showed in Doha that despite limited funds and outdated equipment they still have the potential to put it all together and make a strong showing at any race.

U-57 Mark Evans and the U-57 team had a respectable if not spectacular season as the third wheel in the Ted Porter operation.  The boat was able to qualify for two final heats (although one of those came in Doha with relief driver Jimmy Shane behind the wheel).  For 2012, the driver, number, and sponsor of the boat are all the same as last year, but a number of changes are in stall for 2012.  First and foremost, Mark Evans, along with brother Mitch, has taken over as owners for the U-57.  The brothers are expert boatbuilders and have contributed their efforts to a number of Unlimiteds through the years, most notably the last three U-3 boats.  As for 2012, the team could very easily sneak into a Final Heat or two and should earn a ticket as one of the ten boats to compete in Doha.  Also, this team will certainly be one of the most friendly and approachable in the pits, as the Evans brothers have always been fan favorites.
U-11 Peters & May Unlimited Racing Group has a lot of promise and hopes to rebound after a shaky debut season.  Many observers (myself included) expected this new team to be competitive from the get go, but instead 2011 saw a number of growing pains as everyone within the organization got accustomed to their new roles.  Nobody expects this team to stay down for long, however.  The combination of one of the most respected drivers in the sport, one of the most respected crew chiefs in the sport, and the strong financial backing of Peters & May means that big things are expected from this team in the very new future.  The off season also saw improvements in equipment and engine parts so the team should see improved performance in that department as well.  Also, much like the U-17 the U-11 team comes into 2012 without any major changes during the off season (unless you count the new paint job) so they’ll be coming into the season a little more prepared than many of its competitors.  The U-11 should be a regular participant in Final Heats and, with the right amount of luck, could find itself at the top of the podium somewhere along the line in 2012.

U-22 Matrix Systems It’s hard not to like Webster Racing.  H1 Unlimited’s Mom and Pop operation had two solid if not spectacular seasons and expected to step up their game when they purchased the older but more accomplished former Miss Madison hull.  Instead, the team took a bit of a step backward when the boat proved more difficult to dial in than expected, as the team scored points in only three races and were unable to qualify for a single Final Heat.  The off season brought major upgrades for the team.  First the hull was updated to include a more modern canard wing and cockpit (which means the boat will lose its distinctive long nose).  The engines, which have notoriously underperformed since the formation of the team, underwent a major overhaul and dyno work so the team should gain more speed.  All this, along with another year of working with their hull, should lead to an improved performance for the U-22 this season and the team should be able to get into a couple Final Heats.

U-9 Jones Racing After being on hiatus, Jones Racing was planning to do what it had done in many years: enter for the two Washington races.  The season got off to an early start, however, when the Miss Madison leased the boat for the Detroit race.  Jon Zimmerman drove the boat to a couple respectable showings and qualified for the Final Heat.  For 2012 the team is drastically increasing their participation, as they intend to race the full circuit for the first time since 2003.  The team also made major improvements to their boat so Jon Zimmerman, who has shown in his brief career he is masterful at doing more with less in the Unlimited Class, should have a great ride for the upcoming season.  The team should be able to get into a few Final Heats and have their ticket punched for a trip to Doha at the end of the season.

U-25 Superior Racing Ken Muskatel and the U-25 leased a hull from Greg O’Farrell’s Go Fast Turn Left team for 2011, but was largely a non-factor in 2011, only scoring points in two races.  This served as a curtain call for one of the most regular participants in the sport.  Only the City of Madison and Fred Leland had been owners longer than Ken Muskatel, and Muskatel, in his dual role as driver, was easily the longest tenured driver with one driver staying with a team in the sport (a spot now taken over by Steve David and the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison).  Without a boat, the team is now retired, but it doesn’t mean they’re done with the sport.  Ken Muskatel is now working with the U-13 team, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he winds up behind the wheel of that boat at some point this season.

----New for 2012-----

U-13 Spirit of Detroit Racing After a one year hiatus, Dave Bartush returns his formidable team to the circuit for 2012.  Cal Phipps returns as driver.  Despite a year off, it looks like no major changes were made to the boat for the upcoming season, meaning that driver Cal Phipps will have to make do with one of the oldest boats in the fleet.  Phipps showed in the U-17 last year at Detroit what he can accomplish when put in a top flight boat, but for the season the team is probably realistic about their goals and hope to get into a couple Final Heats this season.

U-18 Bucket List Racing One of the more interesting developments for the upcoming season is the conversion of a former G boat to carry a T-53 engine.  The former Tempo, owned and driven by Kelly Stocklin, was built for the G Class but has spent most of its life in a garage after the G Class never really got off the ground.  The idea is to see if the lighter T-53 engine can compete with the heavier but more powerful T-55 engines.  Many around the sport, myself included, are interested to see how this lighter boat will perform alongside the other Unlimiteds, but we’ll all have to wait a few more weeks as the boat will not be ready for the season opener (hardly a surprise with a boat undergoing such a major overhaul).  Making any predictions about a program with so many unknowns is futile but here is what I hope for personally: There are a number of G Boats around the country that aren’t being used, and with the issues facing the Unlimited Light Class it looks like there are a number of other boats that won’t be seeing the water anytime soon.  The T-53, which is readily available, could be the shot in the arm that these boats need and perhaps there could be a class created where boats use these smaller turbines that will act as an underclass to the Unlimiteds (much in the same way that the IndyLights class functions).  I realize that is looking a few years down the road, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

U-88 Degree Men The Degree Men sponsorship is back for 2012 season, but with a new team that everyone is glad to have back.  USA Racing Partners is back after a three year hiatus with a major sponsor and one of the best young drivers in the sport.  Scott Liddycoat had one of the best rookie seasons in recent years and won the UIM World Championship in Doha.  The boat, the former T-3, which might or might not be the winningest hull in the sport’s history depending on who’s counting, also has gone major improvements in its former home of Hydroplanes, Inc.  Despite the long layover, the team is obviously coming with major advantages and people are expecting big things from the U-88 entry for 2012.  The team should be right in the mix of things and coming away with a first place trophy somewhere along the line is not out of the question.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Scenes from the 2012 Dennis Holt Memorial Regatta

The Madison Regatta is fast approaching as events surrounding the Madison Regatta Festival are starting to begin around the community.  In terms of racing, the Dennis Holt Memorial Regatta for RC and model boats serves as a nice kickoff for Regatta week.  I made my way to Kruger Lake on Jefferson Proving Grounds today, although I didn't stay long due to other commitments and the fact that it was almost unbearably hot today and there wasn't much shade around the lake.  Anyway I was able to get a few nice pictures and here they are:
A replica of the early 1970's Notre Dame boat.  This boat competed in the 1/8th scale class

A replica of the Miss Timex, which of course was owned by famed Miss Madison Driver Jim McCormick.  This boat competed in the Thunderboat class, although it struggled to get up to speed.
The Whip Ass, and no there has never been an Unlimited to race under this name.  This particular class of RC boats actually uses weedeater engines

Another Thunderboat Class Boat.  The St. Pauli Girl.  There never has been an Unlimited to be sponsored by St. Pauli Girl, but I wish there would be, as it's one of my favorite beers

As can be seen on this pic, all RC boat races at this event were ran in a clockwise format. One interesting thing about RC boat is they don't have the same overlap rules as exist in the Unlimited class.  Coming off the first turn, boats will often bump each other or cross each other's path in order to grab the inside lane.  In this picture, you can see the boat swing wide in the turn then dive to the inside coming out of the turn, which I personally enjoyed seeing because it's a move I've done often in playing Mario Kart.
Some action from the RTR (Ready to Race) class.  This class is intended as a "beginner" class, as people can buy these boats online, and they will, as the name suggest, be ready to race the moment they are pulled out of the box.  One thing I found interesting is that the paint schemes of this class ranged from one solid color to boats that could almost pass as scale replicas of some Unlimiteds.  Although it is meant as a beginner class, many of the competitors also had boats entered in other classes of racing.

Some more RTR action

Tunnel boat action.  Much like their larger manned counterparts, Radio Controlled Tunnel Boats are smooth riders who are extremely quick through the turns.  The red boat was running away with this heat, but then blew over on the front stretch of the last lap
This is an interesting class of boats.  The Unlimited Hydroplane they most closely resemble is the failed Pay N Pak "outrigger" hydroplane.  The boats are very quick but also very volatile.  During this heat two boats saw their nose dig into the water and the boat turned over.

All in all, the local RC Boat Club put on another great show.  The crowd was a little down this year, but that is to be expected with how hot it was and perhaps because the NASCAR race at Kentucky Speedway (about an hour from Madison) was also this weekend.  I wasn't able  to get any pics of the 1/8th scale or Thunderboat classes, but they had some great races and the Thunderboat class saw a spectacular blowover with a boat getting a good seven feet off the water.  Thanks to the people who helped put this race on and also thanks to the participants of this event, who were more than glad to show off and answer questions about their hard work.  Regatta week is here!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Gold Cup For Sale: Remembering the years of the Gold Cup being hosted by the highest bidder

The more than a century long history of the APBA Gold Cup had three distinctive eras when it came to determining where the race was held: The early years when the race went to the yacht club where the previous year’s winner was registered, the middle years when the Gold Cup went to the city and race committee who placed the highest bid, and the modern era where the Gold Cup is contested at Detroit every year.  This article will concentrate on the middle era of Gold Cup racing.  The intention here is not to write a comprehensive history of the Gold Cup races during these years, but instead to discuss the procedure of bidding to host the Gold Cup and its overall effect on the sport.  The procedure no doubt had some positive effects.  The traditional race sites all got a chance to host the year’s biggest race on a number of occasions during this era.  This procedure was also indirectly responsible for the setting of what was arguably the most memorable moment in Unlimited Hydroplane racing for the twentieth century.  Overall, however, the process of hosting the Gold Cup going to the highest bidder largely had negative effects and having one set host for the Gold Cup is a better way to go.
                As the 1950’s progressed, the number of Unlimited owners steadily increased as more people with extra money to burn were ordering up thunderboats to be built and going racing.  This increased involvement in the sport, however, led the Internal Revenue Service to look into the sport’s expenditures to see if it truly qualified as a business investment.  The sport, which was still very much representative of its amateur roots, found itself needing to professionalize and modernize on many fronts and in a short amount of time.   The first and most obvious change was the creation of the Unlimited Racing Commission in 1957, which quite literally put the Unlimiteds in a class of their own and broke the sport away from the more amateur sportsman minded Inboard Racing Commission.  Other changes spoke to the more professional mindset of the newly formed URC, such as the new emphasis on prize money from race sites and sponsors for the race boats, both of which were exceptions in the past but were now becoming expectations.  The URC also brought emphasis on a true “national” tour.  In the past it was not uncommon for boats to not venture far from home for races and skip those races that took place farther away from their homeport (with the exception of the Gold Cup).  In fact, there was a couple times in which official Unlimited races took place in different cities on the same weekend.  Although it was still common for boats to skip some of the smaller races in the early years of the URC, as the 1960’s progressed it was expected that the major teams would be at all races on the schedule as the National High Point title supplanted the Gold Cup in terms of prestige.
                The formation of the URC in 1957 brought many changes Unlimited Hydroplane racing, but for the first few years the Gold Cup host was awarded by the old format of giving the Gold Cup to the winner’s “home” city continued.  That began to change in 1960.  The previous year’s winner was the Maverick who was registered with the Lake Mead Yacht Club outside of Las Vegas.  The affiliation, however, wasn’t worth much more than the proverbial paper it was written on.  Maverick was a Seattle based boat, built by Seattle based master boatbuilder Ted Jones.  Furthermore the Maverick was actually registered with the Seattle Yacht Club until 1957 when owner Bill Waggoner had a falling out with the SYC and transferred the Maverick’s registration to the Lake Mead Yacht Club.
 As if a boat owner bringing the year’s biggest race to his “home” race that actually wasn’t the home of the boat didn’t do enough to violate the spirit of the rules at the time, the 1960 Gold Cup race held in Las Vegas was a disaster.  Many questioned the ability of Lake Mead Cup Regatta to hold a major event.  There had been Unlimited races the previous two years on Lake Mead, but they were both sparsely attended and had low boat counts.  Weather was an issue at both previous events.  Furthermore, Chuck Hickling, who drove the Tempest in the event, openly questioned if the prize money for the event actually existed.  In Heat 1B Bill Cantrell flipped the Gale V and the heat was stopped.  The planned rerun, along with heat 1-C never happened due to high winds on the lake.  The next day was more of the same as high winds made it impossible to race on Lake Mead, and for the first time in its history the Gold Cup was declared a no contest (of course, this would happen again in 2008 when high winds on the Detroit River once again forced the organizers to declare no contest on the race).  The facetious manner in which the Lake Mead Yacht Club won the honor to hold the Gold Cup, along with the disappointment of having the year’s biggest event end in a no contest, led many within the sport to question the method of how the hosts were selected.  Therefore the decision was made that, starting in 1963, the host would be chosen by which ever race site bid the highest amount to hold the race for that year.  This was more in line with the more professional mindset that was taken with the URC, but it also brought an end to the era when hosting the Gold Cup was a matter of civic pride with communities rooting for hometown boats to win or defend  the right to host the next year’s race on its home waters.  So while the Seattle-Detroit rivalry would never be the same, the choosing of a Gold Cup venue became another sign of how hydroplane racing was becoming more of a professional endeavor.
From 1963-1968, the Gold Cup by and large continued its pattern of the previous decade of the race rotating between Seattle and Detroit.  That changed in 1969 when San Diego won the right to host.  San Diego was once again the host in 1970, but that also was the first race to show the blemishes of the still relatively new method of choosing a Gold Cup host.  The race was marred by the tragic accident that resulted in the loss of life of Tommy “Tucker” Fults, and the bad feelings of the loss, along with the financial difficulties that came from hosting two straight Gold Cups and all the added financial burdens that came from that, led to the San Diego racing organization to be dissolved.  It would be another three years before San Diego would rejoin the schedule.  It wouldn’t be the first time that a race committee would meet its demise due to the financial difficulties of hosting the Gold Cup.  Owensboro hosted the Gold Cup in 1978 in a race that saw Bill Muncey dominate an extremely outclassed field of only six boats in the Atlas Van Lines.  The event gathered attention initially with a $110,000 prize package (which was the largest in the sport up to that time) but with the race being largely an exhibition for Bill Muncey and the Owensboro race committee unable to make ends meet after offering such a large purse, Owensboro was off the Unlimited schedule for 1979 and the popular event would not return.  Similarly, the 1985 Gold Cup was scheduled to be held in Houston when its organizing committee bid $175,000 after hosting several successful UIM World Championship races in the early 1980’s, but the organization went bankrupt and Houston lost not only the right to hold the Gold Cup but lost its race before the 1985 season ever took place.  Houston would likewise be off the schedule and wouldn’t return with the exception of a one off event in 1989.  As can be seen, over time the financial burden of hosting the Gold Cup proved to be too much for many race committees.  While it could be said that the committees should have known better than to overstep their financial bounds, in truth the “carrot” of hosting the Gold Cup was too big for many of these committees to resist.
That is not to say that the rule didn’t have its positive effects as well.  First, the method of the rights to host the Gold Cup going to the highest bidder was at least indirectly responsible for what was arguably the most memorable moment in Unlimited Hydroplane racing in the 20th century.  The race in Madison, Indiana was a regular event on the Unlimited Schedule since 1954 but probably wasn’t seen as a “major” event and could even be viewed as little more than a leftover from the sport’s pre-URC days when a number of small towns across the country held events that would draw a few Unlimiteds from time to time.  Then in 1971 the Madison Regatta committee put forth a bid of $30,000 to host the Gold Cup, much smaller than what was usually needed to host the Gold Cup and was little more than a “courtesy bit” by the Regatta committee.  The only catch: due to a misunderstanding in the rules Madison’s smaller than usual bid was the only one submitted to the APBA headquarters on time and Madison was the host of the Gold Cup.   Never before had such a small community hosted powerboat racing’s largest event.  This, of course, set the stage for the Miss Madison to win the Gold Cup on its home waters and became an immediate part of boat racing lore and, of course, led to the making of a motion picture many years later.  It has been argued that the one thing that has kept the Madison Regatta and the Miss Madison team going for so many years were the fond memories of this day.  This was especially prevalent when both the Miss Madison and Madison Regatta went through some leaner years in the late 1990’s.  While the Jim McCormick and the Miss Madison certainly deserves most of the credit for this amazing moment, a confusion of rules and a smaller than usual bid provided the setting for it.
Another positive effect of the Gold Cup going to the highest bidder, it could be argued that the race had an adverse effect for Tri-Cities in comparison to San Diego, Owensboro, and Houston.  Tri-Cities, Washington had been hosting an Unlimited race since 1966 and quickly became a popular event due to its location in the Pacific Northwest (which had at that point more than established itself as the hotbed of Unlimited Hydroplane racing) and the fact that the wide Columbia river provided a natural venue for the large fast boats.  Already on solid footing, the race joined the “big leagues” when it won the rights to host the Gold Cup.  The committee then hosted the UIM World Championship in 1974 and the Gold Cup again in 1975.  The three successive financially successful major events meant that Tri-Cities had a place as one of the most popular and financially solvent races on the circuit, a place that it still enjoys to this day.
As the 1980’s progressed the high bids for the Gold Cup begin to dry up.  Although the sport was enjoying a bit of a rebirth in popularity thanks to expanded media coverage, higher boat counts, and new technology such as the turbine powered engine, the right of hosting the Gold Cup didn’t take the role of civic pride that it held in previous decades.  There are a few explanations for this.  First, it is possible that after seeing the demise of the Owensboro and Houston races after putting forth huge Gold Cup bids that race committees were obviously timid about bidding such exorbitant amount that in truth had little effect in attendance for their events.  Another possible explanation is that the expanded media coverage might have actually led to less interest in hosting the Gold Cup.  During the 1960’s and 1970’s the one Unlimited race every year that was guaranteed to be on national television every year was the Gold Cup, usually broadcast a couple weeks after the event on tape delay on ABC’s Wide World of Sports or CBS’s Sports Spectacular programs.  In the early 1980’s, however, ESPN began broadcasting all of the races of the season on tape delay.  Suddenly, a race site didn’t need to hold the biggest event of the year to be on national television, it just needed to be on the schedule.  Into the late 1980’s there were more than a few whispers that Detroit was in fact bidding the highest amount to host the Gold Cup every year and the APBA was allowing other sites to hold the race as little more than an act of courtesy.
It was in this climate that the APBA and URC once again chose to review the manner in which it chose a Gold Cup host.  After some discussion, the decision was made to sell the rights of hosting the Gold Cup to the Spirit of Detroit, making it the permanent host of the Gold Cup.  Starting in 1990 the Gold Cup would have a permanent home for the first time in its history.  Having the Gold Cup at a permanent site has proven to be a boon for the event.  First, it was no secret that winning in Detroit had extra meaning for the Unlimited owners and drivers whether it was hosting the Gold Cup or not.  Chip Hanauer famously called the Detroit River course the “Yankee Stadium of hydroplane racing” and other teams would often talk about how much it meant to win in Detroit.  It also drew the biggest crowds on the tour year in and year out and, although it has probably since ceded this claim to Seattle (official attendance numbers are never really released for any event), Detroit can still claim a crowd in the six figures.  Also, in the grand scope of things, having the Gold Cup at a set site simply makes more sense.   Unlimited Hydroplane racing is often compared to other motorsports and one thing that most major motorsports hold their biggest event at the same place every season.  Formula 1 has Monte Carlo, IndyCar has Indianapolis, NASCAR has Daytona, and Unlimited Hydroplane racing has Detroit.  That isn’t to say there haven’t been issues.  The Detroit race has had its own financial issues over the years, most notably was in 2003 when the sponsoring Spirit of Detroit Association went bankrupt as the season approached and a last minute deal was put in place with a new organizing committee (known as the Detroit River Regatta Association) in place and the race was held in late August as opposed to its usual early July date.  In the end, however, the Gold Cup has largely went off without hitch and the DRRA has done a fine job of assuring that the race is a key part of not only the Unlimited Hydroplane schedule abut also holds a place as a marquee event within the Detroit committee.
It has now been over two decades since a city other than Detroit has hosted the Gold Cup.  Effectively, a generation of fans has grown up knowing only of the race taking place in the Motor City.  While the decades in which the right to host the Gold Cup went to the highest bidder certainly had some memorable and great moments, the financial burden of bidding for then hosting the race proved to be too much for many race committees as evidence by the loss of three races, one temporarily and two permanently (at least as of 2012).  In the end, having the Gold Cup at one set location is better for the sport as a whole, as it has left much of the worries surrounding the event in the past and in my opinion has made the Gold Cup an even more prestigious event.  After all, the most important and historic race of the year certainly belongs on the most important and historic venue for Unlimited Hydroplane racing.