Friday, January 6, 2012

Farewell to Formula

2012 has started out with quite a bang.  As I'm sure everyone reading this has heard, Ted Porter has decided to get out of the sport and put the entire inventory of Precision Performance Engineering for sale.  Now, an owner leaving the sport is hardly a new thing, but the dedication that Porter has shown in his brief time as owner has meant that this news has come as a shock to many within the hydroplane community.  While the reasoning for this decision isn't known and will probably will never be known, Formulaboats has made an ultimately positive impact on the sport.  The involvement of Ted Porter and Formulaboats under the Precision Performance Engineering banner was so dramatic yet so brief in the sport, that it can best be described as being like a lightning bolt going through Unlimited Hydroplane racing.

Formulaboats' beginnings in the sport were meager but also essential for the continuation of hydroplane racing.  As the American Boat Racing Association approached its premiere season in 2005, they had guaranteed race sites that there would be a minimum of eight Unlimiteds at every race site.  The only problem was that as the 2005 season approached there were only seven teams set to go for the season.  Almost overnight, a team was put together with Chad Sanderson as owner and Formulaboats as sponsor.  Racing the original Leland turbine hull (1992-99.9), the team was put together so quickly and so close to the start of the season that the boat wasn't even included in that year's edition of the Skidfin magazine.  Dick Lynch was tabbed as driver.  As might be expected with a team put together so quickly and using an old hull, the boat was exclusively a tailender, but they did produce some respectable results for that first season.  Before the start of the Detroit Gold Cup race, driving duties were transferred to veteran Mike Weber.  Weber and the Formulaboats team managed to get through one of the most destructive Gold Cup races in recent memory and got a third place as a result.  The team followed Detroit with respectable fourth place finishes at Tri-Cities and Seattle and finished fifth in the High Point standings that year.  All in all it was a respectable year that was put together so quickly before the startof the season.
In 2006 Ted Porter and Formulaboats ramped up their involvement in hydroplane racing in a big way.  Not only did Porter decide to make the jump from sponsor to owner, Porter bought the T-5 and the T-6 from the retired Miss Budweiser team.  Both of these boats sat in the Hydroplanes, Inc. garage for the duration of the 2005 season and were welcome re-entries into the sport for 2006.  Much like Bernie Little, Porter brought both boats with nearly identical paint jobs to every race site, but unlike Little Porter actually entered both boats into competition as separate teams.  Mike Weber would return as driver of the U-5 (which was the T-6) and Unlimited newcomer but accomplished flatbottom driver Mike Allen would drive the U-7 (which was the T-5).  The team was successful from the start of the season, finishing 3-4 and 2-3 in the first two races of the year.  At Valleyfield, Mike Allen was able to win the odd "match" race that would ultimately be the only official Unlimited race at that site,  The rest of the year was consistent if not spectacular for the team.  Mike Weber, in his dual role as team manager, retired as driver midseason and brought in young talented driver (as well as his own nephew) Jeff Bernard to take over driving duties of the U-5 before the Seattle race.  The real developments, however, were coming out of the U-7 camp.  The team went into the season finale in San Diego only a few points behind point leader U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison.  The II was able to score enough points in the preliminary heats to overtake the U-6 in points and held on for a fourth place finish in the Final Heat to clinch the High Point title.  In one of the most competitive High Point races in years, the II won one of the most unlikely championships in Unlimited Hydroplane history: a rookie owner and a rookie driver with one race win and two podium finishes on the season was consistent enough to win the title in one of the wildest years in hydroplane racing.

As 2007 approached the Precision Performance Engineering team had plenty of reasons to be optimistic.  The II team was defending champions, and the team had two of the most talented young drivers in the sport driving two of the best hulls in the history of the sport.  It didn't take long for that optimism to turn sour, however.  In the first race of the year in Evansville Jeff Bernard flipped the U-5, and Mike Allen flipped the U-7 just two heats later.  Both drivers escaped without major injury and both boats were repaired in time for the following week's race, but the tone was set for the season that couldn't be described in any other way but a sophomore slump.  After both boats failed to qualify for the Final in Madison, Mike Allen once again suffered a blowover in Detroit, and this time the results were more damaging.  Allen would miss the next two races due to injury, as would the T-5 hull.  Jimmy Shane would fill in while driving the original Formulaboats hull (the first Leland turbine) in Tri-Cities and Seattle.  The boat was an also ran in both of the Washington races,but teammate Jeff Bernard was able to qualify for the Final in both races.  The season finale in San Diego represented a bit of a rebound for the team, Mike Allen and the T-5 were back and finished a respectable fourth, and Jeff Bernard engaged in one of the great Final Heat duels in the sport's history with Steve David and the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison.  Despite coming out on the short end of this duel, Bernard achieved a level of accomplishment in his second place finish that few drivers do in winning.  He faced off against one of the sport's great drivers for nearly five laps, and almost beat him.  In the end of the season the U-5 would finish an overall fourth in the High Points, while the U-1 would finish tenth.  Despite experiencing what would prove to be the lowest finish in the standings for any defending champion who would run a full season the following year, a strong San Diego race and the fact that the team endured everything imaginable in one season and still came out intact gave the team confidence moving forward.

After two years in which the team experienced the highest of highs in one year and the lowest of lows in the next, 2008 would see many highs and lows rolled into one season.  The team would finish 3-4 in the season opener at Evansville then at Madison the team performed some team driving to grab the two inside lanes which allowed Jeff Bernard and the to finish first and Mike Allen and the II to finish third.  The following week at Detroit, however, Mike Allen would once again experience a devastating blowover and once again Jimmy Shane would be asked to drive a backup hull for the Washington races.  Driving a different hull than the previous season (the reconfigured former Winston Eagle lobster boat), Shane had a little more success than the previous season, finishing fourth at Tri-Cities while Bernard finished third.  Allen in the T-5 were back for San Diego, but once again Bernard stole the show.  After it was initially ruled that Bernard had jumped the gun in the Final, further review showed that he had wired a perfect start and the race win went to Bernard.  In one of the more wide open years in recent memory, Bernard would be the only multiple race winner in 2008.  Allen and the U-7 would finish an overall third in San Diego.  At the conclusion of the season, Bernard and the U-5 would finish second in the High Points and the U-7 would finish fifth.

2009 brought more changes for the team.  Allen and the team parted ways and Ted Porter would turn to another talented young driver, J. Michael Kelly to take over the U-7.  Also, Graham Trucking would join the team as a primary sponsor of the U-7, thus ending the era of two boats with the same name and nearly identical (and often confusing) paint schemes.  Kelly would be an immediate success with the team, winning his first preliminary heat with the team and finishing second overall at Madison.  In Tri-Cities the U-7 would flip but the U-5 would finish second.  Evansville would prove to be a highwater mark for the team.  After the U-1 was moved to the outside lane due to a penalty and the U-3 lost its propeller while leading the race, Jeff Bernard and the U-5 would go on to win the race with J. Michael Kelly and the U-7 following close behind, marking the only time in the modern era that teammates finished 1-2 in a Final Heat.  At the season finale in Doha, the U-5 went into the Final Heat with a shot at winning the High Point title, but wound up blowing over.  In the rerun, J. Michael Kelly would drive past an ailing U-16 to win the inaugural Oryx Cup.  The U-5 and U-7 would finish third and fourth respectively in the High Point standings.

After a few years of change and volatility within the organization, the top two teams at Precision Performance Engineering pretty much stayed in tact coming into the 2010 season.  Ted Porter still managed to shake things up, however, by surprising everyone with a third entry.  The U-57 initially tabbed Jimmy Shane as driver, but the boat never left the trailer at Madison and Detroit.  Before the Tri-Cities race, driving duties were transferred to Mark Evans, who came out of retirement after not climbing into an Unlimited after suffering a horrific accident in 2003 in Detroit.  Mark Evans was able to get the most out of the old former lobster boat hull, qualifying for the Final Heat and finishing sixth at San Diego.  The U-5 and the U-7 had a solid season, with no wins but also no blowovers or major accidents.  Kelly finished second in Madison and Doha and third in Detroit,  Tri-Cities, and San Diego while Bernard finished third in Tri-Cities.  In the end the U-7 finished third overall in High Points while the U-5 finished fourth.

2011 would see Ted Porter increase his involvement in the sport to unprecedented levels.  For the first time in modern Unlimited racing, a team would campaign three hulls for the duration of the Unlimited Hydroplane season.  The year also brought more changes.  The Graham Trucking sponsorship would transfer to the U-5. After J. Michael Kelly left to drive for Schumacher racing, limited veteran Scott Liddycoat would be tabbed as the new driver for the U-7, which would be carrying the sponsorship of In addition to all the changes, the U-5 and the U-7 teams would actually swap hulls for the 2011 season.  Mark Evans would return as driver of the U-57 boat.   By all counts, all three teams would have a successful 2011.  In the North American races, the U-5 would finish third in Detroit and San Diego while winning a number of preliminary heats along the way,  the U-7 would finish second in Detroit, Seattle, and San Diego and third in Madison, and the U-57 would qualify for the Final Heat in Seattle.  What would ultimately  be Precision Performance Engineering's final race was arguably the best performance for the team as a whole.  The U-5 and the U-7 would each win a preliminary heat, and not only did all three boats make the final heat but made history with the U-7 finishing first, the U-5 second, and the U-57 fourth.  Overall the U-5 would finish third, the U-7 fourth, and the U-57 ninth in the High Points.  Precision Performance Engineering had shown that a multiple boat team could be successful in the Unlimited class.

Then came the news of this past week.  First, it was reported that Jeff Bernard would be leaving the U-5 team with the possibility of the T-5 hull being sold.  Then the next day it was announced that Ted Porter was looking to sell his entire stock of Unlimited hydroplane equipment.  Needless to say this was a shock to many within the hydroplane community and has raised a lot of questions.  While Porter's intentions will no doubt be questioned, it should not be forgotten that at the end of the day Porter is a businessman who has to make decisions with his business in mind.  As for the fleet as a whole, it no doubt leaves a hole when the sport was looking forward to potentially thirteen boats racing a full time schedule.  Now with three of those potential thirteen up for sale it leaves a gap in the sport, but I don't expect the T-5 and the T-6 to stay on the beach for long.  A number of teams already in the sport could be looking to step up and improve their equipment, or perhaps they could even land with a new owner.  As for the other boats in Porter's fleet, they might be more difficult to sell.  The former lobster boat (last year's U-57), the original Leland turbine, the 1993 Leland hull (last seen as racing in O'Farrell's  team wearing Navy Blue Angel colors), and the former "Tubby" hull (the primary Webster hull in 2009 and 2010) have all been raced recently, but can not be expected to be more than also rans in the field.  Perhaps one or more of these boats could serve a new owner looking to buy a hull for cheap and get into the sport, however.  The former Aussie Endeavor hull, also in Ted Porter's possession, can't be expected to be much more than the display hull it has been over the last two decades.  In the end, while there are still a number of questions to be asked, the aftermath just further shows how Precision Performance Engineering had a lightning bolt-like effect on the sport.  The team came in, won a championship,  six races, a number of heats, and had a number of memorable moments and accidents along the way, and was suddenly gone.  Best of luck to Ted Porter in his future endeavors, and here's to hoping that his equipment will wind up in good hands.

1 comment:

  1. Aaron I love your articles. Can I request some? I am waiting for your article on the 2004 debacle, and how about one on unconventional hulls like the Winston Lobster boat or the Bud T-4. Keep writing I love to read.