Friday, January 13, 2012

It takes two (or three): Leland Unlimited, 1992-2002

For this post I’ll be concentrating on the Leland Unlimited team.  Instead of writing a comprehensive history, however, this post will concentrate on one decade of the team’s long involvement in Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  It was no doubt the most successful decade in the history of the team, made even more emphatic by the fact that it is sandwiched in between two eras in which the team was a consistent competitor but was by no means a frontrunner.  Also during this era Fred Leland embarked on an unprecedented pace of boat construction and would often bring multiple hulls to a race site.  Despite facing better financed teams with better known sponsor throughout this era, Leland Unlimited often found itself at the front of the pack due to shear ingenuity and some of the most skilled crew members and drivers of that time.
Since his debut as a driver in 1976, Fred Leland has essentially been a regular figure around Unlimited Hydroplane racing over the last five decades.  His driving career spanned nine years but was largely unremarkable, mostly having to make do with small budget teams using outdated equipment.  Leland became an owner in the 1980’s but the team was still an also ran, usually only making appearances in the west coast races.  Usually racing as the Miss Rock as a nod to the radio station that sponsored the team, Leland’s hydroplanes were noteworthy for being one of only a handful of boats in Unlimited history to use a Packard engine.  As with most piston teams of that era, however, Leland’s operation was largely an underfunded also ran on the Unlimited tour.
In 1992 the groundwork was laid for all of this to change.  Leland Unlimited joined the modern era by breaking out a new turbine powered hydroplane as well as racing the full national tour.   It also marked the Unlimited debut of Nate Brown, who also doubled as the team’s Crew Chief.   Despite racing a national tour, the team kept its distinctive U-99.9 number as a nod to the radio station that sponsored the team for the Washington races.  After a shaky start where the team missed the season opener in Miami, failed to score any points in Detroit, and struggled to get up to speed in Evansville and Madison, the Leland team rebounded to have a solid west coast swing, qualifying for the Final Heat in Tri-Cities and even finishing on the podium in Seattle and San Diego.  The performance was good enough to earn Nate Brown Rookie of the Year honors.  Despite early struggles, the late season swing gave a glimpse of what the Leland team could achieve with turbine power.
1993 brought more changes.  Nate Brown parted ways with the team to join Bill Wurster’s Tide team as a crew member and took over for driving duties for the U-8 when primary driver George Wood Jr. was injured in an accident in Kansas City.  In his absence Mark Evans joined the team as driver.  To make matters confusing the Leland team adopted the name American Spirit, which was the same name used by Mark Evans’ previous ride owned by Ron Jones.  As is usually the case, Mark Evans got the most out of the equipment underneath him, qualifying for the Final Heat at nearly every event in 1993 and scoring a second at Evansville and a third in Seattle.  The American Spirit also had a shot to win in San Diego but saltwater caught the engine and the boat scored a DNF in one of the wildest Final Heats in Unlimited Hydroplane history.  Overall the team finished a respectable sixth in the High Point standings.  Although the U-100 American Spirit used the hull that Leland Unlimited debuted in 1992, the team introduced another hull in the midseason that raced as the U-99.9 under various names.  This was the beginning of a time of impressive participation (as well as the inspiration for the name of this post) by the Leland Unlimited team.  In an era when many of the bigger budget teams would bring multiple boats into the pits but only enter one boat into competition, Fred Leland would bring multiple boats into the pits and race all of them.  The debut of Leland’s second team might be one they would rather forget, however.  In the boat’s maiden race in Madison, the boat didn’t get into the water until the provisional Heat and then only did one warm up lap before coming back to the pits.  This set the tone for a season that saw the U-99.9 only score points in Tri-Cities and Honolulu and wound up flipping in Seattle.
In 1994 two names joined Leland Unlimited that would bring the team unheralded success.  Detroit based Progressive Tool & Industries Company came aboard as primary sponsor, alas bringing the usually small budget team a national sponsorship.  To drive the Pico American Dream (as the boat would be known) Leland turned to Dave Villwock, who like Mark Evans before him had previously driven for Ron Jones Jr. racing.  Villwock at that time had only driven portions of two seasons but in his still budding career he had experienced the highest of highs in winning his debut race in San Diego in 1992 as well as the lowest of lows in experiencing horrific blowovers in Detroit and Tri-Cities in 1993, the first flip causing Ron Jones Jr.s’ innovative new hull to be shelved for the season and the second flip leading to Circus Circus pulling out as a sponsor.   Another change for 1994 was the U-100 and the U-99.9 switched boats for 1994, each using the boat that the previous team did in 1993.  For the first of the season, the U-100 team struggled with its highest eastern finish being a sixth place in Detroit and failing to score any points in Evansville.  It was in Evansville where the U-99.9, driven by colorful Limited veteran Jack Barrie, scored a surprise third place finish.  As the tour shifted west, the fortunes of the U-100 shifted dramatically.  In Seattle, Dave Villwock and the Pico boat took advantage of some misfortune for the Miss Budweiser and the Smokin’ Joe’s teams then held off a late charge by Mark Evans in the Miss Exide to score the victory for the Pico American Dream.  After being involved in the sport for eighteen years, Fred Leland had his first win.  

Then, as if to prove that they were for real, Villwock and the Pico American dream repeated in the next race in San Diego.  This time the boat beat the Miss Budweiser head to head and with Hanauer holding the inside lane, something unheard of during that period of Unlimited racing.  

The U-100 finished the season with a fourth place finish in Honolulu to finish fifth in the High Point standings.  The U-99.9 struggled through much of 1994 after its surprise third place in Evansville and skipped the San Diego and Honolulu races.
1995 brought no victories for Leland Unlimited but the team had an overall more consistent season.  Dave Villwock finished on the podium in six of ten races in the Pico American Dream including seconds in Detroit, Evansville, and Madison.  The U-99.9 finished on the podium in five of ten races with a second in San Diego.  The U-99.9 was driven primarily by Mark Evans that year although Jimmy King filled in for the two Indiana races as Mark Evans briefly left to drive the Miss Budweiser.  Perhaps most impressively, the team finished two-three at Detroit and Madison.  Despite this success it was largely in the shadows, as 1995 proved to be the culmination of the intense rivalry between the Miss Budweiser and Smokin’ Joe’s teams who swept all of the race victories that season and went into the Final Heat of the final race of the season with the High Point title still in doubt.  So while much of the attention went to the top two teams in the sport that year, the U-100 and U-99.9 finished third and fourth respectively in the High Points that year.  The groundwork was laid for the team to make the big jump.
Coming into the 1996 season, much of the anticipation of the fans and media was once again expecting a head to head yearlong battle between Chip Hanauer and the Miss Budweiser and Mark Tate and the Smokin’ Joe’s.  The first race of the year, which instituted a tournament style match race format on Firebird Lake outside of Phoenix, seemed specifically designed to open the season with the excitement of a matchup between these two juggernauts.  As the event unfolded, however, a funny thing happened on the way to the showdown in the desert.  Dave Villwock defeated Mark Tate in the semifinal, then took advantage of a mistake by Chip Hanauer  in the final match race (he hit a buoy in the warmup period, effectively ending the race before it even started) to capture the win in Phoenix.
Phoenix would merely be a prelude, however, for what would happen the next race in the Gold Cup.  The Detroit River course was rough even by its own standards over that weekend.  On the last heat of Saturday action the two boats who had received the lion’s share of attention up until that point in the 1990’s were involved in a horrific accident.  The Miss Budweiser and Smokin’ Joe’s collided, with both boats suffering considerable damage.  

The next day the Leland team was in the spotlight.  Mark Evans, which had started that season driving Leland’s U-99.9, transferred to the Miss Budweiser team and finished second in the Final Heat that weekend in a repaired boat.  Evans’ second place was well behind his now ex-teammate, however.  Villwock had driven the Pico American dream to the first Gold Cup for the Leland team and for himself as a driver.  

In retrospect, the 1996 Gold Cup race was the turning point of the 1990’s for hydroplane racing.  The two drivers who were so dominant up until that point in the decade saw the trajectory of their careers change after their collision.  Chip Hanauer would never again drive the Miss Budweiser and would stay out of the sport completely for nearly three full seasons.  Mark Tate would only win three more races, none after the untimely passing of owner Steve Woomer following the 1997 season.  In their stead came into Dave Villwock, who would go on to have one of the most dominant and most impressive five year runs the sport would ever see.  None of this could be known at the time of course and for the Leland team they were just enjoying the thrill of winning the first two races of the season and looking for what the rest of the season had to bring.
As it turned out, 1996 would be an amazing ride for Fred Leland, Dave Villwock, Crew Chief Dan Walters, and everyone involved with the Pico American Dream team.  The U-100 would finish second in Kansas City, win again in Evansville, and finish third in Madison to close out the eastern tour with a considerable lead in the High Point standings.  Their lead only expanded on the tour’s Pacific Northwest swing as Villwock and the U-100 would win in Tri-Cities, Seattle, and a return event for that year in Kelowna, British Columbia.  Heading into San Diego, the team only needed a few points to clinch the championship on the year, and did just that despite not being able to make it to the Final Heat.  It had happened, the underfunded but highly talented team had put it all together for one year and captured the elusive High Point title.
The other Leland entries had a respectable although ever changing season.  The U-99’s driver’s seat became part of a game of musical chairs.  After Mark Evans left for the Miss Budweiser team, Mike Eacrett was tabbed to drive the U-99 (although Jimmy King was initially announced and listed in the 1996 Madison Regatta program as the U-99 driver).  At Madison Eacrett, who had suffered a horrific flip in his own boat the previous year, gave up the seat citing his ribs which steal needed healing.  In his place, regular U-3 driver Mitch Evans took his seat for the Final Heat in Madison.  In Tri-Cities veteran driver Larry Lauterbach was tabbed as U-99 driver who teamed with another Leland hull, the U-98 driven by Scott Pierce.  As the boats left Washington, Scott Pierce took over driving the U-99 for San Diego and Honolulu.  Despite the seemingly unending revolving door, the U-99 and U-98 teams had a respectable year in 1996, collecting four fourth place finishes along the way.  Although the focus for the Leland team in 1996 was clearly on the U-100 camp, the “sidekicks” to the Pico American Dream had a season that was respectable season in their own right.  Also in 1996 the Leland team did something all but unprecedented in Unlimited racing when they built and simultaneously raced two brand new hulls that season.  Although the Pay N Pak team also debuted two newly built hulls in 1969 the two boats never raced simultaneously and one was effectively a replacement for the other (the first was the experimental “outrigger” hull that failed as a competitor and was retired).  Not only was Fred Leland’s shop building new boats at a rapid pace, other Unlimited shops were looking to copy the low profile wide sponson Leland style with their hulls as well.  The Leland team was at the pinnacle of the sport and at the forefront of hydroplane innovation, and the 1996 championship was the ultimate proof of that.
The excitement of the championship was short lived, however.  Before the boats had made their way to the season finale in Honolulu, there was already talk of Dave Villwock leaving the Leland team to take over driving duties of the Miss Budweiser.  Those rumors were confirmed with an announcement by Bernie Little after the Final Heat in Honolulu.  The boats hadn’t even left the pits of the 1996 season finale and the man behind much of the success of the 1996 championship had switched teams. 

  Upon Villwock’s departure, Mark Evans returned to Leland Unlimited to drive the Pico American Dream.  The U-99 once again planned to race the full season, and this time Leland tabbed 1996 co-rookie of the year Mark Weber as the team’s driver.  In the garage things around the Leland shop were as busy as ever.  Another new hull debuted in 1997 although it was relegated to the role of backup hull almost from the beginning, but the true excitement was around some experimental concepts coming from the Leland camp.  The 1997 UHRA season preview magazine mentions a hull the team was planning that would actually seat the driver within the left sponson.  Although this boat was never built, it shows the experimenting nature around the team at the time and I’m sure the concept drafts of the hull were a sight to see (if anyone has seen these drafts, let me know).
 The Eastern tour was a struggle for the team as a whole.  The Pico team, despite finishing third in Phoenix and second in Evansville, was hampered by back to back Final Heat DNF’s at Madison and Norfolk and was a considerable distance behind Dave Villwock and the Miss Budweiser, who had swept the Eastern races, in the High Point standings.  Mark Weber, still getting his feet wet in the Unlimited class, showed some flashes of brilliance, especially in Madison where he finished third overall.  In Tri-Cities the season made a dramatic turn.  Dave Villwock was involved in a horrific accident in the first run of the Final Heat where he had to be revived after being pulled from the boat, badly damaging the T-5 and causing Villwock to miss the rest of the season due to the injuries sustained.  Mark Evans would win the Final Heat rerun and suddenly the Leland team was once again the team to beat. 

  For the second straight year, Bernie Little would turn to the driver of the U-99 to fill in for his injured driver and Mark Weber left the Leland team to drive the Miss Budweiser.  Without a driver, the U-99 would miss the following race in Kelowna, but Mark Evans would drive the U-1 Pico American Dream to victory for the second straight week. 
The 1997 Seattle race was another high water mark for the Leland team as a whole.  The beginnings were not bright, as Mark Evans flipped upside down in heat 2A.  Getting back into the water is always tough after a blowover, but the Leland team got a little extra time to do repairs thanks to one of the most unusual accidents in Unlimited history.  In the first rerun of heat 2A, the Miss E-Lam Plus got airborne and actually landed on top of the Miss Budweiser, where Mark Weber had to spin the boat in order to not run into the boats on the log boom. 

Repaired for the Final, Mark Evans jumped out to a big lead on the first lap and never looked back on his way to victory.  This was the first time in history where a boat would be involved in a blowover then go on to win the race.  Suddenly, “flip n’ win” became a part of the vocabulary of the hydroplane community.  Trailing behind Mark Evans in that final were the U-99 Stihl, driven by Mitch Evans (although Scott Pierce drove the boat in the preliminary heats) in fourth and another Leland hull, the U-98 Graham Trucking, driven by Jerry Hopp to a sixth place finish.  This was the first time in Unlimited racing’s modern era where three boats from the same owner started, and finished, the same Final Heat.  All in all the 1997 Seattle race a historic day for Leland Unlimited. 

Mark Evans would win his fourth consecutive race in San Diego, but a penalty in the Final Heat at Las Vegas would bring their incredible streak to a close.  In the season finale in Honolulu, Mark Evans would flip the Pico during testing.  The team made the decision to race the 1996-98 hull, initially slated to race as the U-99 that week, transferred to the U-1 team and finished an overall second.  Despite the incredible run to close out the year, the Pico American Dream would finish third overall in the High Points that year, and Mark Evans would lose the driving title to Mark Tate, who would finish more consistently across the season as a whole.
Heading into 1998, the Leland team was thinking championship for the U-100, but the season as a whole would turn out to be an exercise in frustration.   Once again the team debuted two hulls, one was a conventional hull which would serve as the primary hull for the U-100 for the majority of the season, and another new hull, an experimental design that placed the air intake below the driver.  The “dustbuster” as it came to be known, would serve as the primary hull for the U-99 with Rich Christensen behind the wheel.   In Detroit, along with Mark Evans and the U-100 and Christensen in the U-99, the team added a third entry, the U-101 Pico American Dream II, driven by Mark Tate, who was left without a ride after the untimely passing of owner Steve Woomer.  Not since the days of the “Dodge Navy” had so many boats under the same owner competed for the Gold Cup in Detroit.  The team wound up having a day where all three boats would struggle, finishing an overall sixth, seventh, and eighth overall respectively.  After Detroit, the dustbuster hydro experiment was abandoned and the efforts of the team became solely focused on the U-100 team.  The Pico boat had a bit of a rebound, winning in Kelowna after a fantastic start by Mark Evans and finishing second in Seattle. 

  It looked like the rebound would continue after Mark Evans made another on the wire start at Madison (the Madison race was in September that year) but the U-100 was given a controversial one lap penalty after it was determined that Evans had pushed out Villwock and the Miss Budweiser, causing them to hit a course marker.  The U-100 would wind up finishing fourth in Madison, then in San Diego the U-100 was penalized again, disqualified in the Final due to an N2 violation.  After this, the Leland team decided to take its losses and not enter into the final two races of the season.  Despite the bumps along the way, the U-100 would wind up finishing fourth overall in the 1998 High Points, although that is more indicative of the state of the field as a whole in 1998.
After a frustrating 1998, Fred Leland decided to go “all in” for 1999.  Chip Hanauer, inactive for nearly three full seasons, was lured out of retirement to take over driving duties for the U-100.  Despite not having an official teammate, the new U-15 Hopp Racing entry, which campaigned the 1996 Leland hull, was effectively the second Leland entry that season.  Hanauer wasted no time getting back to business, winning the season opener in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.   Rookie Greg Hopp turned heads by finishing third in the U-15.  After bad starts in Barrie and Evansville, Hanauer would find himself at the top of the podium again in Madison.  

Then in Detroit Hanauer would drive the Miss Pico to one of the most memorable Gold Cups in the history of that fabled trophy.  I have already covered this race in detail (see the archives) but this race was another high water mark for the Leland team, perhaps the highest of highs they would reach at any individual race.  It was also Hanauer’s 61st victory, putting him one shy of tying the all-time record of Bill Muncey.

  It seemed like it was only a matter of time before Chip Hanauer would make history in the Miss Pico.  It would never come to be.  At the following race in Norfolk the Miss Pico would record a DNS in the final then was involved in a horrific blowover at Tri-Cities.  Greg Hopp would take over driving duties for the Miss Pico for the next two races and continued his fine rookie season by finishing second at both Seattle and Kelowna.  In San Diego, Chip Hanauer was back and, in a repeat of that year’s Detroit race, engaged in a deck to deck duel in the Final Heat with Dave Villwock and the Miss Budweiser.  Only this time, the Miss Budweiser came out on top.  In the season finale in Honolulu, the U-100 scored a DNF in the second set of heats then saw the Miss Budweiser fall back in the field of Heat 3A, allowing other boats to pass him and scoring enough points to mathematically eliminate the U-100 from any chance of making the Final.  As a result, the U-100 withdrew from the race before it ran in heat  3B, meaning that Chip Hanauer’s brilliant career officially ended with a DNF, a DNS, and an overall seventh place finish.  Despite the disappointing close to the season, the U-100 would finish second overall in the High Points.  The U-15, racing under a variety of names, would finish third in Havasu and Evansville, fourth in Barrie, Detroit, Norfolk, and Tri-Cities, and fourth overall in the High Points.  Along with the U-100 and the U-15, the U-20 and U-19 both raced former Leland hulls, while the U-3 raced a hull that was essentially a carbon copy of the Leland design modified to carry an Allison engine.  So the pits at this time were effectively wall to wall with Leland built hydroplanes.
A new century brought a number of changes around the Leland camp.  First, longtime sponsor Pico ended its relationship with Leland Unlimited.  Chip Hanauer also decided to retire for good, and in a move that shocked no one Greg Hopp took over as driver of the U-100.  For the season opener in Lake Havasu City, the U-100 raced as Miss Project X and finished fourth.  In Evansville the U-100, now racing as Znetix after securing sponsorship from the Seattle based Technology Company and debuting yet another new boat, appeared to finish second but was disqualified due to a fuel violation in the Final.  The decision was made then to skip the next two races, and although the reasons for this were never fully learned it meant that the U-100 team was not there to defend its two biggest race wins of the previous year.  In Tri-Cities, the U-100 was back and so was the U-99 Znetix II with rookie Terry Troxell as driver.  The Znetix II would finish fourth in Tri-Cities, while the Znetix would finish fourth in San Diego.  Overall, the U-100 would finish eighth overall in High Points and the Leland team would go a year with no podium finishes for the first time since 1991. 
Znetix returned as sponsor and the Leland camp once again decided to race two teams for the entirety of the 2001 season.  Both Hopp and Troxell were back.  Instead of having a clear primary team and a clear secondary team like in previous years, Leland Unlimited effectively raced the two teams with a near equal focus and nearly equal resources.  At the season debut in Evansville, Hopp finished third in the Znetix I, while Troxell had a minor accident and finished an overall eighth.  Troxell had an adventurous day in Madison that year.  First, he collided with the U-9 driven by Mike Hanson.  Then he veered into Greg Hopp’s lane, nearly blowing over the U-100 and incurring a one lap penalty, perhaps the only time in Unlimited history that a driver has been penalized for an infraction committed against his teammate. In the Final Heat Troxell was so early to the line that other teams suspected that he was trying to intentionally draw the rest of the field across the line so that his teammate Greg Hopp (starting as the trailer) could win the race.  In the end two other boats jumped the gun with Troxell but Steve David and the Oh Boy! Oberto made a legal start.  The U-100 challenged the U-6 briefly but eventually finished second while the U-99 finished fourth overall.  The U-100 would be runner-up again in Detroit with the U-99 finishing fifth.  Then in Tri-Cities the two teammates ran one-two for much of the Final Heat.   The Miss Budweiser eventually overtook Greg Hopp, but Troxel was able to hold off Villwock and the Znetix II scored the victory.  Once again, the Leland team was able to occupy two spots on the podium of a race. 

For the season the Znetiz I finished third overall in the High Points while the Znetix II finished sixth. 
2002 marked the end of an era for Leland racing.  Znetix got caught up in many of the corporate scandals happening in the early 2000’s and was out as sponsor.   Although Leland still campaigned two teams, they would need to rely on local sponsors, and when none could be found the U-100 would run as the Miss US (as a nod the explosion in patriotism in the aftermath of 9/11, they also returned the patriotic colors from the Leland golden era) while the U-99 raced under the amusing name Miss Troxzilla.  Troxel had a brilliant start to the season, finishing second in each of the first three races.  The U-100 would find the entire 2002 season to be a frustration, with its highest finish (and only Final Heat) being a seventh in Seattle.  The U-99 would finish fifth overall in points, while the U-100 finished tenth.  2002 would also be the last time that Leland Unlimited would campaign two boats on the full national tour.  As the 2000’s progressed, the U-100 would become an also ran on the tour for the most part.  Greg Hopp stayed with the team, as did many of the crew members who were there during the team’s heyday, but limited resources, lack of major sponsorship, and Leland’s own health issues prevented the team from achieving the same success they did in the 1990’s.  Despite this, the team deserves credit for being one of a handful of teams who have stayed pat during some tumultuous years around the sport and making it to nearly every race site.
In a decade, Leland Unlimited went from also ran, to an innovative but underfunded second tier team, to the team at the top of the sport, to a team that continued to win races and be a thorn in the side of better funded rivals, to also ran once again.  One thing I hope will never happen is that Leland Unlimited’s achievements in the 1990’s are somehow discredited by the struggles the team has had in recent seasons.  In many ways, Leland Unlimited of the 1990’s are like the Oakland A’s of the same era.  The A’s were a low revenue team who had to use innovative methods and search for talented but overlooked players to achieve success.  After this approach proved fruitful, many other teams with more resources in baseball adopted the A’s methods of assessing players while relegating Oakland to second division status.  Much in the same way, other teams in Unlimited Hydroplane racing began adopting the methods used by Leland Unlimited, or simply brought some of the key figures in the Leland team into their camp, all the while leaving the team from which many of these innovations originated to make do with limited resources.  The Leland’s legacy lives on, however, with the most visible aspect of this legacy being the unprecedented output of new hulls.  Between 1992 and 2000 the Leland team debuted eight new hulls, nine if one counts the Leland-inspired 1997 U-3 hull.  For a comparison, the rest of the fleet combined built and raced ten new hulls over that time, meaning that nearly half of all boats built during this time were built by the Leland team or a Leland design.  Whether it’s the constant output of new hydroplanes, innovations in racing, or being the breeding ground  or a number of drivers and crew members who would go on to bigger and better things, Leland Unlimited from 1992-2002 made a large positive impact on the sport as a whole.

No comments:

Post a Comment