Thursday, April 26, 2012

Swapping Paint: Other Memorable Sponsorship Shifts Through the Years

As I'm sure anyone reading this has heard, USA Racing Partners has announced their return to Unlimited racing for the 2012 season,  This is, of course, welcome news for anyone involved in the sport, as the Gregory family has consistently been on of the most competitive and respected teams since they joined the Unlimiteds in 1998.  After a three year hiatus, the Gregory family is returning largely thanks to the support of Degree Men, who chose to transfer their sponsorship support from Schumacher Racing to USA Racing Partners for the upcoming season.  While this will no doubt be a point of confusion for more casual followers of the sport (as well as a possible point of rivalry between the two camps) having the Gregories back in the Unlimited pits is no doubt a welcome site.  For this post, I've decided to look at some other shifts of sponsors throughout the years.  These shifts have taken multiple forms, and have had a duration as short as one heat and as long as two decades.  I don't intend this to be a comprehensive list of every change of sponsors in Unlimited Hydroplane history, but instead a look at a handful of these shifts that have stuck out to me.

As the 1950's progressed and corporate sponsorship became more of the norm in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, a Washington based oil company decided to jump into the sport.  Ole Bardahl, who had already sponsored a number of successful Indycar teams, decided to sponsor Norm Christiansen's Tempest entry for 1957.  The Christiansen entry was driven by Norm Evans and only entered three western races on the season, including the Seattle Gold Cup where it finished twelfth.  Despite these modest beginnings, Ole Bardahl decided to drastically increase his involvement in the sport for 1958.  Ole Bardahl started his own team and ordered a hull from Ted Jones' boat shop.  The new Miss Bardahl, which would hold the distinction of being the first boat built by Ron Jones, would win three races in 1958 en route to winning the High Point championship on the year.  One of the most successful dynasties in Unlimited history was launched.  The Ole Bardahl owned Miss Bardahl entry would go on to win six High Point championships and five Gold Cups in the twelve years that Ole Bardahl was involved as an owner.

As the Miss Bardahl dynasty was drawing to a close, Atlas Van Lines was beginning to dip its toes in the water as an Unlimited Hydroplane sponsor.  Largely due to the efforts of O.H. Frisbie, Norman Manson's U-22 entry (the former Maverick hull) would wear the Atlas Van Lanes colors for the 1967 season.  The Atlas board was pleased with the positive press that came with its support but looking for a stronger team to back, Frisbie and Atlas Van Lines chose to shift their support to Bob Fendler's team, but once again the team only had modest success, its peak being two second place finishes over three years of competition.  After four years, two teams, and no first place finishes, Atlas Van Lines was once again looking for another team to back when a bit of fate happened.  Stephen Garey's "Bill Muncey: Boat Racing Legend" tells the story of O.H. Frisbie looking out the window of his Detroit apartment when he heard and saw a boat testing on the Detroit River.  The boat was Lee Schoenith's Gale Enterprises boat, who was without a sponsor for the upcoming 1971 season.  After a meeting between Schoenith, Frisbie, and driver Bill Muncey, a sponsorship deal was struck and the Atlas Van Lines colors were on its third team in five years.  The new sponsorship paid almost immediate dividends, as Atlas Van Lines got its long awaited victory in the second race of the season in Washington, DC.  Muncey followed that with a victory in Owensboro, then in 1972 the Gale/Atlas Van Lines team had what was arguably the most successful season in Unlimited Hydroplane history, winning six of seven races on the season and finishing second in the one race they didn't win.  Atlas Van Lines would make one more sponsorship shift, following Bill Muncey when he started his own team in 1976.  The relationship would continue after Muncey's death in 1981 when Fran Muncey continued the team until Atlas made the decision to end its sponsorship in 1984.  After coming to Bill Muncey looking for a win, Atlas Van Lines left the sport with six High Point Championships and as one of the most recognizable sponsors in the sport of Unlimited racing.

While the Atlas Van Lines-Bill Muncey relationship was probably the longest and most fruitful arrangement that came from a sponsorship shift, what was probably the shortest shift happened at the 1988 Gold Cup in Evansville.  In Heat 3B, the Miss Budweiser flipped and was unable to compete in the Final.  The Gold Cup was a Budweiser sponsored event that year, there was a desire to have a Budweiser boat on the water for the Final.  Rich Sutphen, owner of the unsponsored Sutphen Spirit (the former Pay N Pak turbine hull) volunteered to carry the Budweiser name.  Officially racing as "Sutphen-Miss Budweiser" and with some hastily applied Budweiser decals, the team did its new sponsor proud, as Mike Hanson drove the boat to a second place finish in the Gold Cup.  The arrangement became a footnote in history but was thrown back into the limelight after the 2009 Evansville race.  When Ellstrom racing chose to "rent" the U-17 Our Gang Racing boat after their own boat flipped in the first heat, the 1988 arrangement between Sutphen and the Budweiser team was incorrectly pointed to by many sources as another example of a team using another boat already in competition after the race had already began when, in fact, the Sutphen-Miss Budweiser was merely a way to ensure that there would be a Budweiser-sponsored boat on the water for the Final Heat of the Budweiser APBA Gold Cup.

Speaking of Ellstrom Racing, they were involved in their own sponsorship shift in the 1990's.  In 1994, Ellstrom Manufacturing made the decision to sponsor one of the strangest boats to ever roll into the Unlimited pits.  The Glen Davis owned entry was an odd "four point" design that was driven by Ken Dryden that raced as Miss E-Lam Plus.  The boat failed to qualify at Tri-Cities, then in Seattle the boat was involved in one of the scariest accidents in Unlimited history as the boat got loose, went into the air higher than anyone could remember in any of the blowover accidents through the years, then slammed back into the water rightside up.  The project was abandoned and the boat was taken to the junkyard.

Undeterred, Ellstrom Manufacturing decided to start its own team in 1995.  Still racing as Miss E-Lam Plus, the Ellstrom family was not only the owner of their sponsored boat but the team took a rare step for a new team and built their own boat.  The team was exclusively a west coast entry for the first few years, but after winning at Tri-Cities in 2000, the team made the decision to build a new boat in 2001 (winning two more races along the way) then raced the full schedule starting in 2002. 

2006 saw yet another "sponsor becomes owner" arrangement, and this time it was a curious case of history repeating itself.  In 2005, Ted Porter lent his support of to Chad Sanderson's small scale entry on the season.  The next year, Porter followed the precedent set by Ole Bardahl nearly a half century before and went from sponsoring a small team to starting his own team on a large scale, buying both of the hulls of the recently retired Miss Budweiser team.  Much like Ole Bardahl, the team found immediate success, winning the championship on the first season.

Degree Men is only in its second full season of being an Unlimited sponsor, but ironically its first go round in the sport resulted in a sponsorship shift.  The 2010 San Diego race was put together thanks to a last minute arrangement and the support of the Air National Guard and Degree Men.  As part of the deal, there were to be boats wearing the Air Guard and Degree Men colors on the water.  The choice was made for the Ted Porter owned U-7 boat to race as the Air Guard and the Billy Schumacher owned U-37 entry to be the Degree Men.  The only catch was that both of these boats already had sponsors on the season.  Therefore, their sponsors went to other boats for the San Diego race.  Therefore, the U-7's sponsor of Graham Trucking went to its teammate on the U-5, who raced as the Graham Trucking presents for San Diego.  Meanwhile the U-37's sponsor of Peters & May was transferred to Ken Muskatel's U-25  for the race.  Ironically, both of these boats would wind up being sponsored by their "one race" arrangements in 2010 for the whole of 2011.  Graham Trucking's sponsorship was shifted to the U-5 for 2011 as teammate U-7 was sponsored by Valken, and after J.W. Myers and Scott Raney left the U-37 team and bought Ken Muskatel's boat, the Peters & May sponsorship backed the new U-11 team. 

So as can be seen, the shift of Degree Men to another team is nothing new in Unlimited racing.  There has been at least one in every decade since the 1950's.  One I left off was the Oh Boy! Oberto, who sponsored a number of different teams from the 1970's to the 1990's and then sponsored the Miss Madison team starting in 2000 after a hiatus from the sport.  Sponsors are always looking to get the most "bang for their buck" so to speak, so if they feel that can come from supporting another team then naturally they will look to support that team.  So while the Degree Men shift will be a point of confusion and controversy for some, it should not be forgotten that the sport is better because of support of such sponsors.  Here's to hoping that Degree Men's support will continue for years to come.

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