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.

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