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.

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