The Unlimiteds - 2001 in Review
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Competition was the keyword to describe the 2001 Budweiser Unlimited Hydroplane Series tour, sanctioned by HYDRO-PROP, Inc. Five different teams emerged as winners in the six scheduled races.
MISS BUDWEISER, OH BOY! OBERTO, TUBBY'S GRILLED SUBMARINES, ZNETIX II, and MISS E-LAM PLUS all took home first-place trophies in 2001. And not until the last day of the season did the fans see a repeat winner (MISS E-LAM PLUS).
Not since the vintage year of 1989 had that many boats achieved victory during the same season.
Bernie Little's MISS BUDWEISER (U-1) won the 2001 lid-lifter at Evansville, Indiana's "Thunder On The Ohio" with Dave Villwock driving. The Anheuser-Busch-sponsored team went on to repeat as National High Point Champion. This was owner Little's 21st High Point crown since 1969 and his fourth with pilot Villwock.
The MISS BUDWEISER team won 60% of its heats with 15 victories in 25 starts. The BUD and Villwock finished the season with 896 National Points. This compared to 675 for second-place EMCOR I (U-10) with Mark Weber.
Then came ZNETIX I (U-100) and Greg Hopp with 572, TUBBY'S GRILLED SUBMARINES (U-9) and Mike Hanson with 550, OH BOY! OBERTO (MISS MADISON) (U-6) and Steve David with 518, ZNETIX II (U-99) and Terry Troxell with 490, MISS E-LAM PLUS (U-16) and Nate Brown with 428, LLUMAR WINDOW FILM (U-8) and Jimmy King with 322, SILVER DOLLAR CASINO (U-25) and Ken Muscatel with 308, MASTER TIRE (U-3) and Mitch Evans with 254, TRENDWEST (U-2) and Scott Pierce with 208, EMCOR II (U-15) and Mike Weber with 171, and GOLDEN NUGGET CASINO (U-20) and Jerry Hopp with 23.
In addition to winning at Evansville, MISS BUDWEISER took second- place honors at the Tri-Cities (Washington), Seattle, and San Diego races, and was the only team to qualify for all six Final Heats in 2001.
Despite being restricted on fuel, as per the prerogative of HYDRO- PROP, Inc., MISS BUDWEISER and Villwock turned in a crowd-pleasing performance at "Thunder On The Ohio." They averaged 135.085 miles per hour in the five-lap/winner-take-all Final Heat, compared to 134.331 by Mike Hanson and the U-9 (sponsored at this race by WABX 107.5). Greg Hopp and ZNETIX I were also in the hunt at 132.670.
The first race of 2001 clearly indicated how closely matched the teams were. There could be no doubt that this would be a season to remember.
A Hollywood screenwriter could not have scripted a more popular outcome at the second stop on the tour in Madison, Indiana. That's when the community-owned U-6 captured the Indiana Governor's Cup before the hometown crowd with Steve David driving.
This marked the first time in thirty years that the MISS MADISON team had scored a victory on home waters--not since the late Jim McCormick piloted an earlier MISS M into the winner's circle at Madison in 1971.
Sponsored by OH BOY! OBERTO in 2001, driver David and the U-6 made a perfect on-the-nose start in the Final Heat, while ZNETIX II, EMCOR I, and MISS BUDWEISER all jumped the gun and incurred a one-lap penalty.
For five heart-pounding laps, OH BOY! OBERTO held off a dynamic challenge from second-place ZNETIX I and Greg Hopp who made Steve David work for it every inch of the way.
At the finish line, it was OH BOY! OBERTO the winner at 130.074, compared to 129.104 for ZNETIX I, as pandemonium broke loose on the shore.
Seldom has a more enthusiastic outpouring of civic emotion been witnessed at a boat race. Everyone, it seemed, was an OBERTO fan and, whether he or she lived there or not, a Madisonian. It was a fine day indeed for the Ohio River town of 13,000 inhabitants and their famed "Floating Chamber of Commerce."
One team that had nothing to celebrate at Madison was the U-9, racing as MISS BELLO'S PIZZA and owned by Mike and Lori Jones. Driver Mike Hanson had qualified fastest at both Evansville and Madison and appeared to be a solid threat for the Governor's Cup. But this was not to be.
During the warm-up for preliminary Heat 1-A at Madison, the MISS BELLO'S PIZZA lost its skid fin and suffered major structural damage. For the Jones Racing Team, the race was over before it had even begun. So extensive was the damage to the hull that the U-9's appearance at the Gold Cup in Detroit the following week seemed unlikely.
But instead of heading for home and missing the most important race of the year, driver Hanson--who is a boat builder by profession-- sparked a herculean round-the-clock repair effort. For several days, Mike and his crew hardly slept at all. But when the starting gun fired at Detroit, the U-9 was ready to race. And what a race it was!
Sponsored locally by TUBBY'S GRILLED SUBMARINES, the Jones Racing Team posted a DNF, two firsts, and a second in the preliminary action and earned a spot in the Final Heat.
The APBA Gold Cup is the oldest and most prestigious of all power boat trophies and dates back to 1904. It's the one award that every racer wants to win at least once during his career.
Tension mounted as the six finalists took to the water for the championship heat. MISS BUDWEISER had lane-one; TUBBY'S was assigned lane-two. As the field rounded the hairpin Roostertail Turn prior to the start, MISS BUDWEISER--the defending Gold Cup champion-- encountered a roller and swapped ends.
When the rest of the field thundered past the Gar Wood Judges Stand and over the starting line, MISS BUD was sitting dead in the water with Dave Villwock frantically trying to re-start. He did. But by then, pursuit was out of the question.
Hanson and TUBBY'S GRILLED SUBMARINES exited the first turn and pulled away to a decisive lead. The U-9, which few had expected to even be there after the mis-adventure at Madison, was on its way to the bank.
TUBBY'S averaged 140.022 for the 12.5-mile distance. ZNETIX I took a distant second, ahead of OH BOY! OBERTO, MISS DYC (EMCOR I), and a fast-closing MISS BUDWEISER.
It was "Mike Hanson Day" on the Detroit River! Nicknamed "The Boat Doctor," Hanson had seriously considered retirement from racing after the 2000 season, following the death of his friend George Stratton at San Diego. But Mike decided to continue in the cockpit. And the sport is richer for it.
The 2001 Gold Cup marked the first-ever victory in the Unlimited Class by the Jones Racing Team. Owner Mike Jones, the current President of the American Power Boat Association, is the first sitting APBA President to win the APBA's Crown Jewel since Jonathon Wainwright in 1905.
With the scene shifting from the Mid-West to the West Coast, the fourth stop on the Budweiser Unlimited Hydroplane Series tour produced a fourth winner in Terry Troxell, driving Fred Leland's ZNETIX II.
Owner Leland ended a two-year dry spell and returned to the winner's circle for the first time since 1999 with a victory in the Columbia Cup at the Tri-Cities of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland in eastern Washington.
Troxell scored his first-ever Unlimited win by outrunning Dave Villwock and MISS BUDWEISER by six seconds in the Final Heat.
Troxell's teammate Greg Hopp, driving ZNETIX I, kept Villwock occupied for the first few laps of the Final before fading to third- place, followed by Mike Hanson in the U-9 (racing as FIESTA BOWL & CASINO), and Nate Brown in the brand new MISS E-LAM PLUS.
The highly touted E-LAM boat, which impressed mightily in the preliminary heats at the Tri-Cities, was late at the start of the Final and had to settle for fifth.
Terry Troxell, the Columbia Cup champion, had the satisfaction of claiming his first victory on the very same Columbia River race course where he qualified as an Unlimited driver the previous year.
The 2001 General Motors Cup at Seattle saw yet another winner with MISS E-LAM PLUS, owned by the Ellstrom family, doing the honors.
Pilot Brown averaged 135.804 in the Final Heat, followed by defending General Motors Cup champion Dave Villwock and MISS BUDWEISER at 129.644.
The Seattle race marked the second victory for Team Ellstrom, which captured the 2000 Tri-Cities Columbia Cup with Mark Evans as driver.
Nate Brown, a ten-year veteran of the Unlimited wars, had an impressive number of top-three performances during his career, but had never tied down a victory.
Hopp and ZNETIX I made a race of it in the Final Heat and were within four seconds of Brown at the end of five laps. Hopp officially placed sixth due to a driving infraction and had to run a penalty lap.
For the first time in 2001, HYDRO-PROP President Gary Garbrecht gave the go-ahead for an old-fashioned "slice and dice" race with no assigned starting lanes for the Final Heat. As the boats entered the race course for the five-lap moment of truth, it was "catch as catch can."
MISS BUDWEISER, although restricted on fuel, was still very much in contention. The BUD did after all have the fastest preliminary heat of the day at 139.779. But MISS E-LAM PLUS had the fastest competition lap of the day at 141.933, compared to MISS BUDWEISER's fastest at 140.933.
When the starting gun fired, the entire field was virtually dead even. MISS E-LAM PLUS, which had missed the start by a wide margin the week before at the Tri-Cities, was right on the money this time.
The first turn was very tight and very controversial. Several participants later cried "foul." But the Directors of Competition (Mike Noonan and Rick Sandstrom) ruled that no infraction had occurred.
MISS E-LAM PLUS led out of the first turn and throughout, despite serious challenges by MISS BUDWEISER and the penalized ZNETIX I. Nate Brown reeled off laps of 140, 137, 137, 131, and 132, compared to Dave Villwock's 135, 134, 131, 121, and 125. Greg Hopp posted laps of 132, 133, 138, 132, 132, and 134.
"Winning our second career race is amazing," declared a jubilant Erick Ellstrom. "After winning our first race last season, we knew we were prepared to win. But with a new boat, we did not really know what would happen."
The season finale on San Diego's Mission Bay shaped up as another magnificent showcase of Unlimited racing at its best. And so it was. But it was not a happy time. Coming as it did only a few days after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the East, the annual San Diego Bayfair went ahead as scheduled--but under a cloud.
Due to the restrictions on air travel, no helicopters were available to race officials at San Diego. The Directors of Competition had to do without their usual "eye in the sky."
In the words of Gary Garbrecht, "This was not the way we had hoped to end a great season. But we all pulled together and got the job done in a professional manner."
The Final Heat of the Bill Muncey Cup saw Nate Brown and MISS E-LAM PLUS score their second straight victory on the 2001 tour. For the third race in a row, Dave Villwock and MISS BUDWEISER took the runner- up spot. Mike Hanson and SUN HARBOR MORTGAGE (U-9) finished third.
MISS BUDWEISER had the fastest heat and lap of the preliminary action at San Diego with speeds of 146.989 and 152.006 respectively. The next fastest lap was by SUN HARBOR MORTGAGE at 151.149.
The most suspenseful finish of the day occurred in Heat 3-A. BUDWEISER beat SUN HARBOR over the finish line by barely a boat length, 146.989 miles per hour to 146.874. It was that close.
Lane assignments for the Final Heat were determined by the reverse order of point totals. This put MISS E-LAM PLUS in lane-five and MISS BUDWEISER in lane-six.
It was a blanket start with MISS E-LAM PLUS right on the money. For the second race in a row, Brown nailed his start perfectly.
E-LAM led out of the first turn and throughout the five laps. SUN HARBOR MORTGAGE stayed within two seconds of MISS E-LAM PLUS on lap- one but then faded. MISS BUDWEISER passed SUN HARBOR on lap-two and then charged after E-LAM.
The bright orange U-16 averaged 147.965 for the 12-1/2 miles, compared to 144.146 for the "Beer Wagon." Then came SUN HARBOR MORTGAGE, EMCOR II, LLUMAR WINDOW FILM, and SILVER DOLLAR CASINO in that order to bring down the curtain on 2001.
In scoring back-to-back wins at Seattle and San Diego, Brown became the only driver to win more than one race on the Budweiser Unlimited Hydroplane Series tour. The new MISS E-LAM PLUS, after only three races, established itself as a formidable contender for 2002.
Not since Chip Hanauer and MISS PICO scored consecutive victories in mid-season 1999 had any team other than MISS BUDWEISER won two Unlimited races in a row.
"The level of competition in 2001 was amazing," in the opinion of Gary Garbrecht. "This was the first full year with HYDRO-PROP, Inc., as the governing body for the Unlimiteds. Our main goal in the off- season was to incorporate some rules that would level the playing field to bring more interest and fan support to the series.
"We knew heading into the season that we would face many challenges. But I believe that we met those challenges and brought new life to Unlimited hydroplane racing."