The Unlimiteds - 2003 in Review
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
The 2003 season will long be remembered as a year when the mighty Unlimited hydroplanes lived up to their reputation as the world’s most spectacular racing boats.
No one team won the majority of races or dominated for very long on the Budweiser Unlimited Hydroplane Series Tour, supported by BOAT SHOPPER MAGAZINE. Competition was indeed the keyword for 2003.
For the 23rd time since 1969, the Anheuser-Busch-sponsored MISS BUDWEISER emerged as National High Point Champion in the APBA/HYDRO-PROP Unlimited Class. Not even the death of team founder Bernie Little on April 25, 2003, could derail the "Beer Wagon’s" competitive momentum.
Joe Little picked up where his late father left off and guided MISS BUDWEISER to another High Points Championship and two race victories in 2003 with driver Dave Villwock and crew chief Mark Smith.
At season’s end, MISS BUDWEISER (U-1) had accumulated 796 National Points, compared to 669 for second-place JONES RACING (U-9) and driver Mike Hanson. Then came Mitch Evans and MASTER TIRE (U-3) with 631, Mike Weber and MISS EMCOR (U-10) with 605, Terry Troxell and MISS TRENDWEST (U-2) with 550, Mark Evans and LLUMAR WINDOW FILM (U-8) with 522. Nate Brown and MISS E-LAM PLUS (U-16) with 424, and Steve David and OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON (U-6) with 394.
The pleasantest surprise of 2003 was the amazing performance of the Allison-powered U-3, owned by the father-and-son team of Ed Cooper, Sr., and Ed Cooper, Jr. In a category dominated by Lycoming jet turbine engines, the piston-packing U-3 claimed three race victories: "Thunder on the Ohio" at Evansville, Indiana, as MASTER TIRE, the APBA/HYDRO-PROP Gold Cup at Detroit as FOX HILLS CHRYSLER-JEEP/SUN COATINGS, and the Bill Muncey Cup at San Diego as LLUMAR WINDOW FILM.
The last time that a boat with a reciprocating engine had won an Unlimited race was in 1989. That was by an earlier Cooper boat, also driven by Mitch Evans.
The most recent Gold Cup winner to use a piston engine had been the Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered ATLAS VAN LINES in 1983 with Chip Hanauer driving. No Allison boat had won the Gold Cup since Tom D’Eath drove MISS U.S. to victory in 1976.
The other big winner in 2003 was Bill Wurster’s U-8 Racing Team, which captured the Tri-Cities (Washington) Columbia Cup with Mark Evans--Mitch’s brother--at the wheel, sponsored by LLUMAR WINDOW FILM.
Due to equipment damage in late-season, Wurster arranged to have the LLUMAR sponsorship transferred to the U-3 team for the San Diego race. And in a storybook finish, the replacement hull scored a come-from-behind victory on Mission Bay.
The downside of 2003 was a number of unfortunate accidents that plagued several of the teams. The most serious of these was the injury to LLUMAR WINDOW FILM driver Mark Evans at Detroit. Mark was badly hurt when the U-8 "blew over" during one of the heat races for the Gold Cup. Evans is expected to completely recover, but another driver will occupy the U-8’s cockpit in 2004.
Greg Hopp was another "casualty" in 2003. He crashed Fred Leland’s MARIANN TRAVEL INN (U-100) during a test session at Madison, Indiana. Greg fortunately wasn’t hurt nearly as much as Mark Evans. Rookie J.W. Myers filled in for Hopp at the next four races and received high marks when he qualified the U-100 fastest at San Diego with a speed of 159.458 miles per hour on a 2-1/2-mile course.
Terry Troxell tipped over at Detroit with MISS TRENDWEST. Mike Weber flipped end-over-end at Madison with MISS EMCOR. And Ken Muscatel "blew over" at San Diego with MISTER HOME LOAN (U-25). But no one was injured.
Several teams made strong impressions in 2003 but couldn’t quite achieve the winner’s circle.
The Mike Jones Racing Team finished second in National High Points. The Mike Hanson-chauffeured U-9 took the runner-up spot at Evansville as MISS WABX 107.5, third-place at Madison as MISS BELLO’S PIZZA, and third at Detroit as AL DEEBY DODGE.
Jim Harvey’s MISS TRENDWEST suffered "new-boatitis" and crashed at Detroit in 2003 but managed a third-place podium finish at the season finale in San Diego. Erick Ellstrom’s MISS E-LAM PLUS likewise had a difficult year but finished second at the Tri-Cities.
OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON experienced mechanical difficulties throughout the year but won a moral victory at Seattle. The community-owned U-6 threw a propeller blade in a test run on Friday of race week and destroyed the back four feet of the boat.
The MISS BUDWEISER team came to the OBERTO’s rescue and allowed the U-6 crew to use their shop in nearby Tukwila. The BUDWEISER crew freed-up one of their workers to assist the OBERTO team in their round-the-clock repair effort.
Back at the race site on Sunday morning, the tired but happy OH BOY! OBERTO crew watched Steve David pilot the U-6 to third-place overall behind Dave Villwock in MISS BUDWEISER and Mike Weber in MISS GRAND CENTRAL CASINO (U-10).
The season opener at Evansville saw six different winners in the six preliminary heats. But MISS BUDWEISER appeared to be the one to beat, fuel restrictions not withstanding, having posted the fastest heat of the race at 141.835 in section 2-A. But this was not to be. The BUD broke a propeller shaft while attempting to start in the finale and missed the show. LLUMAR WINDOW FILM also failed to answer the starting gun.
Mitch Evans and MASTER TIRE led out of the first turn and pulled away before the end of lap-one. Evans averaged 140.515 for the 10-mile distance, compared to 137.658 for second-place Mike Hanson.
It was a great day for U-3 co-owner Ed Cooper, Jr., who resides in "Ideal Evansville."
A week later, at Madison, MISS BUDWEISER would not be denied. Driver Villwock piloted the BUDWEISER (Turbine-6) hull to first place in all four heats of the Indiana Governor’s Cup. The Final Heat had to be re-started on account of the accident involving MISS EMCOR.
In the re-run, Villwock led LLUMAR WINDOW FILM by one and a half roostertail lengths after lap-one and then pulled away to a decisive lead.
This marked the 135th race victory since 1966 by the MISS BUDWEISER team and the first with owner Joe Little.
The Tri-Cities race was competitive as well as controversial. Several incidents of "bumping" occurred in the action-packed Final Heat with half of the boats returning to the dock with hull damage. But HYDRO-PROP Director of Competition Rick Sandstrom allowed the results to stand with no change in the order of finish.
The victorious LLUMAR WINDOW FILM averaged 142.774 in the Final Heat. Defending Columbia Cup champion Nate Brown took second at 140.796 with MISS E-LAM PLUS, followed closely by Mitch Evans in VACATIONVILLE.COM (U-3) at 140.443. Then came MISS BUDWEISER, MISS GRAND CENTRAL CASINO, and MISS TRENDWEST in that order.
MISS BUDWEISER, MISS E-LAM PLUS, and MISS TRENDWEST all sustained sponson damage during the Final Heat. The BUD came back with damage on both sides of the boat after not one but two collisions with E-LAM, before and after the starting gun. TRENDWEST was missing six feet of decking on the right sponson after an encounter with LLUMAR. Tempers flared over the incidents but no official calls were made.
The 2003 Columbia Cup marked the first victory for owner Bill Wurster since the 1992 Seattle Seafair Regatta, which he won with THE TIDE and driver George Woods.
After a disappointing fourth-place in the Tri-Cities, MISS BUDWEISER crew chief Mark Smith found an additional 5 miles per hour in the Anheuser-Busch-sponsored "Red Rocket" a week later at the General Motors Cup in Seattle.
Villwock and the BUDWEISER (Turbine-5) hull scored a decisive win in the winner-take-all Final Heat. MISS BUD averaged 139.323 for the 10-mile distance. Mike Weber finished second at 132.459 with MISS GRAND CENTRAL CASINO. Then came Steve David in OH BOY! OBERTO, Nate Brown in MISS E-LAM PLUS, Mark Evans in LLUMAR WINDOW FILM, and Terry Troxell in MISS TRENDWEST.
As the final seconds ticked away before the start, MISS E-LAM PLUS had the inside lane but was forced to circle into the infield to avoid jumping the gun. MISS BUDWEISER then grabbed lane-one.
It was a ragged start with MISS TRENDWEST jumping the gun and incurring a one-lap penalty. TRENDWEST "led" out of the first (south) turn but was overtaken by MISS BUDWEISER in the second (north) turn of lap-one. BUDWEISER and Dave Villwock then pulled away and won by a wide margin--almost a full straightaway.
In winning his second race as an Unlimited owner, Joe Little emerged from the shadow of his late father as an effective team leader in his own right.
MISS BUDWEISER driver Villwock increased his victory total in the Unlimited Class to 41 at the 2003 Seattle race. Only the late Bill Muncey (with 62) and the retired Chip Hanauer (with 61) have more wins than Villwock.
The time-honored Gold Cup, which dates back to 1904, almost didn’t happen in 2003. The sponsoring Spirit Of Detroit Association had gone bankrupt, after having staged all of the Unlimited races on the Detroit River since 1962. As late as June 2003, there appeared to be no hope for a Motor City race.
Then, almost overnight, a new organization, headed by Tom and Judy D’Eath, sprang into being. Inside of two months, the Detroit River Regatta Association (DRRA) put on a successful 2003 Gold Cup on August 23-24 and made a profit in so doing.
Villwock and MISS BUDWEISER crossed the starting line first in the winner-take-all Final Heat. But Mitch Evans in FOX HILLS CHRYSLER-JEEP/SUN COATINGS led out of the first turn. Mike Hanson in AL DEEBY DODGE was second onto the first backstretch, followed closely by MISS BUDWEISER.
FOX HILLS led by a roostertail length after lap-one, followed by BUDWEISER, DEEBY, MISS E-LAM PLUS, and OH BOY! OBERTO in that order.
Mitch recorded laps of 147, 150, 145, 140, and 137 en route to victory. Villwock finished two roostertails behind with laps of 142, 142, 143, 143, and 135.
MISS E-LAM PLUS passed AL DEEBY DODGE on lap-two and started challenging MISS BUDWEISER for second-place before losing a propeller. DEEBY finished third and OBERTO was a distant fourth.
A jubilant U-3 crew greeted their driver back at the dock after the Final Heat. Their friends from the rival MISS BUDWEISER team joined them in the celebration. Only the injury to Mitch’s brother Mark, earlier in the day, kept everyone’s joy from being complete.
It was altogether fitting that Mitch should win at Detroit. It was there in 1956 that his father, the late Norm Evans, had first challenged for the Gold Cup as driver of MISS SEATTLE.
With two victories in five races on the 2003 tour, the U-3 tied down one more win four weeks later at San Diego. This gave the Coopers more victories than any other team in 2003 and enough National Points to finish third behind first-place MISS BUDWEISER and the second-place Jones Racing Team.
A rash of equipment damage at San Diego reduced the starting field for the Bill Muncey Cup to six. The U-6, the U-8, and the U-25 all had to stay on their trailers. And the U-16, damaged at Detroit, never made the trip. The race nevertheless produced some exciting competition for the fans. The six starters finished 27 out of 30 heats entered for a 90-percent reliability.
During the warm-up for the Final Heat, an amazing thing happened. Five of the six boats were early and slowed way down off-plane to avoid jumping the gun. And all were assessed a one-lap penalty--all except J.W. Myers in VON’S AMERICAN PRIDE (U-100)!
From this point on, all Myers had to do was finish the heat and stay on the same lap with the other boats and the Bill Muncey Cup would have been his! Unfortunately for J.W., the U-100 ran a slow first lap and conked out before the end of lap-one.
The boats were closely bunched at the start with SUN HARBOR MORTGAGE (U-9) leading in the run down to the first turn. MISS BUDWEISER was assessed a monetary fine for bearing out while heading into the first turn.
MISS TRENDWEST and LLUMAR WINDOW FILM (U-3) battled down the first backstretch and were less than one second apart at the end of lap-one. LLUMAR passed TRENDWEST on lap-two and never looked back. MISS BUDWEISER caught up with TRENDWEST on lap-three.
At the checkered flag, it was LLUMAR WINDOW FILM the winner at 146.775 miles per hour for the 12-1/2-mile distance, compared to 144.412 for MISS BUDWEISER, while MISS TRENDWEST, MISS EMCOR, and SUN HARBOR MORTGAGE trailed to conclude a memorable season of Unlimited hydroplane racing.
Most--if not all--of the teams active in 2003 are expected back in 2004. Some promising new race sites are expected to augment the existing Unlimited schedule.
The new season got off to a spectacular start on March 13, 2004, when Dave Villwock piloted MISS BUDWEISER (Turbine-5) to a world kilometer straightaway record of 220.493 at Oroville, California. This bettered the previous mark of 198.168, set by Roy Duby in MISS U.S. I in 1962, by better than 22 miles per hour.
The MISS BUDWEISER team had failed in two previous attempts to set a straightaway record--in 1966 with driver Bill Brow and in 1979 with driver Dean Chenoweth.
Stay tuned for another edition of the Budweiser Unlimited Hydroplane Series Tour, presented by BOAT SHOPPER MAGAZINE.