Rookies Unlimited

By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian

Throughout its history, Unlimited hydroplane racing has produced some outstanding rookie drivers.

A rookie is defined as a driver who is participating in his very first year of Unlimited ("Thunderboat") competition.

In the 2006 EnviroPly Unlimited Hydroplane Series, freshman driver Mike Allen became the first rookie to guide his team--the FORMULABOATS.COM II (U-7)--to the National High Point Championship. During the season, Allen scored a victory at "Regattes de Valleyfield" in Valleyfield, Quebec, and finished second in the Indiana Governor's Cup at Madison.

In 2005, Jean Theoret made his Unlimited debut, finished second in Driver High Points, and scored back-to-back victories at Seattle, Washington, and Nashville, Tennessee, at the wheel of LLUMAR WINDOW FILM (U-8).

Making the transition from the Limited to the Unlimited category is a daunting challenge. Many a driver who has done well in the smaller classes has failed to make the grade at the Unlimited level. For every Chip Hanauer that made it, there's an Earl Wham, a Burnett Bartley, a Charlie Dunn, , and a Ron Larsen that didn't.

Conversely, there are drivers who had undistinguished Limited careers but who achieved stardom with the Thunderboats. Jim McCormick was an obscure Mid-West "266" Class chauffeur who went on to post nineteen podium finishes in the Unlimiteds, including a richly sentimental triumph with MISS MADISON in the 1971 APBA Gold Cup on home waters in Madison, Indiana.

Some rookies have gotten off to rocky starts in their Unlimited careers. Bill Muncey--the all-time winningest Unlimited pilot with 62 victories--had nothing but bad luck in the early days. He sank the first two U-boats that he ever drove--the MISS GREAT LAKES in 1950 and the DORA MY SWEETIE in 1955--before scoring his first win with MISS THRIFTWAY in 1956.

For a driver to win his very first Unlimited race is almost unheard of. In fact, it's only happened seven times in the post-World War II era.

Bandleader Guy Lombardo won his first two races back-to-back with TEMPO VI--the National Sweepstakes at Red Bank, New Jersey, and the APBA Gold Cup at Detroit, Michigan.

Danny Foster took first-place in his first Unlimited event--the 1946 President's Cup at Washington, D.C.--with MISS GREAT LAKES. (This was also the first victory for a boat with an Allison engine.)

Ted Jones had never driven anything larger than a "225" when he won his Unlimited debut at the 1950 APBA Gold Cup in Detroit with the trend-setting SLO-MO-SHUN IV, which he also designed.

Jack Regas had absolutely zero boat racing experience when appointed to drive industrialist Henry J. Kaiser's SCOOTER. But that didn't stop Jack from winning both of his first two Unlimited races in 1954: the Lake Tahoe Yacht Club Championship and the Lake Tahoe Mapes Trophy.

Gene Whipp became something of a legend in the Unlimited Class when he won the 1973 President's Cup on the Potomac River with Bob Fendler's LINCOLN THRIFT'S 7-1/4% SPECIAL and then retired undefeated.

Howie Benns was hired to drive Bernie Little's MISS BUDWEISER in 1974 on the strength of APBA Inboard Commissioner Bob Wanamaker's opinion that Benns was the best Limited driver in the United States. Howie lived up to Wanamaker's recommendation by winning his first race with MISS BUDWEISER--the Champion Spark Plug Regatta--at Miami Marine Stadium. Benns won two more races in 1974 (at Detroit and Phoenix, Arizona) to become the only Unlimited driver to win three races during his rookie year.

Dave Villwock is the most recent Thunderboat pilot to win his very first Unlimited race. This was at San Diego in 1992 with COORS DRY, an experimental hull owned by Ron Jones, Jr. Villwock is now the winningest active U-boat driver with 51 victories, including three in 2006 with Erick Ellstrom's MISS E-LAM PLUS at Evansville, Madison, and the Tri-Cities. 


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