By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
If one word can summarize the 2006 EnviroPly Unlimited Hydroplane Series tour, that word is competition. Quite simply, there was more boat-to-boat competitive action than in any other season in recorded history. Owner/driver Ken Muscatel described 2006 as "the best year of competition this sport has ever seen, from top to bottom." Muscatel's sentiments were echoed by ABRA Director Sam Cole, who declared, "The boats are going faster than ever. We brought racing back to the sport."
No one team won the majority of races or dominated for very long. Heading into the last race of the season on San Diego's Mission Bay, the National High Point Championship was still up for grabs. Five teams had a mathematical chance of winning.
When the roostertails subsided after the Final Heat at San Diego, FORMULABOATS.COM II (U-7) had clinched the title. This was a brand new team, owned by Ted Porter, headquartered in Decatur, Indiana, and driven by rookie Mike Allen.
Not since MISS BARDAHL in 1958, had a new team won the High Point Championship in its first season in the Unlimited Class. And no team--new or old--had ever won a season title with a rookie driver in the cockpit. Allen and the U-7 won the race in Valleyfield, Quebec, and ended up with 7937 National Points. This entitles the U-7 to carry the cherished U-1 numeral into competition in 2007.
Prior to the 2006 season, Ted and Emily Porter made headlines when they purchased the MISS BUDWEISER equipment inventory from Joe Little and hired Mike Weber as Team Manager. The Porters campaigned not one but two boats in 2006: the U-5 and the U-7. The former MISS BUDWEISER/Turbine 5 became the U-7 and the former MISS BUDWEISER/Turbine-6 raced as the U-5 with Weber and Jeff Bernard as drivers.
Rounding out the top-three in team points at season's end were the community-owned OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON (U-6) in second-place with 7769 points and Ed Cooper's COOPER MOTORSPORTS (U-3) with 7505. All three top-ranked teams headquartered in the state of Indiana.
Then came Billy Schumacher's MISS BEACON PLUMBING (U-37) with 7324, Erick Ellstrom's MISS E-LAM PLUS (U-1) with 7090, Porter's FORMULABOATS.COM (U-5) with 6779, Muscatel's SUPERIOR RACING (U-2.25) with 4158, Kim Gregory's USA RACING PARTNERS (U-10) with 3862, Jeffrey Johnson and Kevin Aylesworth's FREEDOM RACING TEAM/MISS SIMPATICO (U-21) with 2421, and Fred Leland's LELAND UNLIMITED (U-100) with 1665.
The National High Point Driver title, for the second year in a row went to OBERTO pilot Steve David, who outscored Mike Allen, 7769 points to 7594. (Allen was allowed to participate in the first heat of the season at Evansville, Indiana, without having completed his Unlimited Driver Qualification. He was thus ineligible to receive Driver Points in that one heat.)
The OBERTO boat suffered hull damage at the first two races of the season at Evansville and Madison but rebounded to take second-place at Valleyfield and Seattle and third-place at Detroit, the Tri-Cities, and San Diego.
The Evansville-based U-3, driven by Jimmy King, went through a lot of Allison engines in 2006 but still managed a third in National Points. As the only non-turbine-powered Unlimited hydroplane in the fleet, the COOPER MOTORSPORTS team made its best showing at the season finale in San Diego, where they qualified third fastest at 162.751 miles per hour and finished runner-up in the winner-take-all Final Heat. Earlier in the season, King and the U-3 had taken second-place at "Thunder On The Ohio" in Evansville and at the APBA Gold Cup in Detroit.
The 2006 ABRA season witnessed the return to competition, after a 30-year absence, of racing legend Billy Schumacher--a two-time Gold Cup winner and three-time National Champion driver of such storied contenders as MISS BARDAHL, PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK, WEISFIELD'S, and OLYMPIA BEER.
Billy and wife Jane purchased the equipment inventory of Bill Wurster's LLUMAR WINDOW FILM and started a team of their own under the banner of MISS BEACON PLUMBING. Their investment paid off in 2006 with a fourth-place finish in ABRA National Points and three race victories, including the Gold Cup at Detroit, the Chevrolet Cup at Seattle, and the UIM World Championship Trophy at San Diego with Jean Theoret as driver.
It was an uphill struggle for the Schumachers and for Theoret. Their boat (competing as MISS SEATTLE) did a barrel roll at Evansville that seriously damaged both sponsons. The U-37's appearance at the next weekend's Madison Regatta appeared doubtful. But thanks to a round-the-clock repair effort, led by crew chief Scott Raney, MISS BEACON PLUMBING was ready to race.
The 2006 season started out on a high note for the defending National Championship team of MISS E-LAM PLUS and driver Dave Villwock. They won the two Ohio River races at Evansville and Madison in fine fashion and appeared en route to a repeat championship. Then, at the third stop on the tour at North-of-the-Border Valleyfield, disaster struck. During a qualification run on St. Francis Bay, the boat lost a skidfin. It ran up on shore and into the rocks.
The left sponson was destroyed and the bottom was severely damaged. Villwock was injured painfully but not seriously.
A back-up hull, piloted by Nate Brown, stood in for the primary hull at Detroit and finished an overall fourth. But the team was way down on National Points.
Villwock and the repaired primary hull were back in the winner's circle at the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup but engine trouble at Seattle and San Diego conspired to deny MISS E-LAM PLUS a back-to-back High Points crown.
Ten boats made the scene in the Dress Plaza pit area at Evansville, Indiana, for the 28th annual "Thunder On The Ohio", the 2006 season-opener for Unlimited hydroplanes. The fleet included four former MISS BUDWEISER hulls: the U-5, the U-7, the U-10, and the U-37.
Three rookie drivers were on hand at Evansville: Mike Allen (U-7), Kevin Aylesworth (U-21), and David Williams (U-2.25). Williams (co-driving with Ken Muscatel) and Allen both made it into the race; Aylesworth experienced mechanical difficulties and had to postpone his debut until Valleyfield.
Villwock and MISS E-LAM PLUS led out of the first turn of the Final Heat at Evansville and pulled to a one-roostertail length lead at the end of lap-one. King in MASTER TIRE (U-3) and Weber in FORMULABOATS.COM (U-5) battled head to head all five laps for second and third with King taking it by a narrow margin. FORMULABOATS.COM II (U-7) and OH BOY! OBERTO checked in fourth and fifth respectively.
It was the ninth Evansville win for Villwock since 1996 and the 49th of his Unlimited career since 1992. Dave scored his 50th win the following week at Madison. But no one celebrated. This was due to well-known tragic circumstances.
In the long history of Unlimited hydroplane racing, no race proved more catastrophic in its outcome than the 56th running of the Indiana Governor's Cup in 2006.
For openers, the Ohio River would not cooperate. Flood conditions forced cancellation of testing and qualifying on Saturday of Madison Regatta race week. The boats finally took to the water on Sunday morning. One craft after another was forced to withdraw on account of damage caused mostly by floating debris.
OH BOY! OBERTO, the hometown favorite, lost a rudder and spun violently into the infield at the start of Heat 2-B, narrowly missing the flag boat, anchored inside of the race course. Driver Steve David, fortunately, escaped injury.
Then, with the clock counting down to the scheduled start of the Final Heat, the unthinkable occurred.
An errant automobile driven by an 18-year-old male crashed through the security gates, plowed through the spectator throng, and came to a stop in the Ohio River. A total of 14 serious injuries sent the rescue crews, normally used for the Regatta, into life-saving action. Two of the victims were injured critically.
Madison Mayor Al Huntington announced cancellation of the Final Heat. MISS E-LAM PLUS was declared the Governor's Cup winner on the basis of points earned in the preliminary heats. And the 2006 Madison Regatta went down as one of the most frustrating and saddest in racing history.
After hurried repairs, following the extensive equipment damage at Madison, the teams journeyed north to a first-time Unlimited event at Les Regates de Valleyfield in French Canada, near Montreal.
The format at Valleyfield was unusual with no more than two boats on the 1-mile oval race course at a time. In each duel, each driver had his own starting clock on opposite sides of the course.
The drivers had to hit the start at clock zero, just like in a normal race. To win, a driver had to run three laps and be the first to complete them. In the Final Heat, the drivers were required to run four laps.
Mike Allen emerged triumphant and claimed his first Unlimited victory at Valleyfield with FORMULABOATS.COM II, followed by OH BOY! OBERTO in second.
Moving on to the Motor City, the Detroit River Regatta Association presented the 98th running of the APBA Gold Cup, first contested in 1904.
It was a wild weekend of boat racing. Jean Theoret, the eventual winner, received three penalties in the first three preliminary heats with MISS BEACON PLUMBING (U-37) and almost didn't survive the cut for the Final Heat. But Theoret came through when the chips were down by winning the fourth preliminary heat and the all-important Final Heat. Jean outran second-place Jimmy King and MISS CHRYSLER JEEP (U-3), 142.398 miles per hour to 139.312 in the finale.
The Canadian-born Theoret thus became the first non-U.S. citizen to win the Gold Cup since the Italian Count Theo Rossi, driver of ALAGI, in 1938.
U-37 owner Billy Schumacher, a two-time Gold Cup champion himself, winning in 1967 and 1968 with MISS BARDAHL, couldn't have been more pleased..
"I know one thing for certain," said Schumacher. "I was sure more nervous this time then I was when I was running."
The fifth stop of seven on the EnviroPly Unlimited Hydroplane Series tour marked the third triumph in the current campaign for MISS E-LAM PLUS owner Erick Ellstrom and driver Dave Villwock. They captured the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup at Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River.
The MISS E-LAM PLUS primary hull had been out of competition for several weeks and missed the races at Valleyfield and Detroit.
Villwock and MISS E-LAM PLUS rebounded from a spectacular flip during a preliminary heat at the Tri-Cities to win the winner-take-all Final Heat of the Atomic Cup, outrunning second-place J.W. Myers in SOLUTIONS PLUS (U-10) and third-place Steve David in OH BOY! OBERTO.
Only once before in Unlimited hydroplane history had a boat flipped and come back to win the race on the very same day. That was PICO AMERICAN DREAM at Seattle in 1997 with Mark Evans as driver.
Thirteen Unlimiteds attended the 41st annual Tri-Cities race--the largest turnout of the year. (Eleven had appeared at Detroit, two weeks previously.
The U-9 racing team of Mike and Lori Jones ended a 3-year retirement from the sport at the Atomic Cup with rookie driver Chris Bertram making his Unlimited debut, sponsored by JACK-SON'S SPORTS BAR of Kennewick. Bertram qualified and finished all three of his preliminary heats but didn't make the cut for the Final Heat.
Ken Muscatel in GRAHAM TRUCKING (U-2.25) and Kevin Aylesworth in AREA CODES CELLULAR (U-21) entertained the crowd in the Friday afternoon Shoot-Out Heat. Ken and Kevin see-sawed back and forth for the lead during all three laps with Muscatel taking it, 139.320 miles per hour to 138.248.
One of the most dangerous situations in recent racing history occurred during Atomic Cup Heat 3-B.
After a blanket start and a tight first turn, the field was chasing Greg Hopp and TODD HOSS AMERICAN DREAM (U-100) into the second turn of lap-one when J. Michael Kelly and ACURA OF BELLEVUE (U-13) blew over and nearly crashed on top of OH BOY! OBERTO.
ACURA OF BELLEVUE landed upside-down and was badly damaged, while OBERTO emerged with its rear-wing damaged.
Kelly suffered cuts and bruises; OBERTO's Steve David was unscathed.
The accident was eerily reminiscent of the NOTRE DAME/MISS BUDWEISER crash in Washington, D.C., which took the lives of drivers Rex Manchester and Don Wilson at the 1966 Presidentýs Cup
MISS E-LAM PLUS driver Villwock increased his victory total in the Unlimited Class to 51 at the 2006 Atomic Cup. He is the winningest among active drivers and now has won six times in the Tri-Cities since 1996--once with PICO AMERICAN DREAM, three times with MISS BUDWEISER, and twice with MISS E-LAM PLUS.
After a fourth-place finish at the Tri-Cities, Jean Theoret rebounded at Seattle and made it two Chevrolet Cup wins in a row on Lake Washington.
Theoret and MISS BEACON PLUMBING survived a gutsy pre-race move by Villwock and MISS E-LAM PLUS in the Final Heat.
Villwock cut across the infield just before the one-minute gun to take away the inside lane from Theoret. But Theoret made a perfect start from lane-two and never looked back. His first lap speed of 144.895 was nine miles per hour faster the second-place boat. And his second lap of 147.507 was the fastest lap of the day. He averaged 142.013 in the Final Heat.
"When I saw Dave cut across the infield and get inside of me, I thought now I have to hit the start at zero," said Theoret. "I was full throttle when I hit the starting line."
It was Theoret's fourth career win in the Unlimited Class over the past two years and his second win of 2006.
The rough water inside forced Villwock into a tough position with the wake of the other boats, but he did manage to take third. Steve David and OH BOY! OBERTO grabbed a second-place finish.
With six down and one race remaining on the 2006 calendar at San Diego, both the Team Championship and the Driver Championship were still undecided. E-LAM, COOPER, OBERTO, FORMULA II, and BEACON were all in the hunt.
In addition to the traditional Bill Muncey Cup at San Diego, there was the added incentive of a World Championship Race label, sanctioned by the Union of International Motorboating and sponsored by ProBoat Models.
Five boats qualified at over 160 miles per hour at San Diego with E-LAM going fastest at 165.660. FORMULA II was next at 163.016, followed by COOPER at 162.751, BEACON at 162.223, DESIGNER GLASS & SHOWER (U-10) at 161.432, OBERTO at 158.111, FORMULA I at 156.513, and SUPERIOR RACING (U-2.25) at 150.940. The competition at San Diego was simply fantastic. Heat 2-B saw three boats--U-1, U-7, and U-37--in a photo finish with Dave Villwock outrunning Mike Allen over the finish line by two feet. No, that's not a misprint. Two feet!
Three different Unlimited hydroplane teams celebrated victories following the Final Heat.
MISS BEACON PLUMBING and Jean Theoret won their third race of the year, winning the final heat and taking home the coveted Bill Muncey Trophy. Theoret used a 154.257 mile an hour first lap to lead the field and posted an average speed of 148.066.
Rookie Mike Allen and first-year owner Ted Porter became the first rookie driver team to capture the National High Point Team Championship in the history of the sport. Allen guided the FORMULABOATS.COM II to the title.
And Steve David's OH BOY! OBERTO team also celebrated their second consecutive National High Point Driver Championship.
Back to the race, the piston-powered COOPER MOTORSPORTS and Jimmy King finished second to Theoret in the Final Heat at 146.650 and OH BOY! OBERTO took third at 142.159. FORMULABOATS.COM II (U-7) driven by Allen took fourth and his teammate Jeff Bernard finished fifth in FORMULABOATS.COM (U-5), followed by Ken Muscatel in SUPERIOR RACING.
In summary, the 2006 EnviroPly Unlimited Hydroplane Series certainly lived up to its slogan as "Water Racing's Greatest Show." The tragic day on the Ohio River at Madison, Indiana, not withstanding, the fans certainly got their money's worth when it came to side-by-side competitive action. The 2007 season shapes up to be even better for the fans with at least three new boats and several new teams added to the mix.