By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Erick Ellstrom's MISS E-LAM PLUS would not be denied in 2007. Owner/crew chief Ellstrom and driver Dave Villwock, claimed a second National High Point Championship for the Ellstrom Manufacturing team. (They won their first in 2005.) This was on the strength of four victories in six races, including the Gold Cup at Detroit, on the Unlimited Hydroplane Series tour.
MISS E-LAM PLUS (U-16) scored 8794 points for the year, compared to 7859 for second-place OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON (U-6) and driver Steve David, who won two races.
Rounding out the top-10 in National Points were MISS BEACON PLUMBING (U-37) with Jean Theoret (6093), FORMULABOATS.COM (U-5) with Jeff Bernard (5147), SPIRIT OF DETROIT (U-13) with J. Michael Kelly (5083), USA RACING PARTNERS (U-10) with David Bryant (3912), COOPER MOTORSPORTS (U-3) with Jimmy King (3803), SUPERIOR RACING (U-25) with Ken Muscatel and Greg Hopp (3688), MIRAGEBOATS.COM (U-100) with Greg Hopp (3455), and FORMULABOATS.COM II (U-1) with Mike Allen and Jimmy Shane (3343).
In the words of Sam Cole, Chairman of the American Boat Racing Association, “The 2007 season had some of the best racing in the history of the sport. It has been many years since the sport has featured such a competitive fleet of teams.”
At the opening race in Evansville, Indiana, ten boats made the scene in the Dress Plaza pit area for the 29th annual “Thunder On The Ohio.” These included the new (and untested) OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON, the first new boat in the Unlimited Class in five years. It had been a frantic race against time to prepare the community-owned craft from Madison, Indiana, for its competition debut.
Most of the top teams from 2006 were back for another try. These included the defending National Champion FORMULABOATS.COM II (U-1) with driver Mike Allen and the 2006 Gold Cup winner MISS BEACON PLUMBING with pilot Jean Theoret.
Occupying the U-10’s cockpit for the USA RACING PARTNERS team was newcomer David Bryant, a successful Pro Stock and Super Stock competitor.
Making his first appearance as a full-time Unlimited competitor was Jeff Bernard with the FORMULABOATS.COM (U-5). Bernard had qualified as an Unlimited pilot in 2005 and was given the opportunity to take over the U-5 cockpit by owner Ted Porter in mid-season 2006, following the retirement of Mike Weber (Jeff’s uncle).
Spectators at “Thunder On The Ohio” were treated to a couple of world record performances by the MISS E-LAM PLUS. These were a 2-mile qualification lap record of 161.167 and a 6-mile heat record of 150.096, the fastest of the turbine/restricted era, which began in 2000. MISS E-LAM PLUS and driver Villwock went on to win Fastest Qualifier honors at all six ABRA races in 2007.
The preliminary heats at Evansville were memorable to say the least. The two FORMULA boats and MISS BEACON PLUMBING all crashed in spectacular fashion--one after the other--during Heats 2-A, 2-B, and 3-A. This had never happened before in the entire history of Unlimited racing.
Bernard and the U-5 were able to continue racing as did Theoret and the U-37, while the U-1’s Allen had to watch from the beach. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.
Dave Villwock went on to win his tenth “Thunder On The Ohio” race in the past twelve years. But it was no ordinary win. Villwock had to hold off one of the drivers that flipped (Theoret) in the winner-take-all Final Heat. Dave and MISS E-LAM PLUS averaged 140.167 miles per hour to MISS BEACON PLUMBING’s 136.167 in the five-lap finale. Theoret, in lane-one, fought Villwock until late in the second lap when Jean cut the corner a little too close and almost took out a buoy.
Ed Cooper’s MASTER TIRE (U-3), the Evansville host boat, was a fast-closing third behind Villwock and Theoret at 135.982 with Jimmy King driving.
MISS E-LAM PLUS made it two in a row the following week at Madison, Indiana. But unlike Evansville, it wasn’t a clean sweep for the Ellstrom team.
The new OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON, which had experienced a steering problem at Evansville, defeated E-LAM in preliminary Heat 1-A at Madison.
"He (Steve David) beat me fair and square in Heat 1-A," admitted Villwock. "That's racing. In the end, I was able to beat him. But what he did today was amazing. This was a great race.”
David and OH BOY! OBERTO won all three of their elimination heats to garner a spot on the front row for the Final Heat. But it was the defending champion Villwock who was able to pull away from David on lap-two of the five-lap heat race. Villwock averaged 139.641 to David’s 137.684, followed by J. Michael Kelly and SPIRIT OF DETROIT at 132.634.
The APBA Gold Cup is the traditional highlight of every racing season. First contested in 1904, it is the ultimate prize that every boat racer strives to win at least once in his career. In 2007 at Detroit, driver Dave Villwock claimed his sixth Gold Cup and team owner Erick Ellstrom won his first.
"Many owners have raced for 25 years and never won the Gold Cup," exclaimed Ellstrom, who has been racing since 1995. "And to win it with these special guys is great."
After winning all three preliminary heats, MISS E-LAM PLUS led OH BOY! OBERTO by less than a roostertail length after lap-one and by a full roostertail after lap-two in the Final Heat. Then, Mike Allen, running third, flipped FORMULABOATS.COM II (U-1) end-over-end. This stopped the heat.
Although unconscious when rescue workers arrived on the scene, Allen soon revived and was transported to Detroit Receiving Hospital to clean out a wound from a thumb injury suffered two weeks earlier, when he blew the boat over in Evansville.
After a one-hour delay, the boats came back on the water for a re-run of the Final Heat.
MISS E-LAM PLUS, in lane-one, led out of the first turn and throughout. OH BOY! OBERTO, in lane-two stayed within E-LAM’s roostertail length until the backstretch of lap-three. E-LAM went on to win by one and a half roostertails over OBERTO, 147.687 miles per hour to 146.526. J. Michael Kelly checked in third with SPIRIT OF DETROIT at 142.056. Greg Hopp, subbing for owner Ken Muscatel, finished fourth with JARVIS CONSTRUCTION (U-25).
The most competitive heat of the 2007 Gold Cup was Heat 3-A. OH BOY! OBERTO with Steve David and MISS CHRYSLER JEEP (U-3) with Jimmy King battled side-by-side for five heart-stopping laps. OBERTO led at the end of laps one, two, and three; CHRYSLER led at the end of laps four and five. At the finish of Heat 3-A, the difference between first and second was two boat lengths. King averaged 151.435 for the 12.5-mile distance to David’s 151.358.
King unfortunately was unable to capitalize on this fine performance when MISS CHRYSLER JEEP failed to finish in the Final Heat.
With the scene shifting out West, several teams previously inactive in 2007 joined the tour at the Tri-Cities Columbia Cup in eastern Washington. These included the MEYERS’ AUTO TECH (U-21) with rookie driver Brian Perkins, MISS CONOVER INSURANCE (U-9) with Chris Bertram, MISS LAKERIDGE PAVING (U-48) with David Williams, and the brand new MISS RED DOT (U-17) with Nate Brown.
Ted Porter, owner of the FORMULABOATS.COM team, brought out a back-up hull to stand in for the Detroit-damaged U-1. Porter announced that Jimmy Shane would pilot the replacement U-1 while Mike Allen recovered from surgery on his left thumb. An Unlimited newcomer, Shane is a three-time inductee in the prestigious APBA Hall of Champions (for 2002, 2004, and 2005) in the Limited Inboard category.
Returning to the fray at the Tri-Cities, after missing Detroit, was the USA Racing Partners’ U-10, sponsored by HOSS MORTGAGE INVESTORS. The U-10 had suffered extensive damage at Madison after breaking a propeller blade.
The fourth stop on the 2007 ABRA tour marked the fourth straight triumph for MISS E-LAM PLUS and driver Villwock who scored a come-from-behind victory in the Final Heat of the Columbia Cup to defeat Steve David in OH BOY! OBERTO, which led for the first lap and a half.
E-LAM averaged 145.013 for the 12.5-mile distance, compared to 142.164 for second-place OBERTO. This marked the third race in a row where Villwock and David had finished one-two in the Final Heat.
Bryant and HOSS MORTGAGE INVESTORS finished third at the Tri-Cities, while Kelly and SPIRIT OF DETROIT took fourth.
MISS E-LAM PLUS qualified fastest on the 2.5-mile course with a speed of 165.687 miles per hour. This was a course record for the turbine/restricted era. OH BOY! OBERTO was next fastest at 160.599.
The hard luck team of the Columbia Cup had to be Ed Cooper's U-3. Over the course of the weekend, the Allison-powered craft lost a propeller, blew two engines, and failed to finish a single heat.
MISS E-LAM PLUS driver Villwock increased his victory total in the Unlimited Class to 55 at the Tri-Cities. He is the winningest among active drivers and now had won seven times on the Columbia River since 1996--once with PICO AMERICAN DREAM, three times with MISS BUDWEISER, and three times with MISS E-LAM PLUS. Ironically, it was just ten years earlier in 1997 when Villwock crashed in the MISS BUDWEISER and lost two fingers on his right hand. He was told at the time that his driving career was over.
With four down and two races remaining on the 2007 calendar, people began to wonder, “Is the U-16 going to sweep the season? Can anybody stop Villwock?"
It fell to OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON to snap the Ellstrom team’s win streak with victories in the Chevrolet Cup at Seattle and the Bill Muncey Cup at San Diego. In both races, driver Steve David made a perfect start in the winner-take-all Final Heat.
OBERTO led from wire-to-wire in the Seattle finale and held off a dynamic challenge from second-place HOSS MORTGAGE INVESTORS. David Bryant made Steve David work for it every inch of the way. The outcome was in doubt right down to the checkered flag.
Surprisingly, MISS E-LAM PLUS and defending Chevrolet Cup champion MISS BEACON PLUMBING were nowhere near the front end of the race at Seattle. Dave Villwock and Jean Theoret both wanted to control the inside lane. With over one minute remaining until the start, Villwock and Theoret were both entering the third turn, a position that the fleet would normally be with 40 seconds left on the clock. Both drivers slowed way down.
The boats were going so slow that Theoret had water coming over the window of the cockpit. This blurred his vision and caused him to move over in front of Villwock and to take out a course buoy.
Theoret apologized to Villwock immediately after the race and Villwock graciously accepted the apology. Villwock eventually placed fourth, behind OBERTO, HOSS MORTGAGE, and J. Michael Kelly in CAR PROS (U-13). Theoret was disqualified.
It was an emotional scene at the winner’s dock, following the Final Heat. According to OH BOY! OBERTO representative owner Bob Hughes, “None of this would have been possible without the support of the Oberto family of Seattle. If we had done nothing else this year, we wanted to win in Seattle. The fact that our Chevrolet Cup victory coincided with Art Oberto’s 80th birthday made our win extra special.”
Fifteen boats appeared at Seattle, the largest turnout of the year. This included the Ellstrom team’s 1995 vintage back-up hull, which was leased by the Boeing Aircraft Company and officially named BOEING (U-787) to promote their new 787 Dreamliner. Jimmy King took the U-787 out for a couple of exhibition laps, including one at 137.694 around the 2-mile Lake Washington oval, but didn’t enter the competition.
The Chevrolet Cup marked the final race appearance of veteran Nate Brown who announced his retirement after fifteen years as an Unlimited driver. In his final heat of action, Nate piloted MISS RED DOT to second-place in the Provisional Heat. One of the sport’s most respected competitors, Brown has five victories in the Unlimited Class, including the 2001 General Motors Cup with MISS E-LAM PLUS and the 2004 APBA Gold Cup with MISS DYC.
The name Brown will continue as driver for the RED DOT team. But, in the future, it will be his nephew Kip Brown.
After five races in six weekends, the Unlimited fleet took a six-week respite before the 2007 season finale on San Diego’s Mission Bay where OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON and Steve David scored their second straight triumph.
The OBERTO and FORMULABOATS.COM (U-5), piloted by Jeff Bernard, staged a sensational side-by-side battle in the Final Heat.
Dave Villwock and MISS E-LAM PLUS clinched the 2007 National High Point Championship but were strangely inconsistent at San Diego. After having finished every heat entered all year, the Ellstrom team failed to finish in two heats out of four on Mission Bay.
Ten Unlimiteds attended the 41st annual San Diego race. These included the repaired FORMULABOATS.COM II (U-1) with Mike Allen back behind the wheel for the first time since Detroit.
MISS E-LAM PLUS qualified fastest on the 2.5-mile course with a speed of 165.386 miles per hour. Bill Muncey Cup defending champions MISS BEACON PLUMBING and Jean Theoret were next fastest at 163.371.
During the warm-up for the Final Heat, OH BOY! OBERTO grabbed the inside lane away from the FORMULA (U-5) on the backstretch prior to the start by establishing a legal overlap of seven boat lengths and forcing U-5 into lane-two.
OBERTO and FORMULA exited the first turn together and see-sawed for the lead for three and a quarter laps and, at one point, actually bumped into each other. In the first turn of lap-four, FORMULA hit a roller and “hopped”, while OBERTO moved to a half-roostertail length lead. And that’s how they finished.
OBERTO led at the end of laps two, four, and five; FORMULA led at the end of laps one and three. Steve David posted lap speeds of 152, 149, 150, 152, and 152 for an average of 151.445; Jeff Bernard did laps of 153, 148, 151, 151, and 145 for an average of 149.724.
MISS BEACON PLUMBING and MISS E-LAM PLUS battled side-by-side for two laps for third and fourth-place until E-LAM pulled off the course on lap-three and returned to the pits. BEACON led E-LAM by less than a roostertail at the end of laps one and two. BEACON went on to take third with FORMULABOATS.COM II (U-1) coming in fourth.
OBERTO driver David increased his victory total in the Unlimited Class to seven at the Bill Muncey Cup--his fourth with the OBERTO team. This is the first time that a U-6 pilot has scored back-to-back race victories since Jim McCormick in 1971.
"It can only get better," Steve exulted after the San Diego win.
In summarizing 2007, the team of Erick Ellstrom and Dave Villwock must be applauded. They won the majority of races and the U-16 finished first in 18 out of 24 heats entered.
As High Point winner, MISS E-LAM PLUS is entitled to wear the coveted U-1 emblem on the 2008 ABRA tour. Villwock has now won nine Driver Championships in the Unlimited Class since 1996.
The community-owned OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON finished an overall first or second at five of the six races in 2007. At all six races, the OBERTO never failed to win at least one competitive heat.
Seldom has a brand new Unlimited hydroplane made such a positive impression in its very first season.
In terms of consistency, the E-LAM and the OBERTO far out-performed the rest of the fleet. Only one other team--SPIRIT OF DETROIT with J. Michael Kelly--was able to qualify for and finish all six Final Heats in 2007. Kelly finished third at Madison, Detroit, and Seattle, fourth at the Tri-Cities, fifth at San Diego, and sixth at Evansville.
Several teams performed brilliantly on occasion but seldom placed in the top three. MISS BEACON PLUMBING finished second at Evansville and third at San Diego; HOSS MORTGAGE INVESTORS placed second at Seattle and third at the Tri-Cities; FORMULABOATS.COM (U-5) finished second at San Diego; and MASTER TIRE placed third at Evansville.
The best news of 2007 was the competition. And there was plenty of that--even though one boat did win four out of six races. And the National Championship wasn’t decided until the last day of the season. The Unlimited hydroplane fleet lived up to its advance billing as “Water Racing’s Greatest Show.”