Oberto team eyes win 4th straight Columbia Cup

By Jeff Morrow, Tri-City Herald sports editor July 27, 2011 

KENNEWICK -- Don't underestimate the power of Bernie's tree in Lampson Pits.

The giant sycamore that sits at the east end of the pits has for years provided some welcome shade during most of the 45 years the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup unlimited hydroplane races have been held.

For many of those years, it was the Miss Budweiser team's spot -- mainly because team owner Bernie Little hired a tree surgeon to save it when it was dying.

In 2003, Little passed away. His son Joe ran the team for one more season before disbanding the powerhouse team.

And ever since then, the team that wins the Columbia Cup has always gotten that prime piece of real estate to set up camp the next year.

So when the teams come into town for this weekend's Columbia Cup, the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto team gets the spot for the third consecutive year. That's because driver Steve David and team have won the last three Columbia Cups.

"We intend to defend Pasco," Oberto crew chief Mike Hanson said. "Madison is nice, Detroit is nice. But when it's 110 degrees out in the Tri-Cities, we've got to get that tree. Damn, that is gorgeous."

David agrees.

"It would be kind of cool to make it four (wins) in a row," he said. "What do I like about this course? The tree. My team would be very happy for me to make it happen."

And the Oberto team has a legitimate shot to do it again.

But it hasn't been without a lot of trepidation and hard work.

At the season opener earlier this month in Madison, Ind., David was on the inside, trailing Dave Villwock and the U-96 Spirit of Qatar during the final. After the third lap, Villwock's boat hooked to the left, and David had nowhere to go but over the top of the Qatar.

The race was stopped immediately, and race officials proclaimed the Oberto team winner.

"We were all sick to our stomach," Hanson said. "First, we were thankful that both Steve and Dave were uninjured. We had a very fast race boat and were ready to compete for a fourth straight championship. It's a shocker."

David did have some rib injuries.

"They were non-displaced radial fractures of the lower left ribs," he said. "They were floaters, they weren't sticking out."

The boat, which is owned by the citizens of Madison, Ind., was a mess -- about $100,000 in damage and no way ready for the Detroit Gold Cup race the following week.

"We hit (Dave's) skid fin head on, and that's the strongest part of the boat," Hanson said. "Then we went right through their aluminum magnesium motor and gearbox, and that tore up our sponsons. Our skid fin went through it too."

And thus began a 26-day race that Hanson and his Oberto crew started. After the initial shock, Hanson started processing what needed to be done.

"We got the thing out of the pits and took it back to the shop," he said. "We then rallied the troops, told them to go home and get some sleep. And basically I laid in bed all night thinking about how we were going to do it."

A lot of brand new components were lost, and the team has been forced to use mostly backup equipment -- at least for the next two races.

The team also had a contract with the Oberto team to run a boat in Detroit.

Hanson called Mike and Lori Jones, who want to run their U-9 in the Tri-Cities and Seattle.

"I asked them if we could use a half-million dollars of their equipment and abuse it for a weekend," Hanson said.

The team also hired Jon Zimmerman to drive the boat, letting David rest his injured ribs.

Hanson has worked on the Joneses' boat, so he knew it. And while he and most of the team went to Detroit the next week, six guys stayed behind in Madison and worked on fiberglass for the boat.

It bought the team some valuable time.

"We came up with a project list for them," Hanson said. "Having those guys stay in Madison was tremendous."

Zimmerman drove the U-9 -- now under the U-1 flag -- to four fourth-place finishes to pick up 676 points in Detroit.

Coming into the Tri-Cities this week, Oberto sits in fifth place in the high points standings with 2006 points -- 676 points behind the U-17 Miss Red Dot team. There are at least four races left.

"The boat certainly has a possibility (to repeat)," David said. "I blew my drivers championship. But I'd be kind of piggish to expect to do it again."

David has been repaired too.

"My trainer has been busting my butt," he said. "I've been swimming for 30 minutes in 10 knots against the current. I've got full lung capacity."

So the boat and driver are ready to get back into the hunt for the title.

But it couldn't have happened without a pretty good crew.

"I've been through a few of these thrashes before over the course of my career," Hanson said. "This was definitely one of the top three."

David, of course, wasn't surprised the boat is ready.

"These guys are miracle workers," he said.

-- Fans wanting to get an early hydro fix should get out to WSU Tri-Cities (2710 Crimson Way) from 4-7 p.m. today for the Fueling for Follies: Biofuels, Boats & Butch event.

While there will be presentations about bio-jet fuels, there will be plenty of boats and drivers on hand.

They'll include two vintage boats, the Miss Thriftway and Miss Wahoo, and the Air National Guard display boat.

Also expected to be present are H1 Unlimited chair Sam Cole, the U-5 Graham Trucking, U-7 Valken.com, and U-22 Great Scott presents Matrix Systems boats; drivers Mike Webster, Bianca Bononcini, Dr. Ken Muscatel, Brian Perkins and Dave Villwock; and retired driver Chip Hanauer.

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