Hydros: Brown seeing Gold coming to Tri-Cities

July 22, 2013 

Kip Brown grew up in the Seattle area racing boats.

His heroes were the guys who won the Gold Cup.

“Dave Villwock, Bill Muncey, Chip Hanauer and Terry Troxell (Brown’s late father-in-law) were the guys who won the Gold Cup,” Brown said.

But now Kip Brown, 36, can say he’s done it too.

Driving the U-95 Spirit of Qatar, Brown held off Jon Zimmerman in the U-9 Miss Red Dot to win the event on July 14.

With the Tri-Cities hosting the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup this Friday through Saturday, Kip Brown comes in as the Gold Cup champion.

He still hasn’t come down from that high.

“There’s no greater accomplishment in hydroplane racing than winning the Gold Cup,” he said. “This is something 15 days ago was still an unattainable goal for me. I was going to the Gold Cup to participate. I have never won an unlimited race. To get my first win at the Gold Cup is pretty much unheard of. I think Jim McCormick in the Miss Madison (in 1971) was the last to do it.”

Kip’s uncle, Nate Brown, also has won the Gold Cup as a driver, back in 2004.

As the team manager, he knows how big of a deal it is.

“It’s pretty cool,” Nate Brown said. “I’ve been a complete frickin’ ball bag. I see a picture of the Gold Cup and I tear up. It’s a cool deal. Kip drove his ass off. He drove hard.”

Nate Brown, now 54, was so overcome with the victory that he made the decision after the race to ask his girlfriend of three years, Lisa, to marry him.

“He got caught up in the moment,” joked Kip. “You can’t unring that bell.”

Nate agreed that he did get caught up in the moment, but he and Lisa had been talking about marriage for a while.

“We’ve been going together for three years,” Nate said. “She’s a great gal. One of the things I was thinking about was how do you surprise somebody. This was a good moment.”

There have been a lot of good moments for the Browns and their team, starting in 2006 as Our Gang Racing, LLC, when Nate decided to build an unlimited hydroplane with a bunch of buddies.

“We’d get together every Tuesday night, with pizza and beer, and work on the boat,” Nate said.

Nate called in favors, bartered with others for equipment, and within six months he and his rag-tag group of hydro newbies built a boat.

“I had one experienced boat racer on the team, and that was Kip,” said Nate.

Over the next few seasons, the team had some good performances, winning some heat races and finishing high in the finals of some races. But never a final victory.

With a tight budget, Kip has made sure not to break the equipment. Nate has made sure what they have works.

The engine that was used to win the Gold Cup was the first one the team got in 2007. The team has never broken a propellor.

But considering this was only going to be a five-year project, it’s gone on much longer.

“I think we’re in year 6 of our five-year plan,” said Kip. “From the get-go this was gonna be a hobby. But it’s turned into a crazy obsession. We weren’t sure we could race this year, losing people and money, and the stars aligned.”

They’ve aligned for the past six months.

When Erick Ellstrom’s boat, the U-96 Spirit of Qatar, was damaged in January in Doha and couldn’t race, it was Ellstrom who referred the Browns and their U-17 Miss Red Dot to Sheikh Hassan bin Jabor Al-Thani.

The Sheikh sponsored the Browns’ team, and the boat became the U-95 Spirit of Qatar.

“We are a couple years past our 5-year plan,” admits Nate. “Erick, if it wasnt for (what he did) we wouldn’t be here.”

And Kip admits that until the Gold Cup, the team was struggling.

“We havent really done a whole lot to make ourselves look good with the Qatar sponsorship,” said Kip. “We’ve just been so-so. There is lots of potential, but it hadn’t been realized.”

Until the Gold Cup. But even the Browns admit that the right things had to happen for them.

“You survive Detroit,” said Kip. “You try to get out of there intact, with the boat in one piece. I didn’t think I was going to win. You have four preliminary heats, everybody had a bad heat, and everybody is packed together.”

Nate said Kip had had a bad Saturday.

“I told Kip that we’re not the fastest boat here,” Nate said. “Chip Hanauer told me once to let the race come to you. I always remember that.”

The team made the final, and there was a debate between Nate, Kip and Jeff Bernard — Kip’s longtime friend and an unlimited driver himself — about how to approach the final.

“Our choices are go get lane 1 and contend, or go get 3 or 4 and stay clean,” said Kip. “Nate was talking conservative. Jeff and I said we’re in the final. Let’s go for it.”

Nate agreed.

“I said ‘If you guys can do it, go for it,” said Nate. “If he got in lane 1, he would be protected. But if he was in lane 2, that would be bad. As long as he had an exit plan, I was fine with it.”

Kip was set, but he knew he didn’t have the fastest boat in the field.

“We knew we needed some help,” he said. “Boy did we get it.”

Steve David, in the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto, was the heavy favorite, and he had early control of the race.

But at the end of the first lap, David was called by race officials for cutting off Jimmy Shane in the U-5 Graham Trucking and penalized a lap.

Shane went through David’s roostertail and his boat got damaged.

The Oberto team and its fans were irate, as people were hoping to see the personable David, 59, win his first Gold Cup in 23 attempts.

The problem with the video, at the waterline, and in photo stills — is nothing is completely conclusive.

“The only question is Oberto might have a valid point from that line of site,” said Kip. “But unless you see it from the helicopter it’s hard to tell. That’s in the rules now. The rules are they’re not going to release footage from the helicopter this season. It was definitely a questionable call.”

Meanwhile, Kip had a race to win.

He was chasing Zimmerman in the U-9 and trying to stay with him.

“Zimmerman was faster than us,” said Nate. “But Kip was on the inside lane. In Detroit, it’s not how fast you go. It’s how well you can drive. Honestly, Jon was going fast, but he couldn’t control it.”

The two boats were still battling on the fifth and final lap when Kip got another break.

“Halfway down the front straightaway there is a hotel called the Whittier, and there is a shield there (in the water) that creates waves and lumps,” said Kip.

Zimmerman’s boat lifted up, and the driver had to pull back.

Suddenly, Brown went from trailing by 5 or 6 boat lengths to leading by 5 or 6 boat lengths.

“All I had to do was stay clean down the backstretch and that’s quite a chore,” said Kip. “If there was another lap and a half, Jon would’ve caught me.”

But he didn’t.

“I am super happy for Kip,” said Nate. “And that one call might make our team stay in the sport a little longer.”

It’s also given the team some confidence.

“Now that we won a race, now let’s string it together,” said Kip. “Things could start coming together for us. And conversely, we might not make the final in Tri-Cities.”

But Kip doesn’t see that happening.

“We have a good boat for Tri-Cities,” he said. “We don’t have what Oberto and Graham have. And Jon is going to win a race at some point. All of sudden we can have some parity.”

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