Columbia Cup: Thrills don't pay the bills

July 23, 2013 

No one doubts how expensive it is to race an unlimited hydroplane.

When fans come into Lampson Pits later this week — the 48th Lamb Weston Columbia Cup is scheduled for Friday through Saturday — they’ll see a lot of money tied up in boats, equipment and people.

No one is getting rich in boat racing. But this is what happens when people love to race boats.

“It gets in your blood,” said Kathy Powell, event director for the Tri-City Water Follies.

But for an organization to put on a racing event, it needs competitors. And those competitors need sponsorships.

It’s not like the old days, Powell said.

“A lot of the teams were funded by large corporations back in the old days,” she said. “They had a professional driver. We don’t have those really big sponsors now. Teams are struggling to find local sponsors. Many teams here could use some help. And not just unlimiteds, but Grand Prix West boats, too.”

Lori Jones, who owns the U-9 Team Red Dot along with her husband Mike, says just a team’s expenses to come to a race like Tri-Cities is $7,000.

“That’s not including the boat, or the fuel,” she said.

Jones said she needs to make sure her volunteer crew has a place to sleep and food to eat while they are here for the week.

“Hotels are not cheap here,” she said. “You figure the average hotel costs at least $100 a night, and you have to have seven rooms for the crew and the rest of the team.”

Powell said some crew members will help cut costs by camping in tents and RVs in Columbia Park.

If a team is lucky to find a sponsor, some of those expenses can be cut.

“You can get sponsorships through rooms and food,” Jones said. “Other sponsorships might have agreements to pay for fuel.”

That’s what Shannon Raney does. She owns the U-11 Peters & May with her husband Scott, and racing the boat is how the Raneys make their living. So Shannon finds ways to help cut expenses.

“In four races we have sponsors with hotels,” she said. “The Red Lion in Richland stepped up to plate and has been good to us over the years. We have restaurants that sponsor food for lunches for us.”

Then there are the little things. The teams may need rental cars to get around.

“And we know every year that the Tri-Cities, without a doubt, is gonna be hot,” she said. “So I have to go out and get $200 for water and Gatorade for the team. We want to have fresh fruit sitting out for the (crew) guys. They can’t leave. They’re busy working.”

For added measure, the Raneys’ driver, Tom Thompson, lives in Maryland, and two of their crew members who have been with them for years live in Michigan. So Shannon tries to find airline deals because she has to fly those three to the races.

But what about the cost to run the boat, the reason for everyone to be here?

Jones’ husband, Mike, said Jim Lucero — a former crew chief and team manager in the 1970s and 1980s — once told him that “it costs $1,000 a lap to run the boat, as long as you don’t break anything. If you do that, it costs even more.”

But inflation has bumped that $1,000 price tag up even higher.

“And it used to be a buck a mile just to run the trucks (the trailers and equipment rigs),” said Mike Jones. “With gas prices going up over the last few years, it’s probably more like $1.50 to $2 a mile.”

It cost the Raneys $2,500 in fuel alone to drive the boat and equipment truck from Seattle to Madison, Ind., earlier this month.

The maintenance of equipment costs money. A propellor used just a few times costs $10,000.

To help the fleet out, race sites years ago went to a model of paying teams to compete — like an appearance fee.

“Everybody gets the same amount of money,” said Lori Jones. “In the old days it used be prize money.”

Powell says that it’s in the Water Follies contract, like it is in every race on the circuit.

“It’s all part of the sanction fee,” said Powell. “Within the fee is the cost to do business with H1 Unlimited, a towing fee, the award fee. It’s the cost to holding the races.”

And to make sure there is a full fleet for the show.

“The reason we switched years ago was the fast teams had big-name sponsors,” Shannon Raney said. “That money helped them go fast. The little guys who weren’t going as fast weren’t getting that money. But youhave to have everybody to put on the show.”

It helps to have the support of Sheikh Hassan Al-Thani and the Qatar Marine Sports Federation. The Sheikh is an avid boat racer and has helped H1 financially over the past five years.

“To be honest, we’re all running on Qatar money,” Mike Jones said.

That helps, but it doesn’t pay all the bills.

“It’s a labor of love,” Mike Jones said. “We’ve got people trying to make it a real business. Look at the Raneys. They’re trying to make it a business. We’re running it as a business.”

And these people wouldn’t have it any other way.

Notes: Can’t make it to the races this weekend but still want to see some boats? Go to the Columbia Center Mall, at the east side of the JCPenney building, where five unlimiteds will be parked from 4-7 p.m. today. The boats parked there will be the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto, the U-5 Graham Trucking, the U-14 Miss DiJulio, and U-21 Snoqualmie Casino, and the U-22 Webster Racing. ... It looks like Erick Ellstrom won’t be bringing his U-96 Spirit of Qatar boat to the Tri-Cities this week. But he is on the roster for next week’s Seafair. No driver has been named, but rumors have Jeff Bernard as possibly sitting in the cockpit. ... Greg and Brian O’Farrell, who own the U-21 Snoqualmie Casino, will have two drivers this weekend. Brian Perkins will be the main driver, but Jamie Nilsen will get a chance to qualify as a driver too. The idea is that Nilsen would drive the O’Farrell’s U-48 at Seafair.

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