If the Las Vegas sports books were handicapping this weekend’s HAPO Columbia Cup, there’s no doubt the favorite would have to be the 6 Oberto team with driver Jimmy Shane.
Oberto team manager Charlie Grooms would agree with that scenario.
“I just think from our experience from our time on the water (we would be favored),” Grooms said. “We’ve won eight or nine heats. We run a fast boat. For us, it’s strictly just keeping our nose clean no matter where the boat goes. This is a national high points team.”
But then Grooms looked over where the brand new 96 Spirit of Qatar boat will sit this weekend in Lampson Pits and said, “They’re a national championship racing team too.”
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And lest anyone forgets, the actual defending national high points championship team is sitting in Lampson Pits, too: the 1 Graham Trucking.
Scott Raney, who along with his wife Shannon owns the 11 Peters & May, sees five or six boats that could win the Columbia Cup come late Sunday afternoon.
“You have to put Oberto and the Graham Trucking 1 up there,” Raney said. “The Jones (9 Les Schwab Tires-Red Dot) boat is fast. The new 96 should be good. And in a way, the 37 (Beacon Plumbing) has been overhauled so it’s like it’s new.
“Any number of boats can win this,” he continued. “And the 17 (Our Gang Racing), we haven’t even talked about them. They’re fast. Literally, there are five or six boats that could win this thing. So you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Kip Brown, the driver of the 96 Spirit of Qatar, has a similar assessment.
“You can’t argue with the success of the Oberto,” said Brown. “The wildcard is the 1 with J. Michael (Kelly) driving. The Jones boat has been fixed, and Jon Zimmerman is a good driver. Then there’s the question of the 37 and what Super Dave (Villwock) has done to the boat.”
Villwock came out of retirement last week to drive the 37.
What’s likely to happen Saturday is a free for all.
On Thursday, the 100 Leland team announced it was withdrawing from the Columbia Cup because its equipment wasn’t ready. The team is shooting for Seafair next week.
But what that does is bring the field down to 12 boats. That’s not enough for a C heat on Saturday, meaning each of the Saturday heats will have six boats in them.
“A final every heat,” said Brown. “Furthermore, if you get some strong draws, that’s a tough heat.”
“You’ve got to get good heat draws,” said Kelly. “It depends on who is in the heat. If the six fastest boats are in the same heat, you could work your butt off and get a fifth, sixth place. It’ll be like running a final heat.”
So points may be hard to come by to make Sunday’s final.
Now, consider the Columbia River course, what everyone calls a super speedway.
“This course is a little different,” said Kelly. “The straightaways are long, so you can get some pretty good top-end speed. You’ve got to be more on top of things. And there are some big holes in that first turn.”
As Raney says, “The river is going to get rough. One guy makes a mistake, one guy will be right there ready to take advantage.”
There will be plenty of interest to see what Erick Ellstrom and his 96 team do this weekend. But Brown is cautious.
“Getting to the final is not in our wheelhouse right now,” he said. “The push is get it here, put it in the pits, make it float, then get it to run, make it turn. I think we’ll be close from the get-go. But there may be some bugs. Take baby steps, but some of those steps may be longer. I can’t be in a hurry to prove something.”
It may not take Brown that long to get the boat up to speed. And he is confident.
“We have an owner who has a lot of wins,” said Brown. “We have a crew chief (Mike Hanson) who has a lot of wins. We have a driver who is hungry for wins. The combination of the three of us working towards a championship, once we’re dialed in, we’re going to be hard to beat.”
But before that happens, someone has to beat the Graham and the Oberto – which has last year’s top driver, Jimmy Shane, piloting the boat now.
And the Oberto comes into the Tri-Cities atop the current high point standings.
Which is why Vegas would make the team this weekend’s favorite.
“I think if we just run our race, run clean and make it to Sunday’s final, we’ll be good,” said Grooms. “It’ll make it interesting. It’s a new situation with these other boats we don’t know much about. And we can’t jump any guns or have any N2 violations.”
Until someone beats Shane, Oberto should be the team to beat.
Notes: The first unlimited on the water today will be at 10:10 a.m., when testing starts. Qualifying begins at 3 p.m., and the Dash for Cash is at 5:05 p.m. Grand Prix West boats and 1-liter boats will also be competing this weekend.