KENNEWICK -- It's always interesting to watch the activity in Columbia Park's Lampson Pits the day before the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup begins.
While the stars of the H1 Unlimited circuit (the drivers) are out golfing for charity, the real heart and soul of boat racing -- the crews -- are busy putting their camps together.
As of 7 p.m. Thursday, nine unlimited teams were setting up shop.
But when the pits open for business this morning, there should be 14 of them ready for testing -- which starts at 9:10 a.m.
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Also scheduled today will be qualifying at 1:50 p.m., and the made-for-television Dash for Cash at 5:10 p.m.
In between, there will be air show performances, Grand Prix West testing, as well as vintage hydros.
But the main show will be the unlimiteds, vying for the title in the 46th annual race on the Columbia River, and the third race of the season.
The final is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
"Every race we go to we think about the national championship," said Ted Porter, who owns three of the boats in the field -- the U-5 Graham Trucking, the U-7 Valken.com, and the U-57 Formula-boats.com.
And for the first time in a few years, the field looks to be wide open.
The U-17 Miss Red Dot comes into this weekend leading the national high points standings with 2,682 points.
"I think it's awesome," Porter said regarding the U-17 leading the standings. "(Team owner Nate Brown) got some lucky draws, but he's done a great job."
The normal characters at the top of the standings, the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto and the U-96 Spirit of Qatar, have had to scramble since the season opener in Madison, Ind.
In that race, the two boats collided in the final. And while Oberto was declared the race winner, the boat wasn't able to run in the Detroit Gold Cup the following week.
The City of Madison, whose citizens own the boat, leased the U-9 from Seattle's Mike and Lori Jones the following week for the Detroit race to stay in the points race.
The Qatar boat, which lost points in the Madison mishap, was repaired in time for the Gold Cup. Driver Dave Villwock drove it to victory, picking up his 64th career victory to become the sport's all-time leader.
Villwock and Qatar come into the Tri-Cities second in the standings at 2,600 points, while driver Steve David and the Oberto -- both back and ready to race here -- sit fifth in the standings at 2,006 points.
It's made things closer as the halfway point of the season approaches.
"Those two boats tangled in Madison, so they don't have the point spread between them and the field they usually do," said Porter.
Porter's U-5 sits in third at 2,349 points, while his U-7 is fourth at 2,330 points.
"Don't count us out," he warned.
Meanwhile, further up the beach, Scott Raney and his crew are patiently poring over every piece of equipment on the U-11 Peters & May.
Raney was the crew chief last year for the U-37 owned by Billy and Jane Schumacher. But Raney, along with his wife and team manager, Shannon, and driver JW Myers, left to start their own team.
They purchased Dr. Ken Muscatel's U-25 boat, and brought along much of the U-37 team's crew.
Raney says there are a lot of similarities to what he did last year and what he's doing now: owning his own boat.
"The only difference now is at the end of the day, how much money do we have in the bank account, and what can we afford to do at the next race?" Raney said.
His goals right now are limited.
"Our goal is to start and leave the dock each race and make it back each time," he said.
But even Raney knows what he eventually wants -- to have the number that the defending national champion gets to have.
"Ultimately we want to have the No. 1 on our boat," said Raney.
This weekend will be another step toward that goal, and for 13 other race teams.
And it all starts today.