SEATTLE --Like a lot of her friends, Bianca Bononcini made plans this weekend to attend Seafair.
But the recent Seattle Art Institute graduate didn't spend any time socializing with them on the log boom Friday. She was too busy trying go 130 mph, attempting to qualify as the first female driver of an unlimited hydroplane since Brenda Jones piloted Miss KXLY in the mid 1970s.
Although qualification remains unfinished business, Bononcini, daughter of former hydroplane racer Phil Bononcini, relished the chance to return to Seafair as a driver.
"One of my favorite memories was coming here as an 8-year-old and eating curly fries," said Bononcini. "I can remember running around the pits with some of the other 'pit kids.' I probably terrified my mom."
Bononcini hasn't lost that knack for putting her parents on edge. A competitive 1-liter inboard driver since the age of 18, she advanced to 2600 horsepower thunderboats this year after joining Ted Porter's team as a developmental driver.
"I'm living the dream," Bononcini said. "Growing up, I knew I wanted to be out here driving. I got it from my father. He was my hero."
Bononcini's quest to follow the trailblazer that was Brenda Jones is proceeding in increments. As a backup driver for the No. 57 boat, Formulaboats Presents Todd Hoss, the idea is for her to eventually replace veteran Mark Evans, who is serving as Bononcini's mentor and virtual coach.
"She's learning and I'm proud of her hanging in there with it," said Evans. "She's helping develop the boat at the same time she's trying to get developed as a driver. So it's kind of cool."
Bononcini's first order of business is to qualify for the Air National Guard H1 unlimited hydroplane series. Toward that end, she must complete 15 laps -- of which 10 must be clocked at a minimum of 130 mph -- during the course of a calendar year.
On July 9 in Detroit, her best effort in 11 laps was 128.000. Bononcini equaled that time on Friday, but the difference between 128 mph and 130 mph, to borrow from Mark Twain, is the difference between a fire and a firefly.
"We've got an older boat here that hasn't been handling in the past," said Evans. "So it makes it challenging. She didn't make it to 130 (mph) out there. Well, I just went out -- and I'm a veteran driver -- and I could barely do 130 or 131. That tells me there's something up with the boat now.
"She's learning the frustrations of not getting a brand-spanking new speedboat that's top of the line, something that goes out there and is overly fast right off the bat. But I think that's gonna make a better driver out of her, and a better person. It's like if you're a pitcher in baseball. If someone knows it out of the park on you, you've got to regroup. That's what she's doing right now, and she's doing a hell of a job."
Bononcini's racing bloodlines are an advantage. ("She's got," said Evans, "a natural feel for the boat.") A more subtle edge is her strength, honed in the weight room and through yoga classes.
"Bianca is a tough little gal," Evans said. "There's been talk of female drivers for years, but when some of the women just weren't up to it physically. On these long unlimited boats, it can be very difficult turning the steering wheel. But she's been doing her weight work, and we made some adjustments to make the steering a little bit easier. Which is good for me, too."
Along with Evans, teammates Jeff Bernard (on the No. 5 Graham Trucking boat) and Scott Liddycoat (on the No. 7 Valken.com) are sharing insights with the rookie driver, who was chosen for Porter's developmental-driver program over three other candidates.
"We went with Bianca," said Porter, "because we thought it was good for the sport, good for the team and good from a media perspective to get a female out there running. She's got a great personality, and from her racing connections, she's great friends with everybody. Jeff, Scott and Mark were familiar with her, and everybody on our team knew her father."
Although Friday didn't produce the first of the 10 laps at 130 mph she'll need to be certified for the Air National Guard series, she'll make more attempts today. Should Bononcini eventually qualify, decisions remain on where and when she'll race.
"We'll wait and see what kind of heat we can get her in," said Evans. "Sometimes they'll put us with just a few boats, and if we luck out and don't get the upper-echelon guys like Steve David and Dave Villwock in one, we'll let her go and do her thing.
"But we're also in a points race. We're 10th overall, and we want to stay at 10, because the top 10 teams get to do Doha."
Evans was referring to the Qatar race in November, a trip that can be lucrative for boat owners and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the rest of the team.
"So we've got to strategize," Evans went on. "Let me drive when we know we can get points, or if it's more critical against the hot dogs, and let her drive when we can afford to let her drive."
Bononcini, meanwhile, is savoring the Seafair experience. A few months removed from earning her fashion degree from the Art Institute, she's working as a nanny for two young boys when she's not pursuing the crazy dream of competing on the unlimited hydroplane circuit.
As for her friends?
"They're around the lake somewhere, having fun," she said with a high-beam smile. "They're happy for me, but they don't really get the sport. Hey, I understand. It's not for everybody."