KENNEWICK -- Seven weeks before the H1 Unlimited season begins in Madison, Ind., -- 10 weeks before the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities -- two unlimited hydroplane teams spent time Friday on the Columbia River.
They ran around a course that was moved much closer to the blue bridge, and the river was unsightly with tumbleweeds and wood floating downstream.
But no one ever expected to see a deer.
Yet there was one, swimming out of Columbia Park, trying to cross over to Pasco as the 88 Degree Men boat was sitting at the Lampson Pits dock, ready to hit the course.
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Two rescue sled teams tried to help the deer hurry along. But their presence only made the animal turn around and try to swim upstream.
Forty-five minutes later, the deer made its way down to Lampson Pits, where a few people -- with the help of a rope -- guided the animal back onto land.
It was tired and shaking, but Animal Rescue came to the pits to relocate the deer.
It completed a strange day that brought an estimated 500 people to the river banks. They also watched the U-11 Peters & May complete just three laps around the course and the 88 Degree Men team begin a comeback that's four years in the making.
For the U-11, a failed gearbox after the third lap shut ended the day.
"We could keep running it and risk our season," said Scott Raney, U-11 co-owner and crew chief. "It's better to have this happen here than in Indiana. But I can say with the three laps we got, our winter work was a success."
Raney said the team has goals for the 2012 season, which begins July 6 in Madison.
"Last year, we finished 10th in the points standings," he said. "We want to cut that number in half."
That's not out of reach, said U-11 driver JW Myers. He noted the U-17, with owner/crew chief Nate Brown and driver Kip Brown, finished near the top of the standings last season.
"It took Nate a couple of years, didn't it?" Myers said. "We have the same setup and budget. I can look people in the eye and tell them we can finish that high."
Meanwhile, the 88 Degree Men boat was back in the water after being dry-docked for the last 3 1/2 years.
The boat previously ran as the U-10 USA Racing Partners. It was based out of Las Vegas, and owned by Kim Gregory and his family -- wife Debbie, sons Matt and Adam, and daughter Kari.
They traveled the circuit together and worked on the same team, but in August 2008, Gregory was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
He died a month later, before the San Diego race. It knocked the Gregory family for a loop and they put the boat away.
The intent, Matt said, was to have the boat ready to race and sell it. If it didn't sell, maybe they would race it again.
"In the last three years, we've spent $350,000 on it," Matt said. "This thing has been race-ready."
But the comeback process actually began in 2009. They even lined up a driver.
"When Dad was gone, we decided we needed to run this thing for one more race," Matt said. "So for 2010, we put together a three-race program that would have us race in Tri-Cities, Seattle and San Diego. We were just getting ready to tell our driver -- Dave Bryant -- about it when he went to Australia to race."
Bryant, racing flatbottom boats, was killed in Australia in April 2010 when his engine seized up at 135 mph and launched him out of the boat.
"We decided enough was enough," Matt said.
Until last April, that is.
Matt and Adam sat down with their mother and told her the boat needed to be raced.
"My sons wanted to get back into it this year," Debbie said. "It took a lot for them to talk me into it. This was my husband's passion, but I told them we had to have a sponsor."
They found one when the 88 Degree Men transferred its sponsorship from Schumacher Racing to the Gregory family.
"Now, it's full-speed ahead," Matt Gregory said. "We've gotten approval from Joe Little to use the old Budweiser team facility in Tukwila. To have a facility of this caliber is amazing."
Matt moved from Las Vegas to Seattle, and he lives in the basement of Mark Smith, a former team manager for Miss Bud who now consults for the Gregory family.
For 88 driver Scott Liddycoat, the boat is new.
Last season, he drove the U-7 Valken.com last season, picking up a victory in Doha, Qatar. But owner Ted Porter beached the boat in the offseason, and Liddycoat was wooed by the Gregory family.
"The boats actually ride similar," saiod Liddycoat. "There will be some transition, and in the cockpit there will be a few adjustments. But it's a nice ride."
As long as there are no deer in the river.