Dave Villwock channeled a little Bernie Little on Sunday.
“Bernie used to say, ‘You can’t win them all until you win the first one,” said Villwock.
Of course, the late Miss Budweiser owner was right on that count, and Villwock — who used to drive for Little — got his 2012 season off on the right foot by winning the H1 Unlimited Air National Guard season opener, the Madison Regatta in Madison, Ind.
The winningest driver in unlimited hydroplane history picked up his 66th career victory in the U-1 Spirit of Qatar, when he hit the starting line almost perfectly and pulled away from Steve David in the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto for the win.
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“We won all three of our preliminary heats,” said David, who piloted the Oberto to a second-place finish, “and we beat the Qatar boat in 2C. But in the final Dave had a really good start. He hit (the starting line) perfect. I was accelerating, but he was wide open. That’s when the race ended.”
Villwock said it was a big win for him and his team.
“It’s tough because you have to make the final four to start on the front line,” he said.
A year ago in Madison, both drivers collided in the final heat when Villwock — in the lead — came out of a turn and his boat hooked inside. David didn’t have any time to react, and his boat went over the top of the Qatar.
David and the Oberto team — which had won three straight national high-points championships from 2008-2010 — lost a chance to defend the title that day when the boat suffered heavy damage.
Villwock and the Qatar team went on to win the national high-points title last season.
On Sunday, the boats came out in good shape. But Villwock said his crew suffered some damage.
“Danny Walters had to be sent to the hospital on Saturday (with heat exhaustion),” said Villwock. “And Bob Burk, he went down on the last run of the day.”
But it was that Qatar crew that made the right adjustments for Sunday’s final.
The Madison weather had been unbearably hot all weekend. But before the final, while the temperature dropped to 89 degrees, it started storming up and there was a delay.
“The referees did a great job,” said Villwock. “I don’t want to see anyone get hurt. But they watched (the weather) to see if it got better. After the wind goes down, you’ve still got to wait a half-hour to 45 minutes for the water to settle down and even out.
“Then they told us to go and they were right,” Villwock continued. “They were real professional getting us in the water. (Chief referee) Mike Noonan did a good job.”
But during that waiting period, Villwock, crew chief Erick Ellstrom and and the Qatar team decided to change the boat’s setup.
“We adjusted the engine, changed the gearbox and changed the propellor,” Villwock said. “The water was really rough. We’re supposed to be professionals. We’re supposed to look at those things and make those decisions. That little delay to reassess what we were doing was key.”
David said the Oberto team also reassessed what they were doing, but decided against making any changes.
“We debated it, and in retrospect we probably should have gone with a smaller gear ratio,” David said.
As the race started, David had the Oberto in Lane 1, where the water was a lot rougher.
Villwock wanted to avoid that lane at all costs and started in Lane 2.
“I kind of maneuvered around everybody,” Villwock said.
David stuck close to Villwock for two laps, then guarded his second-place position from everybody else by crossing behind the Qatar’s roostertail.
“I thought the only way we were gonna beat Dave was from Lane 1,” David admitted. “In retrospect, I might have moved out farther.”
Second-year driver Scott Liddycoat drove the 88 Degree Men to a third-place finish in the team’s first race since 2008.
The teams now head to Detroit for the APBA Gold Cup, set for Friday through Sunday.
And the battle is already tight in the points standings. Villwock and the Qatar team compiled 1,600 points for this weekend, while David and the Oberto team had 1,580 points.
“It’s a victory of sorts,” said David. “We won all of our preliminary heats and we beat everybody. We leave with only a 20-point deficit.”