Hidden in a small shop in south Seattle is the newest unlimited hydroplane, ready to make its debut this week at the HAPO Columbia Cup, which starts Friday in Lampson Pits in Kennewick’s Columbia Park.
The boat — the new 96 Spirit of Qatar — was hidden, said owner and team manager Erick Ellstrom, because he wanted to keep it away from “the media and hydro geeks.”
Ellstrom hasn’t had a boat to race since January of 2013 in Doha, Qatar, the final race of the 2012 season. That hull suffered too much damage in that race.
But Ellstrom had always been proud of that hull, calling it the winningest hull in the history of the sport.
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After Doha, though, he knew it was the end.
“We knew the competition was getting better,” said Ellstrom. “We knew the boat was getting tired. That boat had been ridden harder than anything around. When we started diving into it, we realized how tired it was.”
It was time to build a new boat, Ellstrom determined.
“And this one has been on the drawing board for quite a few years,” he said.
He enlisted veteran boat builder Ron Jones Jr., who had built Ellstrom’s last boat in 2001.
“It’s absolutely identical to the 2001 boat,” said Jones. “(Erick) didn’t want to make any changes to it, so he can adjust to what the race course is.”
Jones has built the following boats: the 1979 Miss Budweiser, 1980 Miss Budweiser, 1983 Miss Budweiser, 1988 Miss Madison, 1991 Coors Dry, 2001 Ellstrom, 2008 Muscatel, 2010 88 Degree, and in 2013-14 this 96 Spirit of Qatar.
“That’s nine boats,” he said. “And I think I’m missing one somewhere.”
Jones believes this boat will give the rest of the field some stiff competition.
“The majority of boats on the course now are at least 20 years old,” he said. “So that’s why we think everybody will be nervous about us.”
But it’s taken a little longer to get this one done.
Ellstrom said part of the reason is that he keeps telling the team to make a change here and another there.
“I’m probably three months behind schedule,” Ellstrom said. “So I think everyone is frustrated with me.”
Maybe. Maybe not. But Jones agreed the team is behind schedule.
“Generally it takes eight months to build a boat,” he said. “We are at 10 months right now, because I’ve done most everything by myself until Mike got here in May.”
Ellstrom pulled off a coup in the offseason when he convinced Mike Hanson — the longtime 6 Oberto crew chief — to leave the Madison team and become the Spirit of Qatar’s crew chief.
“It didn’t take that much to convince him,” said Ellstrom. “I think there has been a great mutual respect between the two of us over the years. We had a couple of missing pieces. Mike is one of the key guys.”
Hanson fit right in.
“Erick made me a hell of an offer, and it looked like Madison/Oberto might have been winding things down,” said Hanson. “Erick has a five-year (sponsorship) deal with the Sheikh (Hassan of Qatar), plus a two-year option.”
Traveling from his Bonney Lake home to Madison, Ind., every month was becoming tiring too.
“I spent a lot of time in an airplane two days every month,” he said. “I mean, I liked my job there (at Oberto/Madison).”
But this was too good to pass up.
It’s also been a lot of work.
Since Hanson arrived, it’s been 12-hour days, seven days a week, in the Seattle shop.
“We struck up a pretty good working relationship right away,” said Ellstrom. “He’s gonna do more of the day-to-day operations. He’ll basically be in charge of everything. I’m still building the propellors, and Mike is making it all come together and work. He’s good at it. I may think I know a lot, but he really knows a lot.”
Ellstrom has bought a lot of key crew members back, including Dan Hey, Dave Hey and Ricky Swanson.
And he hired Kip Brown, the winner of last year’s Gold Cup, to drive.
“I like Kip,” Ellstrom said. “I think he did a really good job last year. I worked with him a bit last year for the first time and I really enjoyed it. It was a difficult decision to pick a driver because there are a lot of really good drivers out there.”
Brown is beyond excited.
“This is gonna be so frickin’ cool,” he said. “I am so fortunate to be working with these gentlemen.”
Ellstrom reminds people that every one of his boats has been debuted in the Tri-Cities.
No one is expecting any miracles this week. The boat has to be shaken out. Brown and the boat have to get comfortable with one another.
“We don’t know how it’s going to do until we run it,” said Hanson. “But Pasco is a good place to start because it has big turns.”
But everyone believes the team will get up to speed sooner rather than later.
“It’s funny to me how under-the-radar this project is flying,” said Brown. “There’s not much that’s been said about us in the preseason by the media. I’m thinking ‘Did you guys forget how good this Ellstrom team is?’ “
And Brown will do what he needs to help the process.
“Just strap me in and I’ll stay there all weekend,” he said.