Scott Pierce was watching his crew tinker with the new engine for the GP-55 Whispering Turbines in the Lampson Pits on Friday during the first day of the HAPO Columbia Cup.
As the owner of the boat, and a former driver, he was listening to see if he could tell what was wrong.
“It’s a brand new engine,” Pierce said. “We still have the engine we set the world record in two weeks ago, but this one is better. We didn’t have time to go to the dyno, which is a machine you put the motor on and run it to full power.”
Thirty minutes later, problem solved or not, the boat was in the water and was leading the pack when it died.
“It was running great, then it stopped,” said driver Jamie Nilsen. “Someone turned the switch off.”
The boat still had issues Saturday and didn’t make through either of the two heats, but for Pierce, having a good driver is half the battle.
“It was time for me to retire,” said Pierce, who will turn 60 next month. “He was suggested to me and I was impressed with how nice a young man he was. I was afraid he was too nice to be competitive. The unlimited people who recommended him said, ‘Don’t you worry, when that cockpit hood comes down, he is an animal.’ The proof is in the pudding. He is a real talent.”
Pierce, who competed for 30 years, bought his boat four years ago, and still questions his purchase.
“Why I bought a boat, I’ll never know why,” he said. “They are not cheap, but it is more affordable than an unlimited. I love the noise. That’s what I love about the Grand Prix.”
The Grand Prix is more difficult to drive than its big brother. At 3,000 pounds, it has more power-to-weight ratio and it takes discipline to drive one.
But once you have the right driver, everything else falls into place.
“We changed all the dynamics of the boat and the paint job this winter,” Pierce said. “The first race, it set a world record.”
With Nilsen behind the wheel, the U-55 averaged 116.89 mph on the 1 1/4-mile course in Olympia.
Pierce, who is based out of Woodinville, is hoping for more of the same on the Columbia River, a 1 2/3-mile course that his boat should be able to hit speeds of 125 mph.
“This is the first time in 30 years I’ve come to Tri-City and haven’t gotten in a boat,” Pierce said. “I’ve had a good long haul. It was hard to give up driving, but then Jamie came along. He is like a sponge. I’m living again in my 20s and 30s through him. It makes it easier for me not to get in the boat.”
Nilsen, 29, is just in his second year of driving Grand Prix and unlimited boats, but he has been around boats most of his life.
“My dad (Jim) and I started running outboards together when I was 12 years old,” Nilsen said. “Through the years I’ve met great people and moved up. This is something I have wanted to do. If you have a good reputation, you can get good referrals.”
A native of Federal Way, Nilsen got his big break last year with the U-21 Lakeridge Paving, and added the Grand Prix this year to make it a busy weekend on the Columbia.
“Two boats is very busy,” Nilsen said. “As a driver, you love being on the water. I get twice as many heats to get my timing down. The boats are so different. The top speed of the unlimited is unbelievable, and the acceleration of the Grand Prix is powerful.”
Friday was a hectic one for Nilsen. After the GP-55 shut down, he had to catch a ride back to the docks, where he jumped into the Lakeridge Paving for the Dash for Cash, where he finished fourth.
“We need to find some more speed,” he said.
Greg O’Farrell, owner of the U-21, said he doesn’t mind sharing Nilsen.
“Jamie is very competitive,” O’Farrell said. “He’s an ex-pro ballplayer who is very intelligent. I’m very proud of him. He represents my family and my sponsors very well.”
This weekend marks Nilsen’s third race in the unlimited field. He shares driving time in the U-21 with veteran Brian Perkins, who was suited up and ready to drive the boat in the Dash for Cash had Nilsen had not made it back in time.
“Brian has driven for me for eight years,” O’Farrell said. “I feel fortunate to have both of them on board.”
A graduate of Central Washington University, Nilsen played shortstop for the Wildcats, then played a year of minor league baseball in the Kansas City Royals organization. He now is a financial analyst for the Navy and driving hydroplanes is his hobby.
“I played a year of pro baseball, then the real world came calling,” he said. “Boat racing has filled that void. I miss the competitiveness of baseball and working together as a team, but this is pretty similar. Scott has had a long and successful career. I milk his brain to see what I can learn.”
w Annie Fowler: 582-1574; email@example.com; Twitter: tchicequeen