Editor’s note: There are 43 days until the APBA HAPO Gold Cup Heat 1A race takes place on the Columbia River. At the same time, the Tri-City Water Follies’ annual event is celebrating its 50th year of racing unlimited hydroplanes. So the Herald will take a daily look at past storylines leading up to the Gold Cup. These are in no particular order:
July 25, 2004: An independence movement, and a Budweiser farewell.
The 2004 Columbia Cup will be remembered for the Tri-City Water Follies breaking away from the organizing body of unlimited hydroplanes, Hydro-Prop, and the final run of the Miss Budweiser.
The battle with Hydro-Prop and owner Gary Garbrecht started with U-3 owner Ed Cooper, who vowed at the beginning of the season he wouldn’t run in any of the organization’s events.
Cooper owned the sports only piston-powered boat. It was good and fast, and extremely popular with the fans, who loved its loud sound.
His battle stemmed from the organization’s attempt to monitor his fuel flow during races when it was agreed years ago that as long as he ran a piston-powered boat that would never happen.
In June, Evansville organizers — citing a desire to have the U-3 race — voted to go independent. San Diego followed soon after, and then the Tri-City Water Follies board did the same.
At the time, Water Follies event director Emily Janikowski (now Emily Estes) said Hydro-Prop rejected the Water Follies board’s offer to pay a full fee for a minimum of 10 unlimited hydroplanes — including the fan-favorite U-3 piston-powered boat — with a reduction in the fee if less than 10 boats race.
Janikowski was hopeful to get seven boats for the event. She got 11.
The pre-race drama had overshadowed the truly big story: Miss Budweiser’s farewell tour. The legendary Bernie Little, owner of the Bud team, had passed away the year before, and Anheuser Busch announced early in 2004 that it would stop sponsoring the team after the season.
Little’s son Joe wanted to make one final appearance at each race course in 2004 to honor his father.
The Budweiser team wrote the opening chapter of the Tri-Cities unlimited hydroplane races in 1966 when Bernie Little’s driver, Bill Brow, took the Atomic Cup title.
On this day, Joe Little and driver Dave Villwock wrote the final chapter for that storied team by winning the 39th annual Columbia Cup.
What fans saw was close to perfection.
Villwock drove flawlessly all day, winning Heat 2A and 3A before coasting to victory in the championship final.
In fact, the championship was a much-anticipated race, with the U-3 Vacationville.com — Cooper’s boat and the U-1 Bud scheduled to meet for the first time all weekend.
Neither team had faced each other in the preliminary heats Saturday or Sunday.
Like Bud, the U-3 had won every heat it had raced in to that point over the weekend, so Villwock and U-3 driver Mitch Evans were licking their chops for a meeting in the finals.
“It definitely builds the anticipation,” Evans said. “At some point you want to go up against those guys.”
“Think of what the Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Racing Association and this race site have set down,” Villwock said before the race. “It’s like an NHRA bracket. You want the big dogs to meet in the semifinals or finals. This’ll be fun.”
Villwock expected himself, Evans and the U-8 Llumar Window Film boat with driver J.W. Myers to be the front-runners for the final.
He was right — for a half lap.
The final heat was a free-for-all start with no assigned lanes, meaning whoever could claim the inside lane closest to the start of the race would have a huge advantage.
All three drivers played a mesmerizing cat-and-mouse game in the minutes leading up to the final. Evans cut off Villwock on the Franklin County side of the course, settling into Lane 1. But it was too early. Then Myers cut in, almost washing down Villwock. Yet it was still too early. There was a near-collision in the middle of the course between Myers and Villwock.
Finally, Villwock found himself tucked into Lane 1 entering the score-up buoy — a point where no one can move in — with Myers settled into Lane 2 in Villwock’s right pocket.
Evans made one last-ditch effort to cut in, but it was too late and he had to settle for Lane 3.
“I tried turning back inside, but Dave had already got to the buoy,” Evans said. “Dave rolled me over and shoved me outside.”
Said Villwock: “We had to get inside. Everybody had the same idea.”
Myers loved the strategy.
“As soon as I got to the score-up buoy, I radioed my team,” Myers said. “I was just laughing because that was so much fun.”
As the race began, rookie J. Michael Kelly in the U-2 Miss APBA brought everyone down into the first turn from the outside. However, it was Villwock, in Lane 1, who got in and out of the turn first. But it got too tight in there. Myers lost sight of everything and tried using Evans on his right as a mark.
The two boats then collided. Evans — whose boat had just a scratch on it — kept on going, but Myers spun out the U-8 and ended up facing the wrong way.
“I felt like I had a boat length ahead of him,” Evans said. “Next thing I know, he just ricocheted of my left side. It wasn’t a violent collision. It was just so tight. I thought we made it through there. It was just enough to turn him around.”
Myers didn’t blame anyone.
“It was real tight going in there in that first turn,” Myers said. “My vision went away because there was a lot of water flying. Then it seemed out of nowhere, ka-boom! I got hit. I’m not gonna point fingers. That’s just hard racing.”
“Mitch came in hard and hard going out,” Villwock said. “That’s good clean racing. I know Mitch was pulling 2 or 3 more miles per hour more on me. I was just trying to stay close to the buoys at the turn. It’s always rough in there.”
Myers tried putting flotation devices on the right side of the boat to keep it afloat. The right sponson had been ripped open and was taking on water.
“I tried to keep the motor from going under water, but I couldn’t,” Myers said. “That’s two weeks in a row. I feel bad because the guys on the crew have been working their butts off six, seven weeks in a row.”
Villwock, who was able to avoid the incident, already had enough cushion on the rest of the field and he coasted to victory — his third of the season.