This weekend, all was right with the fastest racing boats in the world. They went deck-to-deck, ripped up the Columbia River and crowned a champion — this time the right one.
But there’s no denying times are lean in H1 Unlimited Racing. The Madison Regatta became an exhibition race this year — the fourth points race to drop from the schedule since 2013 — meaning the HAPO Columbia Cup is one of just four official races remaining on the circuit. Only eight teams made the trip out to the Tri-Cities, and it’s possible the same number or fewer will race for the Albert Lee Appliance Cup at SeaFair in Seattle next weekend.
“It’s kind of tough, but it’s just one of those things,” said U-12 Graham Trucking driver J. Michael Kelly, the winner of Sunday’s Columbia Cup and a veteran of the circuit since 2004. “The sport has been in this situation in the past and it’s picked itself back up.”
The paradox behind the struggle is that parity and competition in the sport are running high.
At times it’s technical, but it’s not rocket science. We do have rocket scientists on call though.
H1 Chairman Doug Bernstein
Jimmy Shane (U-1 Miss HomeStreet) is the four-time defending national champion and clear face of the sport, but he’s pushed every weekend by 2016 H1 Unlimited Rookie of the Year Andrew Tate (U-9 Les Schwab Tires) and Kelly, the national high points runner-up the past three seasons. In addition, the U-11 Miss DiJulio Presents J&D, driven by Tom Thompson, and the U-3 Griggs Presents the Miss Ace Hardware of Jimmy King, looked up to snuff this weekend.
“You can see, even from a smaller field this weekend, the quality of racing is really good,” H1 Chairman Doug Bernstein said. “If you get two boats, somebody’s gonna want to go faster.
“Being a fan, in an ideal world, I’d like to expand it to 12 to 15 boats, where you’d add something to the preliminary heats and points are a must to get into the final. And there’s also a cushion in case something happens.”
That lack of cushion was certainly on display this weekend. The Ellstrom Racing team — which has won six times in the Tri-Cities and 28 times overall since 2000 — tapped veteran JW Myers to drive the U-16 Oh Boy! Oberto, but the team didn’t make it out to the Tri-Cities — although it is expected to make an appearance at SeaFair. Couple that with Brian Perkins and the U-21 skidding and breaking most of the boat’s major components on Saturday, and only six teams had race-able boats when Sunday’s final rolled around.
To keep interest in the boats on the water, Bernstein and H1 Unlimited have opted to go the direction of other major American sports and hasten the tempo. Bernstein also serves on the board of directors for the Detroit Hydrofest, which has had success with starting heats in succinct, 20-minute intervals, a tactic employed at the Water Follies this year.
Bernstein noted that interest in hydroplane racing, like other motor sports, is cyclical, and that the sport has always pivoted and prospered in the past.
In the wake of last year’s controversial HAPO Columbia Cup finish, H1 has trimmed some fat out of the rule book, hoping to make the sport more simple, fan-friendly and accessible.
“The fans need and deserve to know who won the race when they leave the river,” Bernstein said. “That’s not too much to ask ... At times it’s technical, but it’s not rocket science. We do have rocket scientists on call though.”
Of course the true test of the effectiveness of those changes lies in the response of the venues, the teams and — of course — the fans.
“The way I look at it, we’ve just got to get through this year and make the most of it,” Kelly said. “We’ve gotta hope these other race sites come on board and these race teams will come out. Because there’s a lot of fast boats sitting in shops right now that aren’t here.
“I think somebody will come along and keep this sport going, and we’ll be fine.”
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