Cindy Shirley, the new crew chief of the Miss HomeStreet unlimited hydroplane, in the first female to hold the role in the sport's modern history. She shares a light moment with driver Jimmy Shane during following their first test run at the recent preseason testing day held on the Columbia River by the Tri-Cities Water Follies.
When she was 10 years old, Cindy Shirley stood near the two-story wall overlooking the Ohio River and watched below as unlimited hydroplane race teams worked furiously on their boats.
It was Shirley’s first unlimited race she ever attended. It was the 1970s.
But Shirley wasn’t as interested in how the drivers were racing as she was with what the crew members were doing.
“I remember thinking ‘I want to go down there,’” she said.
Fast forward to Friday at Columbia Park.
Shirley was overseeing the crew for the U-1 Miss HomeStreet Bank/Miss Madison, the defending national champions for H1 Unlimited.
Shirley was named the team’s crew chief earlier this year, making her the first female crew chief in the modern history of unlimited hydroplane racing.
She replaces Dan Hoover, who passed away earlier this year.
Moving Shirley into the crew chief position was “a no-brainer,” team manager Charlie Grooms said.
Shirley, her crew and the HomeStreet boat were one of four unlimited teams who took to the Columbia River on Friday, taking advantage of preseason testing as the H1 Unlimited fleet prepares for the 2018 season opener — the Southern Cup, set for June 22-24 in Guntersville, Ala.
Also in attendance were the U-9 Les Schwab Tires; the U-11 Reliable Diamond Tool presents J&D's; and the U-440 Bucket List Racing team.
But a lot of the attention in the Neil F. Lampson Pits on Friday was focused on the U-1 team and Shirley, who graciously accepted congratulations from both friends and strangers all day.
Shirley will be the first to tell you that she never thought she’d be a crew chief for an unlimited hydroplane team.
But in a way, she's been training for it most of her life.
"I was a boater," Shirley said. "I walked in water before I walked on land."
Back in the 1970s, while living in Louisville, her parents had a boat. When she was 5 or 6, her sister around the same age, her father would always take the girls out on the river when he got home from work.
“I always had us packed up and ready to go,” Shirley said. “And if we found somebody to race, we’d race them.”
They'd almost always win.
But one time they didn’t. Cindy, ever the precocious child, turned to her father and said “Can’t you go any faster?”
After that first unlimited race in Evansville, there were more races to see.
“Our family of four — my parents, my sister and I — lived in Louisville,” she said. “But we spent our summers going to hydroplane races. Mainly Madison, Evansville, Detroit for the Gold Cup. Eventually we added Oklahoma City, the Lake of the Ozarks, Norfolk.”
By the time she was old enough, Shirley got into administration work for HydroProp — the old unlimited hydroplane organization from the 1990s — as a site coordinator.
“I realized I didn’t like that,” Shirley said. “I wanted to be involved with a race team.”
The Miss Madison team welcomed her. She's been with the team for 15 years.
Her duties have been working on the cockpit, and last season she was the boat chief.
Larry Oberto also thought Shirley might make a good crew chief one day.
Oberto, the son of Art Oberto and a member of the family that had sponsored the Miss Madison team for years, drove to the Tri-Cities from Seattle a few years back. It was just after the team had lost its crew chief.
“I told her to make a list of what each person’s duties should be,” Oberto said.
Shirley didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. So she didn’t make that list.
But when they got to the shop before the first race, there were people languishing.
So she made the list.
Shirley, whose main job is as Director of Research at the University of Washington Bothell, became known for her organizational skills.
The U-1 team has suffered a few emotional blows in the last year.
Last summer, Shirley’s father Dave, passed away unexpectedly.
“Dave got things done for us, getting things from Point A to Point B,” said Grooms. “Whether it was food for the team, or getting the RVs in place. The loss of Dave was an unexpected blow to the team.”
But then Hoover, the team’s crew chief and project leader in building the team’s new boat, committed suicide in February.
It sent a shock wave through the entire Madison team.
A few weeks later, the team came to Pasco for the annual H1 Unlimited awards banquet.
“At the awards banquet, we knew people were going to ask us questions about what we were going to do,” said Grooms. “It wasn’t until late before the banquet started, 5 to the 5 if you will, that we called everyone on the team together. I happened to have a suite. And the big elephant in the room was what were we gonna do moving forward?”
Grooms had already thought about this for a while.
“I had one goal: team cohesion,” Grooms said. “I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen a lot of teams. But never one like this. Cindy was an integral part of that team.
“I wasn’t going to break up the cohesion of this team in exchange for big talent. This team has the utmost respect for her. The only question was would Jimmy feel the same way. He emphatically embraced it. Mark Mason, the chairman of HomeStreet Bank, emphatically embraced it too.”
The entire team agreed Shirley was the logical choice.
Shane, who had once quit the U-1 team a few years ago when it looked like Hoover wasn’t going to be crew chief, knew Shirley was the right choice.
“Once things got settled down (after Hoover's death), Charlie and I talked about it,” Shane said. “We felt she was the best choice.”
Shane feels comfortable with Shirley. And comfort is important for any driver.
“Cindy has been doing all of the cockpit roles in getting the driver comfortable and safe for 20 years. She’s big on accountability and structure.”
There are still bugs to be worked out.
Hoover used to drive the truck towing the boat.
Right now, Grooms does because he’s the only member of the team that has a CDL.
The team has also added three new crew members, so Friday’s test session was important to get some organization in.
That’s where Shirley came in.
“I over planned,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d get to the third engine today, but we did.”
That’s why Grooms knows he made the right choice with Shirley.
“She’s very organized,” Grooms said. “She doesn’t fit the mold of the old crew chief who can do it all. We have talent around her, and with her we have team cohesion. She’s got guys like me. I have been around for 41 years. Guys like Gary Spanner, who has been with us since the 1970s. Or her boyfriend, Dan Walters. Or Jimmy Gilbert.”
Shirley said she’d be dumb to not listen to the expertise of the veteran crew.
“The new job means more organization, and I always wasn’t involved in racing strategy,” she said.
But she’ll listen to her crew, then help Shane make the best decision before each race.
Hoover’s death also put the team behind schedule a couple of months on finishing the new boat.
But Mike and Larry Hanson — booth former Madison Team crew chiefs — are now building the new boat, which should be ready by mid-season.
“It’s really moved along well,” said Shirley. “They are so meticulous and neat. I was helping them last week with the cockpit.”
Shirley is ready for the task ahead.
“It’s a daunting challenge,” she said.
And the role as the first woman crew chief in the modern era of unlimited hydroplane racing?
“That’s also daunting,” she said. “It’s a huge responsibility. I’m trying to keep the team philosophy. It’s a new role. It’s a new level of responsibility.”
But it doesn’t change her expectations.
“I want to be top qualifier, win every heat, win every final. And keep the boat right side up,” she said.
Grooms is fine with that.
“The first test, the boat floated. Then it ran. About 155 mph,” he said. “It’s just good to see the boat back in the water.”
That’s why Shirley enjoys what she does.
“It’s a lot of stress,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. But it’s a great feeling when the boat leaves the dock and you know you had a hand in it. Boat racing, once it gets in your blood, it can’t leave.”
Notes: Andrew Tate said that with the water on the Columbia River being high — people estimated about 4 feet higher than normal — things were moving fast.
“The current is ripping through here,” said Tate, driver of the U-9 Les Schwab Tires. “Coming down the river (on the Kennewick side) is beautiful with the current. Going upriver, you’re fighting the current and kind of going side to side.”
Tate said the team liked what it saw in the three times it went out on the water, including a shakedown cruise the first time to get the cobwebs out.
But Tate has no time to rest.
He has to be at the Gananoque Nickel Cup Hydroplane Regatta in Ontario on Saturday for the Hydroplane Racing League event.
His father, former unlimited driver Mark Tate, has the team’s new boat already at the race site.
“I fly out of here at 5 tonight, to Seattle,” Andrew Tate said. “Then I go to Las Vegas, to Toronto, then finally to Kitchener.”
Tate said he has two heats both Saturday and Sunday in this brand new Grand Prix boat.
But he knew it was also important for him to be in the Tri-Cities for the chance to get some seat time in the U-9 before the season begins.
Team owners Mike and Lori Jones agreed.
“This is the best driver and boat combination we’ve ever had,” said Mike Jones. “We’ve had some good drivers. But Andrew is a great fit.”
* Meanwhile, the U-11 Reliable Diamond Tool presents J&D got a couple of laps on the river in before driver Tom Thompson had to shut the boat down.
Thompson felt a bad vibration.
“A strut bushing failed,” said U-11 owner Scott Raney. “It could have been pretty catastrophic if Tom hadn’t shut the boat down when he did.”
The boat was pretty shaken up. But Thompson knew it was the right move.
“I’m not that kind of person,” he said. “If I feel or hear something that is not normal, I’m not going to keep going. We would rather the boat do this now than when we’re down in Alabama in a few weeks.”
Raney decided it would be better to take the boat back to Seattle and work on the problems.
“We want to go home and prepare some new pieces (of equipment),” said Raney. “If this was the Tri-Cities race weekend, rest assured we’d be back out on the water. But we’re not gonna rush things. It’s not a huge repair. I just don’t have any spares right now. I was going to make some more pieces of equipment next week.”
Even though the team got in just a few laps, it was helpful.
“When we get to Alabama, we can now just test things that are just race course specific,” said Thompson. “There is no way to explain the value to do this (testing session).”
* Dustin Echols, the driver of the U-440 Bucket List Racing, was pretty happy with his outings on the river.
“It’s been awesome,” said Echols, last year’s H1 Unlimited Rookie Driver of the Year. “It’s been way better than last year’s spring training. We found more speed in the boat.”
Team owner Kelly Stocklin and his crew have spent long hours this past winter working on the boat, making improvements. Echols said it’s paid off.
“A ton of new stuff was put on the boat,” Echols said. “Propellers, skid fins, etc. All of that stuff makes the boat go faster.”
Echols said that while the team has three turbines, only one was being used Friday.
“But we’ve been trying a lot of gearbox combinations,” he said. “We think coming here is huge. We found some things that were wrong with the boat that we thought were right when we were in the shop.”
All of this makes Echols believe the team will have a much-improved 2018 season.
“We don’t have any big dreams that we can win the Gold Cup,” Echols said. “But if we can become more consistent and get to the middle of the pack, we’d be happy.”
* With the addition of the Southern Cup on June 22-24 in Guntersville, Ala., the HAPO Columbia Cup becomes the circuit’s third race of the season. The Columbia Cup is set for July 27-29 in the Tri-Cities. After Guntersville is Madison, Ind., set for July 6-8. Seafair in Seattle is scheduled for Aug. 3-5; followed by the APBA Gold Cup in Detroit on Aug. 24-26; and Bayfair in San Diego on Sept. 14-16.
Unlimited Digital Access: Only $0.99 For Your First Month
Get full access to Tri-City Herald content across all your devices.