In most years, the party doesn’t really get started for unlimited hydroplanes until the week of the Columbia Cup.
This year is no exception, as the 2018 HAPO Columbia Cup is held Friday though Sunday in the Tri-Cities.
The 53rd edition of the Tri-Cities race will feature nine H1 Unlimited hydroplane teams with 10 boats parked in Lampson Pits in Kennewick’s Columbia Park.
That boat count is better than the six which raced in Guntersville, Ala., in the season opener in June, and it tops the five which competed in Madison, Ind., a few weeks ago.
Traditionally, the Tri-Cities race and the Seattle race (set for the following week), usually get the better boat counts.
“I think it’s because the majority of boats and drivers are from the Northwest,” said Mike Denslow, a past president of the Water Follies and board member. “We’re 3 ½ hours from each other, while in the other places it’s at least a 10-hour drive. And in the Tri-Cities, this is our big pro sport. Our spectacle. We don’t have the Seahawks here, no Mariners. This is as big as it gets for us in pro sports. These teams and drivers are treated like rock stars here by the fans and volunteers.”
Now throw in an undercard lineup of nine Grand Prix World Supercharged Hydroplanes, about five to seven 5-liter boats, another five vintage boats — including the 1955 Miss Thriftway, the 1956 Miss Wahoo, the 1957 Breathless II/Blue Chip, and the 1958 and 1962 Miss Bardahls — and it’s no surprise the Tri-Cities Water Follies organization is expecting over 70,000 spectators over the three days of competition this weekend.
But it is the unlimiteds that most of those 70,000 fans are most interested in.
The lineup for the weekend consists of the following:
▪ U-1 Miss HomeStreet, with driver Jimmy Shane;
▪ U-3 Grigg’s Ace Hardware, with driver Jimmy King;
▪ U-6 Miss HomeStreet and Shane. This is the new hull making its debut;
▪ U-9 Les Schwab Tires and driver Andrew Tate;
▪ U-11 Reliable Diamond Tools presents J&D’s, and driver Tom Thompson;
▪ U-12 Graham Trucking with driver J. Michael Kelly;
▪ U-21 Darrell Strong presents PayneWest Insurance, with driver Brian Perkins;
▪ U-99.9 CARSTAR powers Miss Rock, with driver Aaron Salmon;
▪ U-440 Bucket List Racing and driver Dustin Echols;
▪ U-1918 Oberto, with driver Cal Phipps.
The two favorites have to be Tate in the U-9, and Shane in the U-1/U-6.
Each has won a race this season – Tate in Guntersville and Shane in Madison. Tate, whose father Mark was a standout unlimited hydroplane driver in the 1990s, has been fastest qualifier at both races and has beaten Shane three out of the five races the two drivers have gone head-to-head so far.
Tate leads the national high points race with 3,200 points, while Shane is second with 2,760.
“We’re looking forward to racing against a larger field for the west coast races, and gaining some unpredictability with preliminary heat draws,” Tate said.
Shane will have his choice of boats this weekend, trying to get some good testing time in the new U-6 hull as well as the older U-1.
“The plan is to test and qualify both boats and determine which one will make the cut when preliminary heat racing begins on Saturday,” Shane said. “This will be the first time I have a chance to run an H1 Unlimited hydroplane out of the box and I truly cannot wait.”
Only Thompson in the U-11 is close to the two in the points race, with 2,415.
Two teams – the U-12 and the U-3 – will be making their 2018 season debuts.
Kelly drove the U-12 to victory at the 2017 HAPO Columbia Cup, which also happened to be Rob Graham’s first race as a boat owner after being a sponsor for years. The team finished third in the national high point standings.
“I would say as an owner and as a team, I would give us an 8 (on a scale of 1-10) on the season,” said Graham after the 2017 season.
However, mechanical problems sidelined the U-12 for the first two races of this season and this week the team makes its 2018 debut.
“It has been a long offseason and myself and my crew are having a hard time containing ourselves,” said Kelly, ready to defend his Columbia Cup title.
The U-3, the sports only piston-powered boat, skipped the season’s first two races. Because of its loud noise, the boat is a huge fan favorite. Owner Ed Cooper and driver Jimmy King expect to do well both here and in Seattle.
Another team to watch may be the U-1918, which will be sponsored by Oberto both here and in Seattle to celebrate the company’s 100th year in business.
Owner Charlie Wiggins purchased the hull from Nate Brown a few years ago and it has always run well.
But a flip in Madison two years ago caused the team to miss the Tri-Cities race, and money problems and a lack of sponsors kept the team from racing here last year.
Unlimited testing begins at 8 a.m. Friday, with the qualifying ladder scheduled to start at 9 a.m.
The Water Follies pays H1 Unlimited more money to run a Gold Cup-style schedule, which means an extra set of preliminary heats over the weekend.
Because of that, there will be four preliminary heats on Saturday, with the first one scheduled for 10:20 a.m.
The first of four more preliminary heats is set for 9:50 a.m. on Sunday, with the Columbia Cup final scheduled for 4:20 p.m. later that day.
All times are subject to change.