Hydro Racing

This popular racing team made a big splash returning to the Tri-Cities

Cal Phipps guides the U-1918 Oberto unlimited hydroplane across the Columbia River on Friday during a testing session on the Columbia River for the Columbia Cup event.
Cal Phipps guides the U-1918 Oberto unlimited hydroplane across the Columbia River on Friday during a testing session on the Columbia River for the Columbia Cup event. Tri-City Herald

Owner Charley Wiggins never thought he’d bring his U-27 unlimited hydroplane to the Tri-Cities this year for the HAPO Columbia Cup.

“It’s all about sponsorship,” said Wiggins, sitting in an RV on Friday in Lampson Pits. “(Tow) money alone is not enough to get us here. You can’t afford to race with just that.”

Especially when your home base is in Alabama. But Larry Oberto was looking to sponsor an unlimited hydroplane for the Tri-Cities race and in Seattle next week. Oberto’s family had sold its company earlier this year, but marketing put Larry Oberto in charge of sponsoring a hydroplane to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary this year.

“I credit Oberto CEO Tom Hernquest,” said Oberto. “He’s ultimately the one who made it happen for this 100th anniversary.”

Oberto first thought of Erick Ellstrom, owner of the U-16 boat who has had the company sponsor him before, and who has a deal with Oberto on an off-road vehicle with his son, Sven, as a driver.

“Erick and us had been talking about it since November,” said Oberto. “But everybody was apprehensive to pull the plug. A lot of time went by before Erick said it was finally time to pull the plug.”

Oberto could have done something with Ed Cooper in the U-3, but only in Seattle. Cooper already had a deal with Grigg’s and Ace Hardware for the Tri-Cities, and Larry Oberto wanted a deal with a team for Tri-Cities and Seattle.

“Corporate thinks there is more value in Seattle,” he admitted. “But I think there is more value here. There are at least 30,000 to 40,000 people here who cheer who wins or boos who wins. Here, I’m reaching diehard race fans.”

That meant a deal for Wiggins and his U-27 team.

“It is pretty cool,” said Wiggins, who changed his boat number to U-1918 for these next two races to celebrate Oberto’s first year of business. It was a pleasant surprise for team driver Cal Phipps, who had no expectations to be in the Tri-Cities.

“I was at zero on us coming here a month ago,” said Phipps. “Without the Oberto’s help, the chance of all of us coming here was zero.”

Phipps had the fourth fastest qualifying time on Friday with a 154.876 mph speed.

Once he found out the deal was done, Oberto went about getting some equipment. He got Ellstrom and Mike Hanson to build him two propellers. Then Oberto went to Joe Little, the son of the late Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little, and leased two turbine engines from him.

“So I am now the owner of two turbines,” Oberto said.

Neither will likely be used this weekend, so the 2.5 Wiggins owns will do the trick in the Tri-Cities. Wiggins, meanwhile, put together a strong team for support. Adam Bratvoldt from Whispering Turbines of Montana is one member. But the most notable member of the team is Dave Villwock.

Yes, that Dave Villwock.

The all-time winningest unlimited driver in history. The standout former crew chief. The motor sports hall of fame member inductee.

“Dave has been building propellers for us,” said Wiggins. “He’s built about three or four of them the last three or four years. He’s been a coach and consultant for us.”

And Villwock is enjoying it.

“I’m trying to pay it forward,” he said. “I have been given so many opportunities over the years. I’ve met so many smart people. I’ve called people to tell them I appreciate what they’ve done.”

Villwock is a person whom people either like … or they don’t. It doesn’t bother him.

“I won at Madison one year, and I got booed by some of the fans,” said Villwock. “It bothered me. So I asked Dale Earnhardt one time about it and what he did. He said ‘If you ain’t been booed, you ain’t done nothing right. This ain’t no popularity contest.’ ”

So he doesn’t let the naysayers bother him. It’s about the work.

“Everybody thinks there is some magic screw some place,” said Villwock. “No. It’s all about hard work.”

The relationship has already paid off. The boat has a tendency to hit every hole in the water. Villwock figured out a problem with the canard and helped get it adjusted.

“He’s mentioned a lot of things in situations where he’d say, ‘Here’s how we did it,’ ” said Wiggins.

Phipps is in heaven.

“I have a lot of questions for Dave obviously I’d love to have him answer,” said Phipps. “You can’t erase the experience and the knowledge he has. No matter where he goes, there is an improvement for that team.

“If you have an opportunity to learn from someone like that, you’d be crazy not to.”

Already, Phipps has listened to Villwock about communication with the rest of the team.

“Immediately when I come out of the boat, I need to talk to Charley and Dave about what I saw and felt out there,” Phipps said.

He hopes that maybe on Sunday they’ll be communicating about a Columbia Cup victory. No matter what, Phipps is ecstatic.

“Not everybody gets Oberto money,” he said. “It’s like a dream to sit here in an Oberto shirt and say we have Oberto sponsorship for the next two races. It’s a dream.”

Friday notes: Jimmy Shane was the field’s fastest qualifier in the U-1 Miss HomeStreet with a speed of 163.431 mph, just 0.148 mph off the course qualifying record – which, ironically, is held by Villwock in the U-96 Spirit of Qatar (163.579 mph) back in 2010. Shane popped that speed in the second qualifying session in the afternoon, when it was much hotter than the morning session and not conducive to fast speeds with turbines. “We had some good stuff on the boat,” Shane said with a smile. It was the first time in three races this season that Shane earned the top qualifying speed.

Andrew Tate, the driver of the U-9 Les Schwab Tires, was the fastest qualifier in the first two races in Guntersville, Ala., and Madison, Ind. Tate was second on Friday with a speed of 160.525 mph. Defending Columbia Cup champion J. Michael Kelly drove the U-12 Graham Trucking to a third-place speed of 156.260 mph. Other qualifiers were Phipps in the Oberto at 154.876 mph; Tom Thompson and the U-11 Reliable Diamond Tool presents J&D’s at 153.680 mph; Brian Perkins in the U-21 Darrell Strong presents PayneWest Insurance at 153.599 mph; and Dustin Echols in the U-440 Bucket List Racing at 139.556 mph. Jimmy King in the U-3 Grigg’s presents the Mis Ace Hardware and Aaron Salmon in the U-99.9 Carstars powers KISW Miss Rock didn’t have qualifying speeds, although both drivers went out late in the afternoon and clocked at least 145 mph on a lap. The speeds didn’t count because qualifying was closed, but both boats will be racing Saturday.

The Madison team was hoping to christen the new U-6 on Friday by getting into the Columbia River and running a few laps. It just didn’t have the time, however, as it was concentrating most of its efforts on the old boat and qualifying. With former Madison crew chiefs Mike Hanson and Larry Hanson helping current crew chief Cindy Shirley, the team did trailer fire the boat in the pits as team members applauded. The Hansons did the bulk of the work on getting the boat built these last few months. ... Shane drove the U-1 to victory in the made-for-TV Dash for Cash. ... Racing continues Saturday with four preliminary heats: 1A is set for 10:20 a.m.; 1B is at 10:40 a.m.; 2A is set for 4:20 p.m.; and 2B will run at 4:40 p.m. (Subject to change). ... The Grand Prix World supercharged hydroplane division will have seven teams competing this weekend, including series leader Jerry Hopp and the GP-15 Hopp Racing. Also competing is the U-20 The Truss Company presents Miss Tri-Cities with driver Ed Preston. It’s the lone GP representing the Tri-Cities.