Hydro Racing

Hydroplane racing teams rev up on the chilly Columbia River for a preseason testing

H1 Unlimited hydroplane teams looking to get a jump on the 2019 season were in Lampson Pits in Kennewick on Friday, shaking off the dust and working out any kinks.

And it just wasn’t the boats that needed a tuneup.

“I’m sorting out the computer stuff right now,” said Scott Raney, team owner and crew chief of the U-11 J&D presents Reliable Diamond Tool boat. “Everything needs some spring training right now.”

And just like every May, each team seemed to have questions about the upcoming season, which begins June 28-30 in Guntersville, Ala.

For instance: What are the plans for the defending national high points champions, the U-1 Jones Racing team?

When asked if Mike and Lori Jones are trying to sell their boat and equipment, Lori Jones said everything is always for sale. It just depends on the price.

The Joneses lost crew chief Jeff Campbell and his brother Mike Campbell to retirement after the 2018 championship, and the question remains whether the team will defend its title by making it to all five races.

“We still haven’t decided yet,” said Lori Jones. “We’re regrouping our crew. We haven’t announced a crew chief yet. ... We’ll probably make a decision next week (on running the full circuit). But for sure, we’ll be here in the Tri-Cities (in late July) and in Seattle.”

It sounds like the team could go either way on a full defense of its title.

“We don’t have a sponsor right now, so there is no pressure to do the whole circuit,” said Lori Jones. “Delta/RealTrac has given us some money, but Les Schwab has pulled all of its sports program money. We’ll go baby steps right now. We accomplished (winning the national title) last year. That was the goal. We’ve just been doing this for so long.”

The good news is the boat is ready.

“Jeff Campbell has been great this offseason, helping the team break down the boat,” Lori Jones said. “We took everything totally apart after the San Diego race. Every screw, every nut, every hatch.”

U-12 Graham Trucking driven by J. Michael Kelly of Bonney Lake, Wash. practices on the Columbia River during preseason testing on Friday. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Teams gunning for the title

The biggest contender will be the U-6 Miss HomeStreet Bank, a team that before losing the title in 2018 had won it eight of 10 seasons.

Charlie Grooms, the owners representative for the city of Madison which owns the boat, said he hasn’t decided on the team’s crew chief yet. Last year’s chief, Cindy Shirley, stepped down in the offseason because her professional obligations we’re going to get in the way.

Former crew chiefs Mike Hanson and brother Larry Hanson were in the pits Friday working with the U-6 team. One or both could take on the role.

“The real issue right now is getting the second team and the second boat up and running,” Grooms said.

That’s right. Grooms is going to run two boats on the circuit this season, taking the old hull that ran since 2007 up until last year’s Tri-Cities race — when the team unveiled its newest hull.

Negotiations with new sponsor

“I still believe there is value for a sponsor in this thing,” said Grooms. “I’ve got one. I’m talking to them. My only criteria is the new driver has to be young. It’s all predicated on what the sponsor wants. We’re reasonably close with the new sponsor. We’re in the contract negotiation phase.”

The old hull is the one that won those eight national high-point titles over the 10 years.

“But all of the parts are interchangeable with the other boat. We did that on purpose,” said Grooms. “It’s biggest attribute is it’s fast. But it’s very user friendly. I could put anyone in the boat and it’s fast.

I’ve had Steve David drive it, Jimmy Shane drive it. Kayleigh Perkins and Jeff Barnard have driven it. They all said it’s easy to drive.”

It will all depend on what the new sponsor wants, said Grooms.

“HomeStreet Bank likes working with Jimmy,” said Grooms. “Oberto felt it had a great fit with Steve David. I need to know what the new sponsor wants in a driver.”

Winning is job No. 1

While he’s busy with that, there is still one overall goal.

“My main focus is really try to win the title again,” said Grooms. “Without question that’s the No. 1 priority. Last season was very much an anomaly for us.”

Grooms said that losing crew chief Dan Hoover in February of 2018 to suicide really knocked the team for a loop.

“I don’t think we comprehended how much losing Dan meant to this team,” said Grooms. “We didn’t realize that. Now we do.”

U-12 Graham Trucking

So who is going to step up to give it some competition?

Rob Graham, who owns the U-12 Graham Trucking team, made just two races last season — Tri-Cities and Seattle. But he’s already announced that the U-12 will compete on the full circuit with driver J. Michael Kelly.

That’s music to the ears of Kelly, who drove the boat to a third-place finish in Tri-Cities and a second-place finish in Seattle.

“I’m very excited. So are the guys (in the crew),” said Kelly. “(The national title is) what we’re aiming for. We’re not going out to finish second. We were really happy with our performance last year.”

But Kelly won’t be alone out there.

Graham bought the U-99.9 Fred Leland hull from the estate of Stacey Briseno — the late Leland’s long-time girlfriend who passed away unexpectedly in September in California.

Graham has renamed it the U-98 Graham Trucking American Dream in honor of Leland, and he says it will definitely compete in the Tri-Cities and Seattle this summer.

“I’d like to get that blue boat on the water. We’ve had some electrical problems with it,” said Graham. “We’ll go to Guntersville with the 12, and run the whole circuit. This other boat, we’ll play by ear. It’s an old hull. There was a lot of stuff that needed fixing. It took a lot of work, and there is still stuff to do.”

Graham says he has 22 crew members between the two boats, although most of them will work on the 12. A number of them, he adds, will crossover.

Making a run for the title

He’s serious about making a run for the title this year. That’s why the team showed up for spring training.

“Testing at the first race of the year is like taking a mulligan,” Graham said. “Doing this here helps get the bugs out. It lets you figure out the (gearbox-propellor) combinations you need.”

Which brings us back to Raney, whose team got in a few laps Friday on the Columbia River.

“We did three laps, and it was probably the best spring training we’ve had here,” said Raney. “Win No. 1 was we made it back to the dock under our own power. Last year we had to be towed back to the dock. But we’ve repaired everything on the boat after losing a propeller in San Diego last year. So that’s win No. 2.”

The team only had one gearbox, with another back at the shop not quite ready. They experienced problems with the one they brought.

“We could have had these same issues in Alabama,” he said. “It’s nice to do all of this in a pretty relaxed setting and sort that stuff all out.”

• The five races on the H1 Unlimited circuit this season are as follows: June 28-30 in Guntersville, Ala.; the APBA Gold Cup, set for July 5-7 in Madison, Ind.; the HAPO Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities on July 26-28; Seafair in Seattle on Aug. 2-4; and San Diego Bayfair on Sept. 13-15.

Jeff Morrow is former sports editor for the Tri-City Herald.