This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest unlimited hydroplane races that Tri-Cities fans have ever witnessed.
Back in 1989, the U-3 Cooper’s Express was a middling piston-powered boat in the unlimited hydroplane fleet, more about filling out the field than anything.
But on that one magical Sunday – July 30, 1989 – the Cooper’s Express overcame extreme odds to win the Columbia Cup.
It was the last time a piston-powered boat would ever win the Tri-Cities race.
Boat owner Ed Cooper Jr., crew member Rick Bowles and former driver Mitch Evans are in Lampson Pits this weekend.
They remember that day with a fond smile.
“The thing that stands out in my mind,” said Evans, “was coming back to the dock. It was virtually under water because so many people were standing on it.”
Back then, having two-way radios wasn’t a requirement among race teams. Not until cockpit canopies were mandatory, anyway.
“Chip Hanauer was going crazy on the dock,” Evans continued. “I’m thinking ‘What’s all the commotion?’ The race itself, I was just racing for position.”
Everyone at the time saw the future was in turbine engines.
More teams were going that way.
But Cooper reminds us that it wasn’t a complete given at the time.
“At that time, they weren’t reliable,” Cooper said Saturday while hanging out in the pits. “Their guys weren’t turbine mechanics.”
But those fighting that turbine future were going to enjoy that day in 1989. It was the day, the pistons fought back.
The 1989 Columbia Cup final
Of the seven boats in the final that day (including the trailer), five of them were piston-powered.
Hanauer, with Dave Villwock as his crew chief, was sidelined for the final after the turbine-powered Circus Circus had a rudder problem.
Scott Pierce and the Mr. Pringles turbine-powered boat were also done for the day after Pierce almost flipped the boat and had injured his knee during the process.
Evans had barely gotten the Cooper’s into the final after placing third and fourth in consecutive preliminary heat races.
And then it became the perfect storm.
The final was first delayed when driver Larry Lauterbach shut down his Winston Eagle boat down at the starting line when it caught fire.
Another turbine boat sidelined.
Next, George Woods Jr., in the Oh Boy! Oberto, and Ron Snyder in the Miss Tri-Cities – both piston-powered boats – broke down during the final.
Steve David, driving the piston-powered Pietro’s Pizza, was too far back to be a factor.
So that left the favorite, Bernie Little’s turbine-powered Miss Budweiser, the piston-powered Miss Madison Mazda, and the Cooper’s.
Tom D’Eath, driving the Bud, had the lead in the final well in hand. But Mike Hanson, driving the Madison, was hard on D’Eath’s heels, with Evans following close behind.
D’Eath thought he had won.
But on the fourth lap of the race, he had come too far out in a turn and had washed Hanson down, causing the Madison driver to lose power.
Race officials penalized D’Eath a lap.
Neither Evans nor Cooper knew what was going on, because they didn’t have those radios.
Evans, though, said in a 2009 interview that he thought something might be up.
“I noticed they didn’t give Tommy the checkered flag,” said Evans. “I didn’t know we’d won until I got to the dock. All of these people were on the dock.”
It was important to Evans, who is from Chelan, a couple hours’ drive north of the Tri-Cities.
“This was my hometown race,” said Evans. “I had my family here.”
Cooper said the dock was so submerged that water was up to people’s ankles.
“What I remember,” said Bowles, “was the confusion of who won. We couldn’t see anything from the dock.”
Cooper said Hanauer came sprinting to him, saying “You won! You won!”
Turbines went on to dominate the sport.
Only Cooper keeps the piston power alive – and he really only does it for the Tri-Cities race.
But the team built two more boats after that 1989 win, and it did find some success – including the 2003 Gold Cup victory in Detroit.
“I’d have to think the last time a piston-powered boat led a race,” Cooper admitted.
The amazing part was that Cooper and his later father, Ed Cooper Sr., could not find a sponsor.
After the 1989 race, Ed Cooper Jr. said, “I’ll bet someone wishes they’d have sponsored us now.”
Another things stands out: There were so many people, drivers, crew members, owners, from other teams who were visibly crying that day. They were all so happy for the Cooper’s team.
Hanauer told a story to the Herald back in 2009 about the banquet later that night in 1989.
He had prefaced that by saying that Bernie Little always helped the Cooper’s team.
“The best line I ever heard in racing,” Hanauer said, “came from Ed Cooper Sr. It was at the awards banquet later that night at the Red Lion in Pasco.”
The crowd got quiet as the Cooper’s team went up to the podium last. Cooper Sr. — now deceased — stepped to the microphone and the crowd fell silent.
As Hanauer tells it, Cooper said: “For the last few years, Bernie Little would put his arm around me after the race and say, ‘Ed, there’s no shame in losing to the Budweiser.’ Well Bernie, there’s no shame in losing to the Cooper’s Express.”
The crowd roared, clapping its hands and giving him a standing ovation.
“Even Bernie did,” said Hanauer.
“In the bar that night (at the Pasco Red Lion), it was wild,” said Bowles. “Everyone sought us out. People were buying Mitch so many drinks. There was no way he could drink them all.
“It was hard to comprehend,” added Bowles, “because we knew the boat wasn’t fast.”
More than that, Evans and Bowles said they understood that the win gave hope to those other teams who show up for every race but don’t have a great chance at winning.
“When you see that,” said Bowles, “you find that it is worth spending all of those hours doing what we do.”
That day, though, is still remembered fondly.
“It was so improbable, it wasn’t anything imaginable,” said Cooper.
Jeff Morrow is the former sports editor of the Herald.