Watch as J. Michael Kelly celebrates winning the Columbia Cup
All weekend long, J. Michael Kelly had been looking for some extra speed out of his U-12 Graham Trucking boat.
The driver had just been a step behind the speedy leaders – Jimmy Shane and Andrew Tate.
But during the final of Sunday’s HAPO Columbia Cup, Kelly found what he was seeking to pull out the victory.
“We’ve been struggling,” said Kelly. “We have a good boat, but we were unable to get over that hump. We’ve just been throwing stuff at that boat all weekend. And whatever our guys have put in there it just gets faster. And I have to tell you, this is some of the most fun I’ve ever had racing this weekend.”
Kelly had been looking for extra speed all weekend.
He had finished in second place behind Shane and in two heat races on Saturday.
But it was as if Kelly was biding his time before the final.
The jockeying before the final’s start was as much mental as physical.
Drivers faked moves to cut across the river, and then actually did it.
Jeff Bernard in the U-1918 Oberto Super Salami cut across from the Kennewick side of the Columbia River over to the Pasco side, and he found himself in lane 1 of the seven-boat final.
Kelly slid into lane two. And Andrew Tate, driving the U-1 Delta/Real Trac and the defending Columbia Cup champion, slipped into lane 3 with just 90 seconds before the start.
That left lane 4 for Shane, which may have been too much for him to overcome in the U-6 Miss HomeStreet Bank – by far the best performing boat over the entire weekend.
But Kelly had a perfect start out of lane 2.
“J. Michael just nailed that start,” said Tate.
Kelly felt good about it too.
“I felt comfortable in lane 2,” Kelley said. “The start was close. I gave the gas an extra burp and it got me a little too close (to the starting line). But we got through that lane 2 clean.”
As the seven drivers entered the notorious first turn on the first lap, awaiting the possible carnage, Kelly got through unscathed. So did Tate and Bernard. But not Shane.
“I just got washed down in that first turn,” said Shane. “But I was back too far on the start. I thought maybe those guys were early to the start, but I was off on my timing starts. All weekend long I was hitting my timing marks. And then I’m off on the final. And that first turn got really ugly.”
Tate said it was just a wall of water in the first turn.
Shane slowed down too much, and by the time he got out of the turn, he was sitting in fifth place.
That left Tate alone, trying to catch Kelly for the remainder of the five-lap final.
Tate got as close as a half-roostertail – never enough to overcome him.
Kelly did a yeoman-like job, moving out a bit in the turns, forcing Tate to drive even farther to catch him.
“It’s really hard to pass anyone in unlimited hydroplane racing,” Tate admitted.
Tate finished second, while Shane was third – overtaking both Bert Henderson in the U-7 Spirit of Detroit/Boitano Homes and Bernard on the final lap.
Bernard placed fourth, Henderson was fifth, Brian Perkins in the U-99.9 Darrell Strong presents PayneWest Insurance was sixth, and Corey Peabody in the U-98 Graham Trucking American Dream was seventh.
Jamie Nilsen, in the U-11 J&D’s presents Reliable Diamond Tools, turned right after heading out on the course before the race and shut things down for a DNS.
Shane, in the U-6 and starting in lane 2, hit the first turn ahead of Tate and the U-1 in lane 1.
Shane came out ahead on the Pasco side of the river and was never threatened for the victory.
Tate pushed Shane for about a half lap before settling into second.
Brian Perkins in the U-99.9 sat in fourth for much of the race. But on the final lap, he passed Bert Henderson in the U-7 to place third.
Henderson wound up fourth.
Lot happening in this race.
First, Dustin Echols had to shut down his U-440 Bucket List Racing boat during the pre-race milling period, collecting a DNS.
Then, Kelly in the U-12 crossed the starting line too soon and was assessed a 1-minute penalty.
That gave Jimmy King in the U-3 Grigg’s presents Miss Ace Harware a chance for a first-place finish. And he would have had it, but on the final lap the boat threw a propeller and did some serious damage.
Instead, King got a DNF and the team had to withdraw from the race.
That gave Bernard in the U-1918 the heat win.
Peabody in the U-98 finished second, while Kelly ended up in third.
Shane won again in the U-6, but he had to overtake Kelly in the U-12 on the first lap.
Kelly had made it into the first turn and came out ahead of the pack.
But after Shane took the lead, he built a four-boat-length lead by the third lap.
Kelly finished second, while Tate – who stayed out of the fray from the start – was third in the U-1.
Bernard, driving the U-1918, placed fourth, while Nilsen finished fifth in the U-11.
Just a three-boat race, as both the U-3 and the U-440 withdrew from the race after their third-round heat races.
Henderson had this one from the get-go, getting to the first turn ahead of the field and out again in the U-7.
Perkins in the U-99.9 finished second, while Peabody was third in the U-98.
Grand Prix World
Greg Hopp, who lost his boat ride on Saturday when the motor in the GP-12 Schellhase Racing/Miss DiJulio went up in flames, jumped into the GP-15 Hopp Racing boat, owned by his father Jerry Hopp, and won the Grand Prix World final.
Hopp came from the outside lane of the six-boat final and hit the starting line at full speed.
“We had some serious chute speed going,” said Greg Hopp. “We got a little light. But we were hitting 170 mph in the straightaways.”
Hopp, who stepped in for teammate Brent Hall in the final, was never threatened in the race.
Ed Preston, in the U-1 Blown Income Racing/The Truss Company, finished second.
“I was afraid to look at any gauges in the boat because I was afraid I’d flip the boat,” Hopp said.
Kurt Myers, driving the E-26 Flight Time/Darrell Strong presents PayneWest Insurance, held off Steve Huff in the E-98 Steve Huff Motorsports/The Flood Guys Pro-Lite e350 Hydroplane to win the 5-liter final.
Huff got the inside lane of the three-lap final, so he had the shorter course.
But Myers never gave Huff any room to maneuver.
“Whoever got the inside lane was going to have the advantage,” said Myers. “I was able to pull Steve in the straightaway. But I had to hold him tight in the corners.”
“Kurt Myers is on fire right now,” said an enthusiastic Huff after the race. “If I was to win, I had to get into lane 1 to do it. That was the tightest racing I have ever had. That guy is just awesome.”
It was Myers’ second victory on the Columbia River this year.
He won the Richland Regatta in June.
• The U-3 had been impressive on Saturday, finishing second in its two heats.
And King was in line to win Heat 3A, leading on the final lap before the propeller broke, ending the team’s weekend.
“We just broke a prop,” said boat owner Ed Cooper Jr. “Prop blades were flying everywhere.”
It tore up the boat.
“It broke the strut,” added Cooper. “It pulled the strut off the bottom. I don’t think it hurt the engine, but you never know until you check it later.”
Cooper filed it under the category of “that’s racing.”
“It doesn’t make me feel any better,” Cooper said.
The team will head to its home in Evansville, Ind., done for the season.
Cooper only had a deal to race here in the Tri-Cities, and he says he has no plans to go to Seattle next weekend for Seafair.
• The U-440 team also had to pull out after its first heat race Sunday.
“We’ve broken things in the drive train,” said boat owner Kelly Stocklin. “We’ve had very good luck with our gearboxes the last three or four years. This year, we found a weak link in there, and it just overloaded the thing.”
Stocklin said it caused a lot of damage.
Enough so that they can’t make it for next weekend’s Seafair in Seattle, and likely not in San Diego in September.
“I can’t get the parts in time,” said Stocklin. “It’s not a one-week project. But we’ll keep trying. This little independent team just keeps going.”
Jeff Morrow is the former sports editor of the Herald.