Tom D'Eath came up with the perfect gift Sunday to celebrate owner Bernie Little's silver anniversary of his first win in unlimited hydroplane racing - a victory in the Columbia Cup.
"It was fantastic to win 25 years after winning the first one," a jubilant Little, owner of the D'Eath-driven Miss Budweiser, said. "Nothing will ever surpass that first win, not after having to wait five years for it. It's like your first love. However, win No. 73 ranks right up there with that first one because we had to work so hard for it."
The race on the Columbia River was also the 25th anniversary of thunderboat racing in the Tri-Cities.
In the end it wasn't whether this Bud was best but if the Bud would last.
The Budweiser, damaged by a near flip during Heat 2-B, finished the championship final with its rear wing and stabilizer waving like a reed in a high wind.
"I knew the stern was a little loose," D'Eath said. "However, it was OK once I got the boat on a plane. By staying outside I probably had better conditions than the Winston did."
The race became a duel between the Winston Eagle and the Miss Budweiser when the Circus Circus, winner of Heats 1-A and 2-A, went dead in the water just before the start of the championship final. Driver Chip Hanauer got the boat started just before the gun but race officials ruled it was not in time to constitute a legal start.
Jim Kropfeld took the Winston Eagle inside and jumped to an early lead. The Miss Budweiser, however, caught Kropfeld on the first turn of lap two and passed the Winston with a rush on the backstretch.
"I was confident I'd be able to run him down," D'Eath said. "Thanks to a great crew, the boat was running well."
Contributing to the Budweiser's move into first place was the rough ride Kropfeld was having in the Winston.
"The front of my oxygen mask fell off at the end of the first lap and I had to take it easy the rest of the way," said Kropfeld. "The only thing you can do in a situation like that is slow down."
Once the Bud took the lead the outcome was predictable. The Bud, which has won three of the last four Columbia Cups, finished the race with an average speed of 131.357 mph.
The margin of victory was actually greater than it appeared as the Winston and Oh Boy! Oberto were each penalized a lap. That moved Holset/Miss Mazda, driven by Mike Hanson, into second place and last year's winner, Cooper's Express, with Mitch Evans behind the wheel, into third.
Kropfeld's infraction took place before the start of the race when he made a lane change with less than 500 feet clearance.
Mark Tate in the Oh Boy! Oberto was penalized a lap and fined $300 for a violation in the first turn of the first lap.
"He went into the turn in Lane 2 and came out in Lane 3 washing down Mr. Pringles in the process," said referee Mike Noonnan.
Kropfeld, explaining he never intentionally bears out on anyone, said he couldn't comment because he wasn't aware of the incident.
For a time it looked as though Hanauer and the Circus Circus team would be able to make up some ground on the Budweiser in the national point standings. Hanauer drove the hot-pink boat to an easy win in Heat 1-A setting a course competition lap record of 146.280 mph. The former mark for a 10-mile heat was 137.267 mph.
Mr. Pringle's was second followed by the Winston Eagle, Holset/Miss Mazda and Cooper's Express.
The Miss Budweiser coasted to an easy win in Heat 1-B by easily outdistancing Oh Boy! Oberto and Jackpot Food Mart. Thor Racing did not finish.
Circus Circus won its second heat of the afternoon in Heat 2-A with an average speed of 128.518 mph. Oh Boy! Oberto was second, Holset/Miss Mazda third and Cooper's Express fourth.
Mr. Pringle's, driven by George Woods Jr., was the winner in Heat 2-B followed by the Winston Eagle. The Budweiser, which nearly flipped in the first turn and damaged its tail section, limped home in third.
"That first turn is too tight," Little explained. "There's not enough room for the waves to smooth out. Actually, the Winston's roostertail helped stabilize Tom and kept him from going over."