Hydro Racing

July 28, 1997: Bud's loss is PICO's gain

Mark Evans jumped into his boat early Sunday morning for a test run on the Columbia River and promptly ripped off a speedy 164.618 mph lap.

Later, after winning Heat 1A of the Columbia Cup with Wings, he confidently stated, "I think it's gonna be a great day."

In fact, it couldn't have gone any better for the 41-year-old Wenatchee driver.

Evans survived rough water, attrition of boats and some tense moments in the pits to win the 1997 Tri-City race aboard the U-1 PICO American Dream.

It was the first victory of the season for Evans and the PICO team since their marriage in the offseason.

In 1996, Evans was driving for the Budweiser team and struggled all season before winning the final two races of the year. PICO won the national title last year with driver Dave Villwock.

But last winter, Villwock left PICO to drive the Bud, forcing Evans out. PICO picked Evans up this season, but the team has had its troubles.

Until Sunday.

"It wasn't a monkey," Evans said. "This was an ape hanging on my back."

The stage for Evans to win was set just 30 minutes earlier when Villwock lost control of the Bud on the first lap of the final.

Starting in Lane 2 of the seven-boat final, Villwock got a late jump into the east turn as Mark Tate and the Close Call was first in. But coming out of the turn, the right sponson swooped up and the boat flipped over and landed upside down.

"I saw him go straight up into the air - about the length of his boat. That high," Evans said. "That scared me because I thought he was going to land on somebody. Mark Weber (of the U-99) had to dive under him to avoid him."

It scared Weber.

"I had a box seat to that," he said. "Once his boat started flying toward the shore, I sort of squared the boat and pushed it out a bit. I know I pushed Mark Tate out, but at that time I didn't care. That was 6,000 pounds flying through the air."

The final was stopped and rescue sleds raced to Villwock, who was knocked unconscious, with his helmet and oxygen mask knocked off.

Villwock was revived and sent to Kennewick General Hospital. But he suffered a broken right arm, a possible concussion, a bad cut across the top of his right wrist and other minor injuries.

By Sunday evening, Villwock was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He was unavailable for comment.

"At this point, nothing is life-threatening," said Mark Wilson, public relations director for Bud Racing. "Dave is going to go in for an evaluation. But everything looks fine. After the doctors look at him, they will likely release him first thing in the morning."

Budweiser owner Bernie Little later addressed the crowd at the awards ceremony.

"Dave's going to be all right," said Little. "But he's not going to be driving any more this year."

Little wouldn't discuss a backup driver, but Wilson said an announcement might be made today.

It was a tough ending to an already rough day for Little and his team, which could have tied the record for consecutive heat victories at 20 (held by the late Bud driver Dean Chenoweth) if it had won the final.

Even worse, Little, 71, lost a close friend Sunday afternoon when Gene Susa succumbed to a heart attack near the pits.

"I've known Gene for over 20 years. He was a good friend," said Little, who nearly broke down. "He was a very nice guy who loved boat racing and loved everybody."

With Bud lying upside down in front of the dock, it was time for PICO to shine.

That happened just before the first final, when the team was forced to change engines with six minutes before the gun.

"We had a test run on the motor while the boat was on the trailer," said PICO crew chief Ken Dryden. "We always do a diagnostic test and with six minutes to go, somebody brought the card back and said, 'We've got some problems with the motor.' "

The team scrambled to change motors - it was almost like a NASCAR pit stop - and switched motors in less than five minutes and the boat out on the course.

"I think that might be a record," Dryden said.

With the good motor in and the restart under way, Evans lost the early lead to Tate.

But going into the east end turn on the second lap, Tate and the Close Call launched into the air, going over a few lanes before landing hard.

Tate was able to keep the boat running, but Evans took the lead for good when he carved through the turn flawlessly.

"That's when I got the win," Evans said. "That's when the race was over, as far as I'm concerned."

Tate knew it, too.

"The boat hit a hole and pitched itself. I hit the water so hard it broke the restrainer on my shoulder," Tate said. "I did something to my shoulder and my back. I was just hanging on, and I got slower and slower each lap."

Evans finished the final at 146.489 mph, while Tate held on for second at 140.649.

Weber, in the U-99 Team Stihl, was third at 136.318, while Mike Hanson and the U-6 DeWALT Tools was fourth at 135.142 mph.

Rookie Jerry Hale placed fifth in the U-9 Red Robin/Miss Exide at 120.803 mph, and Mitch Evans in the U-19 Appian Jeronimo was sixth at 108.851 mph.