Steve Woomer, owner of the Smokin' Joe's, has been saying for the past week that he has the best riding boat of any on the unlimited hydroplane circuit.
Sunday, driver Mark Tate proved his boss right as he prevailed over the Miss Budweiser in four head-to-head confrontations to win the $160,000 Budweiser Columbia Cup.
"In 12 years of racing I can't remember any boat running as well as we are right now," Woomer said. "It's really nice to dominate a week like this winning everything from qualifying to all the heats."
Even more rewarding were the 1,600 points the Smokin' Joe's earned to jump past the Miss Bud into first place in the national points race. After trailing by 196 points when the boats arrived in the Tri-Cities, the Smokin' Joe's now heads to Seattle with a 514-point advantage.
The lead marked the first time Bernie Little's Miss Budweiser hasn't been atop the national high point standings since the third race of 1994.
The victory by Tate also put Little's hopes of his 100th career victory coming in the Tri-Cities, site of his initial win, on indefinite hold.
"I'm really disappointed," Little said. "It would have been very fitting to win here. I'm sorry we disappointed the fans."
For his part, Woomer couldn't resist needling Little. "I told Bernie he'll get that 100th win but it won't be until next year," Woomer said.
"No question about it," Bud driver Chip Hanauer said, "they had the better boat today and deserved to win. Nobody knows better than I do what a sweetheart of a boat it is. I won a national championship in it as the Circus Circus before it was sold to Woomer."
The luck of the draw paired the boats in Heat 1B where Tate used the lane advantage gained by posting the top qualifying speed to score a wire-to-wire victory, averaging 154.188 mph.
In Heat 2A, the flip-flop heat, the lane advantage was the Budweiser's. It was negated, however, when Hanauer was called for encroaching and fined $100. The two boats collided briefly in lap two, the Budweiser hesitating briefly as the Smokin' Joe swept into the lead.
"It was one of those unfortunate things that happen in boat racing," said Tate. "We were running side-by-side when Chip veered into me. I was holding my lane and feel I did nothing wrong. Chip and I talked about it afterwards and agreed there was no intent and shook hands."
Miss Pizza Time driver Nate Brown, who was cruising along in third place, was able to provide a more objective perspective.
"You're supposed to have a five-boat lead before changing lanes. Chip should have gone inside because there was plenty of room there. Instead Chip veered out and clipped Mark. That was from my sight line but at the same time I've got a lot of water in front of me," he said.In the past, Tate has had his share of problems with the officials, but so far this season it's been a different story.
"This year I've had no fines, no calls and no infractions up to this point," he said before knocking on wood.
After the bumping incident, the Miss Budweiser appeared incapable of seriously challenging the smooth running Smokin' Joe's for the rest of the afternoon.
Smokin' Joe's went on to win the heat with an average speed of 154.506 mph. The winning margin in heat 3B was even greater when Tate had the inside lane. Tate cruised at an average of 150.807 mph.
"We've had some terrible luck so far this season," Little said. "Both boats were torn up pretty bad in Indiana and we really haven't got them back in top shape. We made some changes before the final heat and it helped. It was the first time Chip was able to really stand on it all day long. Then a prop went. I promise it will be different in Seattle."
In the meantime PICO's American Dream, after a slow start in heat 1A, won heats 2B and 3B.
The winner-take-all championship final proved anticlimactic as Hanauer beat Tate to the first corner, only to have Tate come out of the corner in first.
The Miss Bud then threw a prop and went dead, allowing Tate to coast to victory averaging 149.980 mph.
Nate Brown, making his first start of the year in the Pizza Time/ Exide, was second with an average speed of 145.530 mph.
The KISW Miss Rock driven by Mark Evans was third.
Rounding out the field was the PICO/American Dream piloted by Dave Villwock; Scott Pierce in the Robert Young Presents Miss Tri-Cities and the Miss T-Plus with Steve David driving.