The competition's getting closer, but for now the U-1 Miss Budweiser and Chip Hanauer are still No. 1.
Hanauer won all three of his heats from start to finish and then came from behind to edge Mark Tate and the Smokin' Joe's to win Sunday's Columbia Cup final.
Hanauer averaged 148.130 mph in the five-lap final, despite a problem he described as "rudder flutter" which made for a rough ride and forced him to slow down heading into the turns.
Tate and Smokin' Joe's, which averaged 145.870 mph in the final, shocked a sun-drenched Columbia Cup crowd of about 42,000 by grabbing the lead in the first turn.
Hanauer regained control in the same turn in the second lap and held off the field to the checkered flag.
"I was extremely concerned when Mark got out in front," Hanauer said. "He hit a little roller in turn one on the second lap and we were able to get by him and let him run in the rough water. That was the key to the race. We were lucky. I'm sure I'm going to be sore tomorrow."
So will Bud owner Bernie Little. "I'm hoarse because when I saw that Smokin' boat stick its nose out there in front I got pretty excited," Little said. "I've been racing in the Tri-Cities for 29 years, and it has never been closer. It just gets better and better."
It was the eighth win in the Tri-Cities for Little and the Miss Budweiser in 29 tries, while Hanauer won on the Columbia River for the seventh time.
The Seattle driver, who claimed his 53rd career win and is nine behind Bill Muncey on the all-time list, has noticed the field closing in and expects more of the same next weekend at Seafair.
"I'm not working any harder now than I was two years ago," Hanauer, 40, said. "It's always been tough to win. It's really good racing right now. It was hard to beat the Smokin' Joe's and the other really good boats out there. I think you're going to see a lot of close races."
The key to success on the unlimited hydroplane circuit may be qualifying, because that gives a team the opportunity to choose its lane. In six of seven heats and the final Sunday, the boat starting in lane one ended up winning the race.
"If we would have had lane one, it might have been a different story," Tate said. "Against the Bud, we definitely need the inside lane. We're close.
"It helps the Bud to have lane one and have a shorter race course. We just need to find a way to qualify a little bit faster."
Steve David, driving the Miss T-Plus Engine Treatment, finished third with an average speed of 143.550 mph, followed by Mark Evans and Miss Exide at 141.456.
Nate Brown was fifth in The Tide/Taco Time at 136.400 mph while Scott Pierce drove the Miss Tri-Cities to sixth in 122.165 mph.
Dave Villwock, who was the second-fastest qualifier in the American dream, finished third in three straight heats to the Miss Budweiser, but then went dead in the water in the second lap of the final.
"We broke the skid fin," Villwock said. "I was driving and all of a sudden a piece went through the deck. I thought. 'That's bad,' and shut it down."
David said the deck-to-deck racing is good for the sport and good for the fans.
"I really think all the boats are getting closer to Chip and the Miss Budweiser," David said. "In Seattle with the 2-mile course, I think you're going to see the same kind of racing. The course is a little tighter and it has rough water like we find here. It's going to be very competitive."
Miss Budweiser, which has won four of the five races this season, earned 1,600 points during the Columbia Cup and leads the national points chase with 7,642 heading into Seafair.
Smokin' Joe's, which won the Gold Cup in Detroit to open the season, is second with 6,997. The Tide/Taco Time is third with 5,410, Miss T-Plus has 5,213 and Miss Exide has 4,016 as the boats head to Lake Washington this weekend.