Hydro Racing

Economy, fuel prices present difficult hurdle for resilient sport

For years, the sport of unlimited hydroplane racing has fought off extinction from every angle.

A lack of race sites. A lack of national sponsors. At times a lack of boats. A dominant boat that squelches any chance of competition. Infighting that caused race sites and boats to break away from the governing organization.

None of that has stopped the boats from running.

But this year, race teams have come up against a formidable opponent - the economy. Namely, the price of fuel.

It's caused owners, team managers and crew chiefs to become creative accountants.

"What we used to race comfortably on, now it's a struggle," said Bill Schumacher, owner of the U-37 Beacon Plumbing.

His crew chief, Scott Raney, has had his work cut out for him this year.

"It's not just with driving the truck, but our driver (Jean Theoret) lives in Montreal," said Raney. "We pay for his wife to come to the races. That's OK. That's always been part of the deal. But what once were $350 plane tickets are now $700. Travel costs have just about doubled."

Raney said fuel for the boats cost $5 a gallon in Evansville, Ind., $5.75 in Madison, Wis.,, and $4.75 in Detroit. They haven't seen the bill yet for this race.

The turbine engines these boats use are military engines that were built to run on just about anything. But the price will roughly be the same no matter what.

It's 2,350 miles from Seattle to Evansville, Ind., site of this season's first race. When Raney's guys towed the boat from Seattle, they stopped in Coeur d'Alene and spent $950 filling up the truck with gas. They stopped a second time at the far side of South Dakota and did it again.

"So it's almost $2,000 just to get to Evansville," said Raney. "That's double what it was last year.

"Now throw in the cost of hotels and food to feed the crew, everything has gone up."

Raney is not done.

"The propellers we use, the material costs have gone up. The average price of steel has gone up."

Tires for the trailers have doubled from $200 each to $400 in the last year.

Then there's carbon fiber, a material used on the boat.

"We use it for everything," Raney said. "I estimate we use 350 to 400 yards a year of it for parts on the boat. Now Boeing has cornered the market for their planes."

And the cost has skyrocketed.

"In 2003 it cost $8 a yard," said Raney. "In 2008, if you can find enough of it, it's going to cost you $35 to $40 a yard. If you can get it at that cost you're doing good."

Erick Ellstrom, team manager for the U-1 Ellstrom Elam Plus, says his team will "probably spend close to $5,000 this weekend on fuel. We spent half of that last year."

And he offers this interesting tidbit: "It cost us $40 in fuel last year each time we went out on the water. It'll cost us $200 out there now."

For some teams, this math has had the effect on them as to whether they go out for that extra testing session or not.

For others, it hasn't changed a thing.

"I try not to think about the hard costs," said Steve David, the driver of the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto. "It's best if the driver is not worried about the bigger realities."

To his credit, Oberto crew chief Mike Hanson has had to cut back on bringing people to the races in an effort to cut costs. Raney has had to do the same thing.

"We have four full-time employees, a couple of part-time employees and eight volunteers," he said. "We fill the roster up by position, then make the cuts where we have to."

He's also looked into buying fiberglass to offset the costs of carbon fiber. And he's spent a lot of time moving things around on paper.

"If we wanted six propellers, maybe we can only get four," concedes Schumacher.

Ed Cooper, the owner of the U-3 Hoss Mortgage Investors Too - the fleet's only piston-powered boat - says the situation has gotten past the panic point.

"I'll guarantee you I can go up the beach and look at every owner and tell they'll finish the entire season with a loss from anywhere from $300,000 to $800,000."

"If you've got a good sponsor who likes your boat, you could break even," says Dave Bartush, owner of the U-13 Graham Trucking.

But gone are the days, ABRA chairman Sam Cole points out, when an Anheuser Busch could keep the circuit afloat on its own.

"We do a little bit with Joe Gibbs racing (in NASCAR), and they'll tell you right away that it's not as easy to get sponsors anymore," Schumacher said.

Ellstrom drew a line in the sand over the winter.

"I wrote the ABRA in the offseason," he said. "I gave them a fuel surcharge to come out to the Midwest. We would pay $2.50 a gallon to race our boat. They'd have to come up with the rest. Now that's not the reason we didn't go back there. But everybody has to understand the fuel cost is going up."

Another point of contention is prize money at the sites.

One of the biggest problems is that the prize money at every race site has not increased since at least the early 1990s - others say the 1980s. The deal has usually been that the prize money is evenly divided at each race site among the boats that are there. The teams that race the entire circuit get a little more.

Tri-Cities has been anywhere from $100,000 to $125,000.

"Detroit used to give out $210,000 in prize money," Cooper said. "But it's gone down to $170,000."

That has concerned owners, who feel they may need to push back. Bartush sends out the warning signal.

"It's obscene," Bartush said. "Costs have gone up all over. It's unbelievable. I think there will be fallout. This might be the last year you see some teams at some of the race sites.

"For 15 to 20 years," Bartush continues, "race sites have asked us to do something. ‘Get more boats.' They tell us it's a parade, so be more competitive. Well, we've done that. We can only do so much. The race sites should be going to the local hotels and getting us rooms. The fuel people should be giving us fuel or reduced rates. Something's gotta give."

What that is, no one knows yet. But there may have to be some give and take this offseason from all parties.

For Raney, he'll sit down with the team and analyze everything. What they did right, and wrong. What needs to be scaled back. Where the money should be allocated.

He'll try to make miraculous things happen on paper in an ever-worsening economy.

The frustration in his voice comes across as he says "It just makes it hard to survive."