Hydro Racing

Old-timers strut their stuff

In recent years the American Boat Racing Association has looked to the younger generation - or at successful drivers from other divisions - to man the cockpits of its unlimited hydroplanes.

But Saturday, the old guard showed there's plenty left in the gas tank, as Dave Villwock, Jimmy King and Steve David won heat races at the Columbia Cup on the Columbia River.

"For the looks of the sport, we need those young guys," said King, himself with 14 years of unlimited driving experience. "But we can still get the job done."

Indeed.

Villwock (with 16 years of experience of driving unlimiteds) started the day with a win in Heat 1A in the U-1 Ellstrom Elam Plus. This was his first competitive heat in 2008 after the team skipped the first three races of the season.

The defending national champion let Jeff Bernard, in his second year, take the U-5 Formulaboats.com to the inside lane at the start, while the wily veteran was in Lane 2.

It didn't take long for Villwock to get by Bernard, and part of that was because the veteran is so good here at winning from the outside.

"Sometimes you see guys trying to run the white line at Daytona, and then someone goes up high by the wall and passes them," Villwock said.

On the Columbia River, it's safer on the outside. And up front.

"Right now, it's OK to go for the inside lane," Villwock said. "But when seven boats are out there for the final, it's going to be tough to get through that first turn."

King's win came next in 1B.

Jean Theoret, in his third year with the U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing after a successful career in Grand Prix racing, tried settling into Lane 1 well before the start.

But with just one minute before the start, Theoret's boat lost power, and King drove the U-3 Todd Hoss Mortgage Too by him.

"It's really tough," said Theoret. "I was trying to get inside. But we got a roller that came over the top and washed me out."

By the time Theoret got his boat restarted, King was long gone for the easy victory.

"That was a freebie," said King. "I give our overall performance an 8 out of 10. I was probably a good second too late to the starting line, and that just won't cut it in the final."

Theoret shrugged off the race.

"That's OK," he said. "We still got 300 points."

David's victory in 1C was the most entertaining, and all of the drama came before the start.

David, the grand statesman of the sport with 20 years' experience, settled the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto into Lane 1 well before the one-minute mark, and second-year driver David Bryant quickly settled the U-10 Todd Hoss Mortgage in next to David. Both were putting along at 30 mph.

But in the next instant, Bryant cut across the infield to try to take Lane 1 for himself.

"I saw his tail pop out in my rearview mirror," David said.

David reacted by pressing the gas around the east end turn. Bryant settled into Lane 1 on the Franklin County side, but he shut down to a plane level too soon, and David came by at full speed, got his required seven-boat lead, and settled back into Lane 1.

"We both were too early," Bryant said. "I actually should have stayed where I was and then hit a flying start."

It looked like the two boats may have gotten to the start line too soon.

"By the time I get to the apex on the turn, a flying start should take just 18 seconds," said Bryant. "At the exit pin, I should be at 9 seconds. I hit the exit at 13 seconds."

The drivers kept their boats on plane - just barely - and got a clean start.

Bryant made it to the first turn first, but David cut through the turn well and by the end of the first lap David and the Oberto had the lead for good.

"I was only doing 80-90 mph at the start," David admitted. "But by the first turn I was at 190. (Bryant) has really good top-end speed."

David cut through the turns with tight arcs. That was the key.

Bryant finished second, while rookie Kip Brown drove the U-17 Our Gang Racing to a third-place finish.

There is still plenty of racing today, with five more preliminary heats and the final, which is set for 4:50 p.m.

Meanwhile, the veterans are out to prove that age is a state of mind. And that Saturday's results were no fluke.

"We tried to figure out the average age of our crew," said Erick Ellstrom, team manager for the U-1, "but we can't count that high."

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