Hydro Racing

Fastest qualifiers heat up day's final Unlimited Lights race

Never has a blind draw had such insight into the future.

Saturday's Heat 1C in the Unlimited Lights hydroplane races on the Columbia River featured four of the five fastest qualifiers and posted the top three times on the day.

All it needed was Greg and Jerry Hopp's UL-15 Graham Racing GT Happy Go Lucky boat, and it likely would have been a precursor for today's Thunder Cup main event.

"If I wasn't sitting there (at the draw in the drivers meeting), I would say it was rigged," said J. Craig Fletcher, whose U-13 Celtic Racing Team went hull-to-hull with Paul Becker's U-14 Miss Critical Logic for two laps before slipping past for the close win.

"Paul was pushing hard. It took absolutely everything I had."

Jerry Hopp, driving because his son was at a drivers meeting for the unlimited hydros, didn't have too much trouble winning Heat 1A ahead of Kelly Stocklin and the UL-40 King & Bunny's Appliance.

"(Wil) Muncey had us beat (off the line), but I got a pretty good start," said Hopp, whose son won with this boat the last time the Unlimited Lights ran at the Columbia Cup in 2006.

Hopp's average speed of 101.175 mph was less than 1 mph ahead of Stocklin, though he held a comfortable lead most of the race.

Michael Flaherty in the UL-11 Miss Executif III won Heat 1B at 93.414 mph.

But the 1C race was the real burner. Fletcher averaged 111.421, Becker 109.81 and Kayleigh Perkins in the UL-72 Miss Boat Electric clocked in at 104.969.

Becker got the jump at the start "because I didn't have enough faith in the guys who told me when to go," Fletcher said.

"Paul got 2 1/2 boat lengths in front of Perkins, and then he ran into Lane 2. Not 2 1/2, but 2. He kept me pinned right on the buoy line."

"I left him every bit of his lane," Becker said, "but I'm not going to leave him anything more. Not one inch."

He added that he wasn't going to force the issue and put either boat in danger when Fletcher did slip past heading into the final lap.

"I'm an old fighter pilot," he said with a smile. "I'm living part of my bucket list."

Fletcher said winning the heat - and the 400 points that comes with the victory - was big for him. A decent showing in today's second round of heats should be enough to qualify for the finals.

"That was huge," said Fletcher, whose team has had to win the B Main in the last two events to advance to the finals, which he won last week on Flathead Lake in Montana.

It was the first win in three seasons of racing for the retired Microsoft employee.

The Unlimited Lights will have more testing at 9 a.m. today, with Heat 2 races starting at noon and the B Main at 3 p.m. The Thunder Cup main event is at 4:30.