SEATTLE -- It wasn't all that long ago -- around the turn of the century -- when the unlimited hydroplane circuit was a cash-strapped operation on the verge of extinction. The sport known for spectacular rooster-tail plumes over sky-blue waters appeared doomed.
It was going down the toilet.
A schedule once busy with races from coast to coast had been reduced to a couple of events in the Midwest, a few others in the West. One boat -- the Miss Budweiser -- was so dominant that a virtual handicapping system was implemented to give the also-rans a chance.
Victory purses were eliminated; there was no money to cover local television costs, much less dole out to the winning team.
When qualifying began Friday for the Albert Lee Cup at Seafair, spectators surrounding Lake Washington will be challenged to recall those relatively recent days when hydroplane racing was chugging along on life support. The H1 Unlimited Series has found a general sponsor in the Air National Guard, and enough corporate sponsors to support nine of the 12 teams on the national tour.
An unprecedented TV contract -- with the Versus Network, which will broadcast seven one-hour shows beginning in October -- figures to expose the 200 mph power of thunder boats to a new audience.
A generation of young and hungry drivers has arrived. Get used to such names as
J. Michael Kelly, Jeff Bernard, Kip Brown and Scott Liddycoat.
Most exciting is hydroplane racing's graduation from a quirky summertime tradition in places like Seattle and Detroit into a player on the world-wide motor sports scene.
This season's six-race schedule will conclude, as it has since 2009, with a mid-November event in Doha, Qatar.
"The sport is moving internationally," said Ken Muscatel, the 62-year old driver who served as commissioner during the darkest days of hydroplane racing. "Qatar was the deal-maker. It changed the profile of the sport."
Muscatel points out that Air National Guard H1 Unlimited Series commissioner Sam Cole is working to put on a second race in the Middle East, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Another potential overseas market is China. Plans for a 2011 race in China are on hold -- the financing has yet to be worked out -- but a sport with an apparent appeal in China is a sport with a long-term forecast of success.
The move abroad couldn't have come soon enough for Auburn driver Dave Villwock, who recalls something Formula-1 racing legend Michael Schumacher said after attending his first hydroplane race.
"Here was a guy," said Villwock, "who has seen every cool thing in racing that anybody has ever seen or manufactured -- he's sort of an engineer, a gear-head himself -- and he went on the Miss Budweiser trailer in San Diego and told everybody, 'You guys have got to bring this thing to Europe. Nobody has ever seen anything like this.'
"It was that day," continued Villwock, "that I knew we need to start marketing outside of here, where we're not competing with football, basketball, baseball, NASCAR and the NHRA."
Villwock has won a record 64 times on the unlimited hydroplane circuit, but none of his victories was more memorable than a first-place finish in a 2009 qualifying heat at Doha. After paying his respects to the Royal Family of Qatar in the VIP section, Villwock was greeted by a woman with her young son.
"She asked, 'Mr. Villwock, can you please take a picture with my son?' So I handed him the trophy and knelt down for the picture. Then I looked up and saw a line of people three deep and a quarter-mile long.
"I thought, 'Wow!' It was 3:30 in the afternoon, and I was there until about 9 at night. Doha reminded me of those black-and-white pictures of hydroplane races during the 1950s and '60s, when there was a sea of people at every race."
Beyond the attendance boost, there's another benefit to global expansion.
"The international races attract people like Boeing and Lockheed Martin," Muscatel said. "A lot of sponsorships are based on partnerships between sponsors, not just how much exposure they get. There's a business-to-business relationship."
Obvious question: Given the struggling economy, how is the Air National Guard HI Unlimited Series managing to line up any kind of sponsors?
"Because things are tough, people are looking for good buys," said Muscatel. "Hydroplane racing, compared to NASCAR, compared to Indy Car racing, compared even to NHRA, is a good buy. You get the return on your investment."
The hydroplane series is not without its problems. As Villwock put it: "We've still got some work to do. The owners still need to learn how to hire infrastructure -- full-time crews who have a full-time shop.
"Our sport is doing very well, but we need to keep ahead of the boats mechanically, because there's so much competition."
The perks of claiming the Albert Lee Cup provide an indication of the sport's comeback. For the first time in more than a decade, the victorious team in an unlimited hydroplane race will receive a cash prize. (It's $25,000, to be split between owner and driver. The winning driver also takes home a flat-screen TV and some fun stuff affiliated with Xbox.)
"This is what's coming," Muscatel said. "You might say this is the model for the future."
As Muscatel ponders the future, he envisions an ideal of eight or nine races in the U.S. -- immediate expansion includes Cleveland and Washington D.C. -- along with three or four races in the Middle East, perhaps another two in China.
"The whole thing is growing again," said Villwock, whose first unlimited racing job was as crew chief, in 1989, for the Miss Circus Circus boat driven by Chip Hanauer.
"I've really looked forward to that. I'd been hoping that at the end of my career I'd be able to see the same sort of professionalism that I saw coming into this."