SEATTLE -- J. Michael Kelly, driver of the U-88 Degree Men unlimited hydroplane, thought he was hitting the start perfectly for the beginning of Heat 1B of the Albert Lee Cup at Seafair on Saturday.
Race officials, however, thought otherwise, deciding Kelly had gotten too quickly to the exit buoy at the entrance of the backstretch. Drivers can't pass that point until less than one minute remains before the start.
When the ruling was made, it defined what some drivers feel is a flawed starting process, as well as typifying a frustrating season for the U-88.
With boats now allowed to pick their lanes instead of having them assigned by either qualifying speed or points earned, some drivers -- especially those of slower boats -- go to any lengths to try to get the more advantageous inside position.
Kelly thought he'd gotten the inside lane until the ruling, which forced him to race back around the buoy to re-establish his spot and left him hopelessly behind, eventually finishing fifth behind winner Steve David in the Oh Boy! Oberto.
"If anything, I felt I was a little late," said Kelly, who hoped that the call might be reversed. It wasn't.
Dave Villwock in the Spirit of Qatar won Heat 1A without incident, meaning the two favored boats won the first two heats, each in good shape to make it to the winner-take-all final this afternoon.
The U-88 will now have to scramble to get there.
"We are going to have to do some serious winning now to get into the final," said boat owner Billy Schumacher, a former driver who turned boat owner in 2005. One of the highlights of Schumacher's ownership tenure was a win in the 2006 Seafair race in what was then called the Miss Beacon Plumbing driven by Jean Theoret. The boat also won the Gold Cup that year and seemed on track to become a consistent force in the sport.
But the team has won just once since 2006, and after a crash in Detroit last year pretty much destroyed the boat, they decided to start over this winter, parting ways with longtime crew chief Scott Raney, hiring Kelly as driver, and building a new hull.
The boat has unique features, such as a lower center of gravity and a cockpit that is offset slightly to the left -- all designed to help the boat turn better.
"This boat corners better than any I've ever seen in my history in boat racing," said Schumacher, who won 17 races as a driver from 1967-76.
But in the first three races of the year it didn't finish higher than fifth, still struggling to get enough straightaway speed. The team hoped a return to home waters might result in a breakthrough.
"It's been a couple of tough years," Schumacher said. "I thought we'd do pretty well here, but we don't have the speed to keep up to the Oberto or the Qatar boat. But we are getting closer every time we run it and I think we will get there, and once we do, it will be fun."
And maybe then Kelly won't feel compelled to go to such great lengths to get the inside.
David stayed out of the fray and used his speed to come around the outside and grab lane two and take the lead out of the first turn and win easily, then said that "I hate this starting process.
"Trolling for three minutes at five miles an hour is just nuts and I don't see what is exciting for the fans in doing that."
The starting rules have been in place all season, but the consensus was the "trolling" was more evident in Saturday's heats.
"(There's) hometown pressure and everybody figures they've got to get lane one," David said. "In reality, the fastest boats are still going to win. I guess they think getting lane one is some kind of Pyrrhic victory. But it's winning the race that's the victory. So I hope we fix that so the fans can actually see six boats across each other at the start and tighter racing."
David won his heat with a speed of 136.519 while Villwock, who also left the inside alone and easily passed the pack on the outside to cruise to a win in Heat 1A, recorded a 134.868.
"One down and three (heats) to go," David said. "But it won't be that easy tomorrow."