At approximately noon PDT today, the 2012 H1 Unlimited season will kick off when qualifying begins for the Lucas Oil Indiana Governor’s Cup on the Ohio River in Madison, Ind.
Race fans are expecting another big season after a rather busy offseason — one that saw owners drop boats, others start up their own teams, potential race sites added, mainly for next season.
Dave Villwock, hydroplane racing’s all-time winningest driver with 65 victories, is back to defend his national high-points championship in the U-1 Spirit of Qatar.
Hot on his tail will be Steve David in the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto, who before last season had won the national high points title three years running.
“We want to be the top qualifier at every race, win every heat, win every race, and win the national championship,” David said. “Other than that, we have meeker aspirations.”
In three weeks, the tour will be in the Tri-Cities to race in the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup.
Until then, here are 10 story lines to follow this season:
1. More boats.
There will be 12 race boats in Madison this weekend — the same as last year’s all-time high.
This weekend’s lineup consists of U-1 Spirit of Qatar (Villwock), U-5 Graham Trucking (Jimmy Shane), U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto (David), U-9 Jones Racing (Jon Zimmerman). U-11 Miss Peters & May (J.W. Myers), U-13 Tubby’s Grilled Subs (Cal Phipps), U-17 Miss Red Dot (Kip Brown), U-22 Matrix Systems (Mike Webster), U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing (J. Michael Kelly), U-57 Formulaboats.com (Mark Evans), 88 Degree Men (Scott Liddycoat), and U-100 Leland Unlimited (Greg Hopp).
By the time the circuit gets to the Tri-Cities in three weeks, H1 Unlimited Chairman Sam Cole said there will be three more boats added to the fleet.
“We’re looking to pick up the U-18 boat driven by Kelly Stocklin, the U-21 O’Farrell boat, and another Leland boat for the Tri-Cities,” Cole said.
2. Because of that number, there should be more depth.
“To me, the biggest story this year is the strength of the field,” Cole said. “We’re starting to do the right things. Everybody keeps upgrading their equipment. I’m looking for a more competitive field.”
“We’ll see some other boats here (in Madison) that will run well,” Villwock said. “There has been some stronger boats for some time. The equipment is getting better. Now we’re getting people in place to run well.”
3. The same number of races are scheduled.
That’s Madison this weekend, the Detroit Gold Cup on July 13-15, the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup on July 27-29, Seafair in Seattle on Aug. 3-5, Bayfair in San Diego on Sept. 14-16, and the Oryx Cup World Championship in Doha, Qatar, set for Nov. 8-10.
But there’s still a chance that a race in China will be held before season’s end. It would run between San Diego and Doha. Cole has been manning the phone lines for months, and has visited the race site a few times already.
“I was over there last week,” he said. “It’s a beautiful race site. They spent almost $50 million for one race and it’s just sitting there. It’s an area where there’s 10 million people living. It’ll probably take another trip or two, but maybe we can get it pulled together for this season.”
Cole says that if things aren’t finalized in the next few weeks, the race won’t happen this year. If not, it’s likely to be added for 2013.
4. New venues are coming.
H1 Unlimited added a five-boat exhibition in Coeur d’Alene on Aug. 31-Sept. 1 this year as a precursor to adding a full-fledged race in 2013.
Last week, Sacramento officially came on board as a race site for 2013.
Throw in the potential China race site and there’s a good chance there will be nine races on the 2013 schedule.
5. Starting procedures.
H1 Unlimited was hoping to use a new GPS system this season in which boats had to be running at least at 100 mph before the race started.
“Apparently there are still some bugs to be worked out,” David said. “One hundred mph is too quick. My guess is (race officials) will revert to last year’s rule.”
That means trolling in the water before the start, but still drivers having to fight for lanes.
No one will know until today.
But Cole wants drivers fighting for lanes.
“I am an advocate to keep drivers for fighting for lanes,” he said. “That assigned lanes stuff is garbage.”
6. Old(er) men still rule.
Villwock and David are both in their 50s. But they still can dominate on the race course.
This year should be no different.
“We’ll run as hard as we can, as many times as we can until the equipment runs out,” Villwock said.
David lost his chance to defend his title in last year’s Madison opener — he ran over Villwock’s boat in the final heat after the Spirit of Qatar hooked inside in the final heat — after the Oberto was heavily damaged.
But the Oberto is a better boat this season.
“According to my crew chief (Mike Hanson), we’re more ready than ever,” David said. “The boat was completely taken apart this offseason and put back together with new parts.”
And besides, these two teams have been battling each other for the last four seasons. No one would expect anything less this season.
“They have caused us to ramp up our game, and we’ve done the same thing to them,” David said.
7. The Gregory family is back.
After being out of the sport for a few years after family patriarch Kim Gregory died suddenly, the Gregory family is back racing their USA Racing boat.
Now dubbed 88 Degree Men, the team tested on the Columbia River in May with new driver Scott Liddycoat — who won at Doha last year in the U-7 Valken.com boat.
This 88 boat is one of the old Budweiser boats that has been kept in tip-top shape over the last four years.
8. Ted Porter is down to one boat.
Porter, from Indiana, has run three boats on the circuit the last few seasons. But in the offseason, he announced he was leaving the sport.Well, that lasted just a few months, and now he’s back with just one boat, the U-5 Graham Trucking (which is really last year’s U-7).
He’s got Jimmy Shane driving for him, and he’s put all of his best equipment into one boat, with his top crew working it. His team will be very competitive.
Which brings us to ...
9. Eastern Washington has a new home team.
Chelan’s Mark Evans drove Porter’s U-57 Formulaboats.com last season. He and his brother Mitch, a former driver himself, decided to get the boat from Porter and run the circuit as a team.
The home port is based out of Chelan, giving this region its first home boat in who knows how long.
10. Fred Leland.
Long-time owner Leland died in May after losing his battle to cancer.
He always was an avid racer, and made sure his U-100 would run the entire circuit after his passing.
Driver Greg Hopp is in charge this season, and a second Leland boat will be in the Tri-Cities at the end of the month.