The annual golf tournament that the Tri-City Water Follies puts together the day before the Lamb West Columbia Cup is one of the most popular events on the entire Air National Guard Series circuit for H1 Unlimited hydroplanes.
But while most everyone spent Thursday golfing, eating, drinking and patting each other on the back at Kennewick’s Canyon Lakes Golf Course, Erick Ellstrom spent the afternoon in Lampson Pits getting ready for this weekend’s race.
“I don’t like golf,” said Ellstrom, whose family owns the U-1 Spirit of Qatar. “This is a serious year for us. Our whole mentality and goal is to throw everything but the kitchen sink at our opponents.”
So far, that’s worked for the defending national champions, as Dave Villwock drove the Qatar to victories in the season’s first two races in Madison, Ind., and Detroit.
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Twelve other race teams will take a crack at the Qatar team beginning today, with qualifying at 1:50 p.m.
There will be two heat races on Saturday. On Sunday, there will be four more preliminary heats. The Columbia Cup final is set for 4 p.m.
H1 Chairman Sam Cole liked what he saw in the circuit’s first two races.
“I think we’ve put the driving back in the drivers’ hands,” said Cole, referring to drivers having to fight for lanes rather than driving assigned lanes.
That has played right into the hands of the two most veteran pilots on the circuit — Villwock and U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto driver Steve David. Both are 58 years old.
Villwock is the all-time leader in career victories at 67.
They rank 1 and 2 respectively in the standings — Villwock and Qatar have 3,650 points. David and Oberto are at 3,135.
Jimmy Shane and the U-5 Graham Trucking are a distant third at 2,073.
Still, Cole wouldn’t be surprised if someone else comes away with a win here.
“Actually, from what I’ve seen in the first two races, even the wily veterans have made mistakes,” Cole said. “And in the Tri-Cities, how many times has an underdog won here? A lot.”
Which brings us back to Ellstrom, who was standing in the shade in Columbia Park on Thursday afternoon, looking up at the huge oak tree at the east end of the pits while everyone else was golfing.
This was always Bernie Little’s tree, because the late Miss Budweiser owner spent the money to save it from disease years ago.
Nowadays, the winner of the previous year’s Columbia Cup gets to park its boat under that tree the following season.
Because Qatar won the 2011 Columbia Cup, Ellstrom’s team gets that coveted shade for the first time in four years — the previous three years it was Oberto’s.
Ellstrom says he plans on keeping the boat under that tree for years to come.
“We own this course,” he said. “We’re healthy this year. We’ve got a lot of tools in the tool box.”
But equipment aside, the desire to win is back.
“We’re hungry,” Ellstrom said. “Somewhere along the line, after winning the title (in 2005 and 2007), it didn’t seem as important to us anymore.”
Oberto and David won season titles for 2008, 2009 and 2010.
“We lost it with a flip here, a crash there,” Ellstrom said.
Then his team got the title back last year, and his crew remembered why they enjoyed racing.
“We’ve become conservative in certain areas,” said Ellstrom. “We’re not going to damage the boat. But we’re mindful of points.”
And when it comes time to run in the final, that’s when they’ll run all out.
The bottom line is, Ellstrom and his team like being the defending champions, and they plan on keeping the national title.
“We’re just not going to relinquish it,” he said.
Then he looked back up at Bernie’s tree.
“I want to climb it though,” he said.
If his team wins Sunday afternoon, expect that to happen.