Apparently football isn’t the only sport described as a game of inches.
You can also add unlimited hydroplane racing to that list after what happened Sunday in the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup.
Jimmy Shane, driving the U-5 Graham Trucking, used one last burst of speed to eke past J. Michael Kelly and his U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing to win the final by what looked like a sponson — or roughly about 8 feet.
It caused Air National Guard H1 Unlimited Hydroplanes Series Chairman Sam Cole to proclaim the final “the closest final in the history of hydroplane racing.”
While that can’t be verified, Shane can owe part of his victory to U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto driver Steve David, who crossed the 1-minute score-up bouy a millisecond ahead of schedule.
That forced race officials to penalize David an extra lap, opening the door for Shane and Kelly to put together an epic five-lap battle around the Columbia River course.
After a 12.5-mile race, the difference was eight feet.
For Shane, it was his first career victory in seven races.
“It’s amazing,” Shane said. “I can’t explain it in words. It’s been a dream of mine since I was a little kid.
“I didn’t realize Steve was out of it until the last lap,” Shane continued. “At that point I knew the race was between J. Michael and myself. He was pulling us in the corners but we had the straightaway speed, and I was hoping we had just enough to win.”
The battle actually began before the race.
Both Shane and Kelly felt they had to get the inside lane in order to win.
David said he had to be inside of Dave Villwock, the driver of the U-1 Spirit of Qatar 96, in order to have any chance of winning the race.
So with a full 2 minutes before reaching the 1-minute score-up bouy, Kelly settled into lane 1, spooling barely 10 mph. Twenty seconds later, Shane fell into lane 2, and Jon Zimmerman in the U-9 Les Schwab presents Sound Propeller Services followed into lane 3 — still 1:55 away from the score-up bouy deadline.
At the turn, though, Villwock sliced his way into lane 3.
And David came firing in from the outside and tried jumping ahead of the pack. But in the process, he came in too fast and crossed the line ahead of schedule, so race officials penalized him that one lap.
“I think it was the wrong decision (by race officials),” David said. “I’ve told them the problem is we need to have video with hash marks. Something you can show the driver. Without that it leads to conjecture.
“These (officials) are my friends, and I don’t want to dump on them,” David continued. “But you can’t have balls and strikes calls with a sport this fast.”
Villwock, the season points leader, got washed down in the process and lost power. While he restarted, he was way behind and knew he was out of the contest.
“When it was time to go, it just flamed out,” said Villwock. “The water just splashed on the engine.”
That left two of the young stars of the sport to do battle.
David found out about the penalty before the race began. He decided he would run to win it, but at the same time stay out of Shane’s and Kelly’s way.
Kelly appreciated that.
“He played fair with both of us by staying in the middle instead of moving all over,” Kelly said. “I drove on one side of his wake, and Jimmy drove on the other side.”
Kelly, whose crew worked hard all weekend to give him as much speed as possible, knew he didn’t have enough to probably win.
So he continually hugged the inside lane all weekend. For the most part, it worked, as he won two preliminary heats and finished second in another.
Shane, in lane 2, stayed right on Kelly’s hip the entire way.
Coming out of the final turn, Kelly got a little high out of the water and lost some speed. Shane, whose boat was better in the straightaways, pulled ahead to edge Kelly for the victory.
Shane’s final average lap speed was 144.694 mph. Kelly’s was 144.462 mph.
“I saw Jimmy coming,” said a dejected Kelly. “If the race had been 5 yards shorter, I would have won.”
The victory helped vindicate Ted Porter’s decision to contract his three-team operation of a year ago into just one team: he sold the U-57 boat and equipment to Mark Evans, boxed up the U-5, then changed the U-7 into the U-5 and put together the best of the crew members into one unit.
Then he made the decision to hire Shane as his lone driver.
“Jimmy Shane is a special person,” said Porter. “He’s a gentleman on the race course. I always tell him to have fun, but a lot of times he sees an opportunity out there and takes it.”
Villwock rallied for a third-place finish, while Scott Liddycoat in the 88 Degree Men placed fourth. Zimmerman finished fifth, while David — with the 1-lap penalty — was sixth.
For Shane and Porter, it means they’ll get the shade under Bernie Little’s tree in Lampson Pits for next year’s Columbia Cup.
That spot goes to the defending champion of the Tri-Cities race.
And considering the U-5 used to be owned by Little, it’s fitting, said Shane.
“It’s great to think a former Budweiser boat will be back under there,” he said.