The Graham Trucking team couldn’t have written a better script to start the H1 Unlimited season last weekend.
Team owner Ted Porter watched as his new — but at the same time old — driver, J. Michael Kelly, take the U1 boat to Victory Lane at Sunday’s season opener in Madison, Ind.
“It was really cool,” said Porter. “It was pretty exciting. I thought it was neat after (former driver) Jimmy (Shane) left us. I felt J. Michael, bringing him back, was a good move.”
Kelly feels the same way.
“This team ended the season on a high note by winning the points championship (in 2013),” said Kelly. “Now it ended the first race of this season on a high note. Luckily, I was able to go to this team.”
Kelly had driven for Porter in 2009 and 2010, piloting the secondary boat and earning his first career victory (in Doha, Qatar) in 2009.
Last season, Shane drove the Graham to the national title.
But in the offseason, Shane left the team for the U6 Oberto team, citing more money and job security with more than a one-year contract.
It may not have been a popular move with the Graham team at the time, but it’s all good now.
“I would like to think so,” said Porter. “It’s kind of like when somebody leaves you and goes somewhere else, there are gonna be some sour feelings. The entire team took it pretty hard.
“When you bring someone in and give them their first ride, bring their wife in and give them their first ride, it’s tough,” Porter said. “They said they would never leave you, then they go for the money. It’s happened every time. When J. Michael left, it was for bigger money. One of the things they’ve got to find out is the grass is not always greener on the other side. Being on a team and everybody cares about you, that’s a big deal.”
“It was one of those things. I wasn’t having as much fun after I left that team,” Kelly said. “So when Ted asked me to come back, it was a no brainer. It’s a good fit for me and my family. Just being back with the guys on the team, that’s nice. I really enjoyed driving for them in 2009-10.”
Porter has added a second boat again to the fleet, the U-7 Graham Trucking with driver Cal Phipps.
Phipps finished third last Sunday.
“The neat thing about it was their driving,” said Porter. “I kind of wanted them to start out conservative. We just won the (national) title, you don’t have to win every heat.”
Kelly knew that too.
“One of the things (crew chief) Tom Anderson talked about was we were to take it one heat at a time,” said Kelly. “Get every point you can to get to the finals. But make sure you get the points and heats. Then make the final and let’s see what happens.”
Now, to be clear, Shane is happy where he’s at too.
He won all three preliminary heat races in the Oberto in his first time racing the boat. And he did it in front of the boat’s hometown fans.
“Obviously there were a little bit of nerves and a little bit of pressure,” said Shane. “It definitely got better throughout the weekend. It was definitely hectic for a first weekend of racing. But Madison is a wonderful little town, and I wouldn’t want to be driving for any other team.”
The first two times out in testing, Shane said the team had to make some adjustments.
“From then on, it was consistent,” said Shane. “The boat was fantastic. We got to know each other (last) weekend.”
The only mistake Shane made was in the final, when he barely crossed the start-finish line before the race began, penalizing him a lap and opening the door for Kelly and Graham.
But Shane and Oberto have the national high points lead after the first race.
And he felt he had more speed than the rest of the field.
“It might (have felt faster) for him, but when we ran in the final, I was just as fast as he is,” said Kelly. “I was keeping a pretty good pace. It was so rough in that first turn. But I came out to catch up with him. I’ve had a bunch of second-place finishes on the podium. I needed this win bad.”
And he has the equipment to do it every time.
“That boat was a dream to drive,” Kelly continued. “I was like ‘Wow. I have a legitimate chance of winning every race now.’ ”
Both Kelly and Shane should have excellent chances at winning the next race, the APBA Gold Cup in Detroit, which begins today with qualifying and runs through Sunday.
With Erick Ellstrom’s new boat, the 96 Spirit of Qatar, not likely ready until the July 25-27 HAPO Columbia Cup, the two youngsters will be the favorites in Detroit.
“We’re gonna keep the same strategy,” said Shane. “Be a little more cautious of the timing monitors and all of the data. But this boat. It’s just a good al-around boat. As we continue to make changes to it, I will obviously get more comfortable with it.”