Lampson Pits in Kennewick’s Columbia Park was filled Friday with unlimited hydroplane people in what is fast becoming the sport’s annual spring training event.
On one end was Mike and Lori Jones, owners of the U-9 Jones Racing team.
On the other end was Ted Porter and his U-7 Team Porter Racing II team, with plenty of crew members.
In between, the U-96 Spirit of Qatar race team was busy working around its boat.
Along the river, fans parked their cars and were taking pictures whenever a boat came out on the water.
Heck, even Larry Oberto, whose family’s company makes the finest dried meats in all the land and sponsors the U-1 Oberto boat based in Madison, Ind., watched the action in the pits, even though his team wasn’t on hand.
“I flew from Hawaii to Seattle to see Barry Manilow in concert with my wife,” Oberto said. “I thought if I could fly from Hawaii, I could fly from Seattle to here to see this. If I wanted to make the three- or four-day drive from Madison and spend the money on the fuel, I’d be here in a second.”
With the H1 Unlimited season opener just five weeks away in Madison, Oberto said he appreciates what spring training does for a team.
“If nothing else, it’s an advantage in a sense to allow a team to jell,” Oberto said. “All the way down to the little things as to what they didn’t put in the truck. So when they show up in Madison, they don’t have to run to a store to get things together.”
Porter was skeptical at first, hauling his U-7 boat from Indiana to the Northwest for this event. A chance to work the U-7 out where the HAPO Gold Cup will be held July 24-26 was too hard to pass up, however.
“But we used a lot of our West Coast (crew) guys, and it’s worked out great,” said Porter, who wanted to get his new driver, Jesse Robertson, some seat time in the boat. “We’ve tried out a couple of different turbine packages and some different gear ratios.”
Robertson will sit in the cockpit this season, replacing Cal Phipps, who drove the U-7 to third place in the national high point standings last season. Robertson has driven the U-57 for Mark Evans and the U-12 Miss DiJulio the past few seasons.
“This,” Robertson pointed at the U-7, “is like night and day with those other boats. Each boat has its own quirks. This one, I haven’t found them yet. And this has been great. We basically have run half a race day.”
With the current race count for the 2015 season — a possible Detroit race in August is still in the works — at four, the race for the national high points championship will be quick. Making no mistakes will be a top priority.
“The first few heats at Madison, there are still some gremlins and you’re working through them,” Porter said.
Porter’s No. 1 driver, J. Michael Kelly, understands how important it is to be ready. He drove the U-7 to shake things out before Robertson got in the cockpit, but Kelly’s boat — the U-5 — is sitting back in the shop in Indiana.
“Our boat is in great shape,” said Kelly. “The main thing is to be ready to go. There is no room for mistakes. That kind of got us last year. We missed three heat races, and it ended up costing us the national championship. So we’ve got to take it one heat race at a time. Finish each race without penalties.”
That’s why the U-96 team was in the pits, said crew chief Mike Hanson.
“Unfortunately last year, finishing a new boat, then crashing in Seattle, we were behind all year,” Hanson said. “After this offseason, though, we’re caught up.”
That could be bad news for the rest of the field. Driver Jean Theoret felt comfortable in the boat.
“It went very well out there,” said Theoret, who had been out of racing for a few years after a nasty crash before finishing last season with the U-96 team. “I was waiting for a good opportunity to race again. And the opportunity to work with (team manager and owner) Erick Ellstrom and Mike Hanson was too good to pass up.”
Scott Liddycoat steps in this season to drive for the U-9 team, replacing Jon Zimmerman, who opted to spend more time this season with his family.
It has been a few seasons since Liddycoat has had a full-time ride. But he feels the U-9 is a great fit.
“This is my fourth unlimited,” Liddycoat said. “This boat, I’d say, is the nicest so far. (Crew chief) Jeff Campbell and his brother Mike, and the whole crew’s preparation is incredible. They had the boat ready for a week before we came here. I got to the shop, it was done. It shows their dedication.”
Less than two months until the Gold Cup is here.
NOTES: The U-12 Centurion Racing also was scheduled to be in the pits. But late Thursday, the team begged out because electrical issues. ... From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today, the U-7 team and Robertson will be at the Meyers Auto Tech at 1120 N. Grant Place in Kennewick. Robertson also will be signing autographs. ... Hanson and Theoret confirmed that even though the Doha race has been canceled, the team still will be sponsored by and called the Spirit of Qatar. ... There was one Grand Prix boat in the pits. But when the crane tried to pick the boat up off its trailer, the left sponson cracked. ... The circuit’s other two races are July 31-Aug. 2 in Seattle, and Sept. 18-20 in San Diego.