Editor’s note: There are 8 days until the APBA HAPO Gold Cup Heat 1A race takes place on the Columbia River. At the same time, the Tri-City Water Follies’ annual event is celebrating its 50th year of racing unlimited hydroplanes. So the Herald will take a daily look at past storylines leading up to the Gold Cup. These are in no particular order:
July 30, 2006: Flip and win for Villwock.
The feat is called Flip and Win.
Before Sunday, only one driver — Mark Evans — had flipped his unlimited hydroplane during a race and came back later in the day to win the final heat.
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Now there are two drivers who’ve done it.
Dave Villwock overcame a stunning flip in his U-1 Miss Elam Plus on Sunday afternoon to win the Atomic Cup Rumble on the River final in the evening.
“This is one of the best wins I’ve ever had,” said a jubilant Villwock after taking his 51st career victory.
The Columbia River and Villwock have always had a love-hate relationship.
“I’ve had my highest of highs and lowest of lows on this river,” said Villwock, who has flipped two other times here, one in which he nearly died when his Miss Budweiser flipped in 1997.
But this was definitely one of the highest highs for the Ellstrom team.
“This win is way up there,” said team manager Erick Ellstrom. “For us as a team, this is our best team win. It’s not too often you get to come back from a big setback.”
Sunday’s races were delayed almost two hours because 30 mph winds made the Columbia River too choppy and dangerous to race.
It was also 79 degrees out, below the previous year’s high of 99 degrees and well below the normal of 96 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in Pendleton.
Former driver Mitch Evans jumped in a patrol boat to survey the course at 11 a.m.
He didn’t like what he saw.
“The front straightaway (along Columbia Park) is fine,” Evans said. “But halfway through the backstretch you get a two-foot chop. Water was coming over the front of our boat. It’s not safe.”
A decision had to come soon.
Water Follies board President Suz Levinskas said the race had to be run on Sunday or not at all.
“We had a force majeure (agreement) with the city,” said Levinskas. “The contract expires at midnight Sunday. The race teams asked about running on Monday, but we can’t.”
At a noon drivers meeting, Ken Muscatel volunteered to take his U-2.25 boat out for a test run at 12:30 p.m.
“We don’t want to break the equipment,” said chief referee Don Melillo. “We have a big race in Seattle next week. We have until darkness. The only thing to hope for is for the heat in the afternoon to settle the river down.”
Muscatel drove around the course, came back and said the water looked good.
So at 1 p.m. — almost two hours after it was originally scheduled — Heat 2A began. But it didn’t last long.
Villwock had the lead on the first lap, but coming into the west end turn on the Franklin County side, the U-1 lifted slightly. Villwock brought the boat back down too hard. It bounced, then lifted off. The boat flipped front over back one complete revolution, going 50 feet in the air.
But the boat landed tail first — the best way to land — and Villwock wasn’t injured. He was just mad.
“It was one of my biggest mistakes,” he admitted. “I was mad because I just cost Erick $30,000. But I got a little lucky on the landing.”
He popped out of the cockpit and checked the boat.
“I radioed back, ‘Get the cannard out, get the wings out. We’re still in this,’ ” Villwock said. “By the time I got back to the pits, everything was out and waiting.”
Ellstrom said no one panicked.
“The team shined,” Ellstrom said. “This crew has been together for 11 years. Everyone just does their job. These guys are awesome. It leaves me speechless, but I know I’ve been talking for 10 minutes.”
U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto driver Steve David said rough water is better than wind for an unlimited hydroplane.
“The wind is shifting,” David said. “Look at the water. See the dark spots? That tells you the wind is shifting.”
At one point after Villwock’s flip, some of the drivers held a meeting and debated whether to continue. The Columbia River is one of the fastest courses on the circuit. High winds make for danger.
Jimmy King of the U-3 Conover Insurance put it best.
“Sometimes it rains at Daytona, sometimes the wind blows in the Tri-Cities,” King said.
Villwock wasn’t the only driver to flip a boat. J. Michael Kelly lost control of his U-13 Spirit of Detroit in Heat 3B in the west-end turn, where he flipped upside down in the water.
Kelly had hit David in the U-6 in the first turn on the first lap.
“That was the hardest I’ve ever been hit,” said David. “I’ve flipped the boat before. But this was harder. It was the two sponsons coming together.”
David thought that that had loosened up both boats. In the west end turn, Kelly’s boat unhooked out of the water, flipping upside down and flying just over David’s boat.
“Thank God he went over us and didn’t hit us,” David said.
Kelly was treated and released at Kennewick General Hospital.
This flip had nothing to do with the wind, but it added to a long day.
Racing was stopped again, and one radio guy began to wonder out loud: “Do these boats have headlights? Because it could be dark when we’re done.”
Three hours after Villwock flipped his boat, he was back on the water racing it in another preliminary heat.
During the final, Villwock looked like he had a tough battle with King, who led after the first lap of the five-lap final. But on the second lap, the U-3 went dead in the water.
“It was a $70 battery that gave out on us,” said U-3 owner Ed Cooper, Jr. “But I’m not gonna complain. I get ’em for free.”
With that, Villwock had the victory in hand, and he paraded around the course for the victory.
The day belonged to the Ellstrom team, and the way it came through in a tough situation.
“That’s what you see in championship teams,” Villwock said.