Sweet Home Alabama

IMG_2664Courtesy Dave Campbell Madison Courier

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Unlimited hydroplanes returned to Guntersville, Alabama, for the first time in nearly 50 years on Saturday and for everybody involved, it was an unqualified success.

The U-1 Miss HomeStreet Bank/Miss Madison and the U-27 Wiggins Racing entry — along with the replica U-55 Gale V — each took turns running laps on the 2-mile Lake Guntersville course in advance of a full points race next year.

But the boats didn’t run in anonymity. While a few dozen fans watched from the pit area, nearly a thousand more packed the levee on the back stretch to watch the thunderboats roar by at close to 200 mph.

It was all part of a strong response from the locals that had the H1 teams already looking forward to next year’s event.

“We’re just excited to be here and we can’t wait to pass onto everybody else in the hydroplane community how great of a place this will be to race at next year,” said HomeStreet driver Jimmy Shane. “There’s a buzz in this town about Unlimited hydroplanes. Everywhere you go, people are talking about it.”

The Unlimited hydroplanes don’t have a long history on Lake Guntersville, running just five races at the site in the 1960s. But what Guntersville lacks in longevity, it more than makes up for in importance.

It was on the lake that Buddy Byers steered the Miss Madison to its first-ever win, claiming the Dixie Cup in 1965. Ron Musson and Bill Muncey won the first two races at the site, in 1963 and 1964, respectively, and Bill Sterrett drove the Miss Budweiser to victory in the last Dixie Cup in 1969.

Lake Guntersville was also the site of Roy Duby’s historic run when he set the mile straightaway speed record of 200.419 mph on April 17, 1962 aboard the Miss U.S. I, a mark stood for 38 years before Russ Wicks beat it by 5 mph aboard the Miss Freei in 2000.

If onboard speedometers are accurate, both Shane and Phipps challenged that record during their test runs — albeit on an unsanctioned course and without a special setup for a record assault. Shane topped his HomeStreet Bank at 196 mph in the straightaways while Phipps hit 194.

Other than a few smaller class races in the 1980s, the lake has been largely quiet since. But that hasn’t stopped locals from dreaming of a time when the big boats would return to the site.

Charlie Wiggins straps into his U-27 Unlimited Hydroplane

Charlie Wiggins straps into his U-27 Unlimited Hydroplane

One of those dreamers was Charley Wiggins, the former Miss Madison driver who now co-owns the U-27 along with his father Milt. A native of the area, Charley calls nearby Gadsden home and has spent most of his adult life trying to bring Unlimited hydroplane racing back to the lake.

“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do and be involved in for at least 15 or 20 years. I’d come up here and look at the race course or the potential race course and look around and see where we could put the boats. I’d scratch my head, go home and come back the next year,” Wiggins said. “Just to see the boats run out here and to see the interest from the fans and the local media and the local business owners, it’s been pretty impressive.”

Saturday’s test was the end product of a year of planning. The original plan was to have a test a year ago with a race this year, but officials decided to push that schedule back a year in order to make sure everything was ready.

By all indications, the delay was a good idea. Even though it was a small test, everything went smoothly as expected.

“The first initial view you have of coming here is how professional it was. All of the police cruisers were lined up in the right spots, the crane was set up three days early,” Shane said.” They are as prepared as you can be, even for a small testing event like this one. I can’t wait to see what they have planned next year.”

As for the water itself, both drivers were thrilled with the conditions. A lake that is protected on all sides by high hills, there is little wind to affect the water, which remained calm and smooth.

“The water was perfect,” Shane said. “It was a little ‘sticky,’ but we’ll just change the set up a little and go back out. But it was about as perfect as you can ask for.”

IMG_2648Shane ended up taking the HomeStreet Bank out on the lake twice, running roughly five laps each time. On his final lap, he slowed the boat down considerably, popped his cockpit canopy and waved to the crowd.

Phipps did him one better. Wanting to give the new fans something to remember, Phipps steered the boat to within 20 feet of the shore and buzzed the fans on the levee at more than 170 mph, drawing cheers from those assembled.

“It’s been great. All of the people down on the levee are just so supportive, they’re all packed in down there,” Phipps said. “What a great place to have a race, what a great place to drive out on the race course. It’s not very often that you get these kinds of perfect conditions with no wind. It’s a little hot but we’ll take that trade off for these conditions. What a great site.”

The actual course the Unlimiteds will run on next year will be different than Saturday’s test track. The proposed race site, which is just north of the city, was unavailable for the test. But word from H1 officials is that the site is “perfect.”

While the two H1 teams can’t wait to return to the site next year, the same can be said for the locals who have drank in everything hydro related in the past year and can’t wait for more.

“There’s a lot of hype. For so long, when I would tell people what I did, they’d say ‘They used to run those in Guntersville. When are they going to bring those back?’” Wiggins said. “There’s just enough of the people left who were around here in the 60s who remember it and want to see it come back. If we waited another 10 years, those memories might not be there so I think this is the perfect time to start rebuilding the tradition here in Guntersville.”[/fusion_text]

June 20th, 2017|