2009 – A Season To Remember

Mike Webster battles Brian PerkinsThe 2009 H1 Unlimited tour will long be remembered. And with good reason.

The fans witnessed some of the finest competition in the long history of the sport. There was plenty of deck-to-deck action. And no one team dominated for very long.

The season-long battle for the National High Point Championship was simply unbelievable and wasn’t decided until the last lap of the last heat of the last race of the year. And for the first time in modern times, Unlimited hydroplane racing became a truly international endeavor. In November of 2009, a fleet of ten Unlimiteds journeyed from North America to the Middle East to compete for the Oryx Cup/UIM World Championship in Doha, Qatar.

The Unlimiteds first appearance on the world stage could not have been more impressive. The competition was superb and unforgettable. The 2009 Doha race is the perfect calling card for a sport that is certain to expand beyond its North American roots in the years ahead.

A total of twelve teams, fourteen hulls, and fourteen drivers saw competitive action during 2009.

When the roostertails subsided after the last race of the season at Doha, OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON (U-1) from southern Indiana had first-place in National High Points for the second year in a row. This entitled the OBERTO team to carry the coveted U-1 designation once again in 2010.

The community-owned craft and driver Steve David had 7970 accumulated points, compared to 7735 for MISS E-LAM PLUS (U-16), 7564 for FORMULABOATS.COM (U-5), 6689 for GRAHAM TRUCKING (U-7), 5253 for MISS PETERS & MAY (U-37), 4584 for OUR GANG RACING (U-17), 4521 for LELAND UNLIMITED (U-100), 4193 for ALBERT LEE APPLIANCE (U-48), 3926 for MASTER TIRE (U-3), 2201 for MISTER HOME LOAN (U-25), 1789 for MATRIX SYSTEM AUTOMOTIVE FINISHES (U-22), and 421 for JONES RACING (U-9). 

The road to the High Point Championship was a rocky one for OH BOY! OBERTO. Mechanical gremlins at Seattle, a flip at Doha, and a couple of penalty calls at Madison and Evansville took their toll. But the team hung tough, scored a victory at the Tri-Cities, and concluded the season with a 235-point edge over second-place MISS E-LAM PLUS.

Owned by the Ellstrom family of Seattle, the E-LAM team likewise had its share of untimely bad luck. Despite winning three races during the season, their boat suffered significant engine problems at the Tri-Cities and Doha and crashed at Evansville.

Ted Porter’s two boats, the FORMULABOATS.COM and the GRAHAM TRUCKING, claimed victory at the last two races of 2009 and finished third and fourth respectively in National Points. They might have placed higher if not for a couple of unfortunate crashes. (The GRAHAM went over at the Tri-Cities and the FORMULA did likewise at Doha.) Thankfully, drivers Jeff Bernard and J. Michael Kelly escaped serious injury.

The most frightening mishap of 2009 occurred at Madison where Jean Theoret almost drowned when the U-37 flipped upside down during a preliminary heat. Theoret was tangled in his 5-point harness system until rescuers could pull him free. Jean spent the next few weeks in recovery but returned to competition at Seattle and went on to place fourth at Doha with new sponsor PETERS & MAY USA, the well known global marine logistics firm.

Heading into the 2009 campaign, the OH BOY! OBERTO faced an uphill struggle. Arch-rivals MISS E-LAM PLUS and driver Dave Villwock, the 2007 High Point winners, had participated in only two races in 2008, but were back for the full tour in 2009.

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Madison, IN
Indiana Governor’s Cup
(1) U-16 MISS E-LAM PLUS, Dave Villwock
(2) U-7 GRAHAM TRUCKING, J. Michael Kelly
(3) U-1 OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON, Steve David

Villwock and the U-16 made the most of their return to full-time participation in Unlimited racing with a victory in the 59th annual Indiana Governor’s Cup on the Ohio River. MISS E-LAM PLUS led out of the first turn in the winner-take-all Final Heat and throughout.  E-LAM averaged 138.054 miles per hour for the 12.5 miles, compared to 136.515 for GRAHAM TRUCKING.

Jimmy King and the Allison-powered MISS CHRYSLER JEEP (U-3) was drawing close to second-place GRAHAM TRUCKING but conked out one buoy marker short of the finish line. OH BOY! OBERTO started in sixth-place but worked up to take third.

Following the first race of the season, OBERTO’s chances to repeat as National Champion were problematic. MISS E-LAM PLUS was back and strong as ever. Moreover, the U-16 had been the fastest qualifier at Madison, had won all four of its heats, and already possessed 1700 season points, compared to 1130 for OH BOY! OBERTO.

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Detroit, MI
APBA Gold Cup
(1) U-16 MISS E-LAM PLUS, Dave Villwock
(2) U-1 OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON, Steve David
(3) U-5 FORMULABOATS.COM, Jeff Bernard

The 100th contest for the APBA Gold Cup was certainly unique. 

The centennial running of boat racing’s Crown Jewel was scheduled for 2008 but had to be postponed a year after the completion of only two sets of preliminary heats on account of inclement weather.

For 2009, the Gold Cup featured a return to the concept of “fighting for lanes” before the start, but without violations for being “off-plane.”

Dave Villwock and MISS E-LAM PLUS observed the letter of the rule precisely in the Final Heat. They quite literally crawled around the Detroit River race course, mostly off-plane, and made a perfectly timed start in lane-one.

MISS E-LAM PLUS led from wire-to wire and averaged 141.239, compared to 138.270 for second-place OH BOY! OBERTO. E-LAM’s lead over OBERTO varied from one to two roostertail lengths throughout the five laps. FORMULABOATS.COM and GRAHAM TRUCKING see-sawed for third and fourth with FORMULA taking it, 136.266 to 136.200.

***

Tri-Cities, WA
Columbia Cup
(1) U-1 OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON, Steve David
(2) U-5 FORMULABOATS.COM, Jeff Bernard
(3) U-37 HOSS MORTGAGE INVESTORS, J.W. Myers

The third stop on the 2009 Unlimited tour emerged as a repeat triumph for the OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON team and driver Steve David. They captured their second straight Tri-Cities Columbia Cup at Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River.

The OBERTO won all four of its heat races and moved past Dave Villwock and MISS E-LAM PLUS to take over the lead in National High Points with three down and three events remaining on the 2009 calendar.

Five of the seven finalists were closely bunched at the start of the Final Heat. OH BOY! OBERTO, HOSS MORTGAGE INVESTORS (U-37) with relief driver J.W. Myers, and FORMULABOATS.COM exited the first turn together. OBERTO led at the end of lap-one with FORMULA and HOSS MORTGAGE both within OBERTO’s roostertail length.

OBERTO’s lead varied from one to two roostertails for laps two through five. FORMULA and HOSS MORTGAGE ran head-to-head all five laps with FORMULA taking it for second-place. OBERTO averaged 145.431 for the 12.5-mile distance, compared to 142.946 for FORMULA and 142.570 for HOSS MORTGAGE.

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Seattle, WA
Chevrolet Cup
(1) U-16 MISS E-LAM PLUS, Dave Villwock
(2) U-3 GRAND VIEW ON THE LAKE, Jimmy King
(3) U-37 HOSS MORTGAGE INVESTORS, J.W. Myers & Jean Theoret

The Tri-Cities race had been a triumph for OH BOY! OBERTO and an “off-day” for MISS E-LAM PLUS. Their fortunes were reversed the following week at the Chevrolet Cup on Lake Washington.

After three sets of preliminary heats, MISS E-LAM PLUS had 1025 accumulated points for two firsts and a third; OH BOY! OBERTO had one first and two seconds and 1000 points. For the finale, the E-LAM team chose starting lane-one; OBERTO took lane-two.

MISS  E-LAM PLUS led out of the first turn, followed closely by OH BOY! OBERTO. The OBERTO launched off a roller in the upper turn on lap-two and almost capsized.

E-LAM pulled to a commanding lead on lap-three while OBERTO maintained a steady second-place for four and a half laps. OBERTO then slowed way down on the fifth and final backstretch and faded from second to sixth-place, losing valuable National Points in the process.

Jimmy King and GRAND VIEW ON THE LAKE (U-3) took over second-place and averaged 133.072 to Dave Villwock’s 137.532. This was the U-3 team’s highest race finish in quite some time after a frustrating recent series of Allison engine failures.

Jean Theoret made a welcome return to competition at Seattle and took second-place with HOSS MORTGAGE INVESTORS in preliminary Heat 1-A after a see-saw battle with first-place Jeff Bernard in FORMULABOATS.COM.

Theoret nevertheless decided that he wasn’t sufficiently recovered from his Madison accident to continue. He relinquished the wheel for the remaining three heats to his back-up driver, J.W. Myers, who went on to take third-place overall.

***

Evansville, IN
Thunder On The Ohio
(1) U-5 FORMULABOATS.COM, Jeff Bernard
(2) U-7 GRAHAM TRUCKING, J. Michael Kelly
(3) U-1 OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON, Steve David

The two top-ranked teams–OH BOY! OBERTO and MISS E-LAM PLUS–had all kinds of problems at “Thunder On the Ohio” in Evansville.

Drivers Steve David and Dave Villwock staged a sensational duel for the lead in preliminary Heat 1-A. Running on the outside, the E-LAM attempted to overtake the OBERTO in the final turn. David’s boat bounced and inadvertently came down in Villwock’s path. E-LAM encountered OBERTO’s roostertail and blew over, landing upside down.

Villwock escaped serious injury but his boat was through for the day. David was disqualified and lost valuable points. OH BOY! OBERTO continued in the race but–because of the point loss–was ultimately assigned to lane-six for the Final Heat.

The Evansville-based MASTER TIRE (U-3) led out of the first turn of the finale and brought the hometown crowd to its feet. Driver Jimmy King was driving the race of his life! The two Ted Porter-owned boats– FORMULABOATS.COM and GRAHAM TRUCKING–went all out but couldn’t catch the front-running U-3, the only piston-powered boat in the fleet.

Then, another heartbreak for the Ed Cooper team! The U-3 lost a propeller and went dead in the water after two and three-quarter laps.

This left the FORMULA and the GRAHAM to fight it out for the victory with FORMULA and Jeff Bernard taking it, 140.395 miles per hour to 139.854. OH BOY! OBERTO checked in third at 138.092.

With the North American phase of the 2009 H1 Unlimited tour now concluded, three teams were “in the hunt” for the Season High Point Championship, which would be decided across the Atlantic Ocean in Doha, Qatar. These were OH BOY! OBERTO, FORMULABOATS.COM, and MISS E-LAM PLUS. Only 780 points separated the three front-runners.

***

Doha, Qatar
Oryx Cup/UIM World Championship
(1) U-7 GRAHAM TRUCKING, J. Michael Kelly
(2) U-1 OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON, Steve David
(3) U-16 MISS E-LAM PLUS, Dave Villwock

After the first three sets of preliminary heats on the Arabian Gulf, Steve David and OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON seemed to be in a good position to repeat as Season High Point Champion. The OBERTO had a first and two seconds in the preliminary action and possessed a comfortable lead in National Points. 

That lead evaporated, however, to almost nothing when the OBERTO flipped and received no points in preliminary Heat 4-A. The flip also relegated the OBERTO to a most unfavorable position on the race course for the Final Heat in lane-5.

While the OBERTO team thrashed repairs, Heat 4-B got underway. The outcome would prove crucial in the race for High Points. Both MISS E-LAM PLUS and FORMULABOATS.COM jumped the gun! And both had to run a penalty lap to be scored, while Jean Theoret and MISS PETERS & MAY (U-37) inherited the 400 first-place heat points. 

When it came time for the Final Heat of the season, just 156 points separated the OBERTO, the FORMULA, and the E-LAM. This had never happened before when as little as 156 National Points separated three boats at the outset of the last heat of the season.  At various times, two boats had gone down to the wire with a narrow points margin between them, but never three.

The starting gun for the Final Heat fired and MISS E-LAM PLUS led out of the first turn, followed closely by FORMULABOATS.COM with OH BOY! OBERTO trailing. Then, moments later, Jeff Bernard became airborne and did a barrel-roll, stopping the heat before the completion of lap-1. Bernard escaped serious injury and managed to extricate himself from the cockpit, but his boat had sustained major damage.

As things developed, the FORMULA wasn’t the only casualty in the first running of the Final Heat. Nate Brown’s OUR GANG RACING (U-17) had encountered a roostertail of salt water and couldn’t restart. The E-LAM likewise got some salt water but an engine change could not be made.

The withdrawal of the FORMULA and the OUR GANG meant that OH BOY! OBERTO could move over from lane-5 to lane-3 with MISS E-LAM PLUS in lane-1 and GRAHAM TRUCKING in lane-2. In order to retain the High Point Championship, the OBERTO would have to finish at least second in the re-run of the Final Heat.

On the restart, Villwock and the U-16 moved to a commanding lead and an apparent victory that would give him the Oryx Cup and the Series Team Championship, while David and the OBERTO trailed Kelly and the GRAHAM TRUCKING in third-place.

It appeared as though OH BOY! OBERTO was going to lose the championship on account of one position on the race course!

Then, on the final lap of the season, everything changed again. The E-LAM’s turbine engine succumbed to salt water and slowed, allowing the U-7 to pass him for the lead and the win for the GRAHAM TRUCKING sponsorship.  David also passed Villwock to take second in the Oryx Cup and secure the 2009 H1 Unlimited Series Championship for team OBERTO.

It was the first win in the Unlimited Class for J. Michael Kelly who had qualified as an Unlimited driver in 2004.

A jubilant Steve David proclaimed, “U-1 was our goal. This race and the season was about back-to-back U-1. We wanted to put an exclamation point on what this team could do running head-to-head against the U-16 all year long.”

***

In summary, the 2009 H1 Unlimited tour proved historic on a number of counts.

For the first time in their history, the Unlimiteds ventured beyond the environs of the United States, Canada, or Mexico.

OH BOY! OBERTO repeated as High Point Champion. This marked the first time that a non-MISS BUDWEISER entry has won back-to-back season titles since ATLAS VAN LINES in 1982-83.

OBERTO driver Steve David claimed his fourth High Point Driver Championship since 2005.

Dave Villwock claimed his seventh APBA Gold Cup. Only the retired Chip Hanauer (who has eleven) and the late Bill Muncey (who has eight) have more.

Villwock’s three race wins in 2009 brought his total in the Unlimited Class to 59. Only Muncey (who has 62) and Hanauer (who has 61) have more.

And despite a troubled economy, the H1 Unlimited fraternity lived up to its pledge to race sponsors by delivering full fields of boats. At race after race, no fewer than ten and as many as twelve teams showed up to do competitive battle in “Water Racing’s Greatest Show.”

That trend can and will continue into 2010, much to the joy of the real winners in Unlimited racing, the fans.

By Fred Farley  -  H1 Unlimited Historian