The 2023 season is now complete following J. Michael Kelly’s thrilling Gold Cup victory that earned him the National High Points Championship. What were your favorite moments of the 2023 season?
Craig Fjarlie (Unlimited News Journal Writer & H1 Unlimited Volunteer)
There were a number of positive moments in the 2023 season. The first one that comes to mind is Heat 1 at Madison, when Jamie Nilsen drove Legend Yacht Transport to victory. Another positive moment occurred in Heat 5, when Dylan Runne drove Miss HomeStreet to first place before the hometown fans.
A real highlight for me was Heat 1B in Tri-Cities, when Bobby King drove his first heat of unlimited competition in Graham Trucking. His father, Jimmy King, driver of Miss Ace Hardware, met him on the dock when Bobby returned to the pits, and congratulated his son. It was truly a rare and special moment. I’m glad I was able to witness it.
Brad Luce (H1 Unlimited PA Announcer)
I suspect most of the “favorite moments” from the 2023 H1 Unlimited Season will center around the terrific, deck to deck racing we witnessed on the water. It was indeed outstanding, with so many closely contested finishes. So, I will go a different direction when answering the question.
Maybe my favorite moment wasn’t really a “moment” at all. But rather the realization, during the season, the overall H1 Unlimited product was much improved in 2023. In addition to the action on the water, we had four (4) rookie drivers in 2023. We haven’t had that many since 2010, and each was a great addition to our sport. Their stories were compelling, and I suspect each will play an integral role in the sport’s future. We saw an increased boat count at our races in 2023, and the hope is we can continue to increase it in 2024.
There is talk of new race sites in 2024 and beyond. Time will tell if these come to fruition, but the early indication is there is interest in our sport from new locations. This can only be viewed as positive.
The improvement of the H1 Unlimited Live Stream was exponential in 2023. The improvement, defined by improved signal strength, unique camera angles, and creative on-screen graphics, led to an increase in viewership of over 80% from last year. The result: H1 Unlimited reached a significant number of new fans both on-line and at the race sites in 2023. And what they saw was compelling.
The 2023 H1 Unlimited Season was a good one. All the great “moments” from the season, together, provide a solid foundation for growth in 2024 and beyond. That’s my favorite part.
Andy Muntz (Unlimited News Journal Editor & H1 Unlimited Board Member)
My two thrilling moments were at the beginning and the end. I was told not that long ago that today’s boats will never be as fast as the boats of 30 years ago, before fuel-flow restrictions were put in place. But I’d say that time has already come. It had been almost 20 years since we’ve seen a boat surpass 170 mph on the racecourse, but we saw that threshold crossed during qualifying in Guntersville. Dustin Echols got the 2023 season underway with a breathtaking run in Bucket List Racing that was the fifth fastest qualifying speed in the history of the sport.
Then, only six weeks later, came the final heat in Seattle. The season’s last heat always has a special feel. There is the usual anticipation that the winner of the race is about to be decided, but it also carries with it a feeling of melancholy—that this will be the last time we’ll see the boats on the water until next June. But this year’s last heat had more than that. It would not only determine the winner of the season’s most prestigious race—the APBA Gold Cup—but would also determine the national champion, something that is typically already decided by the time the last heat rolls around.
As we all know, the final heat at Seattle didn’t disappoint. J. Michael Kelly came from behind to get across the finish line first, and also came from behind to win the title. His team was only 19 points ahead heading into the event, fell 166 points behind as teammate Corey Peabody won two preliminary heats on Saturday while he had a first and a third, then he crawled back and started the final with a deficit of 91 points. If Kelly had not passed Andrew Tate during the third lap, he would have lost the title to Peabody by a mere 16 points, but he pushed ahead, won the Gold Cup, and claimed the championship with 84 points to spare. Oh, and the racing during the heat was pretty darn good, too.
David Newton (Publisher of Roostertail Talk Podcast)
Although the 2023 H1 season was a short one, there were plenty of favorite moments for me to reflect on as we wait for the H1 Unlimiteds to return to the water again next year. The season started with a lot of promise and speed in Guntersville, Alabama. With the extra wide course added to all the hard work the teams completed in the offseason, fans were treated to higher speeds. Watching the U-40 Bucket List Racing team qualify at 171.294MPH was incredible. To see the craft at its peak in the midst of the fuel restriction age run laps above 170 is rare. You could tell it was going to be a fast lap just by the roostertail alone. I knew it was going to be fast, but didn’t know they would get over 171MPH. I will admit I have gone back to watch that run more than a few times on H1’s YouTube channel.
I always love an underdog and loved watching the U-11 and Jamie Neilson nail starts this year. The Legend Yacht Transport had a perfect heat in Madison Indiana that surprised more than a few. Leaving Madison, they had a slim point advantage over the field and hopes to clinch a first National Championship for Scott and Shannon Raney. The championship didn’t come into fruition, but the magic they had in Madison getting a surprise heat win, getting a 2nd place finish overall and leading high points was a highlight for me on the tour.
Finally, Friday qualifying at the Gold Cup holds a special place for me. Qualifying for the Gold Cup is always exciting as the teams always bring out their “A” game and best equipment to claim top honors. But it wasn’t the fast times that got me excited. At the start of the 2nd round of qualifying I was standing on the docks on the south side of the Stan Sayres pits. The 440 was lowered in the water to go out for their last run of the day. A crowd started to form to watch Brent Hall get strapped in to the Boitano Homes hydroplane. I realized I was there to watch history unfold. Brent only needed 2 laps at that time to become the first African American to qualify as an Unlimited Hydroplane driver. You could feel the excitement in the air. The dock got more and more crowded with fans and media getting a better view. Mega hydro fan Ricky McQueen held up 2 fingers on his hand as Brent spooled up his turbine and entered the Ted Jones racecourse. Unfortunately, at the start of his 2nd lap the boat came to a stop. The gearbox overheated and Brent was unable to complete his last lap to qualify as an official Unlimited Hydroplane driver. Afterwards in the pits you didn’t see defeat in Brent as he still had his trademark smile on his face as he addressed fans in the pits. History wasn’t made last weekend for Brent, but it is refreshing to see the excitement he is bringing to the sport. I know that Brent will easily get his last lap next year to qualify, I hope to be there to see it!