Breaking down what happens at a hydroplane race: Qualifying, Time Trials, Heats and Finals - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Breaking down what happens at a hydroplane race: Qualifying, Time Trials, Heats and Finals

  • Once again, this is a work in progress.  See something that's not quite right or needs more detail?  Email with your suggestions.  The help is always appreciated.

Competition is divided into four parts:  qualifying, time trials, heat races, and the finals.


First, the boats have to measure up.

Prior to a boat hitting the water, there are inspections to make sure they are worthy.  Judges will check the weight, width, length and various other technical aspects of the boat.  They are looking for anything that would give a competitor an unfair advantage over another race team.  We've seen some occurrences of props that were too big or boats dramatically under weight in the past few years.  In these cases, boats are not allowed on the water unless they can make the necessary changes.

Then, the drivers have to be qualified.

Not just anybody can drive these big boats.  Drivers have to have put in some time in the cockpit of smaller boats, competing in at least four heats in the previous three years.  Unlimited lights and 5-litres are popular places to find new Unlimited drivers.

Once they have that experience, there is a "driver qualifying" that goes on.  At various race sites, new drivers will take their turn behind the wheel during time trials to build up experience in the cockpit.  Before they can actually race, they must have done 15 laps in an Unlimited.  Ten of those laps must be above 130 mph.

Once they've done that, they're ready to go.  But as an extra safety procedure, the new driver starts at the far outside lane for the first two races - regardless of where the boat qualified in the time trials.

If you've got a qualified boat and a qualified driver, you're set to compete.  Then it's on to the time trials.


A driver must complete one lap at a minimum speed of 130 mph to qualify for a race.  It's a little different in Detroit, where drivers must complete two laps at an average speed of 130mph back-to-back during the same run.

Points are awarded to the fastest qualifiers during time trials.  These points count towards the National High Points totals. 


Each heat race provides a winner and points towards the weekend's champion and the season champion.   Finishes in heats help determine the race position for the finals.  Do better in the heats; you'll get a better starting position in the final race.

Officials will tell you there are three qualification heats, but that's a little misleading.  There may be three heats, but there are usually six races.  That's because heats are divided into Heat 1A and Heat 1B, Heat 2A and 2B, and Heat 3A and 3B.  That's six races by my count.

The qualifying heats can have up to six boats in each, depending on number of entrants and safety requirements.  The boats are assigned to heats by a blind draw.

Boats fight for starting lane positions during the wind-up period before the race.  You'll see all sorts of strategies as boats slow down and speed up to try to time the start to hit the starting line at maximum speed when the race begins.  The running start's tricky because if you jump the gun and hit the starting line early, you'll be penalized.  Hit it too late and you may never recover.

The heats last three laps.  The boat that crosses the finish line first is usually the winner.  We say usually because sometimes fans may not find out about a penalty until after the race is over.  Jumping the gun is common and will add an extra lap to the finish - that can move a boat from first to last in a heat.  Other time penalties can be awarded for hitting a buoy, forcing another boat to hit a buoy, hitting another boat, or changing lanes too close to another boat.

Again, Detroit runs its races a little differently.  The Gold Cup is made up of four qualifying heats; each is a four lap race.

Boats get points depending on finish.  First place is worth 400 points.  Second gets 300, third 225, fourth 169, fifth 127, sixth 95.  As not all boats will finish all races, points are awarded to even the last place boat as it finishes.

If you see a DNS or DNF in the official results, that means either "Did Not Start" meaning the boat couldn't get going onto the course in time to participate or "Did Not Finish" meaning it started the race, but didn't finish it.

DNQ means disqualified for a variety of a reasons, including behavior on the course that causes race officials to disqualify the driver and boat or fuel violations.

Unlimited hydroplanes are not really unlimited.  There are limits placed on the fuel mixture.  The fuel mixture is watched carefully during the race via on-board monitoring.  You'll hear about a "fuel flow violation" or  "N2 violation."  In either case, the boats exceeded the pre-set limits all boats must follow.  They will be disqualified and awarded no points for that race.

When you're at the event, you may hear the track announcers call out "Five to the Five."  That's a signal to the crews to get ready.  It's the five minute warning before the five minute mark to start the race.

During the final five minutes before the race starts, boats jockey for position - sometimes going all over the course.  If you were to look at the judge's stand, you'd see a yellow flag up.  That lets the drivers know the five minute period has started.  That will switch to a white flag when there's a minute left.

Once the race starts, the green flag is hoisted and stays there until the final lap for the leading boat.  When the leader starts the last lap, the white flag comes back up to let everybody know.  And you probably already know that the checkered flag means the leader's crossed the finish line.

If you see a red flag, it's not good news.  Something's happened on the course that needs immediate attention and usually signifies danger.  Boats are instructed to immediately stop where they are and remain on the course. 

We found out the hard way that you can't wear red anywhere near the judge's stand.  It makes perfect sense when you think about it, but we didn't think about it when we decked out our entire broadcast crew in red knit shirts!  That meant for some quick change for the crew working near the judge's stand.

A black flag signals them to return to the pits.

If a boat flips or goes dead in the water, watch the driver to see what he does.  Drivers have one minute after the boat stops to open up the canopy.  If they don't, the calvary will come as something's seriously wrong.

If you see the driver clasp his hands above his heat, that means he's OK.  It could mean the boat's just stopped working.  If the driver waves both his hands over his head, it means the driver's in danger and needs help right away. 

If there's no signal at all, that means there's serious trouble or injury.


The finals include the top scoring boats from the weekend. 

A quick note here:  Depending on the number of boats competing and the conditions of the boats at the end of the weekend, there may be what's called a "Provisional Heat" before the finals.  This heat is made up of boats that didn't have enough points to qualify for the final heat.  It's kind of a last chance/second chance for boats to get into the final race.  Win the Provisional and you'll get a seat at the table in the finals.  But not a good seat.

Finals are five laps and a whole lot of fun to watch.  It's really an all or nothing type event.  The winner of the finals is named champion of that race for the weekend and keeps bragging rights until the next year's race.

You can win the finals, but still not have the most points for the weekend, depending on how you did in qualifying and previous heat races.  These points will go towards the National High Points championship.  Points are cumulative throughout the racing season.