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.