Increased Competition in 2007 Unlimited Hydroplane Racing = Tighter Races = More Danger - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Increased Competition in 2007 Unlimited Hydroplane Racing = Tighter Races = More Danger

Photo:  Owen Blauman Photo: Owen Blauman

Three flips in three heats.  All in the same place.  It had never happened before in unlimited hydroplane racing history, but it happened in Evansville.

Jean Theoret did the 360 flip in Heat 2B while leading the pack.  The boat bounced, went up in the air, and landed on the tail, crashing down hard on the deck right-side up.  Theoret was able to shut the engine off and pop the cockpit.

Theroret had about a roostertail lead over Jimmy King in the U-3 when he went airborne after the exit pin of turn two.

"As I entered the last turn, the set up was good," Theoret said in his on-line journal.  "The boat bounced once and came down, but went back up.  I set the wing all the way up, but it was too late."

The U-37 team put in a brand new front wing system during the off-season.  The front wing is designed to help keep the boat skimming across the top of the water efficiently and keep it down.  When you're in turns, it doesn't work as well.  Theoret said the effectiveness in turns is cut by about 50%. 

Theoret said by that point, the wing had no effect.  The boat flipped.  When it came down, it continued to run and wouldn't shut off.  Theoret used the emergency fuel shut off to shut it down.

Despite that, the crew of the U-37 was able to put the boat back together and get it ready to run in the finals.  "It's a tribute to the team that we were able to get back in the race.  They did a great job repairing the boat," Theoret said.

Still, Theoret's not quite sure why the flip happened and that's frustrating.  "It was hard to go out again after the accident because I didn't know why it happened," he said.

In the final, Theoret was able to get back out and rack up a second place finish.  "Jean Theoret put up a great fight," said U-16 unlimited hydroplane driver Dave Villwock, who won for his 10th time in Evansville.

Theoret wasn't alone.  Jeff Bernard in the U-5 unlimited hydroplane took the lead from the starting gun in Heat 2A and was trying to hold off a charging Dave Villwock in the U-16 when he got caught in Villwock's roostertail going into the far turn.  He rode the wash up in the air and blew over.

The race was stopped as rescue crews went out to bring Bernard out of the cockpit and back to shore. 

Track announcer Mark Allen said the boat is designed to ride on top of the water.  It doesn't know the difference between the river and the roostertail.  When it hit the roostertail, there was enough volume of water to lift the U-5 and it traveled right up the roostertail as if it were skimming over the river.  With enough lift and air, the boat blew over.

Mike Allen watched teammate Jeff Bernard blow over in the U-5, then suffered a similar fate in Heat 3B.  Allen was able to spring the cockpit open and get out on his own power and stand on the deck waiting for the rescue crew to get there.

"You try to adjust your boat through the day and stay ahead of the river," said U-1 driver Mike Allen. "It's a battle on conditions and current and river levels that mother nature throws at you."

"You have your competitors, but you're racing the river as well."

Drivers and team say you'll always have to fight the river, but the increased level of competition is playing a big role.  The tight competition contributed to the flips in Evansville and may signal what's ahead for race fans later this season. 

"The level of competition is so close and when you have seven guys out there running as fast as you can, as hard as you can and on the edge, accidents will happen," Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison driver Steve David told the Madison Courier. "When you're running as hard as you can, it's not a question of if, but when."

Jimmy King, U-3 driver, agrees.  He told the Courier:  ""When you have five guys out there and they all want to win, (flips) can happen."

The guys have always wanted to win, but new boats, new props, and new engines in the off-season have turned up the level of competition.  When 6 or 7 boats are capable of winning at any race site, drivers will push the boats harder and be forced to take some chances to win.

"It will be one of the most competitive season the sport's ever seen," said American Boat Racing Association Chairman Sam Cole during the ABRA conference call with reporters.  "We've never had such equally matched boats in the history of the sport."