Some suggestions for speeding up those slow-speed starts at Unlimited Hydroplane races - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Some suggestions for speeding up those slow-speed starts at Unlimited Hydroplane races

U-37 Beacon Plumbing's Jean Theoret talks with KONA Radio in Tri-Cities U-37 Beacon Plumbing's Jean Theoret talks with KONA Radio in Tri-Cities
U16 Elam Plus in Detroit - Photo: Timothy Spahr U16 Elam Plus in Detroit - Photo: Timothy Spahr
Boats use extended cowlings to keep the Salt Water out in San Diego Boats use extended cowlings to keep the Salt Water out in San Diego

There was some good natured teasing on the ABRA conference call prior to the San Diego race.  U-37 Beacon Plumbing driver Jean Theoret was talking about driving on the saltwater of San Diego, which can cause problems if it gets into the engine cowling.  "You have to be cleaner as far as racing, try not to cut anybody off or let anybody cut you off."  

U-16 Ellstrom's Elam Plus driver Dave Villwock jumped in to say "I think that's important, that nobody cuts anybody off before the start..."  

Theoret, of course, did just that to Villwock in the finals at Seattle. 

Villwock and Theoret were doing a slow run-up to the start line.  Villwock was in lane one on the inside and Theoret was right next to him in lane two.  "We were going too slow," said Theoret.  "That's the main problem because we were much too early."

"Boats can go slow," said Theoret.  "But they have limits."  The slow speed meant Theorot saw water get up into the canopy and obscure his view of the race course.

"Lost the vision, lost the course, cut off Dave," said Theoret.  Villwock's boat got washed down and his engine stalled.  Theoret was DSQ'd.  Villwock took fourth after getting the engine re-started.

Watch VIDEO of the Final Heat at Seattle (from KIRO-TV)
Read detailed account of the final heat at Seattle

The slow starts have been a cause of controversy for fans.  "I've always hated these slow starts," said Villwock. "I've been vocal about that for 10 years."  Villwock said it's tough to change it as long as the current rules are in place.  "A driver has to do what a driver has to do within the rules."

And changing the rules is no easy task.  A lot of things have been tried over the years, including penalties for dropping below speeds.  It's a tough sport to officiate, said Villwock.  "It's not like you've got an official watching at every buoy."

Villwock talked about a race in Tennessee.  "I know that I was in the right place and doing the right thing."  He got disqualified anyway when an official said he was going too slow for too long a time.  He said he sped up for a while, then slowed again, but the official didn't see it.  "One official can't watch six guys in one helicopter."

One of the solutions that's been proposed is to add or change buoy placement.  Drivers would be unable to cross a certain point on the race course before a certain amount of seconds before the course.  Both Villwock and Theoret say that won't change things.

"It's the same problem in a different place," said Villwock.  "It doesn't matter.  The same sort of thing will happen."

Both drivers, though, had suggestions.  "What they need to do is something Mike Weber said," Villwock suggested.  "Move some of the outer course markers so they (boats) have a little more elbow room and you can start (fast) from the outside."

Theoret said the U-37 team has tossed around the idea of using a strobe.  "Possibly a strobe light connected to the speedometer and mounted on the rudder," said Theoret.  "Go below 25 mph and the strobe would light up.  That would be an easy way to make sure the boats don't go below a certain speed."

Whatever the solution, things won't change without changes in the rules.  But changes aren't easy and some of the solutions might cause other problems for drivers and fans.  While computers can record all sorts of things, letting a computer decide the winner of a race takes away from the racing on the water.

"We're going to decide on a computer after-the-fact whether somebody went too slow before the start?" questioned Villwock.  "Let's say the first two guys win the race.  Then an hour later, they get thrown out because they went 98mph instead of 100mph at the start.  Not good for the fans who read the next day the guy they watched won the race really didn't."

"I think you'll set up a lot of problems," said Villwock.

The newer boats can change speeds so quickly, so it's not necessary to be at top speed until right before the start of the race.  So for now, it looks like the slow speed starts are here to stay. 

As for San Diego, the 2.5 mile course, large corners and the wide body of water means fast racing once they hit the start line. 

Many times, the race is decided by who hits the start line first and who comes out of the first exit pin.  The water behind the first boat is so rough that it's tough to make up ground.  At San Diego, it's a little different.  "The water is so nice for everybody that is racing whether they're first, second or third," said Theoret.  "It's easy to drive and easy to be competitive." Archive:  U37 Beacon Plumbing & Jean Theoret win San Diego, 2006