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Unlimited Hydroplane Racing - Tri-Cities Style

By Fred Farley - H1 Unlimited Historian

For 47 years, the Tri-Cities of Eastern Washington have played host to "Water Racing's Greatest Show," the Unlimited hydroplanes--the Thunderboats of the racing world.

Since 1966, the mighty Unlimiteds have occupied center stage as the headline event for the annual Tri-City Water Follies celebration. The race was called the Atomic Cup in the early days but was renamed the Columbia Cup in 1976. It is now the Atomic Cup again as a part of "Rumble On The River."

When the hydros first came to town to do competitive battle, the Columbia Park pit area was a wilderness dustbowl. It was a far cry from the modern well-developed recreational facility that it is today.

But the local Water Follies committee had years of experience in staging Limited hydroplane races at Sacajawea Park and had its act together. The 1966 Atomic Cup was an unqualified success, garnering rave reviews from fans, participants, and the media alike.

And from that day to this, the Tri-Cities regatta has been a mainstay on the Unlimited calendar and a highlight of the racing year.

The twelve boats that showed up for that first Atomic Cup had almost nothing in common with their modern counterparts. All were piston-powered and all but one used government surplus Allison or Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, left over from World War II. (Jet turbine power in race boats was considered in the realm of science fiction in 1966.)

The hydroplanes themselves were rather narrow and quite box-shaped. The driver sat behind--rather than in front of--the engine in an open cockpit with no seat belt. (In the days before the F-16 safety canopy, it was believed that a driver had a better chance of surviving a serious accident if he were thrown clear of his boat.)

The modern Unlimiteds are wider and flatter and can corner much better and faster than the earlier designs.

The one thing that the boats of 1966 did have in common with those racing in 2006 was tremendous straightaway speed. Then as now, the sight of an Unlimited hydroplane at full throttle and with a roostertail of spray trailing behind it is the most awesome spectacle in all of motor sports.

The 1966 Atomic Cup proved to be the first-ever victory for MISS BUDWEISER team founder Bernie Little. (His went on to win a total of 134 prior to his death in 2003.) Little had been racing since 1963, but this was his initial trip to the winner's circle. With Bill Brow driving, MISS BUDWEISER won all three heats at an average speed of 94.937 miles per hour.

Finishing in second-place that first year was popular "Wild Bill" Cantrell and the SMIRNOFF, which posted the fastest qualifying speed of 111.386 around the 2.5-mile course.

The 1967 race is remembered for a battle royal in the Final Heat between the eventual winner Billy Schumacher in MISS BARDAHL and Bill Sterett in MISS CHRYSLER CREW. Schumacher's boat used a Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12, while Sterett's craft had a pair of Chrysler hemispherical V-8 engines, mounted in tandem.

MISS CHRYSLER CREW, which had won the UIM World Championship Race earlier in the season at Detroit, took an early lead and appeared to have the race well in hand. But MISS BARDAHL hung tough, stayed within striking distance of her automotive-powered adversary, and finally moved into the lead after several laps. And that's how they finished. Schumacher averaged 104.448 for the 15 miles to Sterett's 102.583.

(Schumacher, long retired as an active driver, will be back back in 2006 as owner of the Gold Cup-winning MISS BEACON PLUMBING, piloted by Jean Theoret.)

Also in attendance at the 1967 Atomic Cup was an odd-looking craft named THE DUTCHMAN. Unlike the other boats, THE DUTCHMAN was a cabover hull with the driver sitting ahead of the engine. This was a design feature that was definitely not accepted at the time. And although THE DUTCHMAN didn't run fast enough to qualify for competition, cabover boats eventually became recognized as the state-of-the art in hydroplane racing.

Probably the best all-around competitive show of those early Tri-Cities races was the 1969 classic, won by Dean Chenoweth in MYR'S SPECIAL. Six heats of 15 miles each were run that day (July 20) and six different boats won them.

At the end of 45 miles, MYR'S SPECIAL was tied with Leif Borgersen and NOTRE DAME. Both Dean and Leif had 1000 points for one first and two second-place heat finishes. Chenoweth received the victory nod on the basis of having finished ahead of Borgersen in the Final Heat.

July 20, 1969, was also the day that man first landed on the Moon. Throughout the day, between heats, radio reports of the lunar mission were piped over the P-A system to the thousands of spectators lining the Columbia River on that historic afternoon.

During the first five years of the Atomic Cup, all of the winners used a Rolls-Royce Merlin for power. But that changed in 1971. The community-owned MISS MADISON from Indiana did the honors that year with an Allison engine. (The Rolls is considered more powerful but more temperamental than the Allison, which is less powerful but has more reliability.)

The MISS MADISON's victory on the Columbia occurred three weeks after MISS M and driver Jim McCormick had stunned the racing world with a richly sentimental triumph in the Gold Cup before the hometown crowd in Madison, Indiana.

In winning the 1971 Atomic Cup, MISS MADISON proved that the Gold Cup victory was no fluke.

The early 1970s saw the arrival of the next generation of hull designa more streamlined version of the basic configuration that had been popular since the early 1950s. The new design was epitomized by two hulls from the drawing board of Ron Jones: the PAY 'n PAK and the MISS BUDWEISER, which dominated the racing action in the Unlimited Class from 1973 to 1975.

MISS BUDWEISER won the Tri-Cities race in 1973 with Dean Chenoweth at the wheel, and PAY 'n PAK with George Henley took the top award on the Columbia in 1974 and '75.

Although not significantly faster on the straightaway than their contemporaries, the BUD and the PAK were the best cornering boats in the world. As a result, lap speeds in the 120 mile an hour range became commonplace.

The 1974 racing season saw the arrival of another major new development in the sport: a turbine-powered boat, the U-95, which used a pair Lycoming T-53 jet engines.

With Leif Borgersen driving, the U-95 was plagued with "new-boatitis." But the Ron Jones-designed craft demonstrated her potential when she posted the fastest heat of the Tri-Cities race (113.469) and beat Henley and PAY 'n PAK in section 2-C.

The U-95 was involved in one of the most bizarre incidents in racing history during the Final Heat of the 1974 Tri-Cities race, which was sanctioned as a World Championship event that year.

Here's what happened.

Rookie Ron Armstrong was having trouble getting the VALU-MART started.

Bill Muncey was the alternate for the Final Heat with ATLAS VAN LINES. Moments before the one-minute gun, Muncey started up and entered the course in the hope that Armstrong would stay dead in the water. Unfortunately for Bill, Ron got going just in the nick of time, a few seconds after ATLAS left the pits.

The Tri-Cities course was approved for only six boats. Before disbelieving eyes, seven--not six--Unlimiteds came around for the start as the final seconds ticked away.

The gun fired, and seven drivers converged on six lanes in the run down to the first turn. Armstrong roared past the field on the outside of everybody. Muncey should have had some idea at this point that he possibly wasn't supposed to be out there on a course approved for only six boats. But Bill inexplicably continued racing full tilt into the crowded first turn.

Armstrong, who had driven in only one previous Unlimited race, "pinched" the field going around the first turn. Leif Borgersen spun out in the U-95. Muncey ran into him and took out Leif's horizontal stabilizer wing.

George Henley and PAY 'n PAK managed to steer clear of all the confusion and went on to win. Fred Alter was second with PIZZA PETE, followed by VALU-MART in third and a wounded U-95 in fourth. ATLAS VAN LINES was disqualified for being an illegal starter.

Muncey vindicated himself after the fiasco of 1974 by winning the Tri-Cities race in four of the next seven years.

In 1977, Muncey unveiled the fabulous "Blue Blaster" ATLAS VAN LINES, co-designed by Jim Lucero and Dixon Smith, which was the first truly competitive cabover hull in the Unlimited Class. Following and as a result of the "Blue Blaster's" success, all of the new boats have seated their drivers ahead of the engine.

In 1980, ATLAS VAN LINES impressed mightily when she snapped a 20-heat winning streak by Dean Chenoweth in the MISS BUDWEISER. Muncey beat Chenoweth in the Final Heat but had to run the "Blaster" very dangerously on the ragged edge. Even hardened veterans of racing were dumbfounded by Bill's aggressiveness. Back on shore, after the race, even Muncey had to admit, "I went too fast."

One of the most incredible finishes is Columbia Cup history occurred in 1981 when Chip Hanauer and THE SQUIRE SHOP pulled off one of the most memorable come-from-behind victories of all time.

Chip was down to his last Merlin engine. (And even this one was pieced together from left-over equipment.) With one lap to go in the Final Heat, SQUIRE trailed in third behind Muncey in ATLAS VAN LINES and Chenoweth in MISS BUDWEISER. Suddenly, the ATLAS lost power and slowed way down. Hanauer went past him and took off after BUDWEISER.

Chip and Dean came off the almost even with THE SQUIRE SHOP in the outside lane. Hanauer out-accelerated Chenoweth to the finish line, 120.968 to 120.579. They don't get much closer! In the space of three-quarters of a lap, Chip had gone from third to second to first to victory.

In all, it was a memorable day for Lee "Chip" Hanauer who, the following year, would be hired to drive for ATLAS VAN LINES. This was after Bill Muncey's fatal injury at the Acapulco World Championship in October of 1981.

The only loss of life in the Tri-Cities Unlimited series occurred on July 31, 1982. Dean Chenoweth, a two-time winner on the Columbia River (in 1969 and 1973), died in a blow-over accident during qualifying on the day before the race. Chenoweth had just completed a lap of 126.050 miles per hour with the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered MISS BUDWEISER when the craft became airborne and crashed. Dean never regained consciousness.

After two fatalities in the space of nine months, the sport had to upgrade its safety equipment in order to survive. In the words of one critic, "Racing has to be made safer and safer--not faster and faster."

This took several years to accomplish. In 1986, designer Ron Jones, Sr., installed an F-16 safety canopy on the MISS BUDWEISER and also on the MISS 7-ELEVEN. The F-16 canopy worked so well, it was soon mandated for all Unlimited hydroplanes. Starting in 1987, all new boats had to use the F-16, while the older boats were given until 1989 to make the change-over.

Development also occurred in the area of power sources during the 1980s. The first Tri-Cities victory by a turbine-powered boat occurred in 1984. ATLAS VAN LINES, driven by Chip Hanauer and owned by Fran Muncey (Bill's widow), won the Gold Cup race on the Columbia River and trounced the opposition.

Prior to 1984, turbine boats had been only sporadically competitive. The PAY 'n PAK turbine of 1980 had been fast but very flighty. (Driver John Walters spectacularly flipped the PAK, right in front of the Judges Stand during a race day morning warm-up at the Tri-Cities. Walters was not seriously injured, but the boat was through for the year.)

After the ATLAS victory in 1984, it was obvious that the boat of the future had arrived. In short, a Lycoming T-55 could beat any piston power plant in the world. In order to keep up with Chip Hanauer, the "thunder" had to go out of the Thunderboats. The time-honored Allison and Rolls-Royce engines of World War II vintage would soon go the way of the bi-plane and the Model-T Ford.

Hanauer and the former ATLAS VAN LINES (renamed MILLER AMERICAN) went on to turn the first-ever lap at over 150 miles per hour. They did this in qualification at the 1985 Columbia Cup with a clocking of 153.061--a major milestone in racing history! And to think that--as recently as 1973--a lap at over 126 MPH had been considered by many to be an "impossible" dream.

Still, the piston engine wasn't quite dead in Unlimited racing. The 1989 Columbia Cup proved to be a bad day for the turbine teams. All but one of them (MISS BUDWEISER) had fallen by the wayside by the time that the Final Heat was run. Everyone figured that the race would be a "shoo-in" for the BUD. But this was not to be.

BUDWEISER driver Tom D'Eath was called for "chopping" another boat and penalized a lap. This moved Mitch Evans and the Allison-powered COOPER'S EXPRESS from second to first-place in the official order of finish and enabled an underdog to grab all of the marbles.

This was the first victory in Unlimited racing for the father and son team of Ed Cooper, Sr., and Ed Cooper, Jr., from Madison and Evansville, Indiana.

Hec Hancock, columnist for THE TRI-CITY HERALD, described the race as "pure Hollywood. A boat built with lots of sweat and not many bucks beat a state-of-the-art marvel costing almost $500,000."

Although operating on a shoestring budget, driver Evans demonstrated how, in boat racing, a lot depends upon a competitor being in the right place at the right time when opportunity knocks.

The victory by COOPER'S EXPRESS was the first on the Columbia River by an Allison-powered entry since MISS MADISON turned the trick in 1971. And Ed Cooper, Sr., played a part in that storied effort as well.

The decade of the '90s saw a battle of dynasties at the Tri-Cities. Specifically, three major owners (Bernie Little, Fred Leland, and the late Steve Woomer) accounted for all ten Columbia Cup triumphs during those years. The winning drivers included Tom D'Eath, Mark Tate, Chip Hanauer, Dave Villwock, and Mark Evans.

Little's MISS BUDWEISER team won four of the first five '90s races, then lost three in a row, but bounced back with back-to-back wins in 1998 and '99.

Woomer's Competition Specialties team won a pair of races, both with Tate driving, in 1991 as WINSTON EAGLE and in 1995 as SMOKIN' JOE'S.

Leland triumphed in 1996 and '97 under the banner of PICO AMERICAN DREAM. Villwock won for him in 1996 before departing for the MISS BUDWEISER camp. But that didn't prevent Leland from repeating in 1997 with Evans in the cockpit.

One of the more competitive races of the decade was the 1994 contest, which featured a side-by-side battle between Hanauer in MISS BUDWEISER and Tate in SMOKIN' JOE'S.

Hanauer led through the first turn of the Final Heat, but Tate led out of it and down the first backstretch by a couple of boat lengths. The BUD then pulled even with JOE'S in the second turn of lap one. At the finish of the first lap, Chip led Mark by one boat length. Then, in the first turn of lap two, SMOKIN' JOE'S appeared to hook slightly, which allowed MISS BUDWEISER to extend her advantage.

BUD led by a roostertail length at the end of lap two, Hanauer then pulled away to a decisive lead over Tate on lap three. At the finish, it was MISS BUDWEISER the winner over SMOKIN' JOE'S, 148.130 to 145.870.

No one who attended the 1997 Columbia Cup will ever forget the horrifying accident to Dave Villwock in the Final Heat.

Dave had won all three of his preliminary heats that day and was leading through the first turn of the finale when MISS BUDWEISER became airborne, leaped free of the water, and crashed upside-down. Villwock's right hand was nearly severed in the accident. Surgeons managed to re-attach the hand, but Dave nevertheless lost two fingers.

Despite predictions that his brilliant racing career was over, Villwock underwent a long and painful series of operations and physical therapy to gain re-instatement as MISS BUDWEISER's driver.

The 1998 season saw Dave back in the cockpit and back out on the race course. He won eight races that year, including the Columbia Cup, and the National High Point Championship for sponsor Anheuser-Busch, a feat that he duplicated in 1999.

MISS E-LAM PLUS did the honors in 2000 with Mark Evans at the wheel. Owned by the Ellstrom family of Ballard, Washington, this was the E-LAM team's first-ever win on the Unlimited circuit after several years of trying.

Terry Troxell made a perfect start in the Final Heat of the 2001 Columbia Cup with Fred Leland's ZNETIX II and went on to claim the victory. This occurred only a year after Troxell had taken his rookie test as an Unlimited driver at the 2000 Tri-Cities race.

Nate Brown and a new MISS E-LAM PLUS powered their way to victory in 2002. Winning this race had special significance for Brown. The year before, Nate had done exceptionally well in the preliminary Columbia Cup heats with the E-LAM but had nullified a victory by making a bad start in the Final Heat.

At the one-minute gun for the 2002 Tri-Cities finale, Villwock and MISS BUDWEISER had secured the inside lane with MISS E-LAM PLUS in lane-two. At this point, many observers expected a repeat of the Final Heat at Detroit.

That's when the BUDWEISER likewise achieved the inside lane and sprinted on to victory. But that didn't happen at the Tri-Cities.

The BUD and the E-LAM emerged ahead of the pack out of the first turn and proceeded to wage a battle royal with the Columbia Cup at stake. Villwock and Brown dueled side-by-side for three dynamic laps with neither driver holding an advantage.

The fans observed a spectacular driving job by Villwock when the BUD recovered after nearly blowing over. Unfortunately, the boat came down inside the race course, missing three buoys. That was the end of MISS BUDWEISER's valiant drive for the lead as the U-1 was assessed a one-lap penalty.

Notified by radio of Villwock's infraction, Brown backed off to a more conservative pace to insure the victory.

The 2003 Tri-Cities race was competitive as well as controversial. Several incidents of "bumping" occurred in the action-packed Final Heat with half of the boats returning to the dock with hull damage. But Chief Referee Rick Sandstrom allowed the results to stand with no change in the order of finish.

The victorious LLUMAR WINDOW FILM averaged 142.774 in the Final Heat with Mark Evans driving. Defending Columbia Cup champion Nate Brown took second at 140.796 with MISS E-LAM PLUS, followed closely by Mitch Evans in VACATIONVILLE.COM at 140.443.

The 2004 Unlimited hydroplane season shaped up as a farewell tour for the MISS BUDWEISER racing team after 42 years of participation.

The bright red "Beer Wagon" made the most of its final Tri-Cities appearance with an impressive four-heat grandslam. Pilot Villwock also posted the fastest qualification lap of the Columbia Cup at 162.162 miles per hour on the 2.5-mile course.

All six boats were closely bunched at the start of the Final Heat with J.W. Myers and LLUMAR WINDOW FILM first across. There was a lot of heavy duty pushing and shoving in the first turn. LLUMAR spun out and went dead in the water with a severely damaged sponson. VACATIONVILLE.COM had a minute added to its time for cutting off the LLUMAR.

MISS BUDWEISER led out of the first turn, pulled away to a decisive lead, and went on to score a clear-cut victory at 135.939 for the 12.5 mile distance. Mitch Evans and VACATIONVILLE.COM were physically "second" until passed on lap-five by Steve David and OH BOY! OBERTO, which averaged 133.250.

It was fitting indeed that MISS BUDWEISER should win one of its final races on the same race course as its first victory. This was the 1966 Tri-Cities Atomic Cup with Bill Brow as driver.

With the retirement of MISS BUD, her driver Dave Villwock found himself without a "ride" at the outset of 2005. Not to worry. No one of Villwock's talent was likely to languish on the sidelines for very long. And he didn't.

At mid-season came the call from Eric Ellstrom that put Villwock back at the wheel of a top-notch hydroplane as a replacement for J.W. Myers in MISS E-LAM PLUS.

When the roostertails subsided after the Final Heat on the Columbia River, "Super Dave" left no doubt that he was back and as competitive as ever by guiding the Ellstrom team to victory in the Columbia Cup.

Villwock and MISS E-LAM PLUS overtook front-running OH BOY! OBERTO on lap-two of the Final Heat and powered on to the checkered flag. OBERTO and Steve David took second, followed by Jimmy King in the unnamed U-3 and Mike Weber in FORMULABOATS.COM.

According to Villwock, the win did not come easy. "I've never driven this hard in my life, I don't think."

MISS E-LAM PLUS also posted the fastest qualification lap with a clocking of 164.898.

In the words of owner Ellstrom, "Dave has driven the boat as well as it has ever been driven."

The 2006 season marks the 41st consecutive year of Unlimited hydroplane racing on the Columbia. Since 1966, the Kennewick-Pasco-Richland area has developed into one of the sport's most popular venues. There have been many many highlights, too numerous to be retold here, that could fill a good-sized book.

Here's to the next 47 years of Unlimited hydroplane racing, Tri-Cities style!

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