The Jerry Hopp Story
In 2001, Jerry Hopp stood at a crossroads. A hydroplane racing veteran at both the Limited and Unlimited levels, Jerry was considering retirement.
Then something happened to change his mind. That “something” came in the form of an offer that Hopp couldn’t refuse. The former Alamo, a three-time National Champion in Unlimited Light racing, was available for sale.
Formerly owned by Ned Allen, the Alamo had won twelve out of twenty-seven races between 1997 and 1999 with Bo Schide as driver.
Jerry and his son Greg had been an active part of the Unlimited Light Racing Series (ULRS) from the very beginning--since 1995 to be exact. When not competing on the Unlimited hydroplane circuit, the Hopps had raced an obsolete Ron Jones-designed hull on the ULRS tour. But they had never won a race.
In 2000, the Hopp Racing Team had made it into five Final Heats and had finished third in Unlimited Light High Points. With Greg driving, the 27-year-old UL-15 finished fourth at Issaquah. With Jerry behind the wheel, they took third at Detroit, fourth at the Tri-Cities, sixth at Seattle, and second at San Diego.
With the acquisition of the Alamo, the Hopps now had a front-runner for 2001.
The first race with their “new” UL-15 (sponsored by Freddie’s Club Casino) was everything that the father-and-son team could have hoped for--a victory in the Tastin’-N-Racin’ Regatta on historic Lake Sammamish in Issaquah, Washington.
At the start of the Final Heat, Freddie’s Club with Greg Hopp driving had lane-one, while Phil Bononcini occupied lane-two with Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic (UL-72). Greg and Phil battled head-to-head for the first few laps before Bononcini cut a buoy and was penalized one minute for the infraction.
Seeing the Hopps win at Lake Sammamish brought back memories of yesteryear. That’s when Jerry first made his competitive presence felt back in the 1970s with an obsolete 145 Cubic Inch Class racer, named Miss McKinstry.
Jerry had qualified as an Unlimited driver in 1983 and remained active at that level as late as 2003. He had handled such U-boats as Miss Machine Rock Band, Rampage III, Miss Mercruiser, Miss Madison, Horizon Air, Taco Time, Miss Busler Enterprises, United Furniture Warehouse, and Tony Roma’s.
In all, Jerry and Greg Hopp appeared in five UL Final Heats during 2001 with the former Alamo hull and finished first, second, third, second, and third with Freddie’s Club (also known as Happy Go Lucky). The UL-15 team finished second in National High Points to Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic and ahead of another father-and-son team, Carl and Randy Haas, who finished third with Miss Comp-Air.
The 2001 campaign was a pivotal year for the Unlimited Lights. For the first time, the series operated under the aegis of the Unlimited Light Hydroplane Racing Association (ULHRA).
After having served as the support class for the larger Unlimited hydroplanes since 1995, the Lights had to prove that they could make it on their own. Well, they could. And the Hopp Racing Team played no small part in that success.
The 2002 season was another banner year for the Unlimited Lights. Once again, it was the UL-72 and the UL-15 finishing one-two in National Points. Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic scored victories in four out of eight races with Bononcini and Patrick Haworth in the cockpit.
The Hopps’ UL-15 was the other multiple winner that year under the sponsorship of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Jerry Hopp was the winning driver at Seattle and San Diego, while Greg claimed the victory at Olympia, Washington.
Much was said and written in 2002 on the matter of supercharging the automotive engines used in the Unlimited Light hydroplanes. This was an issue that generated considerable debate even before the introduction of the restricted blower motors in 2001.
Interestingly enough, the Hopp Racing Team recorded the very first victory by a supercharged boat at Seattle in 2002.
Now that a blown motor had worked successfully in one of the most victorious boats in UL history, more owners were expected to change over from naturally aspirated to supercharged power plants on account of blown motors being less expensive to own and to maintain.
The single most exciting heat of the 2002 Unlimited Light season had to be the finale at Seattle on Lake Washington, which was won by Jerry Hopp in Mike’s Hard Lemonade. The heat featured a sensational duel between Hopp, Phil Bononcini in Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic, and Dave Bender in Golden Nugget Casino.
Hopp, Bononcini, and Bender shared the same roostertail for three heart-stopping laps. Mike’s Hard Lemonade nearly blew over on the third backstretch. But “Grandpa” Jerry called upon his 30-plus years of racing experience and managed to coax the UL-15 back down on the water.
Second-place Bononcini was concentrating so much on the competition that he miscounted his laps and flipped the UL-72 upside-down on what should have been his cooling-off lap. Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic caught a stray wave that kicked the boat into the air. Bononcini, fortunately, escaped injury.
After more than two decades of driving Unlimiteds and Unlimited Lights, this was Jerry Hopp’s first victory--and a richly sentimental one it was before the hometown crowd. After so many years of driving just about anything that would float, Jerry had finally achieved racing’s big time. His previous high had been a second-place at San Diego in 1988 with Miss Paddock Pools, an Unlimited hydroplane.
And at Olympia on Black Lake, a week later, the UL-15 continued its winning ways with a second straight triumph, this time with Greg Hopp in the cockpit. The younger Hopp had the week off from his regular driving assignment with Fred Leland’s American Pride (U-100).
With Jerry Hopp back behind the wheel at San Diego, the UL-15 made it three in a row with a come-from-behind triumph in the Final Heat on Mission Bay.
Jerry had his work cut out for him. The UL fleet at San Diego was augmented by the return of John Hogan’s UL-37 team, which was fresh from a victory in the Grand National Hydroplane (GNH) World Championship at Hampton, Virginia, with Doug Brow at the wheel.
Brow and the UL-37 took an early lead in the Final Heat at San Diego. Doug was then challenged by Hopp and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Jerry finally overtook Brow at the start of lap-three and pulled away for the victory.
In summarizing team performance in the Unlimited Light category for 2002, Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic and Mike’s Hard Lemonade tied for the most podium finishes with five. The UL-72 had four firsts and one second, while the UL-15 had three firsts and two seconds.
Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic finished with 7729 National Points in 2002, compared to 7420 for second-place Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
But 2003 would be different.
After eight years of trying, the Hopp Racing Team finally achieved their most sought-after goal--the National Unlimited Light High Point Championship--with four victories in six races during 2003.
The Mike’s Hard Lemonade/Happy Go Lucky (UL-15) unseated the three-time consecutive champion UL-72, co-owned by Joe Frauenheim and Phil Bononcini, 7517 points to 6815.
The UL-15’s championship wasn’t handed to them. The Milton Wiggins-owned UL-10 won the races at Valleyfield, Quebec, and Seattle. The Hopps took first-place at Issaquah, Olympia, and Port Angeles in the state of Washington, and also at San Diego.
Jerry and Greg traded off behind the wheel in the first race of 2003 at the Tastin’-N-Racin’ Regatta. With Greg driving in the Final Heat, Mike’s Hard Lemonade took first-place after a tough battle with Dave Bender in Golden Nugget Casino and George Woods in Security Race Products.
Greg Hopp subsequently suffered a leg injury when Leland’s U-100 Unlimited hydro flipped at Madison, Indiana, over the Fourth of July weekend. Greg was forced to call it quits for the season. So, father Jerry had to do all of the driving for the UL-15 team from then on.
At the Olympia Speedfest, Ted’s Red Apple Market with Rick Bridgeman and Microsoft Office Project with Vince Xaudaro gave Jerry Hopp everything that he could handle in the Final Heat. Jerry finally won but by less than a roostertail length.
Mike’s Hard Lemonade led all the way in the finale at San Diego. Woods and Security Race Products (UL-51) made a race of it--especially on the straightaways--but the older UL-51 fell behind the newer UL-15 in the corners.
It was another victory at Port Angeles, the concluding stop on the 2003 ULRS tour. Hopp and Mike’s Hard Lemonade took the first-place trophy home, but only after a deck-to-deck battle with Phil Bononcini and the UL-72.
Phil’s boat finished second to Hopp’s in the race and the High Point Standings. But Bononcini was High Point Driver for the fourth year in a row because the UL-15 had two different drivers during the season.
It had been a storybook year for the Hopp Racing Team, whose competitive momentum never faltered--even after the injury to Greg at Madison. They were now entitled to wear the coveted UL-1 numeral, indicative of their status as defending National Champion.
The Hopps proved that superchargers are indeed reliable. They had been running the same motor for a season and a half with no component failure. Their only 2003 “casualties” were an escape hatch that blew open during the Final Heat at Valleyfield and a lost propeller during qualifying at Seattle.
The UL-15 was now the winningest hull in the nine-year history of the Unlimited Light Racing Series. Designed and built by Jamie Auld, the Chevy-powered craft had a total of twenty UL victories--eight with the Hopp team and twelve (using Plymouth power) with previous owner Ned Allen.
Jerry was quick to point out, “This was a team effort. I couldn’t have done it without Greg, our crew chiefs Steve Hausske and Brent Tiede, Dan Post, Kenny McGraw, Randy Hoyle, Dave Penz, Bob Schellhase, Bob Briest, and our fine family of sponsors--Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Kendall Motor Oil, Freddie’s Club Casino, Ed’s Automotive, Rob Graham of Graham Trucking, and many more.”
After so many discouraging years as a tailender with the under-powered Thor Racing (U-7) Unlimited hydroplane, Jerry Hopp had achieved the pinnacle of his racing career.
In the course of the eight-race 2004 campaign, three teams claimed victories. UL-1, co-driven by Jerry and Greg Hopp, had four; UL-72 with George Woods had three; and UL-5 with Kevin Aylesworth had one.
UL-1 finished first at Evansville, Seattle, Olympia, and Port Angeles and second at Issaquah.
The battle for the Graham Trucking Cup at Seafair boiled down to a classic duel between the two "Old Salts" of UL racing--Jerry Hopp and George Woods. Hopp emerged as the winner, 110.262 miles per hour to 108.921. But he had to work for it.
Hopp and UL-1 took the lead from Vince Xaudaro and UL-929 in the first turn and streaked to victory. Woods and UL-72 didn't make as good a start as Hopp but pulled to within a half-roostertail length of Jerry by the end of lap-two. Hopp nevertheless held Woods off to the checkered flag.
At the trophy presentation, Woods praised Hopp, saying "I was waiting for Jerry to make a mistake and he didn't. He drove a perfect race."
With Greg Hopp behind the UL-1 wheel for the season finale in Port Angeles, the Hopp team clinched their second season championship on the same body of water as their first--the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Greg's first-place finish in preliminary Heat 2-B at Port Angeles guaranteed the High Points title for the father-and-son team and their primary sponsor, Mike's Hard Lemonade.
Since Jerry’s twin-knee replacement surgery in early 2005, the elder Hopp has seen competition primarily as a relief driver. With Greg as the primary pilot, the Hopp Racing Team went on to win the High Point Championship twice more in 2005 and 2006 and finished second in 2007.
Although semi-retired, “Grandpa” Jerry, at age 61, proved that he still had what it took to win at San Diego in 2007. Greg had been slightly injured in a non-racing mishap and had to relinquish the UL-1’s cockpit to his Dad for that race.
Sponsored by Graham Trucking G.T./Happy Go Lucky, Jerry trailed the front-running Patrick Haworth and Miss Boat Electric for most of the Final Heat at San Diego but finally overtook Haworth in the last quarter of a lap to claim the victory, 112.301 miles per hour to 110.879.
The victory was especially satisfying for Jerry and effectively dimmed the memory of the 2004 San Diego race. That was when he and the UL-1 led for two laps in the Final Heat until a fuel tank malady caused Hopp’s boat to struggle and nearly go dead in the water.
This was Jerry’s seventh career win in the Unlimited Light Racing Series:
(1) 2002 – Seattle, WA
(2) 2002 – San Diego, CA
(3) 2003 – Olympia, WA
(4) 2003 – San Diego, CA
(5) 2003 – Port Angeles, WA
(6) 2004 – Seattle, WA
(7) 2007 – San Diego, CA
Jerry and Greg Hopp have also made their mark in the area of straightaway record performance. In 2001 at Lincoln City, Oregon, Jerry set a ULHRA kilo record of 133.991 miles per hour. A year later, Greg raised this to 161.980 on the same body of water (Devils Lake).
And in 2003, also at Lincoln City, Jerry Hopp set a world kilo record for the UIM R7000-Infinity Class. This is an international class with a minimum hull weight of 1800 pounds and only gasoline permitted as fuel. Jerry averaged 153.059 with a one-way run of 157.976.
Not to be overlooked his Jerry’s 2004 victory at Detroit in the O.J. Mulford Silver Cup, a non-ULRS event, which dates back to 1946. Formerly an Unlimited Class award, the Silver Cup was presented to Hopp in 2004 for winning the “sweepstakes race” for automotive-powered hydroplanes on the Detroit River.
Another feather in the cap of Jerry Hopp in 2007 was his participation in the North American Challenge Cup Series. The NACCS is the ULHRA’s newest series and is essentially a blending of the UL format with the Canadian Grand Prix Class. This was the first year that National High Points were awarded for NACCS competition.
And although Jerry didn’t win any heats at either of the two sanctioned NACCS races (at Valleyfield and Seattle), he did manage to finish every heat that he entered. This enabled him to win the NACCS National Championship for 2007 in both the driver and boat categories.
After three decades of hydroplane competition, no one can take Jerry Hopp for granted on the race course. He and son Greg and co-owner Bob Schellhase have set the standard for excellence in the Unlimited Light Racing Series.
In the words of the late great Bill Muncey, “Older is better!” That’s a truism with which fans of the Hopp Racing Team can wholeheartedly agree.