2001 Budweiser Thunder on the Ohio
New! HYDRO-PROP, Evansville Riverfront, Blue Angels, And Rex's Barbecue
But Villwock Wins Againstrong>
by Clint Newman II
Evansville's "Thunder on the Ohio" served as the kickoff for a full season of unlimited hydroplane racing under Hydro-Prop management. Weeks of planning and a set of new rules got their first test on the Ohio River. Did it all result in better competition and more exciting racing? Well, such appeared to be the case, although cynics remain unconvinced.
Thunder on the Ohio was a huge financial success. Tremendous attendance started on Thursday afternoon when the Blue Angels practiced their routines. People were wall to wall up and down "concessionaires' row." The big winner there was Rex's Kentucky Barbecue. Thirty or forty hungry customers stood in line throughout each day for a pork-chop sandwich, as Rex sweated over his huge charcoal grill in the already sweltering Evansville heat. Gary Garbrecht was one of Rex's best customers!
Despite all the changes, the boat race produced a familiar winner, Dave Villwock.
Testing and Qualifying
A beautiful, nearly completed riverfront greeted the teams and the fans. It is much more accessible to the teams and provides better viewing for the fans. Evansville can boast a multi-million dollar facility that was specifically designed to accommodate unlimited hydroplane racing.
Hydro-Prop rules do not set a minimum qualifying speed. Better lane choice and qualifying points are now the incentives. To everyone's surprise, Mike Hanson, driving Mike and Lori Jones's WABX, was top qualifier at 154.170mph, beating Miss Budweiser T5 '97 at 150.527. The other top contenders were EMCOR (Mark Weber), Znetix (U-100, Greg Hopp), and Znetix II (U-99, Terry Troxell).
Hanson said, "I didn't think we would be top qualifier, but I knew we would be in the hunt. The rules being what they are, I wanted to be [number] 1 or 2 in qualifying. We tested a week ago at Lake Washington; the thing came off the comers extremely fast. If you come off the comers fast, you will be fast at the other end as well."
Qualification speeds were somewhat down from previous years.
Hydro-Prop came to town with a bevy of officials, running a tighter ship than the previous UHRA management. Gary Garbrecht appeared laid back, firmly in control but obviously enjoying the day, letting his lieutenants perform their assigned tasks. New rescue chief Don Pierce manages his operation from on shore, another change.
Heat 1A was delayed more than one hour Saturday afternoon when forecasters predicted a severe thunderstorm. Dark clouds approached, but the rain missed the race site. Boat camps began to uncover their equipment and get set to race at about 5:15 pm. A good crowd stayed around as hazy skies and a quiet river greeted the beginning of the 2001 racing season.
From the inside out, 1A lane selections, based on qualifying speeds, were: WABX, EMCOR, Oberto, Znetix II, and Silver Dollar Casino (U-25, Ken Muscatel, who never ran during qualifying). With a full minute to go, the boats were just exiting turn 2, all "early. " They lined up for a good start, Znetix II having the momentum at the line. WABX led out of turn 1 and maintained the lead through turn 2.
EMCOR (ex-YORK) was second and Znetix II, on the outside, third, with a roostertail separating each. Oberto and Silver Dollar lagged. At the finish of lap 2, EMCOR had gained on WABX, being less than a roostertail behind. Hanson won the heat by half a roostertail.
"I didn't want to jump the gun, so I eased back a little bit at the start, but I made up ground going into turn 1, " Hanson said. "There was lumpy water in the turn, and my boat compressor-stalled pretty good. Host momentum, and that yellow thing [U-10] was all over me! He hung in there pretty good! " EMCOR suffered a hole in the right sponson, which was easily repairable.
For heat 1B, Budweiser was in lane 1, then Znetix, LLumar (Jimmy King), and Master Tire (Mitch Evans). All of the boats, like sheep, followed Villwock for the start. Villwock was just coming out of turn 2 when the clock hit 00, with Znetix half a stretch behind, LLumar half a stretch behind, then Master Tire. Znetix made up some ground by the finish of lap 2, two boat lengths behind Budweiser. Znetix nearly passed the leader coming out of turn 1 on lap 3, but Budweiser pulled ahead. Bud won by four lengths. Villwock acknowledged the pressure from Hopp and credited his crew for setting the boat up for rough water. Hopp said that he actually passed Bud, but "We hit a big hole, the boat jumped, slid over 8 or 9 lanes, hit real hard, scrubbed a bunch of speed, and he just drove away from there. " Considering that Znetix was 'way behind on the start, Hopp had recovered very nicely.
Bright blue, sunny skies with white, fluffy clouds, a good breeze, and a river with a light ripple set the stage for Sunday's heat 2A. As Hydro-Prop officials conducted radio checks, the unlimiteds prepared to line up in reverse order based on their finishes in heat 1. Coincidentally, the same boats were in 2A as in 1 A, except that Silver Dollar, which failed to start Saturday, now had the opportunity to choose lane 1. The fastest boat, WABX, had the outside lane. Oberto, Znetix II, and EMCOR had lanes 2,3, and 4. Muscatel did not run.
With 45 seconds to go, the boats entered turn 2. EMCOR brought up the rear but with better speed. WABX led into turn 1; EMCOR pulled ahead coming out. In turn 2, Znetix II flipped when it ran up EMCOR's spray. It barrel rolled and landed upright. Oberto stopped, and EMCOR nearly stopped, but WABX continued racing as officials did not flag the race. WABX won, then EMCOR and Oberto.
David protested the failure to stop the race. Co-Director of Competition Mike Noonan explained: "There was no reason to stop. The boat was right-side up, the driver turned on his strobe light, and he was in contact with his crew discussing whether he should try to re-start. As long as the driver is all right, there is no reason to stop, and we gave no indication that we would stop."
Troxell described his wild ride: " I took lane 1. Mark was in about lane 6; he started moving in, which was right for him to do. I just hit a big wake, the right side came up, and I rolled. You have no control at that point. "
From inside out, the 2B boats were Master Tire, LLumar, Znetix, and Budweiser. With 10 seconds to go, they were just coming out of turn 2. LLumar led, followed by Znetix; Budweiser a roostertail behind. Znetix led into turn 1 and came out first, four boat lengths ahead of LLumar. Out of turn 2, Znetix led, with LLumar and Bud together. At the line, LLumar lost ground. Znetix led Bud by two roostertails going up the backstretch, increased its lead to three roostertails in lap 3, and won by almost two roostertails. Officials found that Hopp had gone over the 4.3 gpm fuel limit and stripped him of points but not position.
Znetix and Silver Dollar failed to start 3A, which left (in order) EMCOR, Oberto, and WABX. Weber took the lead, with Hanson in close pursuit. When Hanson was washed down, David gained second.
Hopp said that he tried to start twice, and it wouldn't "light." Then it wouldn't roll over. He speculated that batteries were the problem.
In 3B, Budweiser had lane 1, then LLumar, then Master Tire. Znetix II was not repairable following its barrel roll.
Fred Leland explained that it cracked the shaft log, and one of the sponsons was cracked a little at the deck line. "It wasn't worth gambling and breaking the boat big-time. If we had a chance of being on the front row, we may have tried to fix it here."
As expected, Villwock took an early lead, but King caught up and stayed within reach of the red boat. Was Villwock sandbagging?
Only he knows for sure.
Master Tire finished third but only 7 mph slower than Bud.
Muscatel, in his first start of the day, entered the course with Hopp. Znetix took the lead, but Muscatel caught up going into turn 2. Muscatel led by two boat lengths at the end of lap 1. Muscatel led through turn 1, but Hopp led up the backstretch. At the end of lap 2, Muscatel was just barely ahead. For the last lap, Hopp kicked it out of turn 1, and he won the race by almost a roostertail.
Lanes for the final were, from inside out, Budweiser, WABX, EMCOR, LLumar, Oberto, and Master Tire. Znetix, having won the provisional heat, was the trailer boat. They lined up perfectly for the start, with Villwock pouring on the coal. Hanson followed Bud closely at the line, Weber challenging him. In the turn WABX drew even but hit a wave wrong. On lap 2, Budweiser led Hanson by a roostertail. Another roostertail back was EMCOR. In lap 3, it was Bud, then WABX, and Znetix had advanced from the trailer-boat position to claim third.
Hanson crept up, but Villwock again pulled away. At the end of the fourth lap, Bud had two roostertails over WABX, which had two 'tails over Znetix. Bud won easily.
Hanson said that he got to the first turn with Budweiser, but the inside lane made the difference. "I spent a couple of laps concentrating on the Budweiser and EMCOR. Once I put EMCOR away, I couldn't catch up with the red boat. We have to hold our heads up high. We were a threat to win a boat race, and that was great. We'll get 'em somewhere! We've made giant strides; we're running 8 mph faster than we did here last year."
So, Dave Villwock won his sixth consecutive Evansville race. The question remains, was he sandbagging? At 4.0 gpm? We know that Bernie Little always intends to be the top qualifier, and here he was not, ending a 28 consecutive-race streak.
Both Hopp and Hanson actually passed Bud during heats. Villwock won the first heat by outfoxing his fellow drivers on the start. He also nailed the start of the final, a much better start than his opponents.
Gary Garbrecht summed up his thoughts at the end of the day: " It turned out better than I thought it would for the first race. As far as the competition on the water goes, we had some close racing. All and all, I'm pretty happy with it. I think it's working! " It will take a few more races to tell.
And I have a year to wait for another Rex's pork-chop sandwich!
(Unlimited NewsJournal, July 2001)