Racing Hydros Isn't Like Anything Else [1997]

The automotive industry has long promoted motor racing as a testing ground for everything from engines to chassis, tires to brakes and safety features.

Tire companies have said that testing their products on tracks such as Indy and Daytona have helped them produce better, safer tires for our passenger cars.

Brake companies have noted the data they've learned from use and abuse on race tracks like Martinsville have led to better consumer products.

Manufacturers of off-road vehicles -- such as trucks and motorcycles -- point to endurance courses such as Baja when advertising that their products are tested in the field of battle under extreme circumstances.

Does any of this apply to unlimited hydroplane racing? According to some of the sport's top race teams, maybe. But certainly not on a large scale.

Unlimited hydroplanes -- the fastest race boats in the world and capable of straightaway speeds of more than 200 mph and corner speeds in excess of 140 mph -- are unlike anything else in racing.

While variations of the tire technology introduced by CART teams this year may find its way to passenger cars in a few years, it's unlikely that the performance enhancements discovered in this year's hydroplane series will make it into your next runabout or bass boat.

Why? Because unlimited hydroplanes are hybrid beasts designed to push the thin line between sailing as a boat on water and flying as a plane in the air.

"We're treading a thin line," said U-12 Miss Budweiser driver Dave Villwock, who won the unlimited series points championship as driver of the PICO American Dream last season. "They have to be stronger than an airplane and faster than an airplane and travel through a medium (water) 800 times more dense."

Yet, Villwock said hydrodynamics enhancements the Budweiser team is currently developing and implementing could find their way to recreational boats of the future.

"The changes we are studying are pointing toward our boat next year or the year after," said Villwock, who like any competitor in motorsports -- or corporate America for that matter -- declined to provide any specific details about the changes. "We're working with a very quality company and some of the performance enhancements we're developing for Miss Budweiser -- somethings related to hull shapes -- could be used on recreational boats in the future."

While the Seattle-based Miss Budweiser has long been associated with cutting edge technology in terms of unlimited hydroplane racing's turbine fleet, the Evansville-based U-3 Master Tire has been equally adept at stretching the limits of piston-powered boat racing.

According to Ed Cooper Jr., co-owner of the U-3, the amount of knowledge and research motorsports teams provide to corporate America is probably overrated -- in boat racing or automobile racing.

"Most of the knowledge is a one-way thing," said Cooper. "It's probably the other way around. We learn more from them than they learn from us. In hydroplane racing most of the technology comes from other areas. The turbine teams learn from the aircraft industry -- so many teams are based in Seattle because that's where Boeing is at -- and what I use comes from the automotive racing industry."

Cooper noted that comparisons of racing equipment and consumer equipment lack validity regardless of the sport.

"Take NASCAR for instance. The Chevrolets they run are no more a Monte Carlo than they are a Lincoln Continental," said Cooper. "They are tubular steel frames with sheet metal and a specially built racing engine. Motorsports is a very specialized area. You just can't compare race cars with production cars."

However, Cooper noted the extreme conditions involved in racing do provide a testing ground for some products -- such as specialized coatings and turbochargers.

"We test everything to the max," said Cooper. "I suppose what we do with the Cummins' turbocharger lab at Holset turbchargers helps them test their product under extreme conditions. But as far as sharing knowledge, it's probably a one-way thing. We probably learn more from them than they learn from us."

Cooper was quick to point out that squeezing world record piston- powered laps out of the U-3 -- the latest record a 148-plus mph circuit in 1995 -- requires a great deal of modification and modernization of the team's vintage Allison aircraft engines.

"We run after market piston rings, rods, bearings and cranks," said Cooper. "One of the biggest changes we've made is to run MSD electronic ignitions that were originally designed for drag cars. We use Polymer Dynamic coatings on the pistons and bearings, a company that is involved in NASCAR."

By modernizing the 60-year-old V-12 Allisons with special ignitions, turbochargers and coatings, the team has been able to run what Cooper describes as "unheard of manifold pressures in the 40 to 50 pounds boost range."

The result is an engine that was designed to turn a maximum of 2,700 rpms is now running in the 4,200 and above range -- that with a 20-pound piston that has a stroke of about 6 inches. Compared to NASCAR engine turning 8,000 rpms the Allisons are running about 3½ times harder.

"To compare their consumer product to racing is a good marketing statement for most companies -- it's how many companies justify involvement in motorsports," said Cooper. "but the things we're doing don't apply to anything else except for a few racing airplanes and tractor pullers. We swap some ideas and parts with them."

After all the world's fastest race boats are known as unlimiteds and the nature of the name means they should be unlike anything else on land, water or in the air.

(Reprinted with permission from the Madison Courier, Saturday, July 28, 1997)