The Greg Hopp Story
Many a son has followed in a famous father's footsteps in hydroplane competition. Greg Hopp, son of racing veteran Jerry Hopp, is one of these.
Greg started his boat racing career at age 9 when he placed second in APBA Region 10 High Points for J-Stock outboard hydros. He went on to serve as a crew member on his Dad's Thor Racing Unlimited hydroplane. At age 30, he qualified as an Unlimited driver at the 1998 Tri-Cities Columbia Cup with Fred Leland's United Furniture Warehouse.
According to Greg, "My Dad's influence was--and still is--very intense. Everything I know about boats, I learned from him. I couldn't have had a better mentor."
In 1999, his first full season, Greg Hopp became the first rookie in Unlimited history to earn more than 10,000 points during the season. He finished third at Lake Havasu City, Arizona, with Miss Commercial Sealant and placed second at both Seattle and Kelowna, British Columbia, with Miss PICO. Hopp was the obvious choice for Unlimited Rookie of the Year in 1999.
With the retirement of Chip Hanauer from the Leland Unlimited team after 1999, Greg became Leland’s primary driver, a position he has occupied ever since.
Greg is one of the few competitors to divide his time between the Unlimited and the Unlimited Light categories. Often, on the same weekend, he would drive Leland's turbine-powered U-100 and also his father's automotive-powered UL-15.
Greg and his Dad were 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 raced an obsolete Ron Jones, Sr.-designed hull on the ULRS tour. But they had never won a race.
In 2000, the Hopp Racing Team made it into five UL Final Heats and 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.
There is a tide in the affairs of boat racing. And the Hopp family’s tide was about to come in. The former Alamo, a three-time National Champion in Unlimited Light racing, was available for sale. Formerly owned by Ned Allen and designed by Jamie Auld, The Alamo had won twelve out of twenty-seven races between 1997 and 1999 with Bo Schide as driver and was the all-time winningest UL.
The Hopps, at long last, had a competitive rig that was the equal of anything else out there.
The 2001 ULRS season kicked off at the Tastin’ N Racin’ Regatta on Lake Sammamish, near Issaquah, Washington. Jerry and Greg’s team had Freddie’s Club Casino for a sponsor.
At the start of the Final Heat on Lake Sammamish, Greg Hopp had lane-one with Freddie’s Club and 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 inside the third buoy of turn-two, forcing Freddie’s Club to go with him. Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic was penalized one minute for this infraction.
Freddie’s Club went on to win the Final Heat--and the race--at an average of 102.014, followed by Dave Bender in Security Race Products (UL-38), which did 96.463.
The father-and-son team appeared in five UL Final Heats during 2001. Between them, they finished first, second, third, second, and third.
That same season, over in the Unlimited Class, Greg impressed mightily with a strong second-place finish in the Indiana Governor’s Cup at Madison with Znetix (U-100). For five heart-pounding laps in the Final Heat, Hopp made first-place Steve David and Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison (U-6) work for it every inch of the way to the checkered flag.
In the years ahead, the Hopp Racing Team would do frequent battle with the UL-72 team, co-owned by Bononcini and Joe Frauenheim. The UL-72 was a state-of-the-art marvel from the drawing board of Ron Jones, Sr., and always a strong competitor.
Ironically, Greg Hopp had been a one-race replacement for Bononcini in the cockpit of the UL-72 in 1999 when Greg drove it to a third-place finish at “Thunder On The Ohio” in Evansville, Indiana.
The UL-72, sponsored by Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic, would win the National High Point Championship three years running in 2000, 2001, and 2002. The Hopps finished third in 2000 with their older UL-15 and finished second in 2001 and 2002 with the former Alamo hull.
Sponsored by Mike’s Hard Lemonade, the Hopps won three races in 2002, while Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic won four. Jerry was the winning driver at Seattle and San Diego, while Greg claimed the victory at Olympia, Washington, in addition to setting a world kilometer straightaway record of 161.980 miles per hour for Unlimited Light hydroplanes at Lincoln City, Oregon.
The National Points race was tight in 2002. Budweiser/Pocket Mechanic finished with 7729 points; Mike’s Hard Lemonade accumulated 7420.
The tables would be turned in 2003. The Hopps would win their first of four consecutive Team Championships.
Co-sponsored by Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Happy Go Lucky, the UL-15 triumphed in four out of the six High Points races in 2003. These included the season-opener in June at Lake Sammamish. Later, the Hopps took first-place at Olympia, Port Angeles, and San Diego.
At Lake Sammamish, Jerry and Greg alternated throughout the weekend. Jerry took second-place in Heats 1-B and 3-A, while Greg finished first in Heat 2-B and the winner-take-all Final Heat.
Six boats answered the starting gun for the Final, which developed into a real dog fight. UL-15, UL-38, and UL-51 battled for first, second, and third; while UL-14, UL-40, and UL-19 fought for fourth, fifth, and sixth.
When the checkered flag dropped, Greg grabbed the glory with UL-15. Dave Bender was second with UL-38. Then came George Woods in UL-51, Paul Becker in UL-14, and Kelly Stocklin in UL-40.
This was the start of the most successful campaign in the history of Hopp Racing up until that time, although Greg would be out of the cockpit for most of it. This was on account of an injury accident at Madison, Indiana, driving Fred Leland’s U-100 Unlimited hydroplane. Father Jerry then had to do all of the driving for the rest of the season.
Mike’s Hard Lemonade/Happy Go Lucky (UL-15) finished 2003 with 7517 points, compared to 6850 for Graham Trucking/Red Rocket (UL-72). This entitled the UL-15 to carry the cherished UL-1 designation as defending National Champion. It had taken nine years, but the Hopp Racing Team finally ruled the roost in the Unlimited Light Racing Series.
Another National Championship season followed in 2004. For the second year in a row, the winner was not determined until the last day of the season.
In the course of the eight-race 2004 campaign, three teams claimed victories. The UL-1, co-driven by Jerry and Greg Hopp, had four; the UL-72 with George Woods had three; and the UL-5 with Kevin Aylesworth had one.
The UL-1 took first-place at Evansville, Olympia, and Port Angeles with Greg driving and at Seattle with Jerry in the cockpit.
The Hopps clinched their second straight season championship at Port Angeles, Washington, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Greg's first-place finish in preliminary Heat 2-B guaranteed the High Points title for the father-and-son team and their primary sponsor, Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
At the outset of 2005, Greg faced the most formidable challenge of his racing career.
For two years, he and his father had co-driven to the National High Point Championship. In so doing, the father-and-son team established a standard of excellence that would be difficult to surpass with twelve UL race victories between 2001 and 2004.
This year, 2005, would be different. Greg would have to go it alone in the UL-1 cockpit. Jerry’s recent twin knee replacement surgery would preclude the elder Hopp from driving for at least the first couple of months of the season.
According to Greg, “I never had any doubts about the boat. The crew worked long and hard to give me a top-of-the-line piece of equipment. It was up to me to do justice to their labors. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. In addition to driving the Unlimited Light, I also had the responsibility of an Unlimited ride [with Leland’s U-100].”
“We knew Greg had it in him, “Jerry Hopp insisted. “We had won two straight national titles for the team in 2003 and 2004. But because both of us drove, somebody else always won the High Point Driver title. We wanted that for Greg--even though, by mid-season, I was medically cleared to drive and could have stepped in as relief driver if necessary.”
For the record, father Jerry did take the UL-1’s wheel during the Provisional Heat (which carried no points) at Seattle--and finished in his familiar first-place--to allow Greg to concentrate on an upcoming Unlimited heat with the U-100.
The competition was keen--right down to the last race of the season at Port Angeles. But Greg Hopp would not be denied. The UL-1’s third straight High Point Championship against formidable odds is one of the great sports stories.
Greg and Mike’s Hard Lemonade/Happy Go Lucky concluded the 2005 campaign with 8794 accumulated points, just 83 points ahead of Michael Flaherty and Miss Boat Electric (UL-72) with 8711 points. It was the closest finish in Unlimited Lights history, deciding both the ULHRA Team and Driver titles for 2005.
This marked the third time in as many years that the Championship had been decided at Port Angeles. And this time it went all the way to the Final Heat!
Flaherty knew it would take a virtual perfect weekend to unseat the defending National Champion UL-1. And that’s what he and Miss Boat Electric did with victories in all four heats and 1600 points.
The only flaw for the UL-72 team was not running a strong qualifying lap, earning only 7 points for seventh-place during qualification, while Hopp earned 40 points as the top qualifier. That made a gap of 383 points between Greg and Michael heading into Heat One.
Both Hopp and Flaherty won their respective sections of the first heat and the gap remained at 383 points.
Greg then finished second to Michael in each of the next three heats with Flaherty gaining 100 points on Hopp in each one of them. But that wasn’t enough for the UL-72 to overtake the UL-1 and claim the overall season title.
Hopp had a mission, which was to finish no worse than third in the Final Heat. And his strategy worked.
It is interesting to note that the UL-72 outscored the UL-1 by 40 points on the race course in 2005. However, the UL-1 outscored the UL-72 by 123 points in season qualifying.
Flaherty averaged 75.408 miles per hour for the Final Heat in the ocean-like chop of the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Hopp checked in at 74.547. Flaherty thus won the battle but lost the war.
With five race wins during the season and the High Point Driver title on the shelf, Greg Hopp stood at the very top of the racing world at the conclusion of 2005.
“It wasn’t my victory; it was a team victory,” Greg insisted. “The crew made it possible. I’m just the visual embodiment of their work. Anything that I’ve done on the race course is a direct tribute to the magic that the crew does on the boat. I couldn’t do it without these guys."
And just to prove that his 2005 performance was anything but a fluke, Greg went on to win a second UL driving title--and three more race victories--in 2006 as well with Mike’s Hard Lemonade/Happy Go Lucky.
It was an uphill struggle in 2006. The Hopps campaigned two different boats at one time or another: the veteran Jamie Auld hull and the newly acquired Ron Jones, Jr., hull, co-owned by Bob Schellhase, which had formerly raced as Paul Droullard’s American Eagle.
Greg experienced difficulty in the first two races of the 2006 season at Issaquah and Valleyfield. But after overcoming two days of mechanical gremlins at Detroit, Greg Hopp came through when the chips were down on the Detroit River.
Mike’s Hard Lemonade/Happy Go Lucky (UL-1) dominated the Final Heat of the O.J. Mulford Silver Cup, outrunning second-place Ken Brodie II in Brodie Motor Sports (UL-555).
The O.J. Mulford Silver Cup is the oldest and most prestigious Unlimited Light trophy, first contested in 1946. The original winner was Lou Fageol, owner/driver of the Gold Cup Class So-Long, Jr., powered by a 404 cubic inch Fageol bus engine. So-Long, Jr. is the forerunner of all Unlimited Light and Grand Prix Class hydroplanes competing today.
Greg also won at the Tri-Cities and San Diego in 2006.
Following lengthy delays due to high winds and a couple of accidents at the Tri-Cities, Hopp grabbed the inside lane before the start and led from wire-to-wire over Flaherty and the UL-72. Hopp averaged 109.664 to Flaherty's 107.139 over the 3-lap/5-mile Final Heat distance. Moreover, Greg was the top qualifier that weekend with a speed of better than 119 miles per hour.
Hopp had a miserable day at the Silverdale, Washington, race when Mike’s Hard Lemonade/Happy Go Lucky threw a propeller blade while leading on lap #1 and failed to finish the Final Heat. This reduced Hopp's lead over Flaherty to a mere 104 points with two races remaining on the 2006 ULRS tour.
Greg rebounded, however, from his Silverdale misfortune and was back in first-place a month later on San Diego's Mission Bay where Hopp had a perfect weekend. He established a new UL speed record in qualifying at 126.528 miles per hour and then proceeded to win all three of his heats.
With the National Championship on the line, the traditional season-ender at Port Angeles saw the two top-ranked teams--the UL-1 and the UL-72--jump the gun in the Final Heat.
Both Greg Hopp and Michael Flaherty were fractions of a second too early for the start. The resulting one-minute penalties added to their times relegated them to fifth and sixth respectively at Port Angeles, while victory went to rookie Ryan Mallow in Mz. Zipfizz.
The Hopp Racing Team finished 2006 with 9186 National High Points. This compared to 8125 for Miss Boat Electric. This was Greg Hopp’s second straight driving title and Hopp Racing’s fourth consecutive team title.
The 2007 campaign was a mixed blessing. Greg and the UL-1 finished second to their perennial rival--the UL-72 team--in the 2007 National High Points chase. Due to a scheduling conflict with an Unlimited race, Greg had to miss the Valleyfield [Quebec] Regatta.
At San Diego, following an injury in a non-racing mishap, Greg had to relinquish the cockpit to father Jerry who went on to win the race.
Greg also had to bow out of the season-concluding Port Angeles event when, during qualification with the Festool Supply Northwest – Graham Trucking G.T. – Happy Go Lucky (UL-1), he flipped after crossing a roller going into turn-one. Hopp was uninjured but his mount was through for the day.
The season wasn’t a complete washout by any means. Greg added three wins to his career victory total and won more races than any other driver in 2007.
Driving the Jamie Auld back-up hull at a new race location in Richland, Washington, Greg and the Happy Go Lucky raced from the outside lane in the Final Heat to outrun Vince “The X-Man” Xaudaro in the Xaudaro Racing (UL-929) to the checkered flag, 95.866 miles per hour to 91.393.
This was the first race under the new UL rule that required boats with supercharged engines to start outside of those boats with naturally aspirated engines.
Xaudaro showed tremendous chute speed and was able to run head-to-head with Hopp for better than two laps as they swapped the lead multiple times in the three-lap finale. In the final turn, Xaudaro's boat hooked in the churned-up Columbia River and could not recover in time to stay with Hopp.
Moving over to the team’s primary hull, the Ron Jones, Jr., craft, Greg triumphed at Lake Sammamish after a battle royal in the Final Heat.
Five front-line teams hit the starting line together, while the large crowd roared its approval. At the end of lap-one, it was three wide: Xaudaro, Ryan Mallow, and Hopp. Throughout lap-four, Hopp gained a slight advantage over Mallow with Xaudaro settling into third. And that’s how they finished.
The fans will be talking about the 2007 Seattle Seafair Final Heat for years to come. Greg Hopp edged teenage sensation Kayleigh Perkins by three boat lengths in a drag race to the finish line. Greg averaged 102.659 miles per hour to Kayleigh’s 102.189.
Hopp, driving the Chevy-powered Graham Trucking G.T. – Happy Go Lucky (UL-1), was again required to start outside of Perkins’ Miss Boat Electric (UL-72) because of the supercharged engine rule.
This was the seventeenth career win since 2001 for Greg Hopp, the winningest driver in Unlimited Light history. (Bo Schide is the second most victorious pilot with twelve wins between 1997 and 1999.)
Between the two of them, as of 2007, Jerry and Greg Hopp have an even two dozen victories in the Unlimited Light Racing Series. The UL-72, owned by Joe Frauenheim and Phil Bononcini, has 21 race wins. No one else is even close.
Greg is especially appreciative of his hard-working crew. “I want to recognize Bob Schellhase for buying us a great boat, Steve Hausske and Brent Tiede, our crew chiefs, Scott Baker, Randy Erb, Randy Hoyle, Saxon Hopp, Aaron Johnson, Alan McDonough, Dave Penz, Dan Post, Travis Sellers, Shana Swanson, and Tim Smith. The credit is theirs.”
Hopp likewise has nothing but praise for his sponsors: Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Happy Go Lucky, Graham Trucking, Ed’s Automotive & Machine, Kendall Motor Oil, Crane Cams, Scott Baker Props, Nordskog Performance Products. The list goes on.
Greg summed up his philosophy of racing:
“The late great Gar Wood put it this way: ‘The race itself is over in a few minutes. It’s but a public demonstration of what took a whole year of work and preparation to accomplish.’
“That was true in Gar Wood’s time; and it’s true today.”