1996 Pontiac Thunder on the Ohio

PICO Goes 3 For 4 By Winning Evansville

By Jim Terhune

EVANSVILLE -- Mark Tate did two bad things. He picked the wrong lane, and he mistimed the start.

The mistakes were enough to leave him looking at the disappearing roostertail of PICO American Dream and Dave Villwock, who won the Pontiac Thunder on the Ohio unlimited hydroplane race by 6.4 seconds yesterday.

But even if Tate had put Smokin' Joe's in lane two instead of one, even if he had not been 100 feet behind PICO when the green flag dropped, who's to say the boat that failed to win once in 1995 wouldn't have found a way regardless?

PICO is the hottest thing going currently in the hydro world. It's won three of the four races (Joe's took Kansas City) and has a lead of nearly 1,000 points in the season standings.

"Maybe this is Blue Blaster II," Villwock said, referrring to Bill Muncey's Atlas Van Lines rocket that stomped competitors in the late 1970s and early '80s. "It's a sweetheart."

Villwock grinned widely.

"This is our second week in the boat," he said. "It looks like a pretty good boat, don't you think?"

It's also one that will stay in drydock while the team proceeds upriver to the Budweiser Indiana Governor's Cup in Madison this weekend.

Built specifically for the Evansville race, Villwock said, it lost most of the outer layer of its bottom in the second heat. But crew chief Ken Dryden said he wants to use the boat -- 1994 vintage -- at Madison that won at Phoenix and Detroit because it's heavier and can handle the rough Ohio River water there better.

Miss Budweiser, dominant in every walk of hydroplane life seemingly forever, is 0 for 4 this year after yesterday's distant third, more than 10 seconds behind PICO.

Not since 1988 has the Bud gone winless in the first four stops, but then it recovered to win four of five and the season title. It has won crowns every year since 1986 except '90.

"The ride's been great, and I'm getting used to it," said Mark Evans, who subbed as driver for Chip Hanauer after Hanauer flipped in Detroit. "You've got to run these things on the raqgged edge. I'm getting comfortable enough to let her fly a lot more and figure out the envelope."

Said Villwock: "The Budweiser guys aren't quitting. They didn't have the greatest day today, but they'll be back."

Smokin' Joe's whipped PICO by almost seven seconds in the first heat, then PICO returned the favor by two seconds in the second heat while it was losing its bottom layer. The boats were tied at 1,100 points heading into the final, giving the first choice of lanes to the one with the fastest qualifying time.

That was Joe's.

"It was a tough lane on the inside," Villwock said. "I knew it was big trouble in the warmups. When Tate chose lane one, I said, 'Hey, we got 'em right where we want 'em.'

"But it's a hard decision. Smokin' Joe's chose lane two in Kansas City and won from lane two. You can look like a hero or a zero in seconds. Mark did a great job in attacking as much as he could."

Tate didn't address the lane issue and was gone when it came up. But he still blamed himself.

"I'm very disappointed in Mark Tate," he said. "You just can't give him a four-boat advantage at the starting line. The first time around they aborted (the start) and I was right up there with him. The second time around the corner (to the start) I was right with him again, but when it came time to drop the flag I was back. It was a mistake and very frustrating for Mark Tate because I thought we had an opportunity to win the race."

PICO shot through the first and second turns and emerged with about a 10-length lead over Miss Bud. Smokin' Joe's rallied at the end of the first lap to pass Bud, but Bud responded and they were sponson to sponson moving into the first turn of lap two.

Joe's proved it had too many horses for Bud from then on, but PICO was long gone. It averaged 143.948 mph for the five-lap final on the two-mile course.

"Said Evans: If those guys pick (lanes) two and three and we'get got to take one, oohhh, man, we're going to have our hands full. When we got three, I thought we might be in a good shape. We almost were. But it was rough. I'll need some Advil."

Villwock and his buddies, meanwhile, will probably be seeking champagne.

While the big boys raced without incident, the lesser crafts took turns knocking each other out of the water in the early heats.

Target Stores, driven by Ken Muscatel, knocked a hole in the left side of Miss Exide in Heat 1B and received a one-lap penalty and $300 fine.

On the first lap of Heat 2B, which began with an all-Evansville-sponsored lineup, Miss Welborn Health Plans bore in on the inside boat, Master Tire, in the first turn.

(In the tight quarters), the left sponson ripped off Master Tire and dropped it dead in the water. Pilot Mitch Evans scrambled to the deck as the only piston-powered hydro in the field began to sink. Evans was rescued and the boat secured with only a rear wing still above the water line.

The heat was red-flagged, the restart delayed more than a half-hour and Miss Welborn disqualified and fined $500.

Upon review, referee Mike Noonan of Louisville said Evans' boat was coming apart before any contact and that Mike Eacrett, driving Miss Welborn, "had no place to go."

Commissioner Bill Doner said he didn't know if the fine would stand. (It didn't.)

Miss Exide missed the heat when it couldn't be fixed in time. When it resumed, Busler's Enterprises lost power before the start, and by the time it fired up again, ARC Construction had more than a half-lap lead. ARC won at the snail speed of 109.814 mph.

(Reprinted from Louisville Courier-Journal, July 1, 1996)