1997 Gila River Casino Unlimited Cup

Phoenix Unlimited Invitational Final Results

PHOENIX -- In a "rematch" of last year's Gila River Casino Unlimited Cup finalists, the result was turned around Sunday when Dave Villwock took advantage of an inside lane draw and shook off the challenge of Mark Evans in the PICO American Dream to win the Gila River Casino Lakefest '97 Unlimited Invitational, a four-boat, double-elimination exhibition race.

Villwock, who notched the first of six UHRA Thunder Tour '96 victories here last May, celebrated his maiden competitive voyage in the big red "U-12" by sweeping past Close Call and his former ride, the PICO American Dream, twice to complete a clean sweep. The winner's elapsed time for the final three-lap heat was 2 minutes, 14.40 seconds. (See below for instructions as to how this is converted into miles per hour.)

Evans, who filled in so ably for the injured Chip Hanauer in the Budweiser last year, was making his first run of the season in the Gold Cup-winning hydro and, while he was able to score twin wins over Mike Hanson and the DeWALT Tools, he never looked like getting too close to the Budweiser.

There is still strong feeling in unlimited circles about returning this even to a full points race, if only a fair course configuration could be designed. Once again, as was the case last season, the inside lane seemed to have the edge off of Sunday's results.

The exciting drag boats of the International Hot Boat Racing Association and the flat-bottom Super Stocks were competing as well this weekend to the delight of a good-sized and sun- drenched crowd at Firebird Lake, the man-made body of water which is part of the Firebird International Raceway.

The big boats will return to their home bases now to continue preparations for the official UHRA Thunder Tour '97 opener, set for Memorial Day weekend May 24-25-26 at Norfolk, Virginia. The inaugural Virginia Is For Lovers Cup will wind up on Monday, May 26, with same-day television coverage on ESPN2, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time and 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

Then, just three days later, the boats will have shipped over Detroit and will be in the water for the first of two days' qualifying for the 90th APBA Gold Cup, sponsored by the Chrysler Jeep dealers of metropolitan Detroit. The final day's activity in Detroit will merit LIVE coverage on ESPN2, beginning at noon Pacific Daylight Time and 3 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

A rundown of what the fans at Firebird Lake saw on Sunday (incidentally, the show was very well received by the fans and the Firebird management, enough so that the big boats are most likely to return again next season):

First Round -- 10:15 a.m.

First out onto the Firebird Lake course was the Miss Budweiser, making her competitive debut under the guidance of new driver Dave Villwock, who drew the inside lane. On the outside was the Bud's old rival, the U-10, but Mark Tate had a new set of clothes and a new paint job to banner Steve Woomer's new Close Call sponsorship. An expected showdown failed to materialize when Tate's motor ingested a little too much of Firebird's salt water while leaving the pits. That left him with a sputtering and coughing machine that never was able to demonstrate its true mettle. Villwock completed three laps in 2 minutes, 19 seconds, to get the checkered flag. Tate finished about two roostertails to the rear.

The second half of the first round pitted Mark Evans, now in the PICO American Dream, against the yellow-and-black DeWALT Tools entry from Madison, Ind., and driven by veteran Mike Hanson. The latter, now in his tenth season with the Miss Madison Racing Team, gave a valiant chase and even led a couple of times before finally being headed down the backstretch of the third lap. Evans flashed across the line in an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 13 seconds, Hanson a little less than a roostertail's length behind. The crowd was most appreciative of the spirited duel.

That sent Tate and Hanson into a losers' bracket heat, with Villwock and Evans -- the two drivers who switched seats over the winter -- paired with one another in the winners' bracket.

Second Round -- 12:15 p.m.

The losers' bracket match between DeWALT and Close Call was surprisingly one-sided. Tate, on the outside, trailed most of the way, finally losing to the best elapsed time of the day so far, Hanson's 2 minutes, 11 seconds. So, by the rules of the double elimination affair, the Close Call went back on the trailer to stay.

Dave Villwock won his way through to the final by outrunning Mark Evans in Villwock's old ride, the PICO American Dream (incidentally, the "old" hull which won the Gold Cup in 1996). Villwock crossed the finish line after three laps in 2 minutes, 16 seconds, and then went back to await the winner of the semifinal heat between PICO and DeWALT.

Third (semifinal) round -- 3:15 p.m.

Running smoothly, Evans lost the lead only once, at the end of the first lap, before charging back on the inside lane of the south turn to head Hanson and maintain PICO's advantage over the DeWALT entry. The elapsed time wound up being 2 minutes, 14 seconds (you compute the average speed . . . if you can figure out the circumference of the race course; computed on the basis of a mile and two-thirds in length, that would work out to about 134 miles an hour, comparable to the speeds registered in competition by these boats during the 1996 Gila River Casino Unlimited Cup . . . remember, the so-called inside lane was some 200 feet outside the island which runs down the middle of the lake, making the course closer to a 1.67-mile layout than the 1.5 miles it reputed is around the inside shoreline.)

Final -- 4:30 p.m.

Villwock took few chances of missing victory lane in his first-ever competition ride in the fabled Miss Budweiser. If he ever trailed in any of the three heats today, it was only momentarily. Having already tested the T-3 hull on both Lake Washington in Seattle and the Columbia River in Tri-Cities, the Bud crew had few questions to answer here. Fred Leland's PICO American Dream gave it a good try, with the irrepressible Mark Evans behind the wheel, but it should be noted that this was the first time in the water for the PICO in '97. Expect more when they get to the full-sized, two-mile course on Willoughby Bay in Norfolk. Both drivers slowed on their cool-down lap, popped the canopy tops and saluted the grandstand crowd. Evans resisted the urge to douse them with a roostertail.