1998 JN Automotive Hydrofest

Wild FIRE Caps Inaugural Season with a Victory in Hawaii

For the ninth time this decade, the world's fastest race boats hit the waters of historic Pearl Harbor off of Ford Island as the 1998 Ralphs Unlimited Hydroplane Thunder Tour presented by Las Vegas came back to Hawaii for the running of the JN Automotive Hydrofest.

Favored to win the winner-take-all final, the Miss Budweiser team won all three of its preliminary heats of the weekend and had posted the fastest qualifying time Saturday. And prior to this final race of the season, the Budweiser had won all but one tour event en route to the national championship in 1998. A victory would add to the team's current record of most victories by one team and one driver in a season. That was not to be.

A large crowd was on hand to witness day two of qualifying. Blessed with beautiful weather featuring sunshine and a mild breeze the unlimited hydroplanes completed their qualification efforts. Dave Villwock in the U-1 Miss Budweiser clocked in with a 166.153 mph followed by Mitch Evans in the U-20 Appian Jeronimo at 161.175 mph. Nate Brown took the U-8 Outrigger Hotels presents LLumar Window Film to a 150.701 mph mark, edging out Mark Weber's 149.823 mph in the U-10 Wild FIRE and Steve David's 149.681 mph run in the U-2 Gaylord Restaurants. Mike Hanson substituted for Mike Jones and piloted the U-9 Miss K.C. to the sixth fastest time with a speed of 144.604 mph. Considering the U-9 was unable to reach a speed above 130 mph on Friday, the effort was impressive. Jerry Hale in the U-19 Waikiki Trolley increased his qualifying time with a speed of 143.269 mph. This was nearly eight miles per hour quicker than his Friday time of 135.708 mph.

After the end of qualifying on Saturday, the first two heats of the weekend were run. The excitement level mounted as the clock closed in on one minute for heat 1A with the Budweiser, Appian, LLumar and Miss K.C. on the water. Unfortunately, Evans and the Appian Jeronimo went dead in the water as the boats entered the final turn for the start of the race. A similar fate fell upon the Miss K.C. as Mike Jones, reinserted in the cockpit for the race, had engine problems and was unable to start the race. That left two boats to duel it out — Dave Villwock in the Budweiser and Nate Brown in the Outrigger/LLumar boat. Brown managed to give Villwock a run for his money as he finished only a second behind Villwock. Villwock continued his season long dominance as he took first place in Heat 1A.

Heat 1B was perhaps one of the closest Heats of the year as Mark Weber in the U-10 Wild FIRE (KG Racing) captured his heat second win for the young team of Kim and Debbie Gregory. "It's a real treat to see this boat get another victory", said Weber. "Hopefully we can keep it going and come home with a victory in the final for the KG Racing Team", noted Weber. Weber did not get his victory easy however as Jerry Hale and the U-19 pushed him all the way. "That was a very close race", said Hale. "I thought I was going to get him there at the end, and I almost did. Maybe next time", said Hale.

The close, competitve racing continued in heat 2A as Dave Villwock and the Miss Budweiser barely held off Mitch Evans in the Appian Jeronimo. With the clock counting down to within one minute the boats cut across the course establishing their lane positions. Lane one—Miss Budweiser, lane two—Wild FIRE, lane three—Appian Jeronimo, and in lane four Waikiki Trolley.

At the start of the race Villwock jumped out to an early lead, with Weber and Hale nipping at his heels. Trailing nearly 200 yards behind the boats was Evans in the Appian. As the boats started on lap two it was shaping up to be a two boat race with Villwock and Evans, coming from way behind, right off of the Budweiser's right sponson. Weber trailed the two by only a rooster tail length and Hale followed close behind. Lap three was deck to deck racing as only one rooster tail could be seen from the shore for two boats. Weber had now managed to open up a larger lead on Hale and sat in third place. As they headed for the finish, Villwock and Evans pitched their boats into the final turn and began a drag race for the checkered. As they crossed the line Villwock managed to hold off Evans, but only by a split second. Weber came home third, and Hale fourth. Villwock turned fast lap on lap three with a speed of 160.723mph. Evans posted a fast lap of 160.108mph on the same lap.

"That was a fantastic race", said Villwock. "Those guys (referring to Evans and the Appian Jeronimo) really gave us a run for our money. Hopefully we can keep it up and come home victorious", noted Villwock. Evans was extremely pleased with his boat and said, "I know we can catch that boat", (referring to the Miss Budweiser) "We will be right in it for the final, you can bet on that", said Evans.

Just when you thought a closer race could not have been had, Heat 2B came along. Heat 2B had the U-8 Outrigger Presents LLumar Window Film with Nate Brown, U-2 Gaylord's Kilo Hana Restaurant with Steve David, and the U-9 Miss K.C. with Mike Hanson. Hanson has once again taken over driving duties for Mike Jones.

Prior to the start,Brown (Outrigger Presents LLumar Window Film) managed to sneak on the inside of David (Gaylord's Kilo Hana Restaurant) and claimed the inside lane. David was in lane two, and Hanson (Miss K.C.) in lane three. As they crossed the start/finish line and began lap one, Hanson jumped out to an early lead with Brown and David right behind him. Exiting turn one Brown and David put the pedal down and passed Hanson for first and second respectively. Brown and David continued to swap positions, with Hanson trailing a rooster tail behind. Lap two and three continued with deck to deck racing between Brown and David. Hanson began to gain a little on the two but could not find the extra horsepower needed to catch the two leaders. Similar to Heat 2A, the two leaders, Brown and David, exited the final turn and had a drag race to the checkered. As they crossed the line Brown and the Outrigger Presents LLumar Window Film barely held off David in the Gaylord's Kilo Hana Restaurant. Hanson followed the two by only a rooster tail's length. Unfortunately, as David crossed start/finish he had a water line failure. The water line cools the shaft log bearing and was burned up.

"Our boat was hooked up real nice", said Brown. "I'm looking real forward to the next heat. I think if we can continue to keep on the pace then we have a real shot in the final:, noted Brown. As for David and his mechanical problems he said, "I think we will be okay for the next heat. These guys (referring to his crew) will be able to make all the necessary changes in time".

Heat 3A had Dave Villwock (Miss Budweiser), Mike Hanson (Miss K.C.), Jerry Hale (Waikiki Trolley), and Steve David (Gaylord's Kilo Hana Restaurant). Villwock in the Miss Budweiser secured lane one managed to hold of Mike Hanson who challenged Villwock for the lead on laps one and two. Hanson ultimately finished second to Villwock. Jerry Hale in the U-19 Waikiki Trolley went unchallenged for third as Steve David and the U-2 went dead in the water prior to the start of the race.

"Three for three so far", said Villwock. "The boat is running great, and I am pretty confident we'll be able to keep it up through the final", said Villwock. Hanson said, "The Miss K.C. was hooked up a bit better in that heat". "If we can find a few more horsepower we should be real competitive for the final", said Hanson.

Heat 3B promised to be a real competitive heat as Jeronimo, Wild FIRE and Outrigger/LLumar were all paired up. The lineup did not disappoint either. All three boats dueled it out for two of the three laps, with the lead being swapped multiple times. Unfortunately, on lap two Brown slowed in the backstretch and limped back to the pits with a broken fuel restrictor bracket. That left Evans and Weber to duel it out. Deck to deck the two boats raced for the checkered. Crossing the line first was Evans in the Appian. Weber finished just a boat length behind and challenged for the lead the entire way. "I feel real confident about our chances in the final", said Evans.

In the final, as seven of the world's fastest race boats headed for the start/finish line, the capacity crowd roared with approval. Unfortunately for Dave Villwock in the U-1 Miss Budweiser and Mitch Evans in the U-20 Appian Jeronimo, victory would escape them this afternoon.

After being near-perfect on the clock start all season, Dave Villwock jumped the clock start, resulting in a one-lap penalty for U-1 Miss Budweiser. Mitch Evans of the Appian Jeronimo team also jumped the clock start. Timing the start perfectly however, was Mark Weber in KG Racing's, U-10 Wild FIRE. That helped propel Mark Weber and Wild FIRE to victory title with an average speed of 139.649 mph.

"I hit that start line right on time and I knew Villwock and Evans were going to be early", said Weber. "From that point on it was just a matter of holding on and racing away The false starts allowed Weber to run a more conservative race, even allowing him to slow up on the last lap and let Villwock and Evans, respectively, pass him.

"It was over by then, they were a lap down, all I had to do was keep the boat on the water and finish," Weber said.

Crossing the line in second was Villwock. Even with his one lap penalty he managed to come from behind and take home second place. Evans also drove his heart out and ended up finishing third. Nate Brown in the U-8 Outrigger Presents LLumar Window Film took home fourth. Unfortunately for Brown his boat never ran the same after breaking a fuel restrictor in Heat 3. Mike Hanson in the U-9 Miss K.C. did not finish the race as he went dead in the water on lap three. The same fate fell upon Jerry Hale in the U-19 Waikiki Trolley as he went dead in the water on lap four. Steve David in the U-2 Gaylord's Kilo Hana Restaurant was plagued all weekend long with mechanical problems and was unable to start the final.

Weber's win was his second as an unlimited driver, and the first for team owners Kim and Debbie Gregory of Las Vegas, Nevada. Kim and Debbie recently purchased the U-10 unlimited hydroplane from the estate of the late Steve Woomer. In fact it was this very boat which won last year's JN Automotive Hydrofest. A fitting way to end the season. It was only the third race for the victorious KG Racing team, which has only existed since late September.

"I am just thrilled to get this victory. What a way to end the season. I can't be happier for the Gregory's, they really deserve this one too", said Weber.

(Thunderboat, November 1998)