2003 Budweiser Thunder on the Ohio

Mitch Evans Does Evansville

Drives Lone Piston Boat To Victory In Season Opener

by Steve Garey

The citizens of Evansville, Indiana were happy the hometown boat, Master Tire, driven by Mitch Evans, won the race, but they didn't have to go and name the town after him.

Mitch brought the rollicking crowd to life on June 29th when he drove Ed Cooper's U-3 Master Tire Unlimited hydroplane to a smashing win over nine turbine-powered entries in the Budweiser Thunder-on-the-Ohio race. The kicker is, Mitch's boat is powered by a World War II vintage Allison fighter plane engine. The roaring red hydro beat the final field around the first turn and led all five laps. It was Evans' second win in the Unlimiteds, having taken the Tri-Cities Columbia Cup in 1989 driving an older Cooper entry. That stood as the last win by a piston boat, until now. Dave Villwock, who has won the last seven Evansville races, saw his chances of eight straight go south when Miss Budweiser had a prop shaft coupling let go prior to the start.

Here's how the 2003 version of "Thunder" went:

The Unlimited fleet arrived in town to a swollen Ohio River that had the pit area under water. But the level was dropping by the hour. On Saturday morning, with one day of testing and qualifying lost, the boats were placed in position on the riverbank. When time trials got under way, Villwock had Joe Little's Miss Budweiser on top with a 153.560 mph run on the two-mile course. Mike Hanson did 151.136 in Mike and Lori Jones' U-9 Miss WABX. Mark Evans returned to racing after two rears on the beach, getting Bill Wurster's new LLumar Window Film in at 150.473. Mike Weber had Kim Gregory's EMCOR in at 148. Greg Hopp in Fred Leland's Miss Raben Tire did 148.855, Steve David had a 143.821 clocking in the Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison, and Dr. Ken Muscatel got the Mister Home Loan in at 13 8.

Then out came the Master Tire. The roaring red boat did an astounding 152.422 mph, a record for a piston boat on a 2-mile course. One overjoyed race fan in the crowd was overheard saying "He just got outside pole position!"

The U-16 Miss E-Lam Plus and the new U-2 Trendwest didn't get a chance to run in the shortened sessions, made even shorter when, at around 5:00 pm, a tow barge got hung up on a submerged wall in the upper turn and cancelled activities for the day. That meant that the Trendwest and E-Lam would be allowed to run on Sunday, but would not be eligible for qualifying points.

The boats were divided into the two sections of Heat 1 as follows: The number 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 fastest were in 1-A. The Numbers 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 were in 1-B. Nate Brown and the Miss E-Lam were in lane 5 in 1-A, and Terry Troxell in the Trendwest were in lane 5 in 1-B.

In a beautiful start. Miss Budweiser took the lead on the inside lane in 1-A, but Hanson in Miss WABX kept pace and chased the U-1 the entire 4 laps. Oh Boy! Oberto held off E-Lam for third. Miss Raben Tire, running third, stalled in the #4 corner of lap 1. Nate Brown and Steve David battled furiously for that third spot, with David taking control on lap 4. In the final turn of the race, Hanson caught Villwock and dragged him to the finish line, winning by a nose! The crowd loved the action. The order of finish was WABX, Bud, Oberto, and E-Lam, with Raben Tire failing to finish.

Heat 1-B was another thriller. Mark Evans hit the line at clock zero in the LLumar, but brother Mitch came screaming around turn # 1, grabbed the lead and held it to the finish. LLumar stalled on turn #4, allowing EMCOR, Mister Home Loan and Trendwest to slide by. Mark restarted the U-8 and chased the field down. Ken Muscatel and Terry Troxell duelled for third until LLumar joined the fight and took the position with a dramatic charge up the middle. Trendwest then pulled away from the Home Loan. At the line it was Master Tire, EMCOR, LLumar and Trendwest. Mister Home Loan was disqualified for hitting a buoy.

For Heat 2, the boats were assigned lanes in reverse order, so the winner of Heat 1 was in lane 5, second was in lane 4 and so on. Miss Raben Tire had the inside, but Miss E-Lam blasted over the line first - and early. Brown led through the first lap with Villwock and the Bud, and Hopp in the Raben chasing. Raben Tire again stalled in the #4 corner of lap 1, allowing the field to go by before restarting. Oberto and WABX fought for second position, with the U-6 Oberto taking it. Villwock passed the penalized Brown on lap 3 and won by ¼ lap over Oberto. WABX was third and E-Lam fourth. Hopp restarted the U-100 Raben Tire and finished last.

LLumar Window Film took a flying start up the middle in Heat 2-B, with EMCOR and Master Tire chasing. Mister Home Loan got caught in some roostertails in turn #4 and stalled on lap 1. Terry Troxell had the brand new Trendwest running wide at the start and trailed the three leaders, LLumar, EMCOR and Master Tire, and that's how they finished. Muscatel restarted and was a distant fifth.

Mike Weber took the EMCOR to the front early in Heat 3-A, followied by LLumar, Master Tire and WABX. At the end of lap 1, Weber led LLumar, with the Budweiser coming up on the outside. But Weber would swing wide at every turn, forcing Villwock to run even wider. Mark Evans' boat slowed on lap 2 but continued on, eventually getting back up to racing speed. WABX got lost in the shuffle somewhere in the first turn of lap 3 and fell way back. EMCOR held off Bud to the finish, but Villwock had slowed up on the last lap, giving up pursuit. Master Tire came in third, WABX fourth and LLumar fifth.

In the last preliminary heat, Steve David came flying around the first turn with the lead, but he was called for being too early at the start. Oberto physically led the race until lap 4 when Nate Brown and Miss E-Lam poured it on and took the lead and the win. But Nate was called for a fuel flow violation and lost his points and a place in the Final Heat. Raben Tire was second, Oberto third, Home Loan fourth and Trendwest fifth.

The final field was set. Miss Budweiser was going after a seventh straight win at Evansville and Dave Villwock was going for his eighth straight. He won in '96 driving PICO American Dream. The Cooper team put a fresh Allison in the Master Tire. Miss WABX, Miss EMCOR, LLumar Window Film, and Trendwest also made it.

As the 5-minute gun fired the boats began to leave the pits for the last showdown. Miss Budweiser chugged away and immediately shut down. Villwock opened his cockpit hatch and walked to the stem, looking down at where his propeller used to be. The shaft coupling had busted, sending the prop to the bottom of the Ohio.

LLumar floated out and never got started, the victim of a dead battery.

So now the field was down to four. Master Tire and WABX took the start together with EMCOR and Trendwest trailing. Mitch Evans came out of the turn first and moved ahead steadily over Hanson's turbine U-9. EMCOR chased the leaders in third spot. Troxell in the Trendwest was happy to finish in the boat's maiden voyage.

At the end the whole riverfront erupted as the hometown boat -powered by an ancient 12-cylinder aircraft engine - came across the winner! Mitch Evans and Ed Cooper had proven their theory that, with the right hull set-up, a piston powered boat can compete successfully on the Unlimited circuit.

(Thunderboat, August 2003)