2005 Thunder on the Ohio

ABRA Era Debuts At Evansville, 2005

by Clint Newman

As fans reached the pits at Evansville's Thunder On The Ohio Friday morning, they were treated to an unfamiliar sight: A low (instead of high) water level, and a full complement of unlimited hydroplanes and unlimited light hydroplanes fully setup and ready to begin testing. As always, Evansville provided scorching, unrelenting heat to be endured by all.

New American Boat Racing Association (ABRA) rules included the usual N2 and fuel flow violations, but all boats were allowed 4.3 gpm. Boats were allowed to fight for lanes, but instead of requiring boats to establish their lanes by the entrance pin to turn 2, then to hold those lanes to the start/finish line, boats were required to establish their lanes by the exit pin of turn 2, and hold those lanes until the start. Gone was the starting clock, an expensive and cumbersome piece of equipment, which had to be hauled across the country. The lack of a clock required drivers to rely on their stopwatches and their spotters to time their starts. At least one driver. Oh Boy! Oberto' s Steve David misses the clock. "Without a clock, it's a big guessing game. I miss the clock big time. It's your validator," Steve explained.

And, there was no Miss Budweiser or EMCOR.

Testing and Qualifying

The highlight of Friday's qualifying session was the excursion of Ken Muscatel's unsponsored U-25 on to the Kentucky shore on the backstretch of the racecourse. After successfully exiting turn 1, a steering linkage broke, sending Muscatel darting to the right.

Although he quickly shut the fuel off, momentum carried the boat up the riverbank nearly out of sight into some shrubs and trees. All that could be seen from the pits was the rear wing assembly. Luckily, Muscatel was not injured as the boat hit a tree, shearing off most of the left sponson. The boat stopped when the rudder caught a steel cable mooring line used for tying up Ohio River barges, a technique heretofore reserved for fighter planes utilizing an arresting cable in aircraft carrier landings. Muscatel complained of a severe pain... in his wallet!

A barge from the Mulzer Crushed Stone Company, equipped with a crane, immediately volunteered to help recover the U-25. The boat had to be dragged a bit toward the water in order for the crane to reach it. The crane picked up the boat then the barge proceeded across the river with it dangling from the crane. Upon reaching the pits, the crane operator deftly lowered the boat onto its trailer. A sponson was ordered from Ron Jones, Jr., to be delivered by Monday, in time to be installed before the next week's Madison Regatta. The bottom of the boat was undamaged, but a spare canard wing would have to be installed.

U-5 Formula Powerboats.com [Formulaboats.com] (Dick Lynch) did not run on Friday, and Jim Harvey's U-2 Graham Trucking (J. Michael Kelly) did not run, as it was "somewhere in South Dakota." U-16 Ellstrom (J.W. Myers) was Friday's fastest qualifier at 152.746 mph.

Saturday's qualifying saw the Ellstrom raise its speed to 158.189. The piston-powered U-3, Master Tire, driven by Jimmy King substituted for Mitch Evans who sat out the race due to business commitments. King proclaimed that driving the piston-powered hydro was the most fun he has had driving an unlimited hydroplane. He said that the acceleration was like driving supercharged big blocks again. What advice did Mitch Evans offer? "Have fun!" Grand Prix champion, but rookie unlimited pilot Jean Theoret, qualified the U-8 LLumar third highest followed by Greg Hopp in U-100 Re/Max and Steve David in U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto. During a qualifying run, Oberto lost the tip of a brand new propeller, but David quickly shut down the boat in time to avoid any damage. Graham Trucking and Formula Powerboats did not qualify. After a qualifying attempt, Dick Lynch could not shut off his turbine engine, and cruised around the course at idle speed. To solve the situation, he brought the U-5 close to the dock, and while passing by at a fairly good speed, three crew members leaped on board, grabbing whatever they could to hold on to. They quickly removed the cowling and shut off the fuel. Lynch later dubbed the crewmembers the "Flying Wallendas." The U-5 relied heavily on LLumar crew members throughout the weekend.

Heat 1

From the inside lane out in 1A, it was Oh Boy! Oberto, then Ellstrom, a bit early and having to get off the throttle, then LLumar, which was required to start outside, hitting the start at full throttle. Ellstrom died at the entrance to turn 1, as LLumar pressed the Oberto. David came out of turn 1 ahead, with Theoret a roostertail behind. At the end of lap 1, LLumar passed Oberto, switched to the inside lane on the last lap, and lengthened their lead to 3-4 roostertail's by the finish. Ellstrom restarted to finish 3rd.

Rookie Jean Theoret won his first heat as an unlimited hydroplane driver. "This is over and above our expectations! J.W. had a hard time there, that's why we won," the excited Theoret explained. "A grand prix boat is very similar. They go 175 mph down the straightaway while the unlimiteds go 195 - 200 mph. The unlimiteds turn much better, and they take the rough water. Big boats take the rough water well, since they are bigger. But, big boats make big waves!"

In 1B, Re/Max claimed the inside lane. Master Tire was in the middle with Formula Powerboats on the outside. Hopp led up the backstretch, with King a couple boat-lengths back, and Lynch a roostertail behind him. Re/Max blew an engine and died in second turn of lap 1. Master Tire took the lead and pulled away for the win. Graham Trucking failed to start the heat because J. Michael Kelly had problems hooking up his oxygen mask.

Heat 2

Prior to the start of 2A Re/Max was early, but did not jump the gun. Graham Trucking hit the line at full throttle and jumped the gun, incurring a one-lap penalty. Formula Powerboats was 'way late for the start. Master Tire pulled away and won, nearly lapping Formula Powerboats near the finish line. Greg Hopp finished 2nd, with Dick Lynch finishing 3rd. J. Michael Kelly shut down the Graham Trucking after experiencing a vibration.

The start of 2B was a close one, with Oberto in lane 1, then Ellstrom and LLumar. Steve David led the boats out of turn 1, up the backstretch, and out of turn 2, but Ellstrom managed to pass Oberto going into turn 1 of lap 2. Oberto stayed close to Ellstrom, but Myers began to pull away at the end of lap 2, with LLumar a roostertail behind Ellstrom. At the finish, Ellstrom beat Oberto by a roostertail, with LLumar two roostertails behind Oberto.

Heat 3

Prior to the start of 3 A, Re/Max died in turn one but restarted. Hopp was early for the start and throttled back, but crossed first. Ellstrom passed him going into first turn. Coming out of turn 2 Myers led Hopp by two roostertails. Master Tire roared up on the outside, with Formula Powerboats trailing 'way behind. Ellstrom cut to the inside lane, and Master Tire passed Re/Max going into turn 2 as Ellstrom swung wide. Master Tire was two roostertails back at the end of lap 2. King cut to the inside, but Myers won by two roostertails, with Hopp in 3rd, two roostertails behind, and Dick Lynch was a distant 4th.

Myers explained that he wasn't going to let his crew down again like he did on Saturday. "I came up to the start too early, I lifted all the way, the boat went back to ground idle, and I had to restart the engine. By that time, it was over. It was completely unnecessary on my part," confessed Myers.

Jimmy King kept the pressure on Myers. "I knew that big piston packer would be fast. At the last second I drove underneath him to weasel a lane, I got under him ... that's what I needed to do, because it would be difficult to beat him from the outside. When he got up into the windows, you now he's there! It rattles the gauges that aren't rattling already."

Oberto made an excellent start in 3B, hitting the line first in the inside lane, with Graham Trucking in the middle, and LLumar on the outside, passing the Graham Trucking going into turn 1. Steve David stretched out to a roostertail lead, which he maintained throughout the race, fending off LLumar's hard-charging Jean Theoret by taking him very wide each time he rounded turn 2. J. Michael Kelly came in a distant 3rd.

Steve David explained, "We kept working with different propeller set ups. We are running as fast as we can. The reality is that 'Coop' (Ed Cooper's U-3), LLumar and Ellstrom are faster than us, but given the right conditions, we can still win some races." As for taking Jean Theoret the long way around the turns,

Steve David said, "He's faster than us. The only way to do it, and since he's a Canadian, was to show him what the Indiana and Kentucky coastlines look like. Jean's a great driver and he's going to have some wins this year."


Jim Harvey withdrew his Graham Trucking prior to the final, not wanting to damage the troublesome gearbox further. "Why damage any more parts? The gearbox is hurt a little, but not bad. We can fix it, but we just don't have any more parts," Harvey explained. The LLumar would not start due to battery problems.

Greg Hopp in Re/Max was first across the line in the inside lane, closely followed by Steve David in Oh Boy! Oberto in lane 2, with Dick Lynch in Formula Powerboats in lane 3.

Further back was Ellstrom, then Master Tire in last place. David, about a roostertail behind, pressed Hopp until coming out of turn 2 on lap 3 when Hopp's engine blew, belching fire as the boat coasted into the infield. Ellstrom gave chase to the front running Oberto, but had to settle for 2nd. Master Tire managed to pass the Formula Powerboats to take 3rd. Dick Lynch was fined $300 for an encroachment penalty in turn 2, and was levied a one-lap penalty for changing lanes (for cutting off Ellstrom) between the exit pin of turn 1 and the start/ finish line prior to the start of heat.

Steve David was elated. "The team took an 18-year-old boat and made it a winner today. They call it a team, but it's a race family. My first Evansville race was in 1988, driving for Jim McCormick and Bob Fendler. It was neat this weekend how everybody jelled, from officials, to volunteers, to race teams, working cooperatively together, just a neat thing to be apart of that fraternity," said David. Reminded that he was the only driver in Evansville who had won a race.

David joked, "Old age and treachery can beat these young folks."


The Oh Boy! Oberto victory was a popular one for the fans. Surprisingly, it seemed that fans had forgotten Miss Budweiser, the boat who had dominated the sport for so long. Maintaining an eight-boat field with only two national sponsors will obviously be a difficult task. The first race resulted in expensive repairs for three boat camps. Ken Muscatel was faced with acquiring a new sponson, Jim Harvey had gearbox problems and few replacement parts, and Fred Leland was minus four turbine engines. However, all owners seem committed to maintaining the promised eight-boat fields.

The fledgling ABRA, led by Sam Cole and Emily Estes acquitted itself well in its debut race. The officiating crew performed excellently, but they were hard-pressed to keep up, due to their being minus a few officials. The ABRA sorely needs a series sponsor to provide much-needed funds to keep the sport afloat. However, there is currently a spirit of cooperation, a spirit that hopefully will continue when obstacles occur during the season.

Steve David's dream is that the ABRA can eventually re-associate with the American Powerboat Association. "It's a little strange, me being an APBA guy. Certainly, all of the volunteers and race officials are doing their very best, being accommodating to everybody. They are off to a great start. I still have high hopes that we will all come back to the APBA family. Being on the APBA board of directors, we'll do our best to work with them, and, hopefully, they will work with us. If we can get everybody on the same wavelength, we can work together. With the APBA and the UIM, you have a 103-year tradition to be a part of. But, these folks are doing a good job. They are maintaining the integrity of the sport, and doing a wonderful job of officiating. They have certainly not dropped the ball. We want to work with them," David said.

(Unlimited NewsJournal) July 2005)