2008 Thunder on the Ohio

Evansville Thunder '08

Smart move by Theoret caps great season opener

The sun rose on another exciting season of Unlimited hydroplane racing June 28-29 at Evansville, Indiana, and the world’s fastest boats delivered in spades.

Jean Theoret, driving Bill and Jane Schumacher’s Miss Beacon Plumbing, pulled a surprise move in the finals and outlasted the strongest field in years to win his first Thunder on the Ohio at the race’s 30th anniversary party. Steve David, the fastest qualifier in Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison, finished second, and Mike Allen in the U-7 Formulaboats.com was third.

Six different boats won the six preliminary 3-lap heats - a first for the sport. A new rule that forced the boats to maintain 70 miles an hour at the one-minute gun was loudly jeered by most of the drivers. It was an attempt to stop boats from wallowing around off plane prior to the start. While some ignored the rule, only warnings were handed out.

Ten boats showed up to start the ‘08 season, minus the defending champ Miss E-Lam Plus, whose owner was too busy trying to set up a new Unlimited series in the Middle East. That left ten-time Evansville winner Dave Villwock home watching the race on the internet.

Oh Boy! Oberto took the 100 points for fastest qualifier at 153.429 mph on the 2-mile Ohio River course. Miss Beacon Plumbing took second at 152.743, and David Bryant, in Kim and Debbie Gregory’s U-10 Ahern Rentals was third at 151.809.

Ken Muscatel’s U-25 Jarvis Fire & Water Repair arrived unprepared and the crew spent three days thrashing to put the newly remodeled hull in order. They never hit the water until the five-minute gun for Heat 2-B.

The U-100 Mirage Boats entry of Fred Leland had a truck breakdown in Colorado and didn’t arrive until race day morning. Driver Greg Hopp did some Sunday morning shakedown runs in extremely windy conditions, and was allowed into the field.

Heats 1-A and 1-B were run on Saturday evening.

A thrilling start to the season as Steve David had a 2-lap duel with Jimmy King in Ed Cooper, Jr. ’s Master Tire that brought the crowd to its feet. The two veterans switched the lead back and forth in the choppy water. Brian Perkins in Greg O’Farrell’s U-50 Spirit of the NAVY followed. Theoret’s U-37 got washed down in the first turn and trailed in fourth. Then it was announced that David and King had jumped the starter’s gun. That meant that 23-year-old Perkins was in the lead. He blasted the blue and yellow turbine to the checkered flag and his first win in the big leagues.

Theoret was second, David third and King fourth. It was later determined that the Oberto had hit a buoy, dropping the Madison boat to fourth place.

Heat 1-B brought out Jeff Bernard in U-5 Formulaboats.com, his teammate Mike Allen in the U-7, Bryant in the Ahern Rentals, and J.Michael Kelly in Dave Bartush’s U-13 Graham Trucking.

Graham Trucking had a last-minute problem and didn’t leave the dock. U-5 was crawling on the buoyline as U-7 and Ahern came around for the start. Jeff Bernard kicked it, and it was a flying start. Mike Allen came out of turn first but Bernard caught him down the back chute and took over. David Bryant trailed on the outside. Bernard lengthened his lead and won by 1/4 lap over Allen, with a fast lap of 145.275 on lap #2.

Sunday morning began at 10:30 am with a flying 2-B start. Oh Boy! Oberto took the lead, followed closely by a terrific duel for second place between Mike Allen and J. Michael Kelly. Kelly had the advantage on the outside. Spirit of the NAVY was fourth and Mirage Boats fifth.

Steve David had a good lead as Formulaboats and Graham Trucking battled on. It was all for naught, for it was determined that Mike Allen had jumped the gun. He was dropped to fifth behind Perkins and Hopp.

Heat 2-B was another wild one! Jimmy King took the start in the piston U-3 and led a thrilling first lap over Ahern Rentals, Formulaboats U-5, and Miss Beacon Plumbing. Muscatel’s U-25 was ½ lap late. On lap #2 Master Tire sort of “snaked” inside the course coming out of turn 4. King corrected and got back on course, only to blow his turbo-Allison as David Bryant whistled past for the win. U-5 and U-37 trailed. Muscatel’s boat lost its wing assembly on lap #2. He stalled on lap #3 but restarted to take fourth. Master Tire was towed in and eventually withdrew from the race with a blown engine...second of the weekend.

U-25 stayed on her trailer for Heat 3-A. Graham Trucking had trouble starting, finally got going after the one-minute gun and then pulled off the course.

The determined David Bryant came out of the first turn with Jean Theoret chasing. On lap #2 Bryant pinched the Beacon into a buoy coming out of turn 4 and was penalized. Theoret took over and won, to the delight of owner Billy Schumacher, who was looking for penalties in each of the first two heats, but didn’t get ‘em. This time he got it. Jeff Bernard was second and the guilty Bryant was third.

Heat 3-B showed another good start. Mike Allen, needing points badly, grabbed the inside lane and led Oberto down the back-stretch. NAVY was third and Mirage was fourth. Allen stayed in front of a charging David and won by three boat lengths.

The Final Heat was classic stuff. All the top drivers coveted the inside lane and each maneuvered around before the start, trying to outfox his opponents. As they lined up at the one-minute gun, Theoret cut across the course to the backstretch, got in front of the field and parked in lane #1.

Seven boats poured over the line led by Mike Allen’s U-7 up the middle. But Miss Beacon Plumbing came screaming out of the turn like a scalded yellow dog, leading up the back chute. Steve David was second and challenging. U-7 was third, Spirit of the NAVY fourth, U-5 fifth, Graham Trucking, the trailer boat already up to sixth, and Ahern Rentals seventh.

Bryant got by Kelly on lap 2. Bernard took over fourth place on lap 2. The Beacon was running exceedingly quick, with a 145.427 mph clocking on lap 2, and David couldn’t catch him. Mike Allen settled into third with Jeff Bernard fourth, Brian Perkins fifth, and David Bryant sixth. The Graham ground to a halt on the backstretch of lap #4 with a thrown prop blade, resulting in a split transom.

Bryant caught Perkins for fifth place on lap 5 as Theoret won by about six seconds over Steve David.

Jean Theoret’s sixth win in the Unlimiteds was a thrilling one. And the race itself showcased a sport loaded with competition, speed and beauty unmatched anywhere else in motor sports.

Six different winners in six heats of racing is unprecedented. The only negatives in Evansville were the myriad of mishaps that befell the Graham Trucking team. Owner Dave Bartush saw his boat hit the breakwall, miss the first and third heats, and suffer a busted prop and transom. Crew chief Curt Tavenner took the boat directly to Bartush’s Detroit shop for repairs to try and make it to the Madison Regatta five days away.

— Reported by Steve Garey

[Reprinted from Thunderboat, August 2008]