2009 Detroit APBA Gold Cup

Be Careful What You Wish For: Villwock Crawls to Gold Cup Win

by Mac Clouse

At the 2009 ABRA Winter meetings, the owners voted for a new starting procedure that involved drivers choosing lanes prior to each heat. Fighting for lanes would be gone for the 2009 season. The new approach was used in this year’s first race at Madison, and it was immediately criticized by several owners and drivers. Dave Villwock and Ellstrom still dominated, and the critics of the new rule predicted that this dominance would continue all season if the new rule was not rescinded. The critics got what they asked for when on Friday morning at the Chrysler Jeep Superstores Detroit APBA Gold Cup, the owners voted to eliminate the rule for this race and go back to fighting for lanes for each heat. The vote was close with two owners who presumably would have voted to keep the new rule absent from the vote; if Erick Ellstrom and Ed Cooper had been there to vote, the rule probably would not have been rescinded. For the Gold Cup, drivers would fight for lanes, the score-up buoy would be the exit buoy from turn 1, no one could pass the score-up buoy before the one minute mark, and there would be no off-plane rule. In spite of the switch in the starting rules, Villwock and the Ellstrom still won, using an unprecedented strategy of a slow, crawling, off-plane speed to grab lane 1 in the final. For Villwock, it was his 7th Gold Cup win and 58th overall victory. For the Ellstroms, it was their 2nd Gold Cup win.

Testing and Qualifying

Eleven boats competed for the Cup. Friday’s schedule for the boats was light; a testing period from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm, and then the only qualifying session for the weekend from 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm. The goal was that this late time would allow a bigger audience to see what was hoped to be an Indianapolis 500-type stream of back-to-back qualifying attempts and bumping for speeds on the qualification ladder.

Until the qualifying session, there was some testing, some boat preparation, and lots of talk about the return to fighting for lanes.

“It’s nuts,” said Steve David. “We made the new rules in February, and now we’re changing them on race day. No professional organization does something like that. We do have some new equipment combinations to try in our boat this weekend.”

“The new starting rule was orderly in Madison. No one came back to the pits mad. Now, this decision reopens all the issues we had last year,” said Villwock.

J. Michael Kelly was looking forward to more seat time in his new ride. “The U-7 is absolutely wonderful. By far, it is one of the best boats I’ve driven. It’s smoother, but flightier. I have to be careful. Each time I take it out, I learn more. I tested both the U-5 and the U-7 in March. The U-5 is looser on the water. I like the U-7 better.”

When asked about the starting rules, Kelly said, “I’ll just work within whatever rules we have. Winning the Gold Cup is our goal, but the key is to bring the boat back to the pits in one piece.”

Greg Hopp was there with Fred Leland’s newly painted U-100. It is now black and burgundy with gold trim; in Detroit, it would be Miss Jarvis Painting. “The boat ran well in Madison, but we had a fuel vent issue. We’ve fixed it now, and we’re not too far from being a competitive boat. This boat is the first 1998 boat that Fred built. We raced it last year in San Diego. It’s a more consistent, all purpose boat. It’s more driveable. We can’t go slow; water comes over the sponsons and kills the engine. Fighting for lanes brings some strategy and driver ability back in. Hopefully, we won’t see too many dri vers playing games.”

Mike and Lori Jones, the owners of the U-9, were in the pits as fans. The U-9 last raced in Seattle in 2007. When asked about a Western race appearance, Mike said, “Mike Hanson fixed the boat after our Seattle crash, and people are working on the boat now. We’ll see.”

During the testing, Mike Webster took the Matrix System Automotive Finishes out of the Detroit River. “It is different from when I raced here with the unlimited light. The straightaway goes on forever. This weekend, we just want to start, finish, and be safe.”

J.W. Myers tested the U-37 Miss DYC which was repaired after its Madison crash. Jean Theoret accompanied the boat from Madison to Detroit; he rode in the truck since he could not fly due to his reduced lung capacity. Myers will drive until Theoret recovers. However, since Myers did not drive competitively in the last two seasons, he had to re-qualify as a driver. He had to do 15 laps, 10 of which faster than 130 mph. He would also start his first two heats in the outside lane.

“I’m real happy with my boat and the decision to fight for lanes,” said U-5 Formula driver Jeff Bernard. “Qualifying speeds don’t matter that much now. We had a fuel control issue in Madison, but we’ve fixed it now.”

Formulaboats.com owner Ted Porter agreed with Bernard.” Fighting for lanes is what racing is all about, and it puts things back in the hands of the driver.”

The 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm qualifying session was fun to watch. It was non-stop action for one and a half hours. The first boat out was Miss DYC. As the boat rounded the Roostertail Turn for the start of its qualification attempt, the prop flew off. It could be seen flying through the air. Fortunately, that is all that happened; it was just the propeller. No damage was done to the hull, and governors kept the engine from over revving.

The next boats and their qualification speeds, in order of appearance, were: U-17 “Our Gang Racing” (Kip Brown) at 149.763, Whirlpool Presents Albert Lee (Brian Perkins) at 143.251, Miss Jarvis Painting (Greg Hopp) at 148.424, Oh Boy! Oberto (Steve David) at 157.379, Formula (Jeff Bernard) at 151.198, Graham Trucking (J. Michael Kelly) at 151.992, and Ellstrom (Dave Villwock) at 156.945. Oh Boy! Oberto then went out again, but did not increase its speed. Then Miss DYC qualified at 149.349 and did some extra laps for Myers’ qualification. Formula then increased its speed to 154.022. Finally, at about 6:58 pm, Ellstrom returned to the course and did just 2 laps, but its 158.098 two lap average took the top qualifying spot away from Oberto.

“This qualifying session was a good event,” said Villwock. “We were lucky to have good water at this time of day. Before my last attempt, we made some adjustments to the rear wing, and the crew told me to run in a different lane. Fortunately, it worked and the last two laps were good because we probably only had about one gallon of gas left. I couldn’t have done a third lap.”

David wasn’t getting what he wanted from the Oberto. “Our fuel flow was only 4.0 in both runs, not the 4.1 that is allowed. We are working with ABRA to get the fuel meter right.”

Saturday morning was cloudy and humid. During the testing period, Chrysler Jeep qualified at 152.780. The ABRA officials also decided that laps done on Friday during the “testing” session could be used for qualifying speeds. Ellstrom (159.051), Formula (154.857), and Graham (152.771) got increased speeds. Miss Jarvis Disaster Recovery (Ken Muscatel) at 139.380 and Matrix at 138.060 now got qualifying speeds.

The preliminary heats would be four laps. The 5 lap final would have five boats on the front line with the sixth boat as the trailer. Heats 1 and 2 were scheduled for Saturday.

Heat 1

The first heat started at 11:30am. The weather was now sunny with a light wind and temperatures in the high 70s. Formula, Graham, and Oberto were early in the Belle Isle turn at the two minute mark. Kelly decided he was too early and did another complete lap. Bernard and David slowed down with Bernard getting lane 1 and David lane 2. There was an opening when Kelly completed his lap, and he got lane 3. The U-17 was in lane 4 with Albert Lee in lane 5. As the sixth boat in the heat, Matrix had to be the trailer.

Formula was first across the start line, but Formula, Oberto, and Graham were even exiting the first turn. David pulled ahead and led Bernard by about three boat lengths as they entered the Roostertail Turn. Bernard couldn’t hold the lane and Formula bounced out through Oberto and Graham’s roostertails. At the end of the first lap, the order was Oberto, Graham, Formula, U -17, Albert Lee, and Matrix. The order stayed the same for the rest of the heat, as David won by four roostertails.

Kelly explained his extra lap during the milling. “I got up there early and couldn’t see where I wanted to be. I knew I could still get around in time, and there was an open lane. Second place points are huge. They will help us get to the front row for the final.”

Brown was okay with Kelly taking lane 3. “I wanted lane 4 anyway.”

At 11:50 am 1B began. In the short time since 1A, the wind had picked up. At the one minute mark, all five boats were at the apex of the Belle Isle turn. Jarvis Painting was in lane 1, Jarvis Disaster was in lane 2, Ellstrom in 3, Chrysler Jeep in 4, and with an “unqualified” driver, DYC had to be in lane 5.

Villwock was first across the start line, but Hopp was first to the turn. Ellstrom was first out of the turn and led Hopp down the backstretch. Hopp’s boat died in the backstretch; he restarted but was now in fifth. King moved into second, followed by Muscatel and Myers.

In lap 3, Villwock led King by a roostertaiI. Myers used the inside of the course to pull even, and pass. Muscatel in the Roostertail Tum. Hopp was running slowly in fifth.

In lap 4, Chrysler Jeep died exiting the Belle Isle turn. Villwock finished half a lap ahead of Myers, but Myers didn’t get the checkered flag. He was penalized one lap for hitting a buoy. This moved Muscatel up to second. Myers tried to catch Hopp in his extra lap, but Hopp held on for third.

Myers didn’t agree with the officials. “They said I went right over a buoy, but they are all still there. If I did, it’s only the third buoy I’ve ever hit. This is a bad weekend to hit a buoy.”

Hopp explained what happened to his boat. “We had a coupler vibration that would happen if I gave it a lot of gas. I was just going to go easy to get third, but I saw DYC coming and had to take the chance and speed up to keep third place.”

Chrysler Jeep blew another engine. “It just went boom. The boat was running great until the engine went,” said King.

Webster had two problems. “When I was getting out of the boat after 1A, the cockpit hatch slammed shut and cut my right ring finger.” Webster returned from the hospital with the fingertip reattached, but his finger nail was removed. When asked about driving again, he said, “The finger is irrelevant. We have gearbox problems.” The gearbox issue caused Matrix to withdraw from the race.

Heats 2A and 2B were scheduled for 4:05 pm and 4:25 pm. Unfortunately, the wind was now blowing as bad as last year when the Sunday heats were cancelled. The 25 mph winds, against the river current, were causing whitecaps and huge rollers, especially in the Belle Isle turn. At 5:50 pm, the course was declared closed. Heats 2A and 2B would be added to the Sunday schedule.

Heat 2

Sunday morning was cloudless. A light breeze blew across the course. The forecast for the day was good, low 80’s and not much wind. In a sign of things to come, Villwock spent some time during the early morning testing with Ellstrom going very slow in the Belle Isle turn.

Webster’s bad luck was good luck for King. “With 0 points, we were going to have to be the trailer in 2A. Now we have been put in 2B as the fifth boat. With all the heats today, we have to do well right away. We have two engines left, but if we lose one in 2B, we’ll have 0 points and pretty much be out of things. At that point, we’d be better off just packing up and getting ready for the West races.”

Villwock was ready for the day. “We have good water out there. We’re set now. We have the rear wing setup and the propeller for this water. As the day goes on and the water changes, we ’ll adjust the back wing and change props.”

Muscatel was still using Fred Leland’s red, white, and blue boat that raced last year. However, he entered Sunday with 300 points, continuing his history of good Saturday results. “We have points, but this boat doesn’t turn well. I’m bruised from the bouncing. We’ll take what is handed to us. We just have to be consistent and keep running. I’m hoping my new boat will be ready for the West races; if not, we’ll have to use this one.”

In 2A, Graham was in lane 1, Ellstrom in 2, Formula in 1, Albert Lee in 4, and Jarvis Disaster in 5. Graham and Formula were first across the start line. Graham led down the backstretch, but Ellstrom used a 155 mph first lap to lead Graham by a boat length at the end of lap 1. Formula was in third, with Albert Lee in fourth, and Jarvis Disaster in fifth.

Villwock stayed outside the whole race and won by about four roostertails over Kelly. Bernard was third, Perkins was fourth, and Muscatel was fifth.

Kelly was pleased again with 300 points. “Lane 1 just opened up for me. I think Dave wanted lane 2. He gave me lots of room, but he had me covered. I was ahead early, but I saw orange in my rearview mirror, and I knew he would reel me in. I just need about 5 mph more.”

In 2B, Jarvis Painting was in lane 1, Oberto in 2, U-17 in 3, Chrysler Jeep in 4, and DYC in 5 again as required for the “unqualified” driver. Chrysler Jeep and DTC both jumped, but Oberto was still first to the turn with Jarvis Painting second. David took the lead out of the turn, with Hopp in second. King passed Hopp in the backstretch and trailed David by one roostertail at the end of the lap.

David completed lap 4 one roostertail ahead of King for the win. King and Myers had to do their extra laps to finish. This put Hopp in second and Brown in third. King almost returned to the pits before he saw his crew waving and pointing for him to go back to the course to do his extra lap. He did and barely edged Myers for fourth.

“We needed 400 points, and I knew I had to beat everyone to the turn. I was just early,” said King. “I had no radio so I didn’t know I had to run the extra lap.”

Heat 3

Prior to heat 3, the wind began to pick up; bringing fears that another wind-cancelled race could happen. Fortunately, it settled down and was not a factor for the rest of the day.

In 3A, Formula was in lane 1, Graham in lane 2, Ellstrom in 3, Albert Lee in 4, and Jarvis Disaster in 5. However, Bernard and Kelly were both penalized one lap for passing the score-up buoy prior to the one minute gun. As the boats rounded the Roostertail Turn prior to the start, Graham took a big hop and damaged the front canard; it soon fell off, and Kelly could only go slow after that.

Bernard was first in and out of the Belle Isle turn, but Villwock passed him in the Roostertail Turn to lead at the end of lap 1.

Following Bernard were Perkins, Muscatel, and Kelly.

The rest of the heat was a parade. The extra lap for Bernard and Kelly put them in fourth and fifth. Villwock won, with Perkins second and Muscatel third.

In 3B, Jarvis Painting was in lane 1 with DFC in 2, Oberto in 3, and U-17 in lane 4. Chrysler Jeep never left its trailer. As the boats neared the start line, Hopp and David slowed to avoid jumping. Myers and Brown did jump the gun.

Myers led all of the four laps, with David second, Hopp third, and Brown fourth. By the end of the heat, three roostertails separated each boat. With Myers and Brown doing their extra laps, the final order of finish was Oberto, Jarvis Painting, DYC, and U-17.

Hopp had gotten lane 1 in all three of his heats. “Things are looking up for us. I knew the two boats jumped. My spotter [his father Jerry] told me to just bring it home for the 300 points.”

Chrysler Jeep did not make 3B. In 2B, a gearbox oil line came loose. The engine was losing oil pressure during the heat. When that happened before with one of the team’s engines, the engine blew the next time it went out. Rather than risk an engine, the team changed engines and could not complete the change in time to make the heat.

Heat 4.

In 4A, once again, Hopp was able to get lane 1. Elam was in lane 2 with Formula in 3, Graham in 4, and U-17 in 5. As the boats entered the Roostertail Turn for the start, Villwock was about three boat lengths behind Hopp; it turned out to be the wrong place at the wrong time for Ellstrom. When Hopp turned left, his skid fin spray and roostertail hit Ellstrom, causing the engine to quit. Without power for the turn, Villwock drifted out into Bernard’s lane, who was then forced out into Kelly’s lane. Villwock was immediately penalized a lap and fined 150 points. Ellstrom coasted to a stop in the turn as the rest of the field headed for the start.

Hopp was first in and out of the turn, but Bernard passed him in the backstretch. Hopp regained the lead going into the Roostertail Turn, but Bernard passed him coming out of the turn to lead at the end of lap 1. Kelly was in third and Brown in fourth. Villwock restarted, but trailed in fifth.

Bernard went on to win the heat. Kelly and Hopp had a good race for second during the final three laps with Kelly finally passing Hopp from the outside in the Roostertail Turn in the last lap to get second. Brown was fourth, and Villwock did his extra lap to get fifth.

Bernard needed the 400 points to make the front row of the final. “If Villwock hadn’t been washed down, I wouldn’t have beaten him from lane 3. We needed some help and got it. I’m looking forward to my first Gold Cup final. Two years ago, we were in the final, but the engine wouldn’t start. To be able to win the Gold Cup this year for Terry [stepfather Terry Troxell] would be special.”

Villwock said Hopp did nothing wrong. “I just got into Hopp’s water, and it killed the engine. The boat hopped out into lane 3, and with no power, I didn’t know where it would go.”

Only three boats were in 4B. Jarvis Disaster didn’t leave its trailer, and Chrysler Jeep returned to the pits before the one minute gun. DTC was in lane 1, 0berto in 2, and Albert Lee in lane 3. David and Myers crossed the start line first. David took the lead in the Belle Isle turn and easily won the heat. Myers was second with Perkins in third.

Myers hoped to get into the final. “This was a good test run. After the start, it was an equipment management program. Hopefully, we can run again later this afternoon.”

Muscatel was done for the day. “We have engine mount problems. We don’t want to risk the financial damage to the engine and the boat.”

King explained why he returned to the pits. “We put in a brand new engine that we had never used. We had a vibration so I brought it in.”

The field was now set for the final. On the front line would be Oberto, Ellstrom, Graham, Jarvis Painting, and Formula. With Jarvis Disaster withdrawn, DYC and Albert Lee were tied for the trailer spot. Because of a faster qualification speed, DYC got the spot, but declined. The boat had problems with its bottom and right air trap, in part caused by all of the laps necessary to get its driver qualified. This put Albert Lee in as the trailer.

“We probably shouldn’t run,” said Albert Lee owner Greg O’Farrell. “We’ve been re-welding our strut after each heat, and we have a hole in the bottom. We’ll try to run.” Unfortunately, the repairs could not be done in time. There would be no trailer in the final.


After what happened when he was in lane 2 in 4A, Villwock wanted to control his own destiny from lane 1. So, he and his crew designed a new strategy to get lane 1 for the final, a strategy that could only be used because of the removal of the rale to be on plane.

Villwock left the pits for the milling period and went slowly down the front stretch. He continued slowly to the Belle Isle turn; at the two and a half minute mark, he was moving very, very slow at the apex of the turn. In the meantime, the other four boats were milling as usual. The public address announcers were speculating that something might be wrong with Ellstrom’s engine. There was nothing wrong; this was the team’s plan.

Villwock continued to crawl slowly through the turn and got to the score-up buoy just before the one minute gun to get lane 1. Any boat that would have tried to take lane 1 from him would either have been penalized for not having the required overlap or would have passed the score-up buoy too early. Villwock’s strategy to park in the Belle Isle turn worked; he spent four minutes getting to the turn to be at the score-up buoy at the one minute gun.

Oberto took lane 2; Formula was in 3, Jarvis Painting in 4, and Graham in 5. Ellstrom and Jarvis Painting crossed the start line together, but Villwock was first to the turn and took a quick one roostertail lead over Oberto. At the end of the lap, Kelly was in third, Bernard in fourth, and Hopp fifth.

Villwock was never challenged and went on to win by two roostertails over David. Kelly and Bernard had a good battle for third. In lap 5, Bernard used the inside lane in the Roostertail Turn to pass Kelly and won the drag race for third. Hopp finished fifth.

Villwock was pleased and humble. “We would have stayed with the new starting rules. We didn’t vote for the rule changes, but we used a strategy that was within the changed rules. This is an enjoyable win. I race for our team. It’s all about finding a good group of people and having fun. This sport has treated me well, and I care about the sport.”

Ellstrom owner Erick Ellstrom was pleasantly surprised. “We prepped for this starting strategy and it worked as planned. That’s really rare for that to happen. People thought we were having problems getting the boat to plane.”

David has also thought about a parking strategy. “We looked at the same plan, but for us to relight from ground idle would take 40 seconds. We would have had lane l,but we would have been 40 seconds behind at the start. We went for a strategy of horsepower instead. As I came in from the final, I told Mike [crew chief Mike Hanson] that if I had won, I would have retired this year. Now I have to come back for another year.”

When asked if he considered the parking strategy, Bernard replied, “ We have never had both of our boats in a Gold Cup final. We didn’t want to try something new. We were against two dominant boats today. We’re happy with a third and fourth and both boats okay.”

As APBA President Mark Weber said, “It took 53 weeks to finally have the 100th running of the Gold Cup.” While today’s boats are capable of some of the fastest speeds in the sport’s history, who would have predicted that the key to winning the 100lh running of the Gold Cup would be a strategy involving no speed at all?

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Breathing under water:

A quote from Jean Theoret after the Madison flip

“The problem I have now is lung capacity. When I went over, I landed upside down. I tried to open the top hatch, but it wouldn’t open because there wasn’t enough water in the cockpit to offset the pressure from below. I undid my belts and removed the steering wheel. My air mask was on, but I didn’t know that the air hose was gone. I took a breath and got nothing but water. I took another gulp, and then I was gone. The rescue people were great. Someone told me that it was 3 minutes and 17 seconds from when I crashed until they had me on the land. I got out of intensive care on Monday morning. There was a fear that I could get pneumonia, but fortunately that didn’t happen. My vitals were good the whole time; it was just too much water in my lungs. The doctor said that I may get back to 85 to 90% of my lung capacity in 3 to 4 weeks. It could take a full year to get to 100%. I’m still weak, and when I get tired, I have to lie down for a while. I do want to drive again.”

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-- Mac Clouse

[Reprinted from Unlimited NewsJournal, August 2009]