Unlimited hydroplane owners believe, and hope, low boat count at Seafair this year is an anomaly

Those wandering around the Stan Sayres pits Saturday might have noticed something not normally seen at the HomeStreet Bank Cup at Seafair.

Empty space.

Normally, just about every available inch is filled with a hydroplane or a team that works on them.

But there are only five unlimited hydroplanes racing this weekend on Lake Washington, along with four vintage hydroplanes running exhibitions. There’s no smaller class of race boat this year.

You could even see some grass.

Which folks on the H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Series, and to a lesser extent Seafair, say is just an anomaly. Or at least they hope it is.

Seafair CEO Eric Corning said Saturday that they were unable to book a smaller class of race boat this year because many race series are still struggling to come back from the pandemic, and opportunities to increase the air show filled out the day. Future Seafairs will likely have more boat classes, he said. The F1 Tunnel boats were part of Seafair from 2012 to 2019.

Those in the hydroplane circles point to bad luck and the pandemic for the low boat count.

“Long term, I don’t see it as a problem,” said Charlie Grooms, who is president of the Miss Madison team, which includes the Miss HomeStreet and Goodman Real Estate. “It certainly could become that if things don’t turn around and develop.”

Grooms and other owners point to several teams that remained on the sidelines this year.

The Seattle-based Graham Trucking team, the defending champion at Seafair, didn’t race this year. Go Fast Turn Left Racing from Maple Valley also sat out. Detroit-based Bartush Racing hasn’t returned since the pandemic. Wiggins Racing has been rebuilding its boat in Alabama since a crash in the final at Seafair in 2018.

Also missing from the ranks is one of Strong Racing’s boats as it flipped in Madison, Indiana, and the team decided to improve the boat rather than rush it back. The U-3, the only piston-powered boat, suffered damage last weekend in Tri-Cities when a propeller broke. But that boat doesn’t often race in Seattle.

Groom said he’s had assurances that many of the teams plan to return next year. He’s hoping for a full field of about nine boats next year.

“It’s going to be better going forward because we’re going to have more boats,” said Scott Raney, who owns the U-11 Unlimited Racing Group with wife Shannon.

While it might improve in the short term, it underscores the need for the sport to recruit more fresh blood such as the Strong Racing team, which is in its second season.

“One boat by one boat by one boat is how it got down to five,” said Kelly Stocklin, who owns Bucket List Racing with wife Sharon. “And one boat by one boat by one boat is how we’re going to build it back up again.”

Many teams have run two boats in recent years to boost boat counts. The Miss Madison team built a new boat it launched in 2018. The old hull had won eight national titles and was still competitive. Strong Racing bought two of the top boats on the sidelines when it entered the sport and plans to keep racing both. Graham Trucking has run two boats in the past.

Raney has thought about running his second boat, but as the scrappy-underdog team, he isn’t sure it’s the best plan. The Bucket List team decided not to run two boats this year and concentrate on its more competitive hull.

“We can all buy more boats, but what you’re doing is just spreading it thinner and thinner,” Stocklin said, referring to the money teams have to put into racing.

Hydros meet their match

In recent years, H1 Unlimited has experimented with match racing, which is a mini tournament with shorter, head-to-head qualifying heats. They’ve tried it a few times in Madison, Indiana, and it debuted Saturday at Seafair.

It’s a double-elimination tournament with the teams seeded on a bracket based on their qualifying speed. The races are two laps with the boat with slower qualifying speed getting the inside lane.

“We don’t want to be stuck in the same old rut we’ve always been in,” Grooms said. “We need to change our product. The status quo isn’t going to get it.”

The morning session saw Jimmy Shane and the Miss HomeStreet and Dave Villwock and Miss Beacon Plumbing advance to the four-boat final. In a last-chance heat early in the afternoon, Jeff Bernard in the Goodman Real Estate and J. Michael Kelly in the Boitano Homes took the other two spots.

The final was a standard unlimited heat with four boats. Shane jumped out to an early lead and cruised to a win.

The early heats produced some close racing. A late heat saw Villwock edge Kelly in a heat that was too close to call if you were watching from the shore.

Also

  • There’s two preliminary heats for the unlimiteds Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and 2:10 p.m.
  • Coverage of the event starts at 1 p.m. on KONG.

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