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Boat field starting to take shape as Columbia Cup approaches

By Jeff Morrow, Special to the Herald
This is a reprint from a Tri-City Herald article with permission given by the author.

We’re days away until the Columbia Cup hydroplane races take place down near Columbia Park.

And I’m not sure we know yet the exact number of unlimited hydroplanes that fans will get to see when testing begins on July 28.

With boats flipping and breaking parts, teams have been busy in their shops trying to put the pieces back together.

The U-40 Bucket List Racing team has been working hard to get to the Tri-Cities after Dustin Echols flipped it in Madison earlier this month.

The Madison team has been working to get the U-91 Miss Goodman Real Estate boat ready since late June after driver Andrew Tate flipped that boat in the Guntersville, Ala., final.

We do know that Rob Graham announced last week he is bringing his U-12 Graham Trucking boat out of drydock to race in both the Tri-Cities and at the APBA Gold Cup the following week in Seattle. He’ll have Jimmy King’s son, Bobby King, will drive the boat but he’ll need to qualify as an unlimited driver.

We also know that Greg O’Farrell will race his U-21 for the first time in Seattle, but his boat can’t be in the Tri-Cities because a close friend’s funeral is on the day of the Tri-Cities race.

Kelly Stocklin will not only hopefully have his U-40 boat ready to go, but he wants Brent Hall to drive the 440 Boitano Homes boat in the race.

And we’re still not sure of the status of Charlie Wiggins’ U-27 boat rebuild in Alabama.

So we could have as few as seven boats, and as many as nine or 10.

Here’s my take to this point with the races being run July 28-30 in the Tri-Cities:

I know I’m supposed to be objective, but I can’t tell you how tickled I am to see Jamie Nilsen and the Raney’s — owners Scott and Shannon — at the top of the H1 Unlimited national high point standings at the halfway point of the season with the U-11 Legend Yacht Transport.

This team shows up for every race and goes about its business.

When the media and fans talk about which team is favored to win a race, the U-11 team is an afterthought.

But when it comes to a season championship, it’s about consistency, and that’s what Nilsen and the U-11 is doing through the first two races. They haven’t won either at Guntersville or Madison.

But they finish their races. And that’s been the key. They did that all of last season too.

They’ll get a push from J. Michael Kelly and the U-8 — the U-11 team has 2,315 points; the U-8 has 2,314 — and don’t count Corey Peabody and the U-9, or Dustin Echols and the U-40 (if the boat can be prepared in time for Tri-Cities).

I’ve never seen such a stranger season in which a final hasn’t been completed so far.

But weather has always been a factor in hydroplane racing. There are many other factors.

Chip Hanauer once told me what makes boat racing so hard compared to auto racing: the course (water) is constantly moving.

I remember the 2008 APBA Gold Cup race in Detroit was blown out with constant 20 mph wins. Then-commissioner Sam Cole had to declare it a no-contest. The tough part was it was going to be the 100th running of the Gold Cup.

Instead, the 2009 Detroit race became the 100th running.

In the Tri-Cities, I can think of two instances where weather really played a factor — although both races would be completed.

First, in 2006, high winds at 30 mph threatened the race all day on Sunday. Delays happened, and it took Ken Muscatel to get his boat out and see if the waves on the Columbia River were navigable. 

Muscatel said yes, but a number of drivers still weren’t convinced. And they still weren’t convinced when Dave Villwock flipped the Ellstrom boat on the day’s first heat race.

But the teams kept plugging away, the winds died down late in the afternoon, and the delays gave the Ellstrom team enough time to fix the boat and allow Villwock to win the final in what he called one of his greatest victories.

A Flip and Win.

The other situation was the 2021 Columbia Cup. For two years because of covid, no one had touched the Columbia River. An unusually hot summer had allowed incredible vegetation growth in the river, unabated.

A bed of sago pondweed about a football field in length and covering lanes 1 through 4 had grown on the Franklin County side of the river. It affected a boat’s ability to run through there as the intakes would choke on it.

No racing was held on Saturday, and the true heroes were the Columbia Cup water operations team, which spent much of Saturday evening using heavy chains to scoop the stuff up out of the water.

All of the weekend’s racing was held on Sunday.

My early prediction: I really like one of the Strong Racing boats to win the Columbia Cup.

Peabody has won here a few years back, and he needs to get going again in the U-9 if he’s to be a factor in the season points race.

Kelly has had multiple victories on the Columbia River. His ability to settle into Lane 1 before a race and use the short course has been effective for victory. So don’t count the U-8 out.

Tate (driving the U-91) has also experienced success here. He’ll be ready to race if the boat is ready.

And Nilsen in the U-11 is battling for a season title. He knows how to stay out of trouble and still be near the front.

Everyone knows how rough that first turn on the race course can be in the Tri-Cities. The question is who can get through it with the least amount of damage.

If I had to pick the race favorite, though, I’m going with Peabody.

Point standings after two races in the four-race H1 Unlimited season:

  1. U-11 Legend Yacht Transport, driver Jamie Nilsen, 2,315 points
  2. U-8 Beacon Electric, driver J. Michael Kelly, 2,314 points
  3. U-9 Beacon Plumbing, driver Corey Peabody, 1,780 points
  4. U-40 Bucket List Racing, driver Dustin Echols, 1,718 points
  5. U-1 Miss HomeStreet Bank, driver Dylan Runne, 1,664 points
  6. U-91 Miss Goodman Real Estate, driver Andrew Tate, 1,070 points
  7. U-3 Grigg’s presents Miss Ace Hardware, driver Jimmy King, 330 points
  8. 440 Boitano Homes, driver Brent Hall, 0 points