Jimmy Shane wasn’t bragging, merely pointing out the obvious.
At 27, with three victories in a little more than a year, the youngest driver in the H1 Unlimited series represents a new wave of hydroplane competitors essential for the sport’s regeneration.
“I want to make sure I put this the right way,” Shane said Friday, a few minutes before qualifying began for the Albert Lee Cup at Seafair. “I guess you could call me a breath of fresh air. But there’s lots of extremely, extremely good drivers — guys like J. Michael Kelly — who are going to do great things on this circuit for a long time. It’s an exciting time for our sport.”
The symbolic passing of the torch began in May, when 59-year-old Dave Villwock announced his retirement from the cockpit of the U-1 Spirit of Qatar 96. Either Villwock, whose 67 victories rank No. 1 on the Unlimited career list, or Steve David, the 59-year-old driver of the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto, has won every national high points championship since 1997, when Mark Tate finished first.
Entering Seafair, David led the pack this year with 6,315 points, but Shane was only 233 points behind him.
Shane, a second-year driver who pilots the U-5 Graham Trucking for owner Ted Porter’s Precision Performance team, will try to make up ground Sunday after his boat got caught in a roostertail and went dead before the start of Saturday’s heat.
“We’re happy,” Shane said Friday. “We’re in a good spot right now. Last year was unbelievable — you couldn’t ask for anything better — and this season is shaping up just as well.”
After serving five years as a backup driver for Porter’s team, Shane announced his arrival as full-time pilot of the U-5 Graham Trucking with a victory in the 2012 Lamb Weston Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities.
The breakout campaign concluded with an Oryx Cup championship this past January on Doha Bay in Qatar. A month later, he was back in Qatar for the 2013 opener. Same course, same result.
“Qatar is definitely a challenge,” Shane said. “It has the highest salt content of any water we race on. Turbine engines don’t like salt, so it comes down to who can do the best at keeping the engine from getting wet. Besides, all that salt creates a visibility problem from the haze. It’s tough to see the buoys.
“But we’ve won twice there, so I guess things have worked out.”
Shane makes his home in Havre de Grace, Md., best known as the birthplace of baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Billy, a former big leaguer turned baseball studio analyst. Their late father, Cal Sr., once managed the Baltimore Orioles.
“I went to school with a bunch of Ripkens, nieces and nephews,” Shane said. “We all kind of grew up together.”
In Havre de Grace, Shane’s family was the powerboat-racing equivalent of the Ripkens. Stu Shane, Jimmy’s father, competed from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, enjoying particular success in Canada. Stu introduced his wife, Robin, to the sport; she raced in various inboarding classes before giving birth to Jimmy’s older sister, Kelly, an accomplished 5-liter hydroplane driver.
Beyond the task of operating a 6,750-pound boat — it’s more like a jet, capable of achieving straightaway speeds in excess of 200 mph — the H1 Unlimited series has some quirky challenges.
Take, for instance, the schedule. After winning in Qatar, Shane wasn’t able to race until Memorial Day weekend in Sacramento. Because post-flood river conditions forced the cancellation of the Madison (Ind.) Regatta, the series didn’t resume until the Detroit Gold Cup in mid-July.
August is fast and furious: the Columbia Cup last weekend, followed by Seafair, followed by the Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) Diamond Cup during Labor Day weekend. But after the 2013 series wraps up at San Diego’s Bayfair on Sept. 13-15, hydro racers likely won’t resume competition until late next spring. (The 2014 Oryx Cup in Qatar has been moved to November.)
“There’s gonna be a long break after San Diego, but like every other driver, I’ve got a regular job,” said Shane, who works for his family’s sheet-metal business in Havre de Grace. “I might do some inboarding and outboarding races during the lull to keep my skill level sharp.”
The lull isn’t calling for many quiet nights. On June 7, Shane and fiancée Bianca Bononcini welcomed their first child, son Colton, into the world. Colton’s mom is — who’d have guessed it? — a former boat racer.
“It’s absolutely amazing, being a father,” Shane said. “We’re already starting to interact. I can’t wait to see him playing T-ball.”
Thanks to the Ripkens, there are plenty of baseball fields in Havre de Grace. But given Colton’s genes — his paternal grandparents were powerboat racers, along with his mom and his aunt, and his dad is the freshest prince on the H1 Unlimited circuit — it’s as if the kid is destined to drive on water.
Shane was 9 when he got his start in J-stock hydros. By the time he was 14, he was racing 1.5-liter stock inboards. He liked baseball and had some ability at golf, but when it came to sports, Shane knew what he wanted and how to get there.
Will Colton Shane take after his father, the same way Jimmy Shane took after his?
“I won’t push him,” Shane said. “I’d never do that. But if that’s his choice someday, I’m not holding him back.”
Kind of a neat name for a sport, isn’t it?john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com