It’s been a short, strange season for those who drive unlimited hydroplanes in fast circles on Lake Washington.
Normally, the annual stop in Seattle for Seafair weekend begins the back end of the H1 Unlimited season. This year, for the 13-boat field unloading at Stan Sayres Pits, it’s the third race of the season — and only the second that counts in the standings.
The season got off to a rough start on the Fourth of July weekend when the race in Madison, Indiana, was reduced to a one-day event on a smaller course because of rising river waters with boat-damaging debris.
As some owners weren’t willing to risk damage to their boats, the race didn’t count for the season points standings.
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“Madison was an interesting start,” Oberto driver Jimmy Shane said Tuesday during a news conference for the Albert Lee Appliance Cup at Seafair.
Normally, the Gold Cup in Detroit, the premier race of the season, follows Madison.
H1 Unlimited nearly lost the race in Detroit, which was the site of the Gold Cup for the past 11 years. The Detroit River Regatta Association ceased operations and the race ended with it.
The race was eventually replaced by the UAW-GM Spirit of Detroit Hydrofest on Aug. 22-23.
It’s likely the Gold Cup will return to Detroit next season. It was held over the weekend in Tri-Cities and Shane won in the Oberto boat.
Keeping race sites has been a problem. The season-ending championship race in Doha, Qatar, is no more.
The race in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is scheduled to return next year. It was contested in 2013 and stopped for two years because of permitting issues.
That leaves only five races for this season, with Detroit and San Diego remaining after Seafair.
“It’s not a good situation,” legendary driver and hydroplane analyst Chip Hanauer said. “For the drivers what it means is that every heat is absolutely critical.”
Hanauer points out that in past seasons some boats may hang back during preliminary heats, but this season “they have to race hard every week.”
After the one race that counted, Oberto leads the pack in the series points race, but five other boats are in the hunt.
“There’s a lot of parity this year,” said Jesse Robertson, who dives the Graham Trucking II. “It’s more exciting for the fans.”
Seafair at a glance
This is the 65th year of hydroplane racing at Seafair. … Albert Lee, the title sponsor for the hydro races at Seafair, will sponsor the U-21, which is known as Go Fast, Turn Left Racing. The boat was nearly destroyed when it flipped at Tri-Cities last year. It will be driven by Brian Perkins and make its return this weekend. … Qualifying is Friday at 2:50 p.m. The first heats are Saturday, beginning at 11:15 a.m. The first heats Sunday are at 11:20 a.m. The final is at 4:45 p.m. Only Sunday’s action is televised on KIRO-TV.
Farewell to Oberto
This is the last season Oh Boy! Oberto will sponsor hydroplanes. The Seattle-based beef jerky company has been involved with hydroplane racing for 40 years.
Oberto didn’t become a major factor as a sponsor until hooking up with the Miss Madison team in 2000, and Steve David drove them to five national championships. Shane added a sixth last season.
Art Oberto, 85, has been a fixture at races, especially Seafair. He stepped away from running his company several years ago. When he found out that Oberto would no longer sponsor a boat, he decided to foot the bill for 2015 so as to not leave the team in the lurch.
Besides the unlimited hydroplanes, there will be two other class of boats racing on Lake Washington.
The U.S. Formula 1 boats, which make right and left turns and drive a different course than the unlimiteds, are back at Seafair for the fourth consecutive year.
It’s the final race of the USF1 season, and the top three boats are within 17 points of each other.
The Grand Prix West boats, a smaller class of hydroplane that uses louder, V-8 engines, also will race.