Jean Theoret has been trying to climb into the driver’s seat of the U-96 Ellstrom Elam Plus for 15 years.
Now that he’s finally in there, the driver who had been away from unlimited hydroplane racing for five years could get Ellstrom Racing back on top after two years of rebuilding.
The hydros race Friday through Sunday on Lake Washington as part of Seattle’s Seafair.
Last weekend, at the Gold Cup in the Tri-Cities, Theoret showed that he could well be driving the boat to beat this season. He was the top qualifier and he would have won the final had he not driven into a restricted part of the race course — dubbed the DMZ — and been disqualified.
“He kind of blew it,” said Chip Hanauer, a legendary driver turned analyst. “He had the fastest boat. There’s no question with everybody racing and everybody on the beach (that) he had the fastest boat.”
Jimmy Shane in the Oberto won the Gold Cup, but it was obvious his crew has work to do if it is going to repeat as national champions.
“They’re (the Ellstrom boat) going to be just as fast, if not faster, than Tri-Cities,” said Shane, the two-time defending drivers’ champ. “The rest of us as teams have to step up our games a little bit and do some work on our boats to try and catch up to the 96 boat.”
No. 96, which ran as the Spirit of Qatar from 2010-14, is back after a boat was built from scratch following a fire after a flip in Doha, Qatar, in January 2013.
The new boat debuted last year in Tri-Cities and was damaged the next week in a flip in Seattle. After running in only four races, the Ellstrom team treated last season like a redshirt year to get the boat ready.
“It didn’t come out of the box as we anticipated,” team owner Erick Ellstrom said. “There were a lot of things to change and fix.”
Driver Kip Brown injured his neck in the flip and aggravated it a few weeks later in San Diego. Theoret took over for the final race in Qatar.
Theoret had been talking to Ellstrom since 2000 about driving the boat. The Ellstrom team, along with the Steve David-driven Oberto, were the top teams in hydroplane racing over the decade since the dominating Miss Budweiser was retired in 2004.
South Kitsap grad Dave Villwock drove the Elam/Qatar boat to national titles in 2007 and 2011. Villwock and the Ellstrom team parted ways after the boat fire.
Ellstrom said he’d always been impressed with Theoret and kept in contact over the years.
“He did well with other teams,” Ellstrom said. “He took boats that maybe weren’t in the same caliber as the other boats and still beat them.”
Theoret was already a veteran and crafty driver when he entered the unlimited circuit in 2005. He’s one of the top drivers in Canadian boat-racing history with 43 wins in the Grand Prix class (which is the premier inboard hydroplane class in Canada) and several championships. He was inducted into the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2011.
He won Seafair in his first appearance, one of two wins that first season that earned him rookie of the year despite being 43. He backed up the first season by winning Seafair again in 2006 in the same boat, which had been sold to former driver Billy Schumacher.
Theoret nearly made it three Seafair titles in four years, but he was called for a penalty well after crossing the finish line first in 2008, handing a controversial win to Villwock.
Theoret, who lives near Montreal and co-owns an excavation business, drove for the Schumacher team and recorded six wins, including the Gold Cup in 2006, before leaving the team in 2009.
That season, Theoret nearly drowned during a race in Madison, Indiana, after a flip. The tube delivering oxygen was broken with Theoret still strapped into the driver’s seat and he took several mouthfuls of water. A rescue crew performed CPR before taking him to a hospital.
Theoret got back in the boat one more time that season before leaving, which was the last time he drove on the H1 Unlimited circuit before landing in the Elam. He said it wasn’t the accident that pushed him out of racing. It was that the racing team had lost its sponsor and was no longer competitive. He’s been waiting for a good situation to return.
“By the grace of God, I still have it in me and I’m still competitive,” Theoret said.
Now the Ellstrom team may have the fastest boat, an experienced and talented driver and one of the top crew chiefs in Mike Hanson, who joined the squad last season after crewing David and Oberto to six national championships.
And after a season away to get the boat dialed in …
“I think you’re seeing the fruits of those efforts of that year,” Hanauer said.
Seafair at a glance
What: Albert Lee Appliance Cup at Seafair
Where: Genesee Park, Seattle
Friday: Qualifying, 2:50 p.m.
Saturday: Heat 1, 11:15 a.m.
Sunday: Heat 2, 11:20 a.m.; Heat 3, 2:55 p.m., final, 4:45 p.m.