J.Michael Kelly really didn’t have a choice with his career in racing boats.
“I’m third generation,” said the Bonney Lake native, who will drive one of the top boats in the H1 Unlimited Fleet on Lake Washington this weekend at the Albert Lee Cup at Seafair. His grandfather, uncle and father all raced boats.
“Pretty much from the time I was born, it was in my blood, and I knew I wanted to do it,” said Kelly, who won the Columbia Cup last weekend in Kennewick on a penalty in the championship heat.
It’s not an unusual story for the drivers you’ll find scurrying around the Stan Sayres Pits this weekend. Boat racing often runs through generations of families.
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Kelly, 37, got his start in 1987 driving J-stock hydroplanes, an outboard-style boat that racers can start driving as young as 9 years old.
After a successful career in the lower classes, Kelly got his shot at the unlimiteds in 2004 in Kennewick, driving for Jim Harvey in the U-2. Kelly was the first in his family to drive an unlimited — something he thought he’d never do.
It was supposed to be a one-time deal until the team found a more experienced driver.
He made the finals in that first race and finished third. That earned him a shot the next weekend at Seafair, where he won his first heat and made the finals.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Kelly said.
And he’s been in the cockpit ever since. He bounced around some over the past decade. He drove for Dave Bartush in the U-13 from 2006-08. He drove for Ted Porter and the Graham Trucking team in 2009-10. Then it was for Billy Schumacher from 2011-13. He returned to Porter in 2014.
Kelly replaced Jimmy Shane, who had just won the national title in the Graham Trucking U-5 boat, when he moved to the Oh Boy! Oberto (and won the next two national titles).
That 2014 season earned him a multi-year deal driving the Graham Trucking U-5, which is based out of Decatur, Indiana. He won four races and finished second in the National High Points standings.
“We’ve just really jelled,” Kelly said. “We picked up where Jimmy left off.”
Kelly enters Seafair with two streaks on the line. Graham Trucking has won three straight Albert Lee Cup races. Shane won in 2013; Kelly has won the past two. Last year’s title came when Shane was flagged for an encroachment penalty on the final lap of the championship heat. In 2014, Kelly sweated out a 20-minute wait to see if he would be penalized for the championship heat after another altercation with Shane.
Three drivers have won three consecutive Seafairs. South Kitsap product Dave Villwock did it twice (1998-2000 and 2002-04) in the Miss Budweiser. Steve David did it in the Oh Boy! Oberto from 2010-12.
The Seafair record for consecutive victories is held by the legendary Bill Muncey, who drove the Atlas Van Lines boat to four straight wins in 1977-80.
“Winning here in Seattle is an even cooler experience because our family and friends are here,” Kelly said.
And those wins in Seattle has helped breed the fourth generation of Kellys into boat racing.
“I have a 7-year-old (Carson) itching to get in a boat,” Kelly said. “He has a couple more years. He doesn’t understand why he can’t race now.”
He has a 17-year-old stepson, Brennan, who has also done some racing. A third son, 4-year-old Archer, could also catch the bug.
“We get to see different parts of the world we wouldn’t get to see if it wasn’t for boat racing,” Kelly said. “It’s kind of a family thing. We pack up the family and go make a mini-vacation out of it.”
Seafair will have three classes of boats running this weekend. As well as the unlimited hydroplanes, two boats will be on the undercard. The U.S. Formula 1 boats, which make right and left turns and drive a different course than the bigger boats, are back for a fifth consecutive year. The Grand Prix West boats, a smaller class of hydroplane using louder, V-8 engines, will also race. … Last year was supposed to be the last Seafair the Oh Boy! Oberto company would sponsor a hydroplane. But the Seattle-based company is sponsoring the Ellstrom Racing team this weekend. They also sponsored that team last weekend in the Tri-Cities where the new Oberto hit the old Oberto boat (now called HomeStreet Bank) in the final. … H1 Unlimited announced over the weekend it added a new race site. H1 will race Pleasant Lake near Phoenix either in 2017 or 2018. The unlimiteds were previously in Arizona in 2000. It’s the second new site H1 has announced this season along with Guntersville, Alabama. There are five races on the 2016 schedule. ... Shane has an 86-point lead over Kelly in the National High Points standings with three races remaining.