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Ellstrom team looks to rebound at Seafair’s hydroplane races

For most of the last decade, the Ellstrom team was battling with Oh Boy! Oberto to be the top hydroplane in the H1 Unlimited Fleet.

Now the Ballard-based Ellstrom team, which has competed as the Miss Elam Plus, the 96 Spirit of Qatar and Ellstrom racing, has become Oh Boy! Oberto.

The Seattle-based beef jerky company decided last year to stop sponsoring hydroplanes — something it had done since 1975.

But when the Ellstrom boat pulled up to the pits in the Tri-Cities last weekend for the Columbia Cup, it had a new paint job.

“Now we don’t fight any more,” Erick Ellstrom said. “We play together.”

Last weekend at the Columbia Cup, it was the new U-16 Oh Boy! Oberto still tussling with the former Oberto, which is now called U-1 Homestreet Bank (and is still the Madison Racing team and driven by Jimmy Shane, who has won the last three national titles).

In the championship heat, the Oh Boy! Oberto and Homesteet Bank collided. Oberto driver Jean Theoret was initially given a one-lap penalty during the heat. After the race, H1 officials reversed the call and gave the penalty to Shane, who had won the race. After the penalty, J. Michael Kelly and the Graham Trucking was awarded the win.

“It was unfortunate that happened,” Ellstrom said. “There was a big argument. Who went in? Who went out?”

The race was somewhat typical for the Ellstrom team over the past few years.

The team is still working back from a disastrous race in Doha, Qatar, in 2013. South Kitsap grad Dave Villwock, in his final race with the team, had a flip and a fire. The Ellstrom team rebuilt the boat from scratch.

That boat debuted in Tri-Cities in 2014, but was damaged the following week at Seafair when Jeff Bernard flipped the boat (or blow over, in hydroplane speak). Bernard left the team after aggravating a neck injury later that season in San Diego.

The boat returned last season but suffered more bad luck in 2015 with a flip in Detroit.

At nearly every stop, the boat shows its speed by topping the qualifying ladder, but the wins haven’t followed in recent years.

It’s no wonder Theoret, a veteran racer who joined the team last season, has a simple plan this year.

“Our main goal right now is to make it to the final and stay out of trouble,” he said.

The Oh Boy! Oberto was once again the top qualifier Friday — at 150.093 mph — at the Albert Lee Cup at Seafair.

This season, the Ellstrom team skipped the season opener in Madison, Indiana, and how many races they’ll make this season is still up in the air.

“We’re not it in for the points this year,” Ellstrom said.

Making the whole circuit, and competing for the National High Points title, was something the team did for more than 20 years, Ellstrom said.

When will they be back for the whole run?

“We’re hoping next year,” said Theoret, who won his first two appearances at Seafair in 2005-2006.

The Ellstrom team hasn’t exactly taken advantage of homefield advantage at Seafair. In some 25 years of racing on Lake Washington, the team has notched only three wins, two with Villwock behind the wheel in 2008-2009. The team has 12 top-three finishes.

But the Ellstrom team has been top qualifier at Seafair 11 times.

“The boat is built for longer race courses,” said Theoret, referring to the Ted Jones Race Course, which is the shortest on the circuit at 2 miles.

“Seattle, of course, is that equalizer,” Ellstrom said. “It’s so rough and it’s a short course.”

All nine boats in the pits Friday qualified for the weekend of racing. Heat 1A and 1B are Saturday starting at 11:35 a.m. The rest of the race is Sunday, starting at 10:55 a.m. The finals are at 4:45 p.m.

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