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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Multi-Attraction Programs Provide Boon for Unlimiteds

September 12, 1997|SHAV GLICK

There was a time when all that was needed to attract 150,000 or more people to Mission Bay for an unlimited hydroplane race was a heads-up battle between Bill Muncey in Atlas Van Lines and Dean Chenoweth in Miss Budweiser, or Chip Hanauer in the Atlas boat and Jim Kropfeld in Miss Bud.

The superstars of the unlimiteds are gone now. Muncey and Chenoweth were killed in racing accidents, Kropfeld and Hanauer were seriously injured and retired. Defending series champion Dave

Villwock was just gaining superstar status after winning five consecutive races when he was injured in midseason and sidelined the remainder of the season.

So Bill Doner, commissioner of the Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Assn., and Jim Kidrick, executive director of San Diego's Bayfair '97, decided the way to put on a modern-day racing spectacle was to flood the water with boats.

When the Unlimiteds show up today at Mission Bay for their 31st annual weekend of racing for the Bill Muncey Cup, they will share attention with Formula One tunnel boats, International Hot Boat Assn. drag boats, Grand Nationals, crackerboxes, Thunderducks, water skiers and Unlimited Lights. Kidrick calls it the World Series of Power Boat Racing.

"Frankly, in this day and age, watching only the unlimiteds and then waiting around while nothing was happening would be boring," Doner said. "Can you imagine a drag race with only top fuelers? Nobody would show up."

Kidrick, who pioneered the multi-attraction program when interest in the unlimiteds began to wane a few years ago, received an award from the UHRA last year for his "outstanding contribution" to the sport.

Villwock, who lost two fingers and nearly his right hand when Miss Budweiser crashed last July in Tri-Cities, Wash., will be in San Diego as a spectator. His nearly severed hand was reattached in a six-hour operation. The 6-foot 4-inch driver and team manager also had a broken right forearm and a concussion when the latest-model Miss Budweiser suddenly went airborne and landed upside down on the Columbia River.

Villwock won the 1996 championship driving Fred Leyland's PICO American Dream but in the off-season accepted Bernie Little's offer to drive Miss Budweiser. After Villwock was hurt, Little called Hanauer, who had walked away from Miss Budweiser early last season after a series of accidents in which he questioned the hull design.

"Boats coming out of that team keep going upside down at a higher rate than other boats on the circuit," Hanauer told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after rejecting Little's offer. "I think the sport needs to be stripped down to a bare chassis and start completely over again. To me, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Sunday's championship heat is expected to come down to three boats from the 14 entries:

* PICO American Dream, driven by Mark Evans, which has won all three races since Villwock's injury. Curiously, Evans won the final two races in 1996, including San Diego, in Miss Budweiser, as a replacement for Hanauer.

* Miss Budweiser, with rookie Mark Weber as Villwock's replacement. Weber, 33, is the youngest driver on the circuit but has won 10 national championships in smaller boats. Miss Budweiser, thanks to Villwock's early wins, continues to lead in boat points.

* Close Call, driven by three-time champion Mark Tate. Although winless this season, the Detroit veteran leads in driver points with 8,369 to 8,230 for Evans and 8,025 for Villwock.

Although Doner, a former drag racing promoter and Costa Mesa sportswriter, announced his resignation as commissioner July 7 during the Governor's Cup regatta in Madison, Ind., he has since changed his mind and Thursday he told the UHRA board, meeting in San Diego, that he will return for his fifth year at the helm in 1998.

"It seemed like the world was against me during the first half of the season," Doner said. "It rained every time we had a race scheduled on TV, one race had to be postponed, which was hard on everyone, and some of the owners were ripping me for some rule violations I called on them and it just wasn't fun anymore. I felt someone else might do a better job.

"Then, when we got out West, everything turned around. The races at Tri-Cities, except for Villwock's flip, and Kelona [Canada] were great and the crowds and enthusiasm at Seattle were better than they had been for years. At the same time, I felt an outpouring of support for me, so I'll stick around next year and see some of my ideas through."

IRL

The diminution of the "World's Greatest Spectacle in Racing" continued Thursday with the announcement by Indy Racing League founder Tony George that practice for the Indianapolis 500 will be reduced from two weeks to one and qualifying from four days to two. Practice next year will open Sunday, May 10, with pole day time trials May 16, bump day trials May 17 and the race May 24.

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