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SPORTS WEEKEND | Motor Racing

Sky's No Longer the Unlimited in World of Hydroplane Racing

September 18, 1998|SHAV GLICK

Unlimited hydroplanes, with their thundering roostertails and 200-mph speeds on two-mile watery ovals, may be the most exciting sight in motor sports, but as the 1998 season swings to the Southwest, prospects for the future are "as bleak as they have ever been," says retired 10-time Gold Cup champion Chip Hanauer.

The unlimiteds will be on San Diego's Mission Bay for the Bayfair Bill Muncey Cup this weekend and Las Vegas' Lake Mead next weekend.

"As long as the owners are running the show, trying to protect their own interests instead of thinking about the future of the series, the future is doomed," said Hanauer, who raced unlimiteds for 14 years and won more races than any driver in history. "It may sound radical, but the best way for unlimiteds to survive would be to scrub everything being done today and start over from scratch. It's obvious what they're doing now is not working."

Problems include small fields, as few as six boats at one event; lack of major sponsorship for those that remain, an inability to find new race sites, absence of a TV package and dwindling interest in the national media.

Indicative of the sport's problems is its leadership. Bill Doner, who took over as commissioner three years ago, was ousted in midseason in a power struggle with the American Power Boat Assn. and its president, Steve David, also an unlimited racer. Ned Allen was appointed commissioner by the APBA board, but he quit after four weeks.

The newest person picked to lead the big boats into the 21st century is Ken Muscatel, a clinical psychologist who has campaigned the Miss Northwest hydroplane as driver and co-owner.

"Only one team is capable of winning [Bernie Little's Miss Budweiser], and as long as he keeps hiring the best driver, best crew and has the most expensive boat, there is not much incentive for new teams to enter the sport," said Hanauer, who won three of his Gold Cups driving Little's boat.

When Hanauer was winning, his main competition was Dave Villwock in the PICO American Dream. Villwock won the 1996 Gold Cup and the series championship in the PICO boat. After Hanauer stepped out, Little hired Villwock and the results have been two more Gold Cups and three more championships.

Villwock, not surprising for a driver who has won six of this season's seven races, takes a more optimistic look at unlimiteds than his predecessor.

"Certainly, we have problems, but I believe people should be more concerned with solutions than complaints," said the lanky driver who once was crew chief of Hanauer's championship Circus Circus boat. "Bill Doner made some changes that have definitely helped the sport, such as limiting fuel to save engine wear, which has cut expenses dramatically, and bringing Unlimited Lights into the picture. Engine failure was not only a money problem, it also was a spectator problem because a few years ago we had races that finished with only one or two boats. Today, engine failure is very rare.

"There will be a new boat at San Diego and several teams are working on sponsorship packages for next year. I think the Unlimited Lights [series] has become a good building stone for the future. We already have Kim Gregory moving up from the lights to the unlimiteds."

The new boat Villwock mentioned is actually an old boat, the late Steve Woomer's Smokin' Joe's, which has been out of competition since its owner died April 22. The boat, along with all the team's equipment, was purchased by Gregory and will race in San Diego as Wild Fire. The driver, however, will not be Mark Tate, who won the national championship last year only to lose his ride when Woomer died.

Tate, a two-time Gold Cup winner, is among those hoping to find a boat and a sponsor for next season.

Mark Weber, who won at Las Vegas last year in Miss Budweiser when Villwock was injured, will drive Wild Fire.

In the meantime, Villwock and Miss Budweiser will be in the water at Mission Bay with 11 other unlimiteds for qualifying heats today and Saturday and the five-lap final on Sunday.

Curiously, Miss Budweiser has not won in San Diego since 1991. A strong finish could give the team its 18th world championship as the team holds a 4,119-point lead. Three races remain: San Diego, Las Vegas and Honolulu. If Little's boat has a 3,280-point lead after Sunday's final race, it will have clinched the title.

SUPERCROSS

The American Motorcyclist Assn.'s 1999 Supercross schedule is full of surprises.

The Coliseum, which attracted the series' largest crowd of 61,855 last year and is where the sport was founded, has been dropped. The famous peristyle jump, which made the Coliseum so special, will be no more.

Anaheim's Edison International Field, which was not used for Supercross for two years while it was being remodeled, will host two of the 16 events in the series. The season will open Jan. 9 at Edison and return there Feb. 6.

San Diego retains its event in Qualcomm Stadium on Jan. 16.

VINTAGE THUNDER

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