When the cat’s away...

Villwock’s absence will tighten
competition for national title

Drivers lament losing chance
to compete against the sport’s best



(June 2008)

Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

The last time we saw Dave Villwock, he was thrusting the Indiana Governor’s Cup trophy into the air at the conclusion of last year’s Madison Regatta.
It was a scene repeated three other times at the beginning of last year’s six-stop race circuit as Erick Ellstrom’s Miss Elam Plus Unlimited hydroplane team marched to an American Boat Racing Association national championship.
But this year, the Miss Elam Plus is a no show. Ellstrom’s Seattle-based race team elected to skip the first three eastern U.S. races of the 2008 season to instead travel overseas to drum up sponsorships for an international exhibition tour later this year. The team is expected to rejoin the ABRA field when it arrives on the West Coat for the final three race events in Tri-Cities, Wash., Seattle and San Diego.

Dave Villwock

Photo by Don Ward

Miss Elam Plus driver Dave Villwock
will be noticeably absent at this
year’s Madison Regatta, opening
the door for a new champion.

While overseas, meanwhile, the Elam team will be negotiating deals for exhibition appearances in such foreign cities as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Monte Carlo and Muscat, among others. The team has signed a contract to participate in exhibitions during the winter months in hopes of developing a future race circuit there, team officials said. The actual race circuit could begin as early as November and run through January each year, Ellstrom said. The tour may allow up to four boats to be brought over from the United States to participate this year, with the goal of increasing the sport’s international exposure, sponsorships and financial race incentives. Ellstrom also is hoping the international tour will provide race purses in addition to trophies since “we haven’t had a purse in 14 years, so the incentive of many teams to ‘risk all’ has just not been there.
“We feel that this added international publicity will increase sponsorship support, bring in millions of new fans and help to stabilize a sport that has seen some pretty rough years,” Ellstrom said in his announcement.
Sounds great for Ellstrom’s team, but where does that leave the Unlimited hydroplane racing fans here in America’s heartland? Are we now faced with planning a serious road trip to Dubai?
At first blush, it seems like the door is wide open for the hometown favorite Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison to repeat its 2001 victory on the Ohio River. Winning the Indiana Governor’s Cup without the Miss Elam Plus on the water is one thing; beating the Elam Plus before the hometown fans is a much bigger feat, as I’m sure Oberto’s David would agree.
David, along with other members of the hydro circuit, expressed mostly regret – not glee – over the news of Ellstrom’s decision. They want the best on the water when race day comes – not for competition but for the fans.
“It’s unfortunate, and I was surprised, but Erick must have had a good reason because I know he would like to be here racing, and I would like to have him here,” David said in late June as the story circulated throughout the media.
The Oberto family bought the team a brand new boat last season. Oh Boy! Oberto finished a close second in front of the hometown Madison fans, and it kept improving throughout the season, winning the final two races, held on the West Coast.
Mike Allen, driver of the 2006 national champion Formulatboats.com boat, told the Seattle Times: “Life will be a little easier without the Elam, yes. But like I told everyone else, we weren’t going there to finish second in the first place.”

Boats racing

Photo by Don Ward

Miss Elam Plus races to victory over
the Oh Boy! Oberto during last year’s
Madison Regatta final heat.

U-3 Cooper Motorsports driver Jimmy King said: “Everybody wants to win, but we want to win with the Miss Elam there because you want to beat the best. If you win the Madison Regatta and Villwock’s not there, it’s still a victory but it’s not the same.”
ABRA chairman Sam Cole put a positive spin on the news, while expressing surprise that the Miss Elam Plus team was staying home. “The ABRA has had numerous discussions about taking this sport worldwide, and we support anything the Elam team can do to further that vision.” Cole said in a statement.
Reading between the lines, you had to wonder if Cole was crossing his fingers behind his back when he wrote that. A Regatta without Villwock is like a Ryder Cup without Tiger Woods. Oops, never mind!
This obscure sport that sorely need sponsors and is always seeking heroes needs to remain on solid financial footing if it is to survive. The ABRA has come a long way in providing that stability but as it enters another season it is now juggling the news that its national champion has left the stadium.
Let’s face it: To be the best, you have to beat the best. And Villwock is at the top of the sport – a mere eight victories away from becoming the all-time best. He had won 10 of the last 12 Unlimited races prior to the 2008 season opener at Evansville. He has earned the tour’s National High Point Driver Championship nine times since 1996. And with 55 career victories, he stands as the third-winningest driver in the sport’s history, behind the late Bill Muncey (62) and retired driver Chip Hanauer (61).
So beating Villwock would be much sweeter for these drivers than going home with a victory that has an asterisk beside it.
Nonetheless, fans are in store for three exciting season-opening races. And in a sport when any one of several factors – driver error, river conditions, mechanical failure, or crashes – can change the outcome at any moment, Villwock’s absence will be soon forgotten once the starting gun fires and the sleek turbines sail past the crowd at speeds topping 220 mph.
Most agree that there are at least six boats in the 10-boat field that could win at any time. But considering its success last season in which it finished second in team and driver high points, the Oberto has definitely emerged as the new favorite for 2008. That’s quite a feat for the little hometown boat whose team in past years was often just happy to make the final heat.
Perhaps this will be the breakout year for the Oberto boat to claim what would be the team’s first-ever series points title. With or without the Miss Elam Plus and Villwock, an Oberto series championship would be a sweet memory for the ages for area hydroplane fans.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.


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