Greg Hopp has followed his
dream of racing Unlimited hydroplanes all the way to the edge and back.
Its a place hed rather not go again.
But two years ago, while trying to move up a notch on the leaderboard
during Saturdays qualifying at the Madison Regatta, he rolled his
U-100 Unlimited hydroplane in the first turn of the Ohio River race course.
He was traveling at full speed more than 200 mph.
We had run faster than the other boats that day in testing, so I
thought it would be easy to qualify faster, said Hopp, 37. But
when I hit that turn, I rolled it. The right sponson hit a wave. The boat
didnt flip; it was more of an inside barrel roll, and I didnt
lose any speed as it kept rolling over.
Hopp was badly shaken up and later learned that he had torn three ligaments
in his knee.
Whats more, the water poured into the cockpit and he had lost his
oxygen mask. He couldnt get out. He couldnt breathe. He took
one last big gulp of air and held it for as long as he could. When he
let it out, he took in a mouthful of river water. It began to get dark.
He choked and swallowed water. He finally passed out.
I drowned, he said, recalling the dramatic events of that
day. I thought that was it for me.
When he regained consciousness, he was being towed
to shore in a rescue boat. The safety guys were talking to me, but
I dont remember what they said, said Hopp, who lives in the
tiny town (population 6,000) of Snohomish, Wash., located 15 miles from
When they got me to shore, a friend of mine from the Llumar team
put me on the phone with my wife. I dont remember that conversation
He was rushed to Kings Daughters Hospital & Health Services,
where he underwent observation for several hours. Aside from the injured
knee and some bruises, he was OK. I dont think there was any
brain damage. I was pretty looney to begin with, he joked.
Hopp can joke now, but it was pretty scary back then. He knew it would
be a long road back to racing. His wounds would heal, but the real battle
would be overcoming the mental trauma caused by the incident. He would
have to confront his fears if he was to ever race the Unlimiteds again.
Hopp had crashed an Unlimited twice before at the end of the
1999 season in San Diego and again at San Diego in 2002. But aside from
bruises and scratches, neither was as harrowing as the 2003 rollover in
His father, former Unlimited driver Jerry Hopp, piloted Fred Lelands
backup boat at Tri-Cities later that season, but the physical abuse and
upper body strength required to maneuver the big boat through the turns
was too much for him to endure at his age. So Leland and the Hopp Racing
team brought in rookie J.W. Myers, a limited boat driver, and certified
him to finish the season.
The sad part is, I wanted to get right back on the horse and ride
it, Hopp said. But I couldnt because of my knee injury.
Hopp did come back last year and with a vengeance. He and his father took
turns piloting their Unlimited Light to victory in all nine races. Hopp
won his first race back in the boat since his Madison crash. In fact,
the duo went on to capture the tours season championship. The Lights
travel about 162 mph, compared to the 200-plus mph Unlimiteds, so it was
a good way to ease back into the sport, he said.
He also drove the entire Unlimited circuit in the U-100, including a second-place
finish in Madison, the site of his crash. He had faced his mental demons
and overcome them. Myers, meanwhile, drives for the Miss Elam Plus team,
which owns one of the newest hulls on the circuit.
Fred (Leland) told me, You cant let it bother you because
fear causes hesitation, Hopp recalled.
When he came back to racing, Jerry said he told his son to go out there
and drive like he always did. I told him that nothings changed.
He got right back in the boat; it didnt slow him down at all.
Greg Hopp spent much of last year dealing with engine problems while driving
a different hull than the one he crashed. I got to know some of
the patrol boat people better than my own family, he joked. But
this year, they have brought back the hull he rolled in Madison. It has
a new sponson and will take some dialing in, he said.
Gregs a hard worker and a smart driver, his father said.
And his starts are excellent, which a lot of times determines the
outcome of the race.
In his real job, Hopp is the lead mechanic on the 767 wings at Boeing,
where he has worked for the past 18 years. He returns to the racing circuit
in 2005 with newfound optimism, now that the U-1 Miss Budweiser is out
of the field for the first time in his career. Anheuser Busch pulled out
of the sport at the end of last season, including its sponsorship of the
Miss Budweiser racing team, which won last years national title.
Its more of a level playing field, and its anybodys
game, Hopp said.
When he arrives in Madison July 1-3, Hopps boat will sport a new
local sponsor in Demaree Automotive Group.
by Don Ward
Hopps U-100 suffered extensive damage from the rollover on
the Ohio River in 2003. He narrowly escaped drowning.
Salesman Dan Cole, 44, whose brother, Sam Cole,
is serving as president of the newly formed American Boat Racing Association,
negotiated the sponsorship in mid-June as a way of marketing the 52-year-old
car dealership. Both Sam Cole and their father, Phil Cole, are former
executive secretaries of the Unlimited Racing Commission. Phil, 75, resides
in Texas, and Sam, 51, resides in Sacramento, Calif.
A few months ago, John (Demaree) told me to start thinking outside
of the box, and I came up with this idea to sponsor a boat, said
Dan Cole. Then it took John three weeks to decide to do it. But
now hes on board full steam with it. Hes more excited than
Cole has arranged to have the U-100 Miss Demaree Automotive Group Unlimited
hydro on display on Wednesday, June 29, at the dealership on Clifty Drive.
They will have WIKI 95.3 FM broadcasting live and handing out T-shirts
Like a lot of other people around here, I grew up with the Regatta,
and I thought what better way to get the most bang for our buck than to
sponsor an Unlimited, Dan Cole said. Im excited to have
Greg Hopp. Hes a veteran driver, and he knows his way around Madison.
Hopp said he will continue to sport his usual Madison Regatta sponsor,
Mariann Travel Inn of Scottsburg, Ind.
Greg Hopp spent his childhood watching his father race boats and followed
in his footsteps. Jerry Hopp had retired from Unlimiteds by 1999, the
year the two bought their first Unlimited Light boat. He still shares
time in the teams Mikes Hard Lemonade-Happy Go Lucky-sponsored
Greg began racing outboards at age 9. He later moved up through all the
inboard classes and eventually to the Unlimited Lights in 1995. He says
driving the Unlimiteds, however, is a whole different experience.
They go straight OK, but it requires
a lot of upper body strength to turn those 7,000-pound boats, he
said. Its quite physically draining.
He and his father leased Lelands U-15 in 1999 to give Greg his first
taste of Unlimited experience. He earned the Rookie of the Year in 1999
and wound up driving for Chip Hanauer the last race of the season after
Hanauer was injured. Jerry drove the U-15 that race at Seafair.
Greg and his wife, Michele, have two sons, Saxon, 13, and Peyton, 7. Jerry
Hopp has six other grandchildren from his daughter, Sherry, 36. Her oldest
son, Justin, 14, is making his first trip East this race season.
Its his first time to travel east of Montana, Jerry
Judging by the Hopp familys devotion to hydroplane racing, it wont
be his last.
Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout.
Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.