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Racing in his blood

Hopp rebounds from 2003 rollover
that occurred in qualifying in Madison

He will run in Madison as Miss Demaree Automotive

 

 

(July 2005)

Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

Greg Hopp has followed his dream of racing Unlimited hydroplanes all the way to the edge and back. It’s a place he’d rather not go again.
But two years ago, while trying to move up a notch on the leaderboard during Saturday’s 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 didn’t flip; it was more of an inside barrel roll, and I didn’t 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.
What’s more, the water poured into the cockpit and he had lost his oxygen mask. He couldn’t get out. He couldn’t 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.”

2005 Regatta Cover
2005 Madison
Regatta Cover

When he regained consciousness, he was being towed to shore in a rescue boat. “The safety guys were talking to me, but I don’t remember what they said,” said Hopp, who lives in the tiny town (population 6,000) of Snohomish, Wash., located 15 miles from Everett.
“When they got me to shore, a friend of mine from the Llumar team put me on the phone with my wife. I don’t remember that conversation at all.”
He was rushed to King’s Daughters’ Hospital & Health Services, where he underwent observation for several hours. Aside from the injured knee and some bruises, he was OK. “I don’t 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 Madison.
His father, former Unlimited driver Jerry Hopp, piloted Fred Leland’s 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 couldn’t 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 tour’s 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 can’t 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 nothing’s changed. He got right back in the boat; it didn’t 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.
“Greg’s 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 year’s national title.
“It’s more of a level playing field, and it’s anybody’s game,” Hopp said.
When he arrives in Madison July 1-3, Hopp’s boat will sport a new local sponsor in Demaree Automotive Group.

Greg Hopp Crash

Photo by Don Ward

Greg Hopp’s 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 he’s on board full steam with it. He’s more excited than I am.”
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 and prizes.
“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. “I’m excited to have Greg Hopp. He’s 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 team’s Mike’s Hard Lemonade-Happy Go Lucky-sponsored UL-1 boat.
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. “It’s quite physically draining.”
He and his father leased Leland’s 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.
“It’s his first time to travel east of Montana,” Jerry Hopp said.
Judging by the Hopp family’s devotion to hydroplane racing, it won’t 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.

 

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