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In the Driver's Seat

Seattle’s Villwock has left his mark
on the Madison Regatta

He has won more times here
than anyone else in the sport

By Fred Farley
Special to RoundAbout

(July 2012) – Heading into the 2012 Air National Guard Hydroplane Series Tour, Dave Villwock of Auburn, Wash., stands at the very top of the hydroplane sport as the defending National High Point Driver. Villwock rebounded from a horrific crash in the Final Heat of last year’s Lucas Oil Madison Regatta and went on to win three out of six races entered during the 2011 season.

Spirit of Qatar

Photo courtesy of Paul Kemiel

Dave Villwock returns in
2012 to pilot the Spirit of Qatar
for owner Erick Ellstrom.

A boat racer since age 16, Villwock accepted his first Unlimited Class assignment in 1989 as crew chief for Bill Bennett’s Miss Circus Circus. Chip Hanauer was its driver. In 1990, Hanauer and Villwock emerged as National High Point Champions with six wins in 11 races.
Following years of success in the flat-bottom inboard category, Villwock was High Point Champion in the 6-Litre Hydroplane Class in 1988 with Jerry Yoder’s Sunset Chevrolet Special and set a 6-Litre heat record on a 1.25-mile course at 104.320 mph.
At San Diego in 1992, Villwock made his Unlimited driving debut aboard an experimental tandem-wing boat, Coors Dry, owned by Ron Jones Jr. Villwock scored an upset victory and became the first driver since Howie Benns in 1974 to win his first-ever Unlimited race.
The transition from crew chief to driver wasn’t easy at first. According to Villwock, “Sometimes I thought I had too much of my old job as crew chief in me. I worried too much about the equipment when I was out there. I finally got it in my head that my principal job was to run the boat as hard as I could and bring back what was left.”

Villwock Victories
in Madison

2009 Miss Elam Plus
2007 Miss Elam Plus
2006 Miss Elam Plus
2004 Miss Budweiser
2003 Miss Budweiser
2000 Miss Budweiser
1998 Miss Budweiser
1997 Miss Budweiser

Hired by the legendary Bernie Little in 1997 as driver and team manager for the Miss Budweiser team, Villwock went on to capture seven High Point Driver titles and won 37 out of 58 races entered over the next eight years for sponsor Anheuser-Busch. 
Villwock’s best pre-Budweiser year was 1996 when he won his first APBA Gold Cup and the National Championship with Fred Leland’s Pico American Dream. Villwock won a total of eight races for Leland.
Said Bud owner Little, “Dave brings a lot to the party. He’s a tough competitor and very strong technically.”
Many consider Villwock to be the best propeller designer in the business.
Villwock is in many ways a throwback to days of old when an Unlimited pilot not only drove the boat but also ran the team on a day-to-day basis. Like Villwock, champions of yesteryear such as Danny Foster, Dan Arena, Bill Cantrell and Chuck Thompson oversaw the total operation of their hydroplanes. 
Villwock’s first season with Miss Budweiser emerged as a fascinating blend of the dramatic and the unexpected. Half a dozen teams arguably had a shot at winning and the 1997 National High Point Championship wasn’t decided until the last day of the season. 
Villwock and Budweiser were really on a roll during the first two months of the season. They won four races, including the Gold Cup at Detroit. But then the team suffered a horrifying setback at the Tri-Cities, Wash. Villwock sustained serious injuries – and the loss of two fingers on his right hand – when Miss Bud blew over in the first turn of the Final Heat.
From his hospital bed, Villwock notified his crew, “Don’t send flowers; send points.” His own situation not withstanding, the team’s top priority was still in winning the National Championship.
Relief driver Mark Weber finished the season and did a commendable job. He kept Miss Budweiser in the High Points lead, qualified fastest at Seattle, San Diego and Las Vegas, and scored a victory in the Las Vegas Cup on Lake Mead.
When the starting gun fired for the 1998 season opener at Evansville, Ind., the big question in almost everyone’s mind was whether Villwock still had what it took to drive the Miss Budweiser safely and competitively, following his accident of the year before.
But when the checkered flag dropped in the Final Heat, Villwock was the winner by six seconds over second-place Steve David and Arc Construction, 137.013 mph to 133.864. It was as if Villwock had never been away.
Villwock remained with Miss Budweiser until that team’s retirement in 2004. Heading into 2005, Villwock found himself an unemployed boat racer.
Not to worry. For a driver of Villwock’s caliber to languish on the sidelines for very long was unthinkable. The midway point of the 2005 campaign saw him back in the cockpit of another top-notch hydro: Erick Ellstrom’s Miss Elam Plus.
The Ellstrom team had been a competitive presence in Unlimited racing for a number of years. Since 2000, the Elam boats had won a total of seven races with Mark Evans, Nate Brown, Terry Troxell and J.W. Myers as drivers. But they had never won a National Championship. With Villwock, they achieved that goal.
The Elam had run second, first and second at the first three races of 2005 with Myers driving. Villwock kept the momentum going. He won his first race with the team, the Tri-Cities Columbia Cup, and went on to place second at Seattle, fourth at Nashville, and first at San Diego.
Between 2005 and 2011, Villwock won 19 races and two National Championships as the Ellstrom team’s driver. But Villwock is quick to share the credit with his teammates.
“When most people think of boat racing, they think in terms of the boats themselves as the winners. But that’s not correct,” he insists. “It’s the crew – not the boat – that makes the difference between a winner and an ‘also-ran.’ You can have the greatest boat in the world. But without a good crew, you have nothing.”
Villwock points to the 2006 Columbia Cup race as a prime example of the Ellstrom team’s ability to keep cool under pressure and achieve results. That was when Villwock and Miss Elam Plus rebounded from a spectacular flip during a preliminary heat to win the Final Championship Heat.
The boat had caught air while leading in Heat 2-A. The Elam Plus boat did a complete turn in the air and started into a second revolution when the tail section caught the water and the boat landed right-side up. Villwock refused transport to the hospital, radioed his crew that he was OK, and started the repair effort even before returning to the pit area. The propeller, the gearbox, the canard, the rear-wing and stabilizer would all have to be replaced. And they were.
Only once before in Unlimited history had a boat flipped and come back to win the race on the very same day. That was Pico American Dream at Seattle in 1997 with Evans as driver. 
In 2011, Villwock won another High Point Driver title with Spirit of Qatar (the renamed former Miss Elam Plus). He triumphed in the Gold Cup at Detroit, the Columbia Cup at the Tri-Cities, and the Bill Muncey Cup at San Diego.
In evaluating Villwock’s career, it is important to take into account his leadership in the winning percentage category. Between 1992 and 2011, he won 65 out of 131 races. That’s a percentage of .496.
By comparison, the legendary Muncey won 62 out of 191 races between 1950 and 1981 for a percentage of .325. Hanauer won 61 out of 160 races between 1976 and 1999 for a percentage of .381.
Villwock’s percentage is the highest of any driver in the post-World War II era of Unlimited hydroplane racing.

• Fred Farley is a Milton, Ky., resident and serves as the H1 Unlimited historian. Email him at fredf@hotmail.com.

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