MOTOR SPORTS HYDROPLANE RACING : Faces Change, but the Boats Are the Same

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unlimited hydroplane racing comes to Mission Bay for the 25th time this weekend but never has there been such a changing of the guard in the sport.

The spectacular rooster tails that throw tons of water 40 feet high are still the unlimited hydros' trademark, but otherwise, the $150,000 Budweiser Cup will offer a new look.

For the last nine years, the Unlimited Hydroplane Series has featured five-time national champion Chip Hanauer against the Miss Budweiser boats driven by Jim Kropfeld and Tom D'Eath. When Hanauer didn't win, Kropfeld or D'Eath did.

Hanauer and Kropfeld are retired and D'Eath is recovering from a broken neck suffered in an automobile racing accident last May.

Mark Tate, 31, a third generation driver with only a year's experience in the 200-m.p.h. unlimiteds, has replaced Hanauer in the boat that won last year's championship. At that time, it was Miss Circus Circus, but after the Las Vegas casino dropped out of racing, the boat was sold to Steve Woomer, owner of the Winston Eagle team.

"It's the same boat, but with a different paint job," Tate said.

Designed in 1986 by Jim Lucero, who is now the Winston Eagle crew chief, the boat was extensively redesigned in 1989. It won two Gold Cups and the 1990 national championship for Hanauer. Tate, in his first ride in the Winston Eagle, won this year's Gold Cup on the Detroit River.

"It was unbelievable, winning the Gold Cup in my first race, in front of my family and hometown friends," said Tate, who is from nearby Wayne, Mich. "It was also the first win for Woomer's team and the first for the sponsor. It was a day I can't describe, it so was fantastic."

Scott Pierce, 35, who was boat owner Bernie Little's backup driver for the Miss Budweiser team, took over the No. 1 spot after D'Eath's accident. Pierce is a veteran of nine years' experience, with 65 races in powerboat racing's most prestigious series. He has won six races, more than any other active driver.

In this year's series, Tate and Pierce have each won two races. The American Spirit, with Mark Evans driving, won one, and the season's first race, last November in Honolulu, was won by D'Eath. Kropfeld, in his last race in the American Eagle, did not finish.

In the first day of qualifying here Friday, Pierce had the fastest run, averaging 161.662 m.p.h. over two laps of the 2.5-mile Bill Muncey Memorial Course in Mission Bay. Tate averaged 154.290 m.p.h.

New drivers won't be the only things different when the 11 unlimiteds continue racing today, when qualifying begins at 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, when the first heat is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. and the five-lap championship race for 4 p.m.

A new starting procedure, copied from automobile racing, has added excitement and closer competition in both heats and the championship final. Previously, boats milled around the starting line for five minutes and watched a huge clock as it ticked off the seconds before the start. Each driver could do whatever he thought would get him to the starting line at the precise moment the clock hit zero.

The result often was confusing--especially to spectators--and more often, contributed to a ragged start with boats strung out along the course.

Now, boats line up side by side and cruise around the course, much in the manner race cars do on their pace laps. When they come down to the starting line, they should be all in a line as the flag drops.

"The fans love it, that's what counts, but it's also a lot more exciting for the drivers," Tate said. "When you see six boats coming down the line side by side, accelerating to the first turn, I imagine it's awesome. Of course, I've never seen it myself, but I know it makes it awful important to get to that first corner first.

"You cannot afford to go through a rooster tail. If the water doesn't swamp you, the saltwater will destroy you. Even if you escape the rooster tail, if you're close enough to it, the salt from the spray will crystallize on the blades (of the propeller) and your motor will burn up."

Tate came to the Winston Eagle after a year driving for Jim Harvey in Oh Boy! Oberto.

"I'd been racing since I was 13, and I'd moved up the ladder, step by step, until I felt I was ready for the unlimiteds," he said. "I'd paid my dues. Jim (Harvey) gave me my chance with a one-year contract last year, and fortunately I was in the right place when Kropfeld decided to retire and the Winston Eagle ride became available."

Tate also found a wife while racing boats.

He and Sandy Wray, then from Azusa, were racing in Decatur, Ill., in 1983 when they met. After corresponding for a couple of years, and meetings at races, they were married.

Sandy was a champion in the 2.5-liter stock class. She won two national points championships and set a national record, but gave up racing when their son, Andrew Joseph, was born.

Twice this season, Tate and Pierce have tangled in close quarters, but Tate says it is not the result of the new starting procedure.

"On clock starts, boats got together in the same way," he said. "It will always happen when you have close racing. At Madison (Ind., in the Governor's Cup race), I hooked the boat when it hit a hole and jumped to the left, and it came in under the Budweiser's wing and hit him. At Pasco (Wash., in the Columbia Cup), the boats just touched."

Tate was penalized a lap at Madison after both boats were badly damaged, and the main event was won by American Spirit. At Pasco, Tate again was penalized a lap for "moving over one lane" in a heat. Even so, he came back to win the final for his second victory of the season.

In another change this year, the fastest boats are matched in all three heats.

"This is what racing's supposed to be about: the best racing against the best," Tate said.

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