Advertisement

Tate Coming Into His Own : Hydroplanes: Powerboat racer is fast escaping Hanauer’s shadow and on the verge of his third national title.

Share
TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mark Tate is a third-generation powerboat racer with one of the finest records in the history of the American Power Boat Assn., but only now is he beginning to escape the long shadow of Chip Hanauer in unlimited hydroplanes.

The 40-foot rooster tails plume just as impressively behind Tate’s 6,000-pound Smokin’ Joe’s hydro as they do behind Hanauer’s Miss Budweiser, but for most of the last decade, Hanauer has been No. 1 and the others in the unlimited fleet have been the chasers.

Tate, 35, a soft-spoken pilot from Wayne, Mich., who has been racing boats since he was 13, is turning that around.

Advertisement

In 1991, he won the Unlimited Racing Commission’s national championship in the Winston Eagle, but skeptics pointed out that Hanauer had retired that year. And besides, they said, he was driving Hanauer’s former boat, Circus Circus, which had won the championship a year earlier.

After winning in ’90 with Hanauer, Circus Circus was withdrawn from unlimited racing and Steve Woomer, an auto parts wholesaler from Kent, Wash., bought the boat and renamed it Winston Eagle. Hanauer retired.

That boat, redesigned and heavily modified by crew chief Jim Lucero, is the one Tate will be driving today on Mission Bay when qualifying begins for Sunday’s San Diego Bayfair Muncey Cup. Only now, the purple and yellow craft, with a crazy-looking Camel on its brow, is called Smokin’ Joe’s.

“It’s the same hull that Jim put together [in 1987], but I doubt if there’s more than three or four pieces of wood remaining from then,” Woomer said. Historians say the boat has won 15 races under three names, making it No. 6 on the all-time list.

After a year on the sidelines, Hanauer was lured back by Bernie Little to drive his powerful Miss Budweiser. Not surprisingly, the team won championships in 1992 and 1993.

Last year, Tate emerged again as the driver’s champion when he defeated Hanauer in the year’s final race at Pearl Harbor.

Advertisement

“I think [the rivalry with Hanauer] it’s good for the sport,” Tate said. “It keeps you on your toes. When Chip’s on the water, it makes winning all the more enjoyable. It also helps me keep my focus.”

This weekend, Tate is expected to clinch his third championship. All he needs is to finish a heat Sunday.

“Mark’s finally beginning to get the recognition he deserves,” Woomer said. “Instead of looking at Hanauer and Miss Budweiser as the one to beat, people are beginning to look at it as between us and Bud, Mark and Chip.

“It’s taken a while, but that’s understandable. You have to fight your way up in this business, just the way Chip had to do when he was starting out.”

Hanauer, 41, still has his awesome record of seven national championships, 10 APBA Gold Cup victories and 57 wins, by far the most of any active driver. This year, he has won four races, including the Gold Cup, to three for Tate.

For most of this season, Tate found himself in the familiar position of chasing Hanauer and Miss Budweiser in the standings. He turned it around two races ago at Tri Cities, Wash., where he was fast qualifier, won all three heats and the final, while Hanauer’s boat broke a propeller in the final and failed to finish.

Advertisement

Tate has 11,091 driver’s points, 2,111 more than second-place Dave Villwock, defending San Diego champion in PICO, which was Von’s American Dream when it won last year. Hanauer, who missed two races, is 385 behind Villwock.

“Mark continues to amaze me, the way he goes about doing his job without any fanfare,” Woomer said. “You look at him and he looks like he might be a comptroller at R.J. Reynolds [sponsor of Woomer’s boat] instead of an unlimited pilot.

“Watch him on the water, he looks like he’s part of the boat. It’s like Jim Lucero designed him around the boat, or the boat around him.”

In the owners’ standings, Woomer and Smokin’ Joe’s margin over Little and Miss Budweiser, the 1994 champions, is much less, 11,091 to 10,936, because Mark Evans filled in when Hanauer was injured. Little has won eight of the last nine championships and 15 overall.

Woomer, who finished close to Little last year, is looking for his first owner’s championship.

“What we need this week is consistency,” Tate said. “If you start paying too much attention to the points and start looking too far ahead, you can lose your focus. I want to go into each race with the same intensity. That’s been my focus all year and one reason we’re ahead is that we’ve made every final, and finished every final.”

Advertisement

Tate has a second goal this week--to break his own world record of 170.087 m.p.h. for a 2.5-mile lap. He set the record two years ago during the Gold Cup on the Detroit River.

“Even though I’ve never won there, Mission Bay is one of my favorite places to race because it is so wide and fast,” Tate said. “We tested real well last week in Pasco [Wash.] on the Columbia River and the boat is running extremely fast. It sure wouldn’t surprise me if we hit 170 here.”

Hanauer set the Mission Bay record of 169.988 m.p.h. in Miss Budweiser in 1993.

The 2.5-mile Mission Bay course is the first for the unlimited fleet on saltwater, which poses special problems in keeping salt spray out of the turbine engines.

“The saltwater makes us go faster, but it can also cause a lot of problems if you inhale any,” Tate said. “You have to be more careful of the rooster tails. They’re always dangerous because they can swamp a boat, but on saltwater you also have to be careful the spray doesn’t hit you.

“If it gets on the [propeller] blades, it crystallizes and it can burn up your motor.”

The unlimiteds are powered by Lycoming turbine engines originally built for Chinook helicopters. There will be qualifying today at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Saturday at 10 a.m. and 1:35 p.m. Final heats start Sunday at 11:30 a.m.

Besides the unlimiteds, International Hot Boat Assn. drag boats and Formula One powerboats will race on the three-day program.

Advertisement
Advertisement