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Is Miss Budweiser’s Exit the End of Unlimiteds?

When Miss Budweiser makes its final unlimited hydroplane appearance Sunday in San Diego, it will be like the New York Yankees quitting baseball or the Lakers closing up shop in the NBA.

The big red boats, 30 feet long and weighing 3 tons, have dominated the sport for 42 years, ever since Bernie Little convinced Anheuser-Busch of the value of unlimited hydroplanes. With drivers such as Bill Sterett, Dean Chenoweth, Mickey Remund, Jim Kropfeld, Tom D’Eath, Chip Hanauer and Dave Villwock, Miss Budweisers have won 24 world championships, including the last seven, and 15 Gold Cups.

Little, a longtime Budweiser distributor, died last year at 77, and the brewery announced this year that it was severing its ties to unlimited hydroplane racing after this season.

Villwock will be in the driver’s seat this weekend, and it may be his last ride too. He has said he has no desire to race a boat other than Miss Bud.

As a salute to the famous boat, the top five qualifiers will take parade laps Saturday at 5 p.m., and then four of them will peel off and allow Miss Budweiser to take a few laps alone.

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After Little’s death, it was widely predicted that the Bud’s days were numbered and that the spectacular unlimiteds, with their soaring roostertails and 200-mph speeds, were also on the brink of extinction.

For years, the brewery, besides sponsoring Little’s boats, was the series title sponsor as well and also underwrote many individual races. Without Budweiser the sport seemed doomed, and recent squabbles over leadership have only strengthened the thought.

San Diego, with its 2 1/2 -mile Bill Muncey Memorial course on Mission Bay, has long been one of the circuit’s strongest venues. This year, though, San Diego has broken from the American Power Boat Assn. and its Hydro-Prop division and will conduct the Washington Mutual Thunderbird Regatta on its own.

The sport’s future may be settled Monday when boat owners and race organizers meet in San Diego, deciding to unify under the APBA Hydro-Prop or go it alone.

“I think we’ll all come together,” said John Daley, chairman of the San Diego Thunderbirds Unlimiteds. “There is a lot of feeling around here that the future is good. I am encouraged by what I’ve heard.”

NASCAR’s Chase

The 26 qualifying races for NASCAR’s Nextel Cup are over, and now we can look forward to a 10-race series for the championship, starting Sunday at Loudon, N.H.

There will be 43-car fields, as usual, but only the 10 leading drivers are eligible for the $5-million bonus to the champion, and the playing field has been leveled for them. Instead of a 60-point margin over second-place Jimmie Johnson (3,602-3,542), Jeff Gordon’s lead is now five points, an arbitrary number established by NASCAR.

And instead of being 416 points removed from Ryan Newman, in 10th place, he is only 45 from the bottom of the pile. After racing for points for nearly two-thirds of the season, the favored 10 find themselves separated by only five points per position.

So, according to NASCAR, Gordon has 5,050 points, Johnson 5,045, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 5,040, Tony Stewart 5,035, Matt Kenseth 5,030, Elliott Sadler 5,025, Kurt Busch 5,020, Mark Martin 5,015, Jeremy Mayfield 5,010 and Newman 5,005.

The so-called Chase for the Championship begins with the Sylvania 300 on a track where Johnson won both races last year, and ends Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami.

After Kasey Kahne’s disappointing run last week at Richmond, there is no rookie in the playoffs. And the only real old-timer is Martin, the 45-year-old veteran from Arkansas who has four times been runner-up for the championship.

And what of the 33 other drivers in the next 10 races? They will run as hard as they can and hope to win a race. Only two of them, Rusty Wallace and Greg Biffle, have won this season. No matter how well they run, though, the best any of them can finish in Nextel Cup standings is 11th.

Southland Scene

Greg Pursley will continue his pursuit of the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Racing series national championship Saturday night at Irwindale Speedway when he drives his Chevrolet in the Twin 50s for super late model stock cars. Pursley, with 11 wins in 18 starts, has been the national points leader most of the season but is being challenged by Andy Bozell of Portage, Mich.

Billy Hamill, the 1986 world speedway motorcycle champion, will return to his roots Wednesday to race on the new Sweet International track in Industry Hills. A Monrovia native, Hamill has been racing almost exclusively in Europe.

Cory Kruseman will take time off from his pursuit of the U.S. Auto Club sprint car race to drive Saturday in the Budweiser Dirt Cup, a USAC/CRA event, at Perris Auto Speedway.

The West Coast’s leading road-racing motorcycle riders will compete Sunday in the ninth round of the Toyota Cup Formula One series at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond. Robbie Dowie leads defending series champion Josh Hayes by one point.

Gary Curtis needs only to finish 14th or better to win the IMCA modified championship Saturday night at Ventura Raceway.

Jim Michaelian, president of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, took time off last week to drive in the Spa 1,000-kilometer race in Belgium. Driving the Autorlando Sport Porsche 996, he finished 10th in the GT class.

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This Week’s Races

*--* NASCAR NEXTEL CUP Sylvania 300

*--*

* When: Today, qualifying (TNT, noon); Sunday, race (TNT, 10 a.m.).

* Where: New Hampshire International Speedway (oval, 1.058 miles, 12 degrees banking in turns), Loudon.

* Race distance: 317.4 miles, 300 laps.

* 2003 winner: Jimmie Johnson.

* Next race: MBNA America 400, Sept. 26, Dover, Del.

*--* NASCAR CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS Sylvania 200

*--*

* When: Today, qualifying, 10:30 a.m.; Saturday, race (Speed Channel, 10 a.m.).

* Where: New Hampshire International Speedway.

* Race distance: 211.6 miles, 200 laps.

* 2003 winner: Jimmy Spencer.

* Next race: Las Vegas 250, Sept. 25.

*--* NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals

*--*

* When: Today, qualifying, 11:30 a.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 8 a.m. (ESPN2, 1 p.m.); Sunday, eliminations, 8 a.m. (ESPN2, 1 p.m.).

* Where: Maple Grove Raceway; Reading, Pa.

* 2003 winners: Tony Schumacher, Tim Wilkerson, Warren Johnson and Michael Phillips.

* Next event: O’Reilly Fall Nationals, Sept. 26, Dallas.


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