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Split Poses Issues for Hydroplane Racing

The sport of unlimited hydroplane racing is trying to navigate through political turmoil in hopes of reaching more fans and sponsors.

Until two years ago, the series was best known for Miss Budweiser, the dominant player among the 30-foot-long, three-ton boats that can reach speeds of nearly 200 mph and throw off soaring rooster tails while skimming across the water.

But Miss Budweiser was retired at the end of the 2004 season when Anheuser-Busch, which brews Budweiser beer and provided major funding for the sport, withdrew from unlimited hydroplanes.

At the same time, dissension grew among team owners and the sport’s sanctioning body, the American Power Boat Assn. and its Hydro Prop division, over its racing rules and how the sport should be promoted.

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“There was a lot of dissatisfaction in the ranks,” said Gloria Urbin, the group’s executive director.

That led to the creation of a rival body, the American Boat Racing Assn., which now oversees a seven-race schedule that started last month in Evansville, Ind., and ends Sept. 15-17 on San Diego’s Mission Bay.

(The series’ second race, in Madison, Ind., was marred last weekend when a car driven by an 18-year-old man plowed into the crowd watching the event, injuring a dozen people.)

One of the series drivers is Dave Villwock, one of the last to pilot Miss Budweiser in 2004. The series’ teams also include Freedom Racing of San Diego, co-owned by Jeffrey Michael Johnson and the boat’s driver, Kevin Aylesworth.

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But the APBA still exists, and it still sanctions two of the unlimited races on its rival’s schedule -- this weekend’s race at Valleyfield, in Quebec, Canada, and the Gold Cup race the following weekend in Detroit.

Both sides agree that with the sport divided between two sanctioning bodies, it’s a challenge to find major sponsors, or land a television contract.

“I don’t think the popularity of the sport has changed, but it’s difficult to get sponsors and people involved when you have this kind of a split,” Urbin said.

Sam Cole, chairman of the American Boat Racing Assn., said, “I personally would like to get something done in the next 12 months, to get unified again because [the split] is not good for either of us.”

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But Cole said his new organization also was rebuilding the sport and making it more exciting, after it was dominated so long by Miss Budweiser.

“Last year we had four different winners in eight races, we brought some competition back to the race course,” he said.

Freedom Racing agreed. Before the split, there were “arbitrary rules that changed from weekend to weekend,” and they “were not seen by most racers as being fair,” said team spokeswoman Emily Estes. Now, Estes added, the team has “safe and fair races” that have made it exciting for the fans.

“Now we need the resources to get the sport out in front of the mainstream public.”

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But problems remain. The group that puts on the San Diego race, Thunderboats Unlimited, had a budget shortfall of $200,000 as of last month, according to Freedom Racing’s website.

The team said it was working with the race’s organizers to raise the cash over the next two months so that Freedom Racing could compete “in front a hometown crowd.”

Cole said Friday that the race would “definitely” be held. “I received a deposit check from them last week,” he said.

*

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Speaking of fast boats, the Pacific Offshore Powerboat Racing Assn. is scheduled to again hold its 79-mile race from Long Beach to Catalina and back Sunday.

The race features different classes of boats, with the most powerful reaching speeds in excess of 170 mph. They’re scheduled to start at the shoreline along East Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach at 11 a.m.

Last Laps

* The late-model series headlines a four-class program at Perris Auto Speedway on Saturday night, with Chad Jones of Temecula holding a 12-point lead over Jeff Dunham of Murrieta.

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The USAC/CRA sprint car division is on a three-week break, returning July 22 at the Perris track. Ventura Raceway also is off this weekend.

* The super-late-model class highlights a five-race program at Irwindale Speedway on Saturday night, with series leader Van Knill of Tucson just one point ahead of Dan Moore of Burbank. The program also includes a figure-eight race.


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