Sports

Is this Steve Villwock's last stand at Seafair?

Dave Villwock has come a long way.

And while his career as the driver of the world’s most successful hydroplane racing boat — the Miss Budweiser — is coming to an end, the graduate of South Kitsap High School is taking it in stride.

“Baling hay and mowing grass in the Blackjack Valley to driving Miss Budweiser, that’s a little step away from that,” Villwock said following a Seafair press conference Tuesday in Seattle. “Who would have thought that a little kid driving a John Deere tractor and raking hay in the Blackjack Valley would be driving Miss Budweiser.”

And drive it he has, winning 35 races since joining the Bud team in 1997. He goes for No. 36 Sunday at Seafair, racing in the Chevrolet Cup on Lake Washington.

Considering this could be Villwock’s last appearance at Seafair — Anheuser Busch plans to drop its sponsorship at the end of this season — he seems to be taking the time to take it all in.

“I’m honored to be last year’s champion and I hope we have a great race this year,” Villwock said. “I think it should be a fun time for all of us. I know I’ve certainly enjoyed the Torchlight Parade. I got a chance to go to that and it’s probably the largest pep rally you could go to. I haven’t been there in a few years and that was a real treat.”

Villwock, who grew up in Port Orchard and lived in East Bremerton for a while, said through all the trials and tribulations he and boat owner Joe Little have faced over the years, coming home to race is always special.

“The race is secondary to really being there for the fans,” Villwock said. “That’s what we’re going to try and do this weekend. Winning in Seattle is special because everybody lives here. It is special, but at the same time, we’ve done so well here that maybe we’ve had our piece of the pie. So I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself and think I have to win here because it’s home.

“I’ve won here in Seattle and I’ve enjoyed in the highest of highs and I’ve lost here,” he said. “What I’m going to try and do is enjoy my Seafair. I’m going to go to the race and race as hard as I can, and if this is the last one I ever participate in, then great. And next year, if I’m not (racing), then I’ll enjoy Seafair again, as a spectator.”

Or as a driver for another team, possibly his own.

“If the right situation was there and a lot of things got fixed, I’d have an interest in doing something in the future in the sport,” Villwock said. “Until those fixtures are made, I’m just running out the year.”

It’s been a year that has seen lots of downs for Villwock and the Miss Bud team, from Anheuser Busch’s decision to end its sponsorship to his disqualification from a race in July to the recent decision by Hydro-Prop to schedule a conflicting race in Detroit against the already-scheduled stop in San Diego in the weekend of Sept. 17-19.

“With Hydro-Prop and APBA (the American Power Boat Association) making the move to do what they’re doing in conflict with San Diego, I think it’s counterproductive to the future of the sport,” Villwock said. “We’ve had a lot of fans who have supported us for 42 years and we have to be there for them.

“One of things that I’ve learned from this organization is that there’s nothing I can do to fix it,” Villwock said. “I’ve said all of the things I can say. I’m standing in the same position that I have for three years now. I feel that in order to sell this sport into the future, it has to be credible.”

Something it has not been over the years, Villwock said. He and his team have had to endure many restrictions on their boat to bring it back to the field.

“It has to be given the same set of rules to run with, the same set of restrictions with which to operate,” Villwock said. “The same size boat, same size engine, same size propeller, same size whatever, that everyone is the same. I think that’s important to the future of the sport and I haven’t changed that view.”

One treat in store for Villwock and the other drivers is a return to the oldstyle of racing.

This year, instead of boats being assigned lanes, the drivers will be jockeying for the inside position, something that they used to do years ago.

“I like to see a fair competition,” Villwock said. “And fighting for your lanes is a partial step in that direction. It’s still not a total package that would really bring total credibility to our sport but we’re hoping that can happen.

“The boat that we have and the team that we have is like no other,” Villwock said. “I’d like to be able to go to a race and be treated fairly and with the degree of respect we deserve. Winning or losing is beside the point.”

But the question about his future has been a focal point all season.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Villwock said. “That’s a decision that the Little family and myself, we probably need to sit down with the team and decide what to do. We don’t know what that is yet. Everyday a question mark seems to come up that throws another factor into the equation.”

And while the questions keep coming up, Villwock hasn’t let it rule the year.

“Oddly enough, I haven’t really stopped to think about it much,” Villwock said. “We’re just trying to deal with what we are doing. With the way the handicapping thing is working, we probably shouldn’t have won (a race) for the last three or four years. But we’ve managed to keep our head in the game and keep racing and more often times than not, we’ve come out on top. So we’ll do that again.

“It’s been a wonderful journey,” Villwock said. “I’ve been able to do things that I probably could have never dreamt I could do. What I thought I’d be doing is quite different than what’s happened.”

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