Villwock’s comeback attempt raises controversy

Dave Villwock, a 1972 South Kitsap graduate, has returned to unlimited hydroplane racing after not racing since January 2013. - Courtesy Photo
Dave Villwock, a 1972 South Kitsap graduate, has returned to unlimited hydroplane racing after not racing since January 2013.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

SEATTLE — The mere mention of his name evokes irritation among rivals.

That never has changed for 1972 South Kitsap graduate Dave Villwock.

The winningest driver in the history of unlimited hydroplane racing came out of retirement to race Sunday in the Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities. And, predictably, controversy followed.

According to the Tri-City Herald, Villwock had the required seven-boat lead in lane 2 of heat 2B of that race when he went into the apex of the turn. Jeff Bernard in the U-17 Our Gang Racing then slid out of lane 1, crossed through the skid fin of Villwock’s, and traveled until he hit the roostertail of U-9 Les Schwab Tires-Team RedDot driver Jon Zimmerman.

The water lifted the U-17 into the air before it landed on the right sponson. While Bernard was not injured, the U-17 was damaged enough that team owner Nate Brown had to withdraw from the Columbia Cup and Seafair.

While the move was legal — H1 officials reviewed the video and determined there was room for Bernard in the turn — both he and Brown were angry with a move they believe was not necessary.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that didn’t need to happen,” Bernard told the Herald. “I forgot who was driving the boat. I’m kind of used to it. But that’s why no one likes him.”

Chip Hanauer, who serves as an analyst for KIRO-TV during Seafair, said there was no question which driver was at fault in the Tri-Cities.

“If it wasn’t Dave’s fault, I don’t know whose it was,” Hanauer said. “Dave’s mistake started the incident.”

Villwock, who was not present for Tuesday’s Seafair media day at Seattle Center, later lost control of his hull during the first lap of heat 3B. According to the Herald, his boat hit Jimmy Shane’s left sponson hard, lifting the defending national high points champion into the air before he regained control. Villwock automatically was disqualified from the heat and docked 150 points, which put him out of the finals.

“He tried to talk to me,” Shane told the Herald. “But I didn’t want him saying anything. That’s two incidents in one day.”

Hanauer said Villwock faces a difficult adjustment period. Hanauer still drives hydroplanes on occasion — he will showcase the restored Atlas Van Lines hull that has not been on the water since legendary driver Bill Muncey was killed while racing it in 1981 in Acapulco, Mexico — but he has not raced competitively since 1999. While Hanauer took a pair of sabbaticals from racing hydroplanes during his career, he believes there is an important distinction between his comebacks and the one Villwock is attempting.

“I think I was 44 years old when I came out,” Hanauer said. “He’s coming out at 60. It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.”

Villwock reenters the circuit with 67 career wins. Muncey (62) and Hanauer (61) follow him on that list. Villwock has won Seafair a record 10 times, but none since 2009. And Shane now dominates unlimited hydroplane racing. His Oberto boat is first with 4,769 season high points entering Seafair. But J. Michael Kelly, whose U-1 Graham Trucking hull is third with 3,626 high points, said discounting Villwock would be a mistake.

“The guy’s record speaks for itself,” said Kelly, adding that he drove Villwock’s boat last year. “There’s a lot of history there.”

Brown, 55, is not as confident about Villwock’s comeback prospects.

“We can all go out there and run a boat around circles,” said Brown, who plans to retire after racing at Seafair. “But the timing, unfortunately, does change and that’s why I pulled myself out of the cockpit. Dave’s a hard-charger and he can run fast, but he’s more of an engineer than he is as a driver. He’s got a lot of horsepower now for whatever he’s doing — it puts him up there with the guys — and his timing might not be right.

“I think he’s pushing a little hard. He needs to stand back and let the race come to him.”

Hanauer said the circuit is different than the one Villwock left after his Spirit of Qatar boat caught fire in January 2013 in Doha, Qatar.

“There’s more talent than I’ve ever seen in the sport,” he said. “The sport has always had one or two, maybe three competitive guys at a time.”

Villwock’s last win came when he captured his fifth consecutive Gold Cup in July 2012 along the Detroit River and Hanauer noted that his last two races did not end well.

“In Qatar, he purposely came out and ran over all of the bowies because he was angry,” he said. “Last week, he had a problem running into the Oberto boat. He needs to get a good one underneath him.”

Brown believes the 2013 race was the impetus for Villwock’s return.

“Look what he did in Qatar,” he said. ”You don’t want to leave the sport doing that.”

But Hanauer has a different perspective. While Villwock enjoys working on boats — his mother used to drive him down to the foot ferry, where he would ride to Bremerton to help his uncle, Al Villwock, with his 135 hydroplane — serving as a crew manager was not enough to fulfill him.

“I just think racing is really deep in the marrow of his bones,” Hanauer said. “I think it would be tough for him to be away from racing.”

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