SEATTLE — As hydroplanes descend on Lake Washington this weekend for the annual Seafair race, they bring with them what is also now an annual question — will the sport ever return to its glory days?
As chairman of H1 Unlimited, the current governing body of the sport, it’s Sam Cole’s job to try to make that happen.
And while the sport is enduring what Cole admits is “basically a survival year,” he says there is hope for a rebound.
“I’m very excited about where it could end up,” said Cole, who thinks that with a few changes here and there “there could be a very bright future.”
This year, though, has been a challenge as the organization is working without a title sponsor after losing the backing of the Air National Guard in January due to military cutbacks, and has suffered from lower-than-optimum boat fields at some of its early stops.
The annual Gold Cup in Detroit — the sport’s marquee event — featured just eight boats and lackluster crowds. Afterward, race organizers decided that next year’s event will be held in late August, hoping a move away from the July 4 weekend might help attendance.
Things look a little brighter as the sport comes to Seattle, one of the race sites that Cole said remains healthy.
The field here will be bolstered after a couple of teams either debuted new boats or returned to the circuit in the Tri-Cities last week, including the U-37 Beacon Plumbing, piloted by Dave Villwock, the sport’s winningest driver who is back after a brief retirement.
Cole said there could be a chance at 13 boats this weekend but that there should be at least 11 or 12.
And while the U-6 Oberto has won two of the first three races and has a healthy lead in the season points standings, Cole also thinks the sport is more competitive now than in some years past. The days of one boat dominating everything — the way Villwock and the Miss Budweiser did in the late ’90s and early 2000s — are over.
The overriding issue with the sport remains the same as ever — money.
Hydroplanes, simply put, are expensive to own and operate. Cole notes that a prop that may be used for just one race costs from $12,000-$15,000.
“The technology in our sport has never been better,” said Cole, who is in his 10th year as the chairman of H1 Unlimited. “But technology costs a lot of money and sometimes what the technology brings doesn’t equate on the financial back end, and we’ve got to try to find a financial balance there.”
The costs of operating the boats continues to be one of the biggest challenges in finding new owners who would bring new teams onto the circuit. That’s needed not only to add some new blood but to take over as some of the older owners exit. Two stalwart owners are on their way out as Billy and Jane Schumacher are looking to sell the U-37, and Nate Brown and the U-17 team is also calling it quits after the Seattle race.
Also changing the game in recent years is the money that race sites are charged for security and other necessities provided by local governments.
“Years ago it was free,” Cole said. “Now it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
There is also the perception that the sport is largely followed by an older demographic, the ones who first became fans when the loud Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin engines dominated before the quieter turbines took over.
One of Cole’s ideas, which he implemented this year in Madison, Ind., is to condense all of the racing into one day instead of spreading it over two as is commonly the case these days, including at Seafair.
That would not only cut costs for all involved but also might be more enticing to fans.
“In Madison we started that race at 11 a.m. and we were done at 4:30 p.m.,” he said. “People don’t have 18 hours to sit and watch 45 minutes of boat racing.”
Another specific challenge to this year is financial issues with races last year in Sacramento and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Neither is holding a race this season and the organization remains embroiled in litigation with each to recoup some bills.
“We as an organizational group lost about 80 percent of our operating revenue with what happened in Sacramento and Coeur d’Alene,” Cole said. “We had to adjust. We had to survive.”
This season, he says, is a transitional year as the organization attempts to move past those issues, as well as the turnover in boat teams, while trying to add new teams and race sites.
Getting a new five-year deal to continue a winter race in Qatar, he said, was a step in the right direction.
“We’ve got some work ahead of us,” Cole said. “But it’s not impossible work. I think there are a lot of people in it for the long haul.”