With Hydros, You Get What You Pay For
By Gordon Engelhardt
Welcome to Vietnam, full of jungle, snakes, poverty, bad memories for Uncle Sam . . . and unlimited hydroplane engines.
Miss Budweiser crew chief Ron Brown raced to Vietnam in 1995 and '96 in search of those hydroplane engines.
"You get off the airplane and you see people with guns and everything else," he says. "It's different to go into a Communist country."
Brown was after Vietnam-era Lycoming T-55, L-7C turbine helicopter engines used by the United States military during the Vietname War. Now, those engines are used by nearly every hydro team.
The engines are scarce in the U.S., and only 840 of them, which now cost $50,000 to $60,000 each, were made.
To reach the spectacular simplicity of an unlimited hydroplane speeding down a straightaway at 200 mph, raising a 30-foot high roostertail spray, requires a marathon adventure in securing the best available basic parts.
Few complete this marton. Few have the backing of Budweiser to go to Vietnam, or wherever, and buy the preferred engines.
"If someone comes to me with five million dollars and wants to go Indycar or NASCAR racing, and says, 'Here's the money,' you (can) get the team together," says former Miss Bud driver Chip Hanauer, the second-winningest driver in history with 58 victories.
"I can literally order everything I need from a catalog to put one of those together, be brand new, be as good as anyone as out there.
"You won't have to go through the secret things, fly to Vietnam, see the Communist government to get engines."
Brown went to Vietnam with a U.S. Vietnam veteran and his Vietnamese wife, who acted as an interpreter. Brown says the Communist government believes it's sitting on a gold mine and, thus, officials have been difficult to deal with.
Brown was unable to buy any engines in '95 because of the United States' trade embargo with Vietnam. Last year, the embargo was lifted and he purchased 10 engines -- leaving 20 others behind -- as he traveled to warehouses in Hanoi, Saigon and Bien Hoa.
The Vietnamese, he says, don't even know what unlimited hydroplanes are.
"They see an American buying equipment, they certainly don't know anything else," says Brown, who has 52 victories as a crew chief, second on the all-time list.
"They see an American, and they see the richest person in the world."
Like Miss Bud, all of the other hydro teams use the Lycoming T- 55, L-7C engines, with the exception of Ed Cooper Jr.'s Master Tire, which utilizes a World War II-era turbocharged Allison aircraft engine.
The Rutkauskas brothers, Mike and Larry, tried introducing new engines -- more readily available engines -- but soon became trapped in a political battle with the sport's power brokers -- Miss Bud owner Bernie Little and Close Call owner Steve Woomer.
The Rutkauskas brothers bought 50 General Electric T64-6B turbine engines, the same brand that the Miller Lite team used in 1983 and '84.
Mike Rutkauskas said he consulted with Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association commissioner Bill Doner.
"He said, 'Go for it. We'll get it in somehow,'" Mike Rutkauskas says. "It didn't work that way."
The UHRA board of directors voted against allowing the "Rutt" brothers to rejoin the circuit with their GE engines and the former Miss Bud T-5.
"I'm disappointed in the ruling," says Mike, who has not been on the unlimited tour since he and his brother raced the dual- automotive powered Edge Shave Gel team in 1991.
"I think the sport could use more boats and more equipment in it. In no sense did I ever go into this venture looking to dominate something."
Cooper, an Evansville resident, says the GE engines are a couple of hundred pounds heavier than the Lycomings, but are more modern and efficient. He says the "Rutt" brothers agreed to have the GE engines generate the same horsepower as the Lycomings.
Mike Rutkauskas' viewpoint: "We have in this sport the wherewithal, the knowledge, and the equipment, to bring an alternative turbine power supply into it and make everything equal."
Ed Nelson, the UHRA's safety, technology and competition director, also was disappointed the board denied the alternative engines.
"They did call for more study, a study by committee," he says.
Last November, Cooper was the lone owner to vote for the GE engines at a UHRA board meeting in Detroit.
Although siding with the "Rutt" brothers, Cooper realizes Little and Woomer, who have millions invested in the Lycoming engines, have the most to lose.
"You've got to understand that everybody is looking for an advantage to beat the next guy," Cooper says. "The first thing they want to find (out) is if you know something they don't know.
"(But) I don't think it's a dead issue."
Not when the parts store is in Vietnam.
(Reprinted from the Evansville Courier, Saturday, June 28, 1997)
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© Leslie Field, 1999