1995 Gila River Casino Cup
Firebird Lake, Phoenix, AZ, April 23, 1995


Chip Hanauer, Miss Budweiser win the Gila River Cup, Phoenix

The inaugural Gila River Casino Unlimited Cup, at Firebird Lake in suburban Chandler, always figured to be -- as they say in sports -- interesting. It was that -- and more. From the initial tests of Mark Tate in the Smokin' Joe's last December -- when he noticed that there appeared to be only one speed lane, on the outside -- to Steve David's wild ride up onto the beach after a skid fin bracket let go in a test session Saturday morning, the 1.5-mile, man-made course was itself the star of the show. Man against the elements, then, and -- as usual -- the elements won. The unlimited hydroplane fleet never really got the hang of Firebird -- except for one entry. And they showed up, professing to not even have known that the lake was salt water. Afterward, the headline in the Phoenix Gazette told the story: "MISS BUDWEISER SAYS IT ALL" Yes, kids, the 54th career win of Lee (Chip) Hanauer, in the perennial champion Miss Budweiser, itself almost fully rebuilt from last year's practice flip in Seattle, was anything but a piece of cake. But, when it was all over, there was wily Bud owner Bernie Little with frosting all over a mouth split wide by his trademark grin. It was career owner win No. 97 for the Lakeland, Fla., beer distributor and it came against arch-rival Steve Woomer's Smokin' Joe's team in a five-lap, two-boat final.

All the races in this uniquely formatted event comprised two boats -- the width of the course allowing no more. When the big boats return in '96, that may change. Trying to run the inside lane, where Tate wound up in the final due to his No. 2 qualifying speed, was difficult enough. But when referee Jim Codling warned off Tate the first time around, and then had him practically idling while Hanauer came on full throttle up the outside -- and then giving them the "GO!" green flag -- made Smokin' Joe's task impossible. Hanauer, who had run with barely a miscue all week, never looked back as he took himself and his boat into the O'Doul's high points lead at 1,240 following the season's first race. Not that Hanauer didn't feel the bite of Firebird. In a cool down lap Friday, he exited too slowly, turned too sharply, and wound up executing a neat pirouhette with the Bud that almost put it on the mid-course island, a la George Henley in the Pay 'N Pak when the unlimiteds first visited here in 1975 [sic]. But that was Chip's only flub. He sped away from rookie Tom Hindley in the newly named U-99 Appian Renegade to win heat 1A on Sunday, swallowed the refurbished T-Plus Engine Treatment in 2C and then buried Tate, leading every lap. A typical clean sweep by the man who still has a mathematical chance of surpassing the late Bill Muncey's 62-win total before this season ends. Yes, he must win ALL the races -- but if that's within the grasp of anyone, it is the sort of thing that could happen to the Chip, Bud & Bernie Show. Tate, first on the course for Tuesday and Wednesday testing, seemed to run flawlessly -- until throwing a prop the second day and doing about $30,000 in rear-end damage to the Smokin' Joe's. Although Tate came back to qualify in the 146 mph bracket, he could never quite run as swiftly as Chip.

David's hasty and stunning course exit with the T-Plus was a throat-grabber. Up the back straight at 180-plus, he was off throttle and beginning the tight north turn when the skid fin stabilizer broke, the boat beginning a wild dance on the water and the veteran Floridian vainly trying to keep it afloat. But it plowed straight toward the south grandstand -- set safely back up on a small rise, protected by hay bales and storm fencing and 40 yards of sand and gravel -- and came to a grinding halt some 35 feet up on the shore. This was the first time a big boat had beached since Bill Sterett's "pleasure" ride with his brother at Owensboro had given Miss Budweiser owner Little gray hair in 1974. And, of course, there was plenty of story-telling about Wild Bill Cantrell's ride into the Lake Washington garden party during the '54 Gold Cup. David emerged unscathed and the boat wasn't so bad, either. An all-night thrash at a local machine shop had it back together and it participated in the best race of the day, a deck-to-deck duel with Dave Villwock's PICO American Dream in the consolation three-lapper for third place. Ed Cooper Jr.'s U-3 Kendall Motor Oil/Ramada, the piston-powered dinosaur of the fleet, kept right on chugging with regular driver Mitch Evans at the wheel. Its sure and steady performance, on a course never designed for this big old boat, netted the Evansville gang a solid fifth place overall.


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