1996 Molson Thunderfest
Okanagan Lake, Kelowna BC, Canada, August 11, 1996

Hydroplane Racing : Wind-Assisted Win
By Brad Fay

KELOWNA, B.C. -- Apparently high winds and glass slippers don't mix.

Miss DeWALT Tools was primed for a Cinderella run yesterday at the Molson Thunderfest, when wind and rough water forced the cancellation of the championship heat.

After a phenomenal weekend on Okanagan Lake's liquid oval, the DeWALT boat found itself in a dead heat with heavy favorite PICO American Dream. Each boat had 1,100 points but when the final was cancelled, PICO was declared the Thunderfest winner by virtue of more qualifying points accumulated Friday and Saturday.

[Ed. note--The PICO was declared winner by virtue of 10.85-second time differential versus the DeWALT over the three, six-mile preliminary heats.]

"We would have loved the opportunity to settle it on the water," said DeWALT crew chief Charlie Grooms.

PICO, Smokin' Joe's and the Miss Budweiser are unquestionably the glamour boats on the unlimited hydroplane circuit, and most weeks it's those boats claiming the top three places. Even race announcer Mike Fitzsimmons continuously reminded Kelowna fans yesterday that those crafts would be the definitive favorites for the afternoon final.

But quietly plugging away was the DeWALT, a boat from Indiana which travelled west last month to take part in three races. Third-place finishes in Tri-City and Seattle set the stage for Kelowna, and what Grooms called one of the best overall performances his boat had ever put forth.

"Everything went well this weekend," said Grooms, whose disappointment in having the final cancelled seemed to be eclipsed by the strides his team made in Kelowna.

Miss Budweiser wound up third and Smokin' Joe's fifth, though in the winner-take-all final both boats would have made a serious run for the top prize.

"We always save our best engine for the final," said Miss Bud owner Bernie Little, whose team worked feverishly to change engines between their final qualifying heat at 2:30 p.m., and the scheduled 4:08 p.m. final.

"We have it down to where there's just about one mile per hour difference between us and them (PICO)."

In what amounted to the proverbial final, PICO and the Miss Bud waged a furious battle in Heat 3A, when Dave Villwock in the PICO held off a surging Mark Evans and Miss Bud to win by about five boat lengths.

Miss Bud had defeated PICO in an earlier heat, so the crowd of 30,000 lining the shores of Okanagan Lake was primed for an exciting final.

For PICO, it was the sixth win in eight races this season, pushing the team's nearly insurmountable points lead to 2,063 over Smokin' Joe's with just 3,280 points remaining up for grabs this season.

(reprinted from The Daily Courier, Kelowna, August 12, 1996)

The Molson Thunderfest Jack Hammer Liquid Oval hydro race kicked Kelowna into high gear

By Christopher Stanford

The legendary Ogopogo was nowhere to be seen on Okanagan Lake, but monsters of another kind recently brought fire and thunder to Kelowna, B.C.

After an absence of 29 years, unlimited hydroplane racing came back to the B.C. interior and a large crowd of race fans turned out August 9-11 to see the fastest boats in the world compete for the Canadian Cup title and some $40,000 first prize.

Spectators were treated to quite a show as the 10-metre-long, twin-hulled craft wound up to straightaway speeds over 300 km/h by 3,000 hp turbine engines.

The site of Kelowna is a natural for this type of racing with the narrow one-kilometre-wide Okanagan Lake surrounded by hills reaching 300 metres above the waterline on all sides. And, of course, there's the famous climate -- an average August day sees warm temperatures reaching 30 C, with low humidity and nary a cloud in the sky.

Kelowna, a picturesque city of about 100,000, has a long history of boat racing stretching back to pre-war times. Up until just a few years ago an annual Regatta was held on Okanagan Lake but most residents have never seen these boats or this type of action before.

The teams, eventually numbering 11 unlimited boats and a like number of Unlimited Lights (smaller piston-powered craft) rolled into town on Thursday and a local downtown beach quickly began to look like the pit area of the Indy 500 with crew members crawling all over the colourful machines sitting on their custom trailers. The fans who strolled down to the water to have a look had to wait until Friday morning's first practice runs to see the beasts in action.

Coming into the Kelowna event, which officially carries the lengthy title of the Molson Thunderfest Jack Hammer Liquid Oval and is the eighth stop on the Ralphs Unlimited Hydroplane Thunder Tour '96, presented by Las Vegas, there were essentially three boats to watch out for. Leading the series with five wins was the Pico American Dream piloted by lanky 6'4" Dave Villwock. Next in line was the Smokin' Joe's Camel-sponsored boat with two wins this year for driver Mark Tate. The most famous boat out there, Miss Budweiser, was manned by new driver Mark Evans.

The Miss Bud team, probably the best funded squad with flamboyant owner Bernie Little writing the checques, came from the previous weekend's race at the Seattle SEAFAIR in a curious position. Accustomed to winning, in fact expected to, the Bud crew hadn't been able to find the top of the victory stand and could only wonder as the PICO and Smokin' Joe's boats burned them whenever they met on the water.

Come Friday morning, the normally peaceful Okanagan Lake was shaken awake as the first of the unlimited boats was hoisted off its trailer by a crane and lowered into the water. As race fans watched from shore and from spectator boats tied up to the log boom surrounding the course, the building whine of an L-7 Lycoming turbine motor signalled the return of the thunderboats to Kelowna.

With a high-pitched, but strangely less than ear- shattering roar, the boats flew around the 2.5-mile liquid oval course on two-foot chop. The waves weren't of any real concern to these big boats.

Although only six craft took advantage of the practice time allotted Friday, the fans were still impressed.

"They were really, really fast. I thought the Smokin' Joe's boat was best," said nine-year-old Scott Sanderson of Kelowna who was seeing them for the first time.

Race fan Graham Schofield, also of Kelowna, was pretty impressed, too. "I've seen them on television, but they sure are bigger and louder in real life," he commented.

After each practice session, the boats were inspected closely by the mechanics, changing $10,000 props, adjusting the huge rear wing angles and often pulling one motor out and installing another in a matter of an hour. Everyone wanted to be prepared for Saturday's qualifying runs which would determine lane choices for Sunday's heats leading up to the finals. In hydroplane racing, lane choice is a pretty big factor. Nobody wants to be on the outside. The water can get pretty choppy from the other boats' wakes and that's the last thing a driver needs to worry about at 300 km/h.

If Friday was the day to tinker and test the waters, Saturday was the day to get down to business. Nobody was surprised that the PICO American Dream had clocked the fastest practice lap at an average of 149.287 mph with Miss Bud in second with 146.217. But if the PICO team was going to catch a sixth season victory, they were going to have to earn it.

Under more clear blue skies, with a crowd of over 10,000 watching, one after another of the boats took to the water to try and nail down the best qualifying time. During the three morning and afternoon sessions, a routine began to develop among the boats. The drivers were sent out for three or four laps with the hammer down. They were then brought back in, the boats given a different set-up and sent back out again to try and squeeze out a little more speed.

All day long it was a toss-up between the PICO boat and Smokin' Joe's. By late afternoon, with the wind picking up to around 20 knots, it was obvious that the boats weren't going to better their speeds. As crews packed up for the day, it was with the realiziation that the Smokin' Joe's team had lit up the water, setting the fastest time of the day slightly ahead of the PICO boat with Miss Budweiser in third. The rest of the field would be left to chase the trio.

As the crowd swelled to over 15,000 Sunday morning, all waited in anticipation of the thunder on the lake. The heats would have four or five boats going head-to-head, kicking up 50-metre-long roostertails behind them.

The fans weren't disappointed with the racing action. The hard-charging hydroplanes flashed down the straightaways, barely holding on in the corners in the two morning heats. One of the match-ups added some extra excitement even as it proved costly for the Smokin' Joe's team. The boat was sitting in the water at the dock while its three competitors were on the course warming up. Driver Mark Tate hit the ignition button . . . nothing happened. The frantic crew tried to start the boat again and again. Racing against a five-minute time limit imposed by UHRA rules, the crew just couldn't get the huge helicopter turbine motor to light up. Smokin' Joe's earned zero points for the heat, dropping it out of the running.

With both PICO and Miss Budweiser running well, it looked like it was going to be a real race to the finish in the final. But the weather was going to play a bigger hand than any engine or prop in this race.

At 3 p.m., with a beautiful sunny sky overhead, three boats were on the course ready to go with one at the dock about to join the action. Just then the wind started to blow. Spectators held onto their hats and beach blankets, but could do little else as 40-knot gusts coming from the west whipped the surface of Okanagan Lake into a forth. UHRA officials called the boats in and everyone watched the skies for signs of hope.

With the PICO boat technically leading in heat points, and holding the fastest heat time, the event turned into a waiting game for the weather. It was official by around 7 p.m., driver Dave Villwock and crew had won their sixth race of the year and the Canadian Cup title.

"We didn't want to win like this but we'll just have to take it," Villwock said. "We had a great time here, the Canadian fans are the nicest people and we'll be back."

With over 30,000 spectators attending over the weekend and promoters calling it an all-around success, certainly race fans in Kelowna are sure to hear the sounds of thunder again next year.

(reprinted from Power Boating Canada, November 1996)

[ED. NOTE: The CBC television network aired a 90-minute special on the Kelowna race Saturday, Oct. 12, 1996 and ratings showed some 515,000 people viewed the event. The official attendance of the Molson Thunderfest was 61,000, more than double the guesstimates included in the Power Boating Canada article . . . which appeared to be heavily truncated by the editor's blue pencil and/or space requirements.]

  WINNER U-100 PICO American Dream       Dave Villwock
     2nd U-6   DeWALT Tools              Mike Hanson
     3rd U-1   Miss Budweiser            Mark Evans
     4th U-99  Chaplin's Bellevue Honda  Scott Pierce
     5th U-10  Smokin' Joe's             Mark Tate
     6th U-2   Molson's Jack Hammer      Steve David
     7th U-3   Chelan's Mill Bay Casino  Mitch Evans

HEAT 1A - The drama of the heat, and perhaps the drama of the day, occurred before the heat as Mark Tate could not fire up the U-10 Camel-Powered Smokin' Joe's. The crew climbed aboard and took off the cowling, but the problem appeared to be the igniters. Meanwhile, the other four boats lined up and the white flag went up, disqualifying the Smokin' Joe's. Mike Hanson immediately went out front in the U-6 DeWALT Tools, but the Guaranteed Tough boat received a challenge for the first lap from the U-99 Chaplin's Bellevue Honda/Subaru and Scott Pierce. After a side-by-side lap, Hanson put the pedal down a little harder and pulled away for the victory. Pierce stayed within a buoylength to the finish. Meanwhile, Mitch Evans in the only piston-powered boat, the U-3 Chelan's Mill Bay Casino, was receiving a tough challenge from the U-9 Miss Exide and Mark Weber. Weber actually passed Evans at the end of the second lap, but the piston guys didn't give up, and Evans just nosed out the Exide at the finish.

HEAT 1B - All five boats made the field and put on a great show. Dave Villwock jumped out to an early lead in the U-100 PICO American Dream, but Mark Evans was right on his hip down the backchute in the U-1 Miss Budweiser. Villwock swung wide in the second turn and ran away from there for 400 points. Evans maintained the pressure in the Budweiser but remained a buoylength or more back in second. Meanwhile, a whale of a battle for third ensued between Ken Muscatel on the inside in the U-14 Allied Telesyn Powered Computers &Applications and Steve David on the outside in the U-2 Molson's Jack Hammer. However, Muscatel missed a buoy in the first turn of lap two and had to go around the corner again, losing power in the process. By the time he was pointed straight again, both David in the Jack Hammer and Mike Jones in the U-11 Miss Exide 2 were long gone. Muscatel actually ran between the PICO and the Budweiser completing his second lap as they finished the third, but he could not catch Jones before the checkered flag.

HEAT 2A - Mark Evans had a point to prove in Heat 2A aboard the Miss Budweiser. With the inside lane advantage because of the inverted lane choice, he wanted to show he could defeat Dave Villwock in the PICO American Dream. That's exactly what he did, holding off a strong challenge on the outside from the PICO and on the inside from Steve David in the U-2 Molson's Jack Hammer. The PICO American Dream stayed within a roostertail until the third lap, when it flew high in the air came down hard, not unlike his near-flip in Seattle last week, though not as high. Steve David kept things close by driving the inside lane with the U-2 Molson's Jack Hammer but couldn't quite catch the top two. Scott Pierce ran a surprisingly strong fourth in the U-99 Chaplin's Bellevue Honda/Subaru, while Ken Muscatel trailed in a U-14 Allied Telesyn Powered Computers and Applications running without a horizontal or right vertial stablizer.

HEAT 2B - Drama again unfolded prior to Heat 2B, as a crew member neglected to put plugs in the bottom of the U-9 Miss Exide. The boat took on water at the dock and had to be lifted out of the water to drain before starting the heat. Then, Mark Weber had trouble getting the boat on a plane prior to the start. By the time he was on the course, he couldn't line up with the other boats and received a one-lap penalty. Mark Tate, behind the eight-ball with no points for the day in the Smokin' Joe's, did what he had to do and ran away from the field. Mike Hanson finished second in the DeWALT Tools, but just barely as his oxygen system wasn't feeding him enough air. He almost had to shut the boat down. Mitch Evans tried to physically catch the Miss Exide in his U-3 Chelan's Mill Bay Casino, but it was meaningless since he was actually a lap ahead. Fourth went to Mike Jones in the U-11 Miss Exide 2, while Mark Weber did finish fifth in the U-9 Miss Exide. Returning to the pits, Mark Tate entered a safety zone with the U-10 Smokin' Joe's. When referee Mike Noonan assessed a $300, he was asked, "Is that $300 Canadian?" "No, that's good 'ole American dollars."

HEAT 3A - It was the final before the final. Four of the top boats lined up side-by-side and raced their hearts out. Dave Villwock ended up using his inside advantage to gradually pull away from the Miss Budweiser and Mark Evans, who stayed close most of the distance. Meanwhile, a close battle ensued between Steve David in the U-2 Molson's Jack Hammer and Mark Tate in the U-10 Smokin' Joe's. David led after the first lap by a few boatlengths, stretched out his lead to nearly a roostertail in the first turn of lap number two, but then Mark Tate settled in to a groove and just edged the big black boat at the finish to garner enough points to make the final. Mike Jones held a steady fifth in Miss Exide II.

HEAT 3B - Mike Hanson continued a sterling day in the Guaranteed Tough U-6 DeWALT Tools by running away from the field. Scott Pierce maintained second in the U-99 Chaplin's Bellevue Honda/Subaru, while Ken Muscatel established third in the U-14 Allied Telesyn Powered Computers and Applications. A battle lasted two laps between Mark Weber in the U-9 Miss Exide and Mitch Evans in the U-3 Chelan's Mill Bay Casino before Weber pulled away for fourth.

PROVISIONAL - With only two boats running on the course, the winds kicked up to nearly 40 kilometers per hour, prompting the officials to raise the black flag and cancel the heat. Mitch Evans in the U-3 Chelan's Mill Bay Casino became the trailer by having the highest number of points of the boats which would have run the provisional.

FINAL - Cancelled due to high winds.

When the draw was announced for Heat 3A of Molson's Thunderfest in Kelowna, many fans commented that it looked like the final heat. The PICO American Dream, Miss Budweiser, Smokin' Joe's and U-2 Molson's Jack Hammer all drew into the same flight. Little did anyone know that Heat 3A would be the closest thing to a final heat that anyone in Kelowna would see.

As the boats headed out for the provisional heat, the wind kicked up to nearly 40 kilometers per hour. Crew members complained that the water was unsafe, the black flag was raised, and the boats returned to the pits--for the day. After waiting a few hours pondering the possibility of the winds dying off, the officials called the race as complete. The last time a race had been called before the running of the final was 1987 in Madison IN, when the race was declared over after the flip of the U-10 Cellular One seriously injured driver Steve Reynolds in Heat 3A.

The order of finish thus reverted to points earned in the preliminaries. On that basis, Dave Villwock won the race in the PICO American Dream, his sixth victory in eight races of Ralph's Thunder Tour 1996 Presented by Las Vegas. The "Dream Team" also moved almost insurmountably ahead in the O'Doul's National High Point Standings, with 11296 points compared to Smokin' Joe's with 9233. Only 3280 points remain available at the final two races.

With the same 1100 point total for the day but a longer elapsed time (10.85 seconds slower), Mike Hanson earned second in the DeWALT Tools. The position was especially sweet for the team in light of two injuries to crew members during the race week. Mark Evans was third in Miss Budweiser with 1000 points, Scott Pierce fourth in the U-99 Chaplin's Bellevue Honda/Subaru with 769, Mark Tate fifth in the U-10 Smokin' Joe's with 625, and Steve David sixth in the U-2 Molson's Jack Hammer.

In the near-final heat (Heat 3A), Dave Villwock jumped out front in the PICO American Dream and survived a hard charge from the outside courtesy of Mark Evans in the Miss Budweiser. The Budweiser had earlier defeated the PICO when it had the inside position in the second heat. Mark Tate in Smokin' Joe's, starting on the way outside in lane 4, was barely able to overcome Steve David in the U-2 Molson's Jack Hammer for third.

Despite the weather cancellation of the final, there was no question that the Molson's Thunderfest in Kelowna was one of the finest-run regettas in recent unlimited history, both for the fans and the boat teams. All left Kelowna feeling they had just visited paradise.

Summary written by Lance Gleich.

*  *  *

Heat 1A (11:30)
Ln Boat # Name                     Driver          Pos/Pts    Speed

2  U-6    DeWALT Tools             Mike Hanson     1/400/400  134.766 #
3  U-99   Chaplin's Bellevue Maz.  Scott Pierce    2/300/300  129.536
4  U-3    Chelan's Mill Bay Casino Mitch Evans     3/225/225  119.712
5  U-9    Miss Exide               Mark Weber      4/169/169  119.343
1  U-10   Smokin' Joe's            Mark Tate       DNS/0/0

#  - Fast Lap:  U-6 (3rd), 135.975

Heat 1B (12:00)
Ln Boat # Name                     Driver          Pos/Pts    Speed

1  U-100  PICO American Dream L-2  Dave Villwock   1/400/400  138.877 #
2  U-1    Miss Budweiser T-3       Mark Evans      2/300/300  133.175
4  U-2    Molson's Jack Hammer     Steve David     3/225/225  117.029
5  U-11   Miss Exide 2             Mike Jones      4/169/169  100.580
3  U-14   Allied/Computers & App.  Ken Muscatel    5/127/127   98.096 $

#  - Fast Lap:  U-100 (1st), 141.254
$  - Had to make up missed buoy, 1st turn of lap 2

Heat 2A (1:00)
Ln Boat # Name                     Driver          Pos/Pts    Speed

4  U-1    Miss Budweiser           Mark Evans      1/400/700  140.741 #
5  U-100  PICO American Dream      Dave Villwock   2/300/700  135.213
2  U-2    Molson's Jack Hammer     Steve David     3/225/450  129.627
3  U-99   Chaplin's Bellevue Honda Scott Pierce    4/169/469  124.744
1  U-14   Allied/Computers & App.  Ken Muscatel    5/127/254  112.348

#  - Fast Lap:  U-1 (2nd), 143.315

Heat 2B (1:30)
Ln Boat # Name                     Driver          Pos/Pts    Speed

1  U-10   Smokin' Joe's            Mark Tate       1/400/400  133.523 # %
3  U-6    DeWALT Tools             Mike Hanson     2/300/700  132.329
2  U-3    Chelan's Mill Bay Casino Mitch Evans     3/225/450   79.980
5  U-11   Miss Exide 2             Mike Jones      4/169/338   66.095
4  U-9    Miss Exide               Mark Weber      5/127/296   65.443 *

#  - Fast Lap:  U-10 (1st), 140.324
%  - Penalized $300 for encroaching on the safety zone
*  - Penalized one lap for being too far ahead at the start

Heat 3A (2:30)
Ln Boat # Name                     Driver          Pos/Pts    Speed

1  U-100  PICO American Dream      Dave Villwock   1/400/1100 137.810 #
2  U-1    Miss Budweiser           Mark Evans      2/300/1000 136.210 *
3  U-2    Molson's Jack Hammer     Steve David     4/169/619  131.580
4  U-10   Smokin' Joe's            Mark Tate       3/225/625  130.884
5  U-11   Miss Exide 2             Mike Jones      5/127/465  105.676

#  - Fast Lap:  U-100 (1st), 142.707
*  - Penalized $500 for encroachment on U-100

Heat 3B (3:00)
Ln Boat # Name                     Driver          Pos/Pts    Speed

1  U-6    DeWALT Tools             Mike Hanson     1/400/1100 135.242 #
2  U-99   Chaplin's Bellevue Sub.  Scott Pierce    2/300/769  129.371
4  U-14   Allied/Computers & App.  Ken Muscatel    3/225/479  125.534
5  U-9    Miss Exide               Mark Weber      4/169/465  117.914 *
3  U-3    Chelan's Mill Bay Casino Mitch Evans     5/127/577  113.364

#  - Fast Lap:  U-6 (1st), 138.092
*  - Penalized $500 for encroachment on U-3

Provisional Heat (3:30)

Final Heat


(Reprinted from UHRA.com)

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