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Flying the Columbia 

by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & echnically, turbine-powered Unlimited class hydroplanes are "boats" only when they're at rest. At racing speeds, they don't move through the water or float on it. Instead, they essentially fly across the surface on a cushion of air with only a few small patches of hull and half the propeller touching the water.





This weekend, about 60,000 people will gather to watch 14 of the most competitive Unlimited Hydro teams race at the 42nd annual Columbia Cup (formerly the Atomic Cup) in the Tri Cities. (Think of it as NASCAR on water.)





Steve David, driver for the Oh Boy! Oberto-sponsored "Miss Madison" U-6 hydro team, spoke to The Inlander last week about his love for the sport.





What's it like to drive an Unlimited class hydro?


There's nothing like it in the world. It's hard to compare -- even if you've been in a car at 180 mph, the track's usually flat. With race boats, it changes every lap. In the Tri Cities, on Friday and Saturday, the water is usually like glass -- but come race day, you put six boats on the course and it becomes like an ocean. All of a sudden, at 180 to 185 mph, you're hitting 2- and 3-foot speed bumps. I don't know what to compare it to, except maybe being strapped to a chair and having Evander Holyfield smack the daylights out of you.





What's in it for the fans?


I think it's the size and magnitude of what we're doing -- big boats going really fast, the rooster tail, the water in the air, the thundering sound from the hulls hitting the water. When you've got five or six of them deck to deck, people just feel that energy -- it's literally palpable.





How'd you get into it?


I was raised on the water in Fort Lauderdale, and I've had a boat since I was 6 or 7. Initially it was unsanctioned "wildcat" races -- "Who's the quickest in the neighborhood?" I began organized races when I was 14 at the Miami Marine Stadium. I went to graduate school in 1972, and then was out of it until 1980. It's been full-bore ever since.





What's the fastest you've gone?


Before there were fuel restrictions, several of us were routinely running over 205 mph straightaway speeds in competition. Now, we're at 190 to 191, and hoping to improve in the Tri-Cities with some new gears and props.





For those who are not familiar with these races -- how do they work?


It's a series of sprint races during the day. Depending on the number of boats at the Tri-Cities, there'll either be six or nine preliminary heats. The preliminary heats are three laps each on a two-and-a-half-mile course. You take accumulated points to get the top six boats to move into the final. The final is five laps on a two-and-a-half-mile course, or a 12.5 mile race.





Are there any peculiarities of the Columbia, as opposed to other waterways?


It's our speedway. In qualifying, it's usually flat and a super-fast race course. There are no tricks about it, other than Turns One and Two being very rough when we compete -- and sometimes the wind. From a fan's standpoint, if you've never been to an unlimited race, it would be hard to get any closer than you are at the Columbia Cup. The boats will literally be 100 feet from the shoreline at close to 200 mph.





The Lamb Winston Columbia Cup begins on Friday, July 27, from 9 am-7 pm. Free. Competition continues on Saturday, July 28, from 8 am-5 pm (tickets: $15) and on Sunday, July 29, from 7 am-5 pm (tickets: $25, Saturday included.) Columbia Park, Route 240, Kennewick, Wash. Visit: www.waterfollies.com or call (509) 783-4675.

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