Erick Ellstrom was sitting in the Stan Sayres pits off Lake Washington on Friday, being cagey.
His new boat, the 96 Spirit of Qatar, is gearing up for just its second race this weekend at the Albert Lee Cup at Seafair, and the Ellstrom Racing team is working on fine tuning it to try and get the most speed out of it.
It promises to the be one of the H1 Unlimited fleet’s top boats. The last version won three national titles and 28 races before it was destroyed in a boat fire at the Oryx Cup in Doha, Qatar, in 2013.
“We don’t know if it’s better yet,” said Ellstrom, whose team is based in Ballard. “… There’s some baby steps to get it going.”
Driver Kip Brown noted that last week at the Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities. When they first ran the boat in qualifying, it was 30 mph off the top pace. In testing Friday morning, it was 5-6 mph off the pace set by Jimmy Shane in the Oberto — and he’s 5 mph ahead of everybody.
On Friday, it was the No. 4 qualifier at 148.883 mph (nearly 8 mph slower than the Oberto).
“The strides we’ve made in five days of running time is amazing to me,” Brown said.
And that qualifying speed may not show what the boat can do. As owner Ellstrom put it, “you don’t have to show all your cards.”
It takes time to get a boat producing all the horsepower it can. Ellstrom noted that one of his former boats took between five and seven years before it was dialed in. He doesn’t think it will take this boat nearly that long, but to expect a win this weekend might be pushing it.
“By the time we go to (the season-ending race in) Doha, we will be as close to competitive as it needs to be,” Brown said.
Maybe more so.
“We’ve designed it do some things we haven’t even implemented yet,” Ellstrom said, noting only a lack of parts is holding the team back.
What are some of those things, so fans can look forward to seeing them?
“Those are trade secrets,” Ellstrom said.
Brown is looking forward to being the recipient of those changes.
Brown, 37, impressed the Ellstroms last year as he drove the 95 Spirit of Qatar — the Nate Brown-owned boat assumed the sponsorship while the new boat was being built — and won the Gold Cup.
Brown told Ellstrom in his interview he’d only drive for the Ellstrom family. If they didn’t pick him, he’d go back to driving lower classes of boats; he didn’t want to stay in unlimiteds in lesser boats.
Finally in April, he got the call.
“That’s a life-changing phone call,” Brown said. “Now my job is to not screw up that opportunity.”
The Qatar missed the first two races of the season as they finished up the boat. Since that knocked them out of the season points race, they can treat this season as the preseason to the 2015 campaign.
It’s one that Qatar expects to challenge the Oberto as the top dog on the circuit. With the Qatar up to speed and Dave Villwock making the Beacon Plumbing more and more competitive and with the Graham Trucking (which won the 2013 national championship) in the mix, next season promises to be one of hydroplane racing’s best.
“I think it will be,” said Beacon Plumbing owner Billy Schumacher, a Gold Cup winning driver himself. “I think it will take a year before we’ll be where we want to be.”
AROUND THE PITS
Qualifying at Albert Lee Cup at Sefair was delayed more than an hour because of high winds. When it was done, the Oberto was the fastest qualifier at 156.243 mph. The Oberto has been the top qualifier in all four races this season. … During the break, Villwock remembered a time when he was driving the Miss Budweiser and they drove the boat on a windy day on Lake Washington, wanting to see how the boat could handle rough water. “It wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but it was certainly entertaining,” the South Kitsap grad said. Villwock had a rough day qualifying. His first attempt was nullified by an N2 (RPM) violation. His second attempt was erased by a fuel violation. He’ll have to qualify during Saturday’s testing session. … Heats 1A and 1B start at 11:55 a.m. Saturday. Sunday’s racing starts at 10:10 a.m. with the final at 4:45 p.m.