the Driver's Seat
Villwock has left his mark
on the Madison Regatta
has won more times here
than anyone else in the sport
Special to RoundAbout
(July 2012) Heading into the 2012 Air National
Guard Hydroplane Series Tour, Dave Villwock of Auburn, Wash., stands
at the very top of the hydroplane sport as the defending National High
Point Driver. Villwock rebounded from a horrific crash in the Final
Heat of last years Lucas Oil Madison Regatta and went on to win
three out of six races entered during the 2011 season.
courtesy of Paul Kemiel
Villwock returns in
2012 to pilot the Spirit of Qatar
for owner Erick Ellstrom.
A boat racer since age 16, Villwock accepted his first
Unlimited Class assignment in 1989 as crew chief for Bill Bennetts
Miss Circus Circus. Chip Hanauer was its driver. In 1990, Hanauer and
Villwock emerged as National High Point Champions with six wins in 11
Following years of success in the flat-bottom inboard category, Villwock
was High Point Champion in the 6-Litre Hydroplane Class in 1988 with
Jerry Yoders Sunset Chevrolet Special and set a 6-Litre heat record
on a 1.25-mile course at 104.320 mph.
At San Diego in 1992, Villwock made his Unlimited driving debut aboard
an experimental tandem-wing boat, Coors Dry, owned by Ron Jones Jr.
Villwock scored an upset victory and became the first driver since Howie
Benns in 1974 to win his first-ever Unlimited race.
The transition from crew chief to driver wasnt easy at first.
According to Villwock, Sometimes I thought I had too much of my
old job as crew chief in me. I worried too much about the equipment
when I was out there. I finally got it in my head that my principal
job was to run the boat as hard as I could and bring back what was left.
Miss Elam Plus
2007 Miss Elam Plus
2006 Miss Elam Plus
2004 Miss Budweiser
2003 Miss Budweiser
2000 Miss Budweiser
1998 Miss Budweiser
1997 Miss Budweiser
Hired by the legendary Bernie Little in 1997 as driver
and team manager for the Miss Budweiser team, Villwock went on to capture
seven High Point Driver titles and won 37 out of 58 races entered over
the next eight years for sponsor Anheuser-Busch.
Villwocks best pre-Budweiser year was 1996 when he won his first
APBA Gold Cup and the National Championship with Fred Lelands
Pico American Dream. Villwock won a total of eight races for Leland.
Said Bud owner Little, Dave brings a lot to the party. Hes
a tough competitor and very strong technically.
Many consider Villwock to be the best propeller designer in the business.
Villwock is in many ways a throwback to days of old when an Unlimited
pilot not only drove the boat but also ran the team on a day-to-day
basis. Like Villwock, champions of yesteryear such as Danny Foster,
Dan Arena, Bill Cantrell and Chuck Thompson oversaw the total operation
of their hydroplanes.
Villwocks first season with Miss Budweiser emerged as a fascinating
blend of the dramatic and the unexpected. Half a dozen teams arguably
had a shot at winning and the 1997 National High Point Championship
wasnt decided until the last day of the season.
Villwock and Budweiser were really on a roll during the first two months
of the season. They won four races, including the Gold Cup at Detroit.
But then the team suffered a horrifying setback at the Tri-Cities, Wash.
Villwock sustained serious injuries and the loss of two
fingers on his right hand when Miss Bud blew over in the
first turn of the Final Heat.
From his hospital bed, Villwock notified his crew, Dont
send flowers; send points. His own situation not withstanding,
the teams top priority was still in winning the National Championship.
Relief driver Mark Weber finished the season and did a commendable job.
He kept Miss Budweiser in the High Points lead, qualified fastest at
Seattle, San Diego and Las Vegas, and scored a victory in the Las Vegas
Cup on Lake Mead.
When the starting gun fired for the 1998 season opener at Evansville,
Ind., the big question in almost everyones mind was whether Villwock
still had what it took to drive the Miss Budweiser safely and competitively,
following his accident of the year before.
But when the checkered flag dropped in the Final Heat, Villwock was
the winner by six seconds over second-place Steve David and Arc Construction,
137.013 mph to 133.864. It was as if Villwock had never been away.
Villwock remained with Miss Budweiser until that teams retirement
in 2004. Heading into 2005, Villwock found himself an unemployed
Not to worry. For a driver of Villwocks caliber to languish on
the sidelines for very long was unthinkable. The midway point of the
2005 campaign saw him back in the cockpit of another top-notch
hydro: Erick Ellstroms Miss Elam Plus.
The Ellstrom team had been a competitive presence in Unlimited racing
for a number of years. Since 2000, the Elam boats had won a total of
seven races with Mark Evans, Nate Brown, Terry Troxell and J.W. Myers
as drivers. But they had never won a National Championship. With Villwock,
they achieved that goal.
The Elam had run second, first and second at the first three races
of 2005 with Myers driving. Villwock kept the momentum going. He won
his first race with the team, the Tri-Cities Columbia Cup, and went
on to place second at Seattle, fourth at Nashville, and first at San
Between 2005 and 2011, Villwock won 19 races and two National Championships
as the Ellstrom teams driver. But Villwock is quick to share the
credit with his teammates.
When most people think of boat racing, they think in terms of
the boats themselves as the winners. But thats not correct, he
insists. Its the crew not the boat that
makes the difference between a winner and an also-ran. You
can have the greatest boat in the world. But without a good crew, you
Villwock points to the 2006 Columbia Cup race as a prime example
of the Ellstrom teams ability to keep cool under pressure and
achieve results. That was when Villwock and Miss Elam Plus rebounded
from a spectacular flip during a preliminary heat to win the Final Championship
The boat had caught air while leading in Heat 2-A. The Elam Plus boat
did a complete turn in the air and started into a second revolution
when the tail section caught the water and the boat landed right-side
up. Villwock refused transport to the hospital, radioed his crew that
he was OK, and started the repair effort even before returning to the
pit area. The propeller, the gearbox, the canard, the rear-wing and
stabilizer would all have to be replaced. And they were.
Only once before in Unlimited history had a boat flipped and come back
to win the race on the very same day. That was Pico American Dream at
Seattle in 1997 with Evans as driver.
In 2011, Villwock won another High Point Driver title with
Spirit of Qatar (the renamed former Miss Elam Plus). He triumphed in
the Gold Cup at Detroit, the Columbia Cup at the Tri-Cities, and the
Bill Muncey Cup at San Diego.
In evaluating Villwocks career, it is important to take into account
his leadership in the winning percentage category. Between 1992 and
2011, he won 65 out of 131 races. Thats a percentage of .496.
By comparison, the legendary Muncey won 62 out of 191 races between
1950 and 1981 for a percentage of .325. Hanauer won 61 out of 160
races between 1976 and 1999 for a percentage of .381.
Villwocks percentage is the highest of any driver in the post-World
War II era of Unlimited hydroplane racing.
Fred Farley is a Milton, Ky., resident
and serves as the H1 Unlimited historian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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