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Saturday, July 7, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m. Information in this article, originally published July 5, 2012, was corrected July 6, 2012. A previous version of this story said that the U-88 Degree Men, a former Miss Budweiser unlimited hydroplane hull, was bought by Matt Gregory in the offseason. In fact, Gregory bought the the hull earlier but is now returning to the unlimited circuit.

Unlimited hydroplanes roar into season this week

By Bob Condotta
Seattle Times staff reporter

Those looking for continuity in the sporting world might appreciate the unlimited hydroplane racing circuit, where on the surface, 2012 looks like more of the same.

For the fifth consecutive year, the circuit boasts six sanctioned races. And as the season kicks off Friday through Sunday with the Madison Regatta in Madison, Ind., the favorites again figure to be Dave Villwock and the Spirit of Qatar 96 and Steve David and the Oh Boy! Oberto.

Villwock and David have won every national driver's season title since 1997, Villwock emerging victorious last season to snap a string of three in a row by David.

And for the third straight year, the race lineup is the same — Madison, Ind., Detroit, Tri-Cities, Seattle, San Diego and Doha, Qatar.

Considering the uncertainty that has often surrounded the sport the past decade or so, such stability might not necessarily be a bad thing.

H1 Unlimited Chairman Sam Cole promises, though, that growth is on the way. He says there continue to be promising negotiations for future races in new sites, with a possible announcement coming soon. And there will be an exhibition this year on Labor Day weekend on Lake Coeur d'Alene, which held a race from 1958 through 1968.

"We are really excited about the direction of the sport," Cole said. "More teams, the addition of new events over the next 12 months, possible expansion internationally.

"It has been a lot of work, with the support and commitment of so many to see the continued growth of the sport. We have lots more to do, but we are getting closer to becoming bigger, better and faster."

One notable difference this year will be the absence of longtime owner Fred Leland, who died in May of cancer.

But his team, the U-100 Leland Unlimited, will continue with Greg Hopp again in the cockpit. The Leland boat is one of at least 12 expected in Madison, and Cole says there could be more for the Western swing, which begins with the race in the Tri-Cities July 27-29 and then the Seafair Albert Lee Cup the following weekend.

One notable addition is the U-88 Degree Men, a former Miss Budweiser hull owned by Matt Gregory, son of the late Kim Gregory, a longtime hydro owner. Scott Liddycoat, who was the only driver other than Villwock and David to win last year when he took the Qatar race in the Valken.com, will be the driver.

Some in the sport peg that boat as a possible contender. But Villwock and David will be the favorites.

Villwock surpassed Bill Muncey for most victories by a driver in the history of the sport last year and now has 65 (Muncey won 62 races). David has won seven races since 2008 and has been particularly successful in Washington, taking Seafair the past two years and three times since 2007, and winning in the Tri-Cities in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

The circuit again has the Air National Guard as a title sponsor, and races will be shown on a delayed basis on the Fox Sports Network.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @bcondotta

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