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Sunday, August 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hydroplane Racing

Dave Villwock: The unlimited competitor

Seattle Times staff reporter

At 6-feet-4, he seems impossibly tall for the claustrophobic cockpit.

The cabin is 34 inches wide, the windshield even narrower. Broom closets are bigger, yet Dave Villwock says he fits fine in the Miss Budweiser boat.

Actually, it's better than fine.

"I found it was something I felt really comfortable in," Villwock, 47, said, "which I think is sort of odd for these things."

The fit wasn't quite perfect at first. After failing his first two attempts to qualify as an unlimited driver, Villwock won the first race he entered in 1992, only the second driver in 30 years to win his unlimited debut.

Ten seasons later, no other active driver measures up. Not in height. Not in victories. Not in drama.

Bernie Little, the owner of Miss Budweiser, calls him the best manager he has had in 39 years of unlimited-hydroplane racing. Villwock has five national titles and has won 36 races, third-most in the sport's history. With a victory this afternoon, he would match Bill Muncey's record for four consecutive Seafair championships.

He is the sport's tallest driver in the best-financed boat, and today enters the Seafair General Motors Cup as the top qualifier at 149.549 mph. He wins the most races and rankles opponents, two facts connected by his competitive drive.

"It's hard to have an easy-going relationship with Dave because I think he's always looking for an advantage," said driver Ken Muscatel. "And that's a good thing, but it doesn't always make for the best relationships."

His drive carried him through more than a decade of racing in the limited class as he set eight speed records. In 1984, his speed of 100.5 mph set a record for the pro-stock runabout class that still stands, the oldest American Power Boat Association record in an active class.

Sunday's schedule


Racing begins at 11 a.m.

Air show at noon.

Vintage-hydroplane race at 3 p.m.

General Motors Cup at 4:10 p.m.

Tickets

At the gate, $25 today. Children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. There also were $40 three-day passes to the Stan Sayres pits.

Villwock was partners with Paul Casura, a mechanical supervisor at Delta Marine who raced with Villwock for 10 years. Their team motto, said Casura: "Friends? We don't need no stinkin' friends. The only friends we need are on our boat team."

A motto that Villwock has embraced at times in the unlimited class.

Last year in Seattle, Villwock's boat was damaged in the Tri-Cities race and couldn't continue. Villwock blamed Muscatel for starting the accident. "Thanks, Ken!" was written on the Miss Bud, and Villwock referred to the sport as the "socialist republic of Muscateer," a reference to Muscatel's role as commissioner at the time.

"I thought that was unnecessarily mean-spirited, for no apparent reason," Muscatel said. "It didn't have to happen, but he sure took it out on me."

A week later, Villwock's boat was damaged from the roostertail of Mark Tate's boat during a preliminary heat. Officials ruled Tate committed no infraction, but after the heat, Villwock went down to the opposing team's pit and demanded the return of bolts loaned the week before, even if he had to use an axe to remove them.

But Villwock's competitive drive is what fueled his comeback from a career-threatening injury in 1997 when his right hand was nearly severed after a flip in the Tri-Cities. He underwent more than two dozen surgeries over the next three years. His pinky and ring fingers were amputated and he underwent a seven-hour procedure in which veins and arteries the thickness of a pencil's lead were sewn back together.

It took 11 months until Villwock was back in the cockpit. But there was never any doubt about his status, said retired hydroplane driver George Woods.

"We all knew that he was not done," Woods said. "A near-death experience and being damaged, that isn't going to stop him."

Villwock won 22 of the next 28 races, the most dominant three-season run by any driver since Muncey won 19 of 25 races from 1977-79.

He also came back to compete in radio-controlled airplanes, a hobby he's had for years. The planes are up to 8 feet long and perform aerobatics hundreds of feet in the air, controlled by joysticks and switches. That Villwock remains one of the country's best at it is more proof of his competitive spirit.

"It doesn't make any difference if it's boat-racing or it's tiddly winks," said Woods, who has flown the models with Villwock. "I'm the same way. The want to win almost makes it uncomfortable for everybody around you, but it's what you need to have."

Villwock said the competitive spirit carries someone to the top of the sport, a fire unaffected by the fuel restrictions his boat has faced this year.

"It's a competitive-nature deal," Villwock said. "We're in the United States of America, where competition is king."

There's one exception: golf. Villwock may break 90 in a round, but he can't take it too seriously.

"I had seen enough people break golf clubs to know that if I was going to play golf, I needed not to be serious about that," Villwock said.

For some teammates, he has been too overbearing. Dale Vanwieringen left the Bud crew last winter after 10 years.

"The building wasn't big enough for the both of us," Vanwieringen said. "It's very difficult to work for him. He's always looking over your shoulder, always trying to add input."

In 1999, Villwock's driving tactics before a race in San Diego angered Chip Hanauer. Before the starting gun, he zig-zagged in front of Hanauer, his spray hitting Hanauer's boat and nearly stalling its engine. Muscatel, commissioner at the time, characterized it as bare-knuckles driving that was within the rules. Hanauer said it was unnecessary.

"That's probably as dirty and cheap of a shot as I've ever had racing," Hanauer said. "He didn't need to do that."

Villwock entered unlimited racing as Hanauer's team manager in 1989 with the Circus Circus team. For Villwock, it was his first full-time job as a crew member after working as a sheet-metal supervisor. He brought technological precision to Hanauer's team.

"In terms of technical knowledge, he is the brightest guy I've ever worked with as a crew chief," Hanauer said.

Whether he's the best driver is a matter of debate. After winning this season's opener, Villwock lost the next two races after mistakes at the start. First, he crossed the start line too early in Madison, Ind., and was penalized a lap. A week later in Detroit, a wave spun his boat around.

But Villwock's mechanical competence is beyond criticism. He cuts the team's propellers, understands the intricacies of the engine and brings that expertise behind the wheel.

"He can build hardware, go out and try it and be able to come back and tell the crew what the boat's doing," said Ron Jones Jr., a boat designer who teamed with Villwock in 1992-93. "That's a wealth of information. Not all drivers are capable of doing that. Some can't even turn on a drill press."

In the past 15 years, the Miss Bud team has won all but two national high-points championships. Those two years, Villwock worked for other teams that were national champions. In 1990, Circus Circus won the title with Villwock as team manager and Hanauer driving. In 1996, Villwock drove Fred Leland's PICO American Dream to the national championship, the culmination of a three-year turnaround.

"There were empty beer cans and cigarette butts when we walked in the shop," said Jerry Yoder, who went with Villwock to Leland's boat shop. "It wasn't money, it was sheer talent that changed it."

Yoder, co-owner of Sunset Chevrolet, wouldn't pick anyone else as a teammate.

He pointed out some smaller personal touches. Like personalized ear protectors for Joseph, the grade-schooler who holds the umbrella to shield the sun while Villwock sits in the cockpit waiting to take the water. That the kid is the grandson of Little, the boat's owner, is beside the point.

Casura knows Villwock as a friend, someone who has stood by him this past year during a medical crisis.

"He has been the most supportive of all my friends," Casura said.

The friends Villwock needs, he has on his boat team. Woods, the retired driver, said the antagonism that Villwock experiences comes as part of the real estate at the top of the mountain.

"The better you get, the fewer friends you seem to have," Woods said. "That's common in everything."

Especially motorsports, where success prompts sniping and cynicism. Consider NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, whose success and lack of a drawl produced plenty of antagonism in the Southern-centric sport of stock-car racing.

Villwock has dominated the sport so completely that fellow driver Nate Brown wondered if he would be better off moving to another classification. Not because Brown doesn't want to compete against Villwock but because he believes there's nothing left for Villwock to accomplish in unlimited racing.

"It's almost like he's in the wrong sport," Brown said. "He needs to be in NASCAR or something because he needs to be where there are bigger challenges. He has passed every challenge here. ... He has risen to the top of this category."

Villwock is the tallest driver, and the one who casts the biggest shadow.

Danny O'Neil can be reached at 206-515-5536 or at doneil@seattletimes.com.

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