Troops invited to Qatar’s first hydroplane race

DOHA, Qatar — “This invitation represented a huge ‘thank you’ to our service members,” said Larry Oberto, Oberto Sausage Company sports marketing technical director, prior to the final race at the Oryx Cup Union Internationale Motonautique World Championship in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 21.

Oryx Cup

Oryx Cup

As a gesture of gratitude by the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto racing team, U.S. troops in the Middle East obtained two days of unrestricted access to the world’s fastest powerboats during the American Boat Racing Association’s first competition outside North America.

Qatar Marine Sports Federation brought the 2009 ABRA unlimited hydroplane season finals to the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Immediately after officials announced the newest racing venue, Oberto searched for U.S. military bases in Qatar. His team hoped to host service members at the inaugural boat race in the warm, Gulf waters.

Owen Blauman, U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto public relations specialist, provided VIP passes to nearly 20 service members during each day of the Oryx Cup.

Blauman explained the history and fundamentals of unlimited hydroplane powerboat racing. Races are highly competitive because universal specifications are enforced, such as maximum weight and length. Every boat must use a propeller in the water – even though only one of three propeller blades actually touches while the hull hovers at top speeds.

Oberto frequently approached the troops, always enthusiastic about offering racing stories.

The troops found themselves mixed in with 10 different hydroplane powerboat teams. Safety issues imposed the only limitations, such as clearing surrounding areas when cranes lifted the boats in between heats. Service members asked questions, or simply observed crews configuring thousands of pounds of durable honeycomb composite material, excessively lubricating parts, setting air density and gear ratios and topping off engine tanks with jet fuel.

“I find it fascinating how the mechanics are so nonchalant about taking apart a turbine engine,” said Army Sgt. Benjamin Miceli, from Greeley, Colo., while watching Jay Lecrone, from Port Orchard, Wash., and Kevin Stoltz, from Mukilteo, Wash., disassemble a turbine for the U-25 Superior Racing powerboat at the Qatar race. “This almost feels like sitting back at home, working on cars.”

For over 20 years, the thunderous roar emitted by most hydroplane powerboats has originated from a single turbine engine. The boats in the Qatar Oryx Cup qualified with a Lycoming T55 turbine — the same engine used in Vietnam War-era CH-47 Chinook helicopters. For that reason, former military helicopter mechanics are frequently recruited to help with powerboat integration. The engines are stretched to their limits by skilled technicians, who customize them to spin well over rated speeds, as well as assemble durability upgrades to the standard military torque kits.

“This engine is rated at 2,750 horse power but we’re running it at 3,300,” said Lecrone, a former Army Chinook crew chief. “But we’ll take it as high as 5,000.” Without torque kit upgrades, Lecrone said the engines wouldn’t last a lap at these configurations.

Dave Villwock, U-16 Ellstrom Elam Plus, set the hydroplane powerboat speed world record in the same two-mile oval course used in Qatar, after averaging 161.167 mph in Evansville, Ind. He led in the final heat of the Qatar Oryx Cup, until his boat suffered a crippling engine flame-out.

Oryx Cup

Oryx Cup

“I didn’t expect to be able to talk to the drivers and mechanics — they’re so open about explaining the driveline and customizations,” said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernest Roy, from Prattville, Ala., after talking to Matt Sontag, a U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto propeller technician from Madison, Ind. The powerboat employs a three-blade stainless steel propeller worth $15,000.

“The salt is giving their hydroplanes’ props greater thrust — more grip to the ground,” said Roy. Sontag admitted some uncertainties existed about the Persian Gulf’s salty waters, since most hydroplane racing takes place in lakes and rivers. Aside from performance issues, salt quickly accumulated on surfaces, causing parts to rust after the first day racing in Qatar.

“I really enjoyed the crew and hospitality of everyone,” said Marine Corps Cpl. Tyler Teslik, from Butler, Pa. He attended both days at the Qatar races during a four-day pass from duty in Iraq. Several other service members were also participating in the U.S. Central Command rest and recuperation pass program at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar. “They let us come down here, get up close and personal, answered our questions and gave us great seats. I plan on taking leave to go to one of the hydroplane races in the United States next year.”

“Anytime I can get out on the water, I’ll go,” said Teslik, who has raced sailboats on the Conneaut Lake in Pennsylvania since high school.

“We wanted the men and women serving our nation to join us,” said Oberto. “We’re able to enjoy our passion for racing because of what they do.” He hoped the troops would discover selflessness teamwork is necessary in racing, just as it is in military duties. Since equipment is standardized in hydroplane powerboat racing, Oberto believes a focused team is the most important ingredient for winning.

Steve David, U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto driver, led the season with a slim 216-point lead over Jeff Bernard, U-5, when the races moved to their closing destination in Qatar. Despite safely landing a high-speed flip during the finals, David successfully defended his national championship title, while J. Michael Kelly, U-7 Graham Trucking, won the Qatar Oryx Cup.

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