The 2016 HAPO Columbia Cup will mark the 51st time Unlimited Hydroplanes have raced on the Columbia River. This year’s event, like the inaugural in 1966, will most likely have 12 Unlimiteds in attendance. But the modern Unlimited Hydroplane has very little in common with those first boats that churned the waters of the Columbia River. The hydroplanes of 2012 are almost more plane than hydro. They are thirty foot long, 7,000 pound wings that glide over the water with only the bare minimum of the boat making contact with the river. Powered by Turbine engines capable of nearly 3,000hp, the boats can reach straightaway speeds close to 200 miles per hour. Qualifying lap averages in the mid 160mph range are common with the faster boats in the fleet. To put it in simpler terms, at speed, an Unlimited Hydroplane will travel more than the length of a football fields in the space of a second.
The other unique quality of the hydroplane is the wall of water it throws in its wake. Called a roostertail, it trails hundreds of feet behind the boat and represents a unique obstacle to the racers on the course. Getting too close to another boats roostertail can result a boat’s engine getting clogged with water and stalling. That represents the best case scenario. Taking a full blast of another hydroplanes wake can results in thousands of dollars of boat damage.
One thing the 2.5 Mile Columbia Cup course has always been renowned for is speed. Boats tend to post their fastest qualifying times of the year at the Columbia Cup. This course has been the fastest on the circuit for the last three years. If you want to see the fastest race of the year, attend the Columbia Cup. With the increased speed comes increased danger. A nudge of water from a roostertail, an inopportune roller, or a gust of wind and suddenly a hydroplane might be making an unscheduled appearance in the yearly air show. Fortunately, the safety advances in the sport have shielded the drivers from serious injury during these circumstances.
Action starts with with “Fast Lap Friday”. A new addition to the circuit in 2012, this will be a two hour window Friday afternoon where teams can register a time trial speed. Teams will score points based on the speed they post during this period. Points garnered during qualifying will be scored as race points in 2011. So, at the end of the day of racing, a team’s qualifying points could just make the difference between a team making the final heat on the front row, or running as a trailer boat.
Racing starts Saturday, with one set of heats and concludes on Sunday with two more heat sets and a Final Heat. The winner not only takes home the Columbia Cup hardware, but they win the coveted parking spot under Bernie Little’s famous tree for the following year’s race.