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Thursday, August 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hydroplanes at Seafair: Revving up a legacy

Seattle Times staff reporter

KENNEWICK — Upon being introduced as the owner of the U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing at a news conference earlier this week, Billy Schumacher asked that his wife, Jane, join him at the podium.

"I'd like to introduce the real owner," he said, pointing to Jane.

To those who don't know any better, it seemed like playful banter. Just a little self-deprecating humor.

But ask Schumacher, and the return of the legendary "Billy the Kid" to the pits would not have happened if not for his wife of almost five years, who carved out a sizeable nest egg of her own as an investment broker.

"I just didn't have the wherewithal to do it before," said Schumacher, who along with Jane bought the former Miss Llumar Window Film boat and equipment from Bill Wurster earlier this year. "With Jane, it became possible."

And together, the Schumachers and their team — the same boat, crew and driver (Jean Theoret) that won Seafair a year ago — are poised to become the leading threat to the Miss Ellstrom Elam Plus' budding dynasty.

"If they stay in it, they are going to be a real force to deal with," said former driver Chip Hanauer, who is close with the U-37 team. "I really like the combination of her business sense and his understanding of racing. There's a real synergy there. They've got all the bases covered. Now all they need is a little time."

Schumacher, 63, might appreciate the sentiment in Hanauer's comments, but he professes little use for patience.

He said he and Jane plan on staying in the sport as an owner for three to five years, then getting out so they can spend their summers in St. Tropez instead of Kennewick or Evansville, Ind.

"I don't expect it to take very long and I'm determined to get it," he said of winning the season title.

Proof that the boat is close came last month when his team won the Gold Cup in Detroit, the most prestigious event in hydroplane racing. But that was a race that Elam's top boat, as well as driver Dave Villwock, sat out after an accident the previous week.

Proof that there is still a ways to go came last week in the Tri-Cities when Villwock roared to a win and the Miss Beacon Plumbing finished fourth.

Still, the Gold Cup win was some needed immediate gratification to prove to the Schumachers that they did the right thing in buying the U-8 and turning it into the U-37. They renumbered the boat as a tribute to the former Miss Seattle.

Being an owner puts a fitting capper on the career of Schumacher, who once was the biggest name in the sport.

A Seattle native, he began racing small boats at age 8, drove his first unlimited at 19, and won his first Gold Cup at 24 on Lake Washington in 1967, a time before the Mariners and Seahawks when winning a hydro race was about the biggest thing a Seattle kid could do.

"He was my idol," said Hanauer, who often sought Schumacher's advice on his way to becoming the second-winningest driver in the history of the sport. "He just made a huge impression on me and I wanted to follow in his footsteps."

Schumacher won 17 races and two Gold Cups before giving it up at the end of the 1976 season (his final ride was the Miss Olympia) at age 36. He still ranks sixth all-time in wins.

"If there were an enclosed cockpit back then I probably would have stayed in it considerably longer," he said. "But we were really at risk sitting out in the open like that, and I knew that I'd had a few close calls and had been lucky several times and it was probably going to catch up with me if I didn't get out."

Indeed, four of the top nine drivers on the all-time victories list died in accidents in the pre-cockpit era, including Schumacher contemporaries Bill Muncey and Dean Chenoweth.

After retiring, he stayed in the Seattle area for a while, remodeling houses, then moved to Dallas, where he spent a decade working in hotel real estate for Bob Brock. When Brock died of cancer, Schumacher returned to Seattle. By then, his marriage to first wife Cyndee had broken up, though the two remained friends.

One night about six years ago, Cyndee told Billy that he should meet a friend of hers. Billy ended up driving the group to dinner, and he and Jane hit it off instantly.

"I didn't leave her alone from the day I met her," he said.

Jane needed little introduction to her friend's former husband. Eleven years younger than Billy, she remembers being called from the pool one summer afternoon by her mother, yelling " 'Janie, Janie, get out of the pool. Billy Schumacher is winning the Gold Cup.' We lived close enough to the pits that we could hear the roar and I would lay in the pool and listen to it and then watch on TV."

Billy Schumacher had purposely kept a safe distance from hydroplane racing, particularly during his time in Dallas. But Jane was a big fan and together, the two began attending races, which gradually piqued an interest in getting back into the pits in some capacity.

"I missed the sport and I'm too old now to drive," Schumacher said. "Jane and I tried to think of what we could do together in boat racing, and this seemed like the right way to go. I always thought it was out of our reach, but I wanted it badly and we found this boat when Bill Wurster wanted to retire. So it was the right opportunity at the right time."

Still, it was going to be a seven-figure investment and Schumacher wanted to make sure his wife was fully on board. One day while he was hesitating, Jane finally told him that if he didn't want to buy the boat, she'd do it herself.

Jane Schumacher describes herself as "more the financial person" of the two, and while nobody gets into hydroplane racing to get rich, she says bluntly that "I don't plan on this being a money-losing proposition. I think the reason we came into it is because we really believe the sport is on the cusp of turning around."

Having "Billy the Kid" back in the sport will only help those efforts. But evidence that this is a true team effort was everywhere last week in the Tri-Cities as Billy dealt with Theoret and the crew while Jane handled everything else, from overseeing the sale of souvenirs to courting the media.

"My wife seems to like it just as much as I do," Schumacher said. "And that's a good thing because without her involvement, I wouldn't enjoy it as much."

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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