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Originally published August 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 2, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Seafair Hydros | Winner of everything but hearts

Dave Villwock would be perfect for a remake of one of those old "Do You Know Me? " American Express ads. Do you know who has the highest...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Dave Villwock would be perfect for a remake of one of those old "Do You Know Me?" American Express ads.

Do you know who has the highest winning percentage in the history of unlimited hydroplane racing? The driver who, if everything continues on its current course for a few years, will have more victories than any other driver?

Who the legendary Chip Hanauer is talking about when he says "as a whole package, there has never been anyone like him"?

The answer to all the clues, of course, is Villwock. He will be driving the U-16 Miss Ellstrom Elam Plus as he goes after the 56th victory of his career Sunday at the Chevrolet Cup at Seafair, closing in on the record of 62 set by Bill Muncey (Hanauer won 61). Villwock has won 45 percent of all races since he began driving in 1992 (55 of 121, some of which he missed due to injuries and other reasons).

Along the way, he's earned a reputation as someone whose overall knowledge of boats and engines and propellers might be unsurpassed by any other driver in history.

"He understands everything in the boat," said Hanauer, who readily admits he didn't have the technical expertise of Villwock. "He could go to any team, and that boat would get better simply because of his knowledge."

Yet eight years after he last drove a hydroplane, Hanauer remains to many as the public face of unlimited hydroplane racing.

And when the Unlimited Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum ran a contest a few years ago asking fans to name their favorite drivers, it was Hanauer and Muncey — the latter of whom died in an accident in 1981 — who split almost all of the 6,000 votes cast. Villwock got about 50.

"It doesn't look to me that he has the same level of adoration that they had," said David Williams, who is the director of the Hydroplane Museum and also the driver of the U-48 Miss Lakeridge Paving.

Williams cautions that Muncey also was fairly controversial in his day. Time, as it often does, helped smooth over the rough patches of someone's career in people's memories.

But others in the pits wonder if Villwock will ever reach the Hanauer/Muncey level of respect/love from competitors and fans.

"I would also say it's not fair," said Ken Muscatel, longtime driver. "People say he just has the best equipment, the best stuff. But look at where Elam was before he got there [in 2005] and what it is now. You tell me Dave had nothing to do with that?"

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The lack of appreciation for Villwock might simply be timing. Hydroplane racing doesn't have the same hold on the sporting public as it did back in the heyday of Muncey's career, before the Mariners, Sonics and Seahawks came to town, or even during the 1980s and early '90s, when Hanauer dominated.

"It was a different era back then," Villwock said.

The driver admits he could probably promote himself better, but he's perfectly content building a propeller.

But there's another reason for Villwock's lack of popularity.

"Dave's hurt himself, too," Hanauer said. "A lot of his career, he has not been gracious."

Therein lies the rub.

Stories of the day referred often to Hanauer's "movie-star looks" and Muncey as a "glib, articulate spokesman for the sport." Villwock "sort of has that Darth Vader persona thing that follows him around," in the words of Muscatel.

Indeed, Villwock readily acknowledges his sole goal is winning, and he's willing to do just about whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.

"It's not a popularity contest," he said. "I do admit that when I'm racing boats, I try to focus on racing boats and everything else kind of gets pushed to the side. Like anything else, there's a personal tax to be paid to reach another level over the average."

A few years ago, when a previous hydro administration enacted some new rules designed to bring more parity to the sport, Villwock railed at every opportunity about the unfairness of it all. He seemed oblivious, in the eyes of others, of how his dominance might hurt the sport. Last week, he talked of his team's success being in part a residue of other team's mistakes, comments that rub some of the teams the wrong way.

There's no disagreement he's a uniquely Northwest success story. Villwock grew up in the Bremerton area, and his technical expertise was honed being around the family plumbing and heating business and helping out on the family's 15-acre farm.

He caught the racing bug at age 10, serving on the crew for his uncle, Al, who raced limited boats. Then he soon began driving his own.

He won all kinds of championships in smaller boats but said he resisted the lure of the unlimiteds for years for safety reasons, making his living as a sheet-metal worker.

He finally broke into unlimiteds as team manager for Hanauer's Circus Circus team in 1989, leading it to a national title the following season. He's essentially made his living in the sport ever since, the only current driver able to do so.

Two years later, with cabover cockpits improving safety, he took the plunge. Villwock won his first race — only the second driver to pull that off — piloting the Coors Dry to a victory in San Diego.

After some fits and starts with his driving career, he landed with Fred Leland's team and drove the Pico American Dream to an unlikely 1996 national title, which attracted the attention of Budweiser owner Bernie Little, who needed to find a permanent replacement for Hanauer.

The combination of Villwock and Bud's unlimited budget produced the longest stretch of dominance in the history of the sport, one a lot of people in the pits felt harmed it greatly. The Bud won 22 of 28 races at one point.

"The Bud dominated the sport for years and years and years to the point that it was almost a negative," Williams said. "You could say Chip had a lot of Bud wins, too [Hanauer had 21 wins in the Bud to 38 for Villwock] but Chip started out as the David who killed Goliath. He got a lot of his wins in the Atlas and the Miller and the Circus Circus running against the clearly superior equipment of the Bud. So when Chip later went to the Bud, he sort of already had his good-guy credentials. Dave had one good season with Pico but then he went to the Bud before he really had a chance to be solidified as 'the good guy.' "

When the Bud team dissolved after the 2004 season, Villwock sat out briefly before hooking on with the Elam midway through 2005. Controversy followed Villwock there as well. He replaced J.W. Myers, a popular presence in the pits who many of his peers believed hadn't been given an adequate chance in the Elam, after driving the boat for just three races.

But Villwock won his first race in the Elam and nine overall since.

Now 51, Villwock says he intends to keep racing as long as "I'm healthy and having fun." The record for victories, he says, isn't a motivating factor, although others who know him figure he wants it.

For now, Villwock insists he's happy simply to be in "quote, unquote, the club. Where if people look back five years from now, whether I do it or don't do it, they'll say, 'You know what? That Muncey guy, that Hanauer guy and that Villwock guy are the best guys that ever did this. Now who's the next one?' "

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

Seafair winners
Year Boat Driver
1951 Slo-mo-shun V Lou Fageol
1952 Slo-mo-shun IV Stan Dollar
1953 Slo-mo-shun IV Joe Taggart
1954 Slo-mo-shun V Lou Fageol
1955 Gale V J. Lee Schoenith
1956 Shanty I Russ Schleech
1957 Miss Thriftway Bill Muncey
1958 Hawaii Kai III Jack Regas
1959 Maverick Bill Stead
1960 Miss Thriftway Bill Muncey
1961 Miss Bardahl Ron Musson
1962 Miss Century 21 Bill Muncey
1963 Tahoe Miss Chuck Thompson
1964 Miss Bardahl Ron Musson
1965 Miss Bardahl Ron Musson
1966 My Gypsy Jim Ranger
1967 Miss Bardahl Bill Schumacher
1968 Miss US Bill Muncey
1969 Miss Budweiser Bill Sterett Sr.
1970 Miss Budweiser Dean Chenoweth
1971 Pride of Pay N' Pak Bill Schumacher
1972 Atlas Van Lines Bill Muncey
1973 Pay N' Pak Mickey Remund
1974 Pay N' Pak George Henley
1975 Pay N' Pak George Henley
1976 Miss Budweiser Mickey Remund
1977 Atlas Van Lines Bill Muncey
1978 Atlas Van Lines Bill Muncey
1979 Atlas Van Lines Bill Muncey
1980 Atlas Van Lines Bill Muncey
1981 Miss Budweiser Dean Chenoweth
1982 Atlas Van Lines Chip Hanauer
1983 Miss Budweiser Jim Kropfeld
1984 Miss Budweiser Jim Kropfeld
1985 Miller American Chip Hanauer
1986 Miller American Chip Hanauer
1987 Miss Budweiser Jim Kropfeld
1988 Miss Budweiser Tom D'Eath
1989 Miss Circus Circus Chip Hanauer
1990 Miss Circus Circus Chip Hanauer
1991 Miss Budweiser Scott Pierce
1992 The Tide George Woods Jr.
1993 Miss Budweiser Chip Hanauer
1994 Pico American Dream Dave Villwock
1995 Miss Budweiser Chip Hanauer
1996 Pico American Dream Dave Villwock
1997 Pico American Dream Mark Evans
1998 Miss Budweiser Dave Villwock
1999 Miss Budweiser Dave Villwock
2000 Miss Budweiser Dave Villwock
2001 Miss Elam Plus Nate Brown
2002 Miss Budweiser Dave Villwock
2003 Miss Budweiser Dave Villwock
2004 Miss Budweiser Dave Villwock
2005 U-Llumar Window Film Jean Theoret
2006 Miss Beacon Plumbing Jean Theoret
Source: www.abrahydroplanes.com
Driver standings
Rk Name (boat) Points
1 Dave Villwock (U-16) 6,625
2 Steve David (U-6) 5,104
3 Jean Theoret (U-37) 4,238
4 J. Michael Kelly (U-13) 3,208
5 Greg Hopp (U-100) 3,125
6 Jimmy King (U-3) 3,097
7 Jeff Bernard (U-5) 2,606
8 Ken Muscatel (U-25) 2,164
9 David Bryant (U-10) 1,970
10 Mike Allen (U-1) 1,713
11 Chris Bertram (U-9) 894
12 Brian Perkins (U-21) 668
13 David Williams (U-48) 480
14 Jimmy Shane (U-1) 255
Source: www.abrahydroplanes.com
Boat standings
No. Owner Points
U-16 Ellstrom Elam Plus 6,625
U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison 5,104
U-37 Beacon Plumbing 4,238
U-13 Spirit of Detroit 3,208
U-3 Cooper Motorsports 3,125
U-100 Fred Leland 2,703
U-5 Formulaboats.com 2,606
U-25 Superior Racing 2,558
U-10 USA Racing 1,970
U-1 Formulaboats.com 1,968
U-9 Jones Racing 894
U-21 Freedom Racing 668
U-48 Go Fast, Turn Left 480
Source: www.abrahydroplanes.com

PREVIOUS RACES

Top 3 finishers listed

Columbia Cup, Tri-Cities

1 — U-16 Miss Ellstrom Elam Plus, Dave Villwock, 145.013

2 — U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto, Steve David, 142.164

3 — U-10 Hoss Mortgage Investors, David Bryant, 137.454

Gold Cup, Detroit

1 — U-16, Miss Ellstrom Elam Plus, Dave Villwock, 147.687

2 — U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto, Steve David, 146.526

3 — U-13 Spirit of Detroit, J. Michael Kelly, 142.56

Indiana Governors Cup, Madison, Ind.

1 — U-16 Miss Ellstrom Elam Plus, Dave Villwock, 139.641

2 — U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto, Steve David, 137.684

3 — U-13 Spirit of Detroit, J. Michael Kelly, 132.634

Thunder on the Ohio, Evansville, Ind.

1 — U-16 Miss Ellstrom Elam Plus, Dave Villwock, 140.203

2 — U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing, Jean Theoret, 136.167

3 — U-3 Master Tire, Jimmy King, 135.982

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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