By John Sleeper
SEATTLE – Scott Pierce didn’t need to return to unlimited hydroplane racing.
As co-owner of the Seattle Boat Company, a multi-million-dollar business that sells Cobalt boats up to 36 feet, Pierce is financially set.
Then Gary Garbrecht tapped his shoulder.
As the new commissioner of the struggling Budweiser Unlimited Hydroplane Series, Garbrecht knew that, to help save the sport, he needed to do more than change a few rules to even the playing field and prevent the Miss Budweiser from dominating.
So he turned to Pierce.
“Gary approached me in San Diego last year in the last race,” Pierce said. “He showed me what he was doing and told me what he was planning for this year. He said, ‘I need some of my names back. Names sell. People recognize you.’
“He said, ‘We know you’re old, but give me a nursing home pass. We can get a couple more years out of you.’”
Pierce, 45, has a national championship to go with his nine career victories in hydroplane racing.
He also has a frightening past.
Pierce was qualifying for the 1997 Gold Cup race in Detroit when his boat flipped. The impact made his helmet break on the boat’s roll cage. His oxygen mask was ripped from its tank. As he lay on the hull of his overturned boat, medical personnel revived him with cardiac paddles.
Pierce survived. For months, he would suffer effects from a concussion, but he survived.
He decided, however, to quit the sport.
“To come back would risk too much,” he said.
But racing is in Pierce’s blood. He raced go-carts at age 5 and boats by age 15. To fill his time after his retirement from hydroplane racing, he bought and drove a 410-class sprint car and competed at Skagit Speedway. He won the Rookie of the Year award and raced for two years before he concentrated solely on car ownership and construction.
Lake Stevens driver Shawna Wilskey won the Thursday night Jim Raper Memorial Super Dirt Cup feature and finished eighth in that Saturday night’s Race of Champions in Pierce’s car.
“By the end, she was running laps faster than the leaders,” Pierce said.
By that time, Pierce had agreed to come back to hydroplane racing, under Garbrecht’s urging and pleadings from boat owner Jim Harvey. Pierce talked it over with his wife, Sue, and decided to climb back into a boat.
“I didn’t want my career to end in a crash,” he said.
Part of the reason for his return, Pierce said, is Garbrecht’s rule changes in terms of fuel consumption and lane assignments. Now, Pierce said, the heavily-financed Miss Bud is far from a lock to win virtually every race, which results in better racing and, in turn, will bring disenchanted fans back to the sport.
“I’ve been around this thing for a long time,” he said. “Nobody’s had the guts to do what Gary’s doing. They might have done it, but the first time they got yelled at by one of the owners, they’d say, ‘Well, we’re not going to do that anymore.’ Gary’s the first guy with the wherewithall and the courage to do what he needs to do to save the sport.
“One of the main reasons I wasn’t back since ‘97 was because I thought, ‘Why?’ I don’t go to football games knowing who’s going to win. No one’s going to come to the hydroplane races, something that’s been a big part of my life, and why would I want to?”
Unless, of course, it’s to climb into the cockpit again.
Friday qualifying: Nate Brown, aboard the U-16 Miss Elam Plus, turned in the top qualifying lap on the first of two days of qualifying rounds in the General Motors Cup at Seafair unlimited hydroplane race Friday on Lake Washington.
Brown’s 148.856 mph lap edged that of Dave Villwock in the U-1 Miss Budweiser (147.923). Third was Mike Hanson in the U-9 Skyway Park Bowl &Casino (147.877). Villwock qualified the Miss Bud backup boat in 146.666.
Fifth was Greg Hopp of Lake Stevens in the U-100 Znetix I at 145.959.
Qualifying continues with two sessions today, at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Testing for the unlimited boats is set for 9:25 a.m.