At the midway point of the ABRA season, a fleet of 12 boats has essentially been whittled down to a two-boat duel for the American Boat Racing Association's 2009 national championship.

It's a situation very similar to that faced by Steve David and the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison when that team won its first national championship in 2008 - except that Dave Villwock, the winningest active driver in Unlimited hydroplane racing, is providing the chase this year in a slightly faster U-16 Miss Elam Plus.

When the Unlimited fleet begins testing and qualifying today on Lake Washington in Seattle, the top two boats could feel a sense of urgency and pressure in that time is running out and every point must count. David leads the standings with 4,640 points to Villwock's 4,061, while Jeff Bernard in the U-5 FormulaBoats.com is 298 points back in third.

"We love it," David, a three-time championship driver in the Unlimited ranks, said. "The pressure's really what motivates me, and we have about a similar points lead to what we had last year coming into Seattle. So I'm hoping this movie will be like Part 2."

My, how things change in just a week. Entering the race last weekend in Tri-Cities, Wash., the roles were reversed, with David chasing Villwock from a 287-point deficit. But the Elam, which had essentially run the tables in the first two races at Madison and Detroit with the Oberto running a close second, experienced a rare off-weekend in which electrical problems and penalties allowed the nearly flawless Oberto to leapfrog into a 599-point lead.

"If you go into a race thinking you can't win, why even bring your boat. .... We've never considered ourselves less than Elam," David said. "We're pragmatic in that they've got 2 mph on us, but we're going to out-think them, out-maneuver them, out-machine them and hopefully out-drive them and find a way to win."

David did that last weekend, and it's changed the whole complexion of the 2009 points chase, with the perennial favorite Villwock playing catch-up to the always steady and opportunistic David. That could change the look of this weekend's Chevrolet Cup at Seafair.

"You know you change. You start to race in a heat-by-heat basis," David said about protecting a points lead. "You're not looking at the final at the end of the day like you normally would if you were not in a points race. You're looking at every single heat accumulating points and you drive a little bit differently because it's all about getting points. So sometimes you're more conservative and sometimes you are going to put it on the edge more. It definitely changes, I think, how we race when you're going for a points battle.

"To me, it's thrilling racing because every heat is a championship heat," said David, winner of Seafair in 2007 while Villwock won that race in 2008.

Villwock, who has had his share of championships and, with 57 race victories, is closing in on Bill Muncey's career record of 62 wins, downplays his change in fortune.

"I don't know that we set out to win the national championship," Villwock said. "Our focus was to win races. If the national championship comes with it, that's great."

But if Villwock is to try to do both, it might mean that the Elam has to race all-out the rest of the way. It will take nothing less to win in a fleet with a half-dozen very fast boats, and Villwock can no longer afford to just match David and the Oberto.

"We've been in Number 2, Lord knows, a number of years, but when you're in second going for points, you just cannot be conservative because every single heat is points," David said. "Every heat where the guy that's first gets 100 points over you, it's equivalent to 200 points behind. You've got to really drive your heart out every single time to get those points, and I've got to drive mine out to maintain that lead. And it's not over until the fat lady sings. We've got a couple of more races to get through."

While the spotlight is on David and Villwock, the rest of the fleet will be looking for its time in the limelight as well. Bernard is still within striking distance should the top two hit rough water and his stablemate, J. Michael Kelly and the U-7 Graham Trucking, is hungry for a win as well. Kip Brown has the U-17 U.S. Northwest Express running better than at any time in its two-year history, and Jean Theoret, the Seafair Cup champion in 2006 and 2007, has recovered from his flip at Madison and will be back in the cockpit of the U-37 Hoss Mortgage Investors.

Kelly, who flipped the U-7 last weekend on the Columbia River but escaped injury, said the boats that have not yet won will continue working to get better while striving to win.

"We'll just go out and stick with what we've been doing," Kelly said. "Try to get faster every single race and try to finish strong. We show up and we want to win also, so when we go there, we're there to win."

"Although the media has focused on Dave and my battle for the championship, the reality this year is if you take the 5 and the 7 and the 37 ... and a few others, any one of them can win and all of them come to win," David said. "So we're doing our battles, but trust me, J. Michael is there to win and has the ability to win in both driving skill and equipment."

Count Kelly as one driver who thinks David's conservative strategy could be abandoned if the defending national champ finds himself in a deck-to-deck battle with anyone. David loves winning, and points are points no matter whom you're racing.

"Steve's going to try to beat me no matter what because he needs those points," Kelly said. "We're all out there and we're all racing, and racing 100 percent."




Unlimited fleet arrives 12 strong at Stan Sayre Pits

As testing and qualifying begin today in Seattle, a season-high fleet of a dozen boats will be in the Stan Sayre Pits beside Lake Washington. That will include four boats that underwent significant repairs over the past week and a boat that has not raced since it was damaged in a flip at Seattle in 2007.

Teams for the U-7, U-16 and U-3 Go3Racing all thrashed hard all week to repair damage inflicted by the Columbia River last weekend. The worst was the U-7 Graham Trucking after Kelly's blowover.

The U-16 sustained a crack in its left sponson while racing in the Columbia Cup final from the back row as a trailer boat, and the U-3 was repairing a hull problem in the area of the skid fin after being relegated to its trailer early into last weekend's heat racing.

The Oberto team has completed repair of some less-severe hull damage and spent the week redoing gearboxes to suit the Lake Washington course.

Making a return to the series is the U-9 Jones Racing hydroplane owned by Mike and Lori Jones. The boat, repaired after being damaged in a blowover at Seattle in 2007, will be driven by David Williams.

Drivers could be in for more rough water and rough racing this weekend. Lake Washington has been known to claim its share of racing equipment over the years. Count David and Kelly as two drivers ready and willing to meet that challenge.

"I love racing in Seattle. I've always done well there and I'm hoping I can do well there again," Kelly said. "I think it's a great driver's course. It seems to be rough all the time - especially in that final. So I'm looking forward to it."

"This is a driver's course. It's rough," David said. "You never know where it's going to come from, so you're always conscious of where you're at on the course. Every course we have brings its own unique challenge, but this one sort of brings them all together."




Muscatel picks up partner, team manager in Jones Jr.

After racing this and that piece of second- and third-hand equipment throughout his career, Dr. Ken Muscatel will have a virtually new race boat and a new partner this weekend.

Muscatel, owner and driver of the U-25 Superior Racing, announced that renowned boat builder and former team owner Ron Jones Jr. has joined his team as partner and team manager.

It was Jones who completed the extensive rebuild of Muscatel's U-25 in his Pacific, Wash., boat shop. Now he will see that transformation through as the man in charge of the boat, motors, crew and race setup.

"Ron gives us a level of experience and expertise in things like the hull, propellers and gear boxes that we haven't had before," Muscatel said. "J.R. is one of the most respected people in the sport when it comes to boat construction and tuning, and has experience and success running a race team."

Jones owned and ran race teams in the early 1990s, winning the 1991 Madison Regatta with Mark Evans driving the American Spirit, and gave Villwock his first Unlimited ride in 1992 when the team became an immediate winner in its opener at San Diego in the Coors Dry.

Jones, whose company, Strategic Composites Inc., builds composite airplane parts as well as hydroplanes and boats for various applications, said he considers the partnership a win-win situation.

"I had toyed with the idea of getting involved with a team on a more day-to-day basis, and this seemed like a really good opportunity," Jones said.

Muscatel and Jones will combine their resources and assets, boosting the U-25's arsenal to include six turbine engines, a spare truck and other parts.