Late Wednesday night, Steve David talked about what exactly his U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison team needed to do to win the 2008 ABRA National High Points Championship.

"We need to get faster, because as fast as we were, the (Miss Elam Plus) was still faster," David said. "Hopefully, we've made the changes we need to make in order to compete with those guys."

So imagine David's surprise when he found out barely 15 hours later that Elam owner Erick Ellstrom had announced that his team was not coming east and would miss the first half of then 2008 American Boat Racing Association season.

Ellstrom has been working for more than a year to bring the sport of Unlimited hydroplane racing to the Middle East and Europe. In a press release Thursday, Ellstrom indicated that effort was near fruition and, as a result, the Miss Elam Plus team did not have the time to compete in the first three races of 2008 including Evansville, Madison and Detroit.

"I'm just stunned by Erick's decision. I had no indication that this was going to happen," said David. "I had people asking me about it and I had to look it up to find out what people were talking about. They didn't test this year so you knew something had to be up, but I am still just surprised."

David wasn't alone in registering his surprise. All across the country, fans and hydro insiders alike were taken aback by the Elam's decision to stay home in order to continue working behind the scenes on an international schedule.

"We were surprised by Erick's announcement that he will miss the first three races of the season," American Boat Racing Association Chairman Sam Cole said in a statement. "The ABRA has had numerous discussions about taking this sport worldwide and we support anything the Elam team can do to further that vision. We still are planning on having nine to 10 teams make the eastern swing and we believe the competition will be as good or better than it has been in the past two years."

Locally, the initial reaction was shock. Miss Madison owner's representative Bob Hughes had not heard the news until he was asked to comment on the development.

"I had heard rumors about it, but I thought they were baloney. They're the national champs!" Hughes said. "It is quite surprising. They have pretty much been dominate over the past couple of years and this gives us a better chance. But it's very, very surprising."

Madison Regatta President Crystal McHargue was also surprised by the announcement.

"We're disappointed that the national champion will not be showing up to defend its crown," McHargue said. "To us, it's disappointing for the fans not to be able to see the fastest boats on the water."

The late timing of the Elam's decision - just eight days from the season opener in Evansville - should not affect ticket sales too much, McHargue said.

"We don't think it's going to be that hard on us at all," she said. "We'll watch the sales in the next couple of days and see what happens, but locally, our fans come out for the Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison and that's who they cheer for."

David also expressed disappointment, but for a different reason. Always the competitor, David wants to face the best competition and in recent seasons that consistently has been the Elam.

"I'm going to miss them. It's just like the old Budweiser teams. When we beat them in the old T-Plus, we were just on top of the world," David said. "It's the same thing with the Elam. You wish them luck."

Both David and Hughes agree that the Miss Elam's decision not to come east should not affect the ABRA's long-term plans. The series is bigger than one boat - a point already proven in recent years with the loss of the Miss Budweiser team.

"It's just one of those things that happens. There are still plenty of boats that are fast and have a chance to win," David said. "We know that Erick has a high regard for this sport and for him to not race, there had to be a good reason. And it had to have been a tough decision."

With the Miss Elam's departure, an already open field just became even more so. Six boats now stand nearly deck-to-deck in their national championship chances and with first or second place finishes in five of the six races last year, the new favorite may be the Oh Boy! Oberto. The team launched a new boat at last year's season opener and then became increasingly competitive the rest of the season with wins in the final two races.

"Oh, I hate to be the favorite. Let's say there are six favorites," David said with a laugh. "All of the other guys have got to feel like their chances just went up. And of course, the target is on our backs now. So, it's anybody's guess."