The U-3 Master Tire (top) was flying high and fast at the American Boat Racing Association season opener last weekend in Evansville. The team finished third in its hometown race and boat owner Ed Cooper (above left) and driver Jimmy King  would like to add another podium finish this weekend in Madison. (Staff photos by David Campbell)
The U-3 Master Tire (top) was flying high and fast at the American Boat Racing Association season opener last weekend in Evansville. The team finished third in its hometown race and boat owner Ed Cooper (above left) and driver Jimmy King would like to add another podium finish this weekend in Madison. (Staff photos by David Campbell)
As the driver of the only piston-powered boat on the Unlimited circuit, Jimmy King knows that he has a lot going against him. Parts for his World War II-era engine are hard to come by, the boat is heavier than the rest of the fleet and he has to have an entirely different strategy than his competitors at the start of each race.

But don't feel too sorry for King. Over the past five seasons, the U-3 Cooper Racing team has consistently been one of the fastest boats on the water and since 2002, only two current teams have won more races than the Evansville-based boat.

"Jimmy is too modest," Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison driver Steve David said. "That Allison is one heck of a boat and it is fast."

King and the Cooper Racing, which will run under the name Master Tire at Madison, will come to town this weekend to wage another battle with the turbine-powered fleet. With its engine loudly hearkening to another time when the fleet was dominated by Allisons, Merlins and Griffons long before the modern-day turbines arrived, the "Turbinator" has always been a fan favorite.

"I think even with the old (Cooper) boat, the fans loved it," said King. "Even though that boat seemed to always run last, the fans were just drawn to it."

Cooper, a Madison native, won his first race in 1989 soon after the fleet had transitioned to turbine power. As other teams moved to the turbines as quickly as finances and boat building would allow, Cooper stayed with his tried-and-true turbocharged Allison, determined to keep it a winner.

"I'm not really sure why he never went to turbine. I think he just likes that Allison engine," King said. "He has a ton of them in his shop and he is a real whiz with that engine."

The turning point for the Cooper team came in 2002 when Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little opened his boat building shop to Cooper and the piston magnate soaked everything in. The result was the U-3 building a virtual carbon-copy of the Bud boats - now the Formula Boats - that made the piston hydro an instant contendor.

Driver Mitch Evans steered the U-3 to a new piston record in its first race in late 2002 and the team has catapulted into the upper tier of the sport's elite since, winning three races in 2003.

While the team hasn't won a race since that season, no team has come closer. Since taking over for Evans before the start of the 2005 season, King has four second place finishes and three thirds in 15 races, a nearly 50 percent success rate in podium finishes.

But the team has had nearly as many mechanical issues as podium finishes over the same span, failing to make a final heat or finish a final six times, not counting the shortened Madison race a year ago. It has been feast or famine for the bright red boat.

Mechanical issues aside, it is King's ability as a driver that will make the difference between winning or losing. And in today's sport, wins are often decided at the start of a heat with the boat that hits the start line the fastest typically coming out on top.

Over the weekend in Evansville, King took a near-kamikaze approach to the starts. As the rest of the field slowed down to nearly 40 mph for the final push to the start, King laid back and hit the gas half a lap away. The result was that the U-3 came tearing around the first-turn at full-speed and more times than not, he hit the line first.

The approach was not without its downside. Because he started so late, he was forced to run from the outside and despite being at full speed, with more of the course to run on, King invariably found himself behind.

"The turbines have a little less weight and as a result, they are able go at a slower speed and crawl into position," King said. "The way I have to run is to lay back about half a racetrack and come up on a flying a start. Hopefully, they leave me a hole and I can just shoot up through there but this past weekend, I had to start from the outside each time.

"If they have a little boo-boo and I can find a way to get inside, I'll take it. But right now, the best way is just to get around as quick as I can."

It was a "boo-boo" that allowed King to win his one heat, although it was not in a way he would have liked. After battling Jean Theoret and the U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing closely for two laps in Heat 2B, King decided to lay back and take the easy 300 second place points.

But Theoret hit the final turn at full throttle, hit a roller of water on the course and blew over. Both boat and driver were OK - Theoret ended up finishing second in the final later in the day - and the accident allowed King to take the heat win.

While he has failed to win a race in his two-plus years with the Cooper team, King is confident that the only piston-powered boat can compete. Most of the restrictions have been lifted against the turbine-powered boats, making them faster, but the U-3 seems to always be near the top of the points standings.

"The turbines have caught up to us a little bit, but we're still competitive. Our qualifying speeds are not as high as they have been, but when it comes to race water, we're only a few miles per hour off the other guys," King said. "If I can just figure out a way to get underneath them, I can run with them. But otherwise, I will keep them thinking and guessing. Run from the outside and make things difficult for them."

If King is able to claim victory in Madison this weekend, it will not only be his first career win, but it will also mark the first victory by a piston-powered boat at Madison since Jim Kropfeld steered the Miss Budweiser to the win in 1983.

As a student of the sport, King knows what he is up against at Madison and what a win at the old 2 1/2-mile course would mean.

"It's all about how fast you can go. It has the second-tightest turns in the sport, but it has really long straightaways. Two hundred mph is a real possibility, then you have to turn around and do it the other way," King said. "When you think about all of the guys that have raced on the race courses, it's huge to me. I don't think the younger guys realize the history, but when I think of the (Jim) McCormicks, Howie Benns, the Kropfelds that have raced there, it's pretty awesome."

For King, a win at Madison would be more than just a win. It would be his first win and earn a place in the storied history of the Madison Regatta ­and bring the Indiana Governor's Cup to Evansville.