J. Michael Kelly steers the virtual U-12 Graham Trucking to victory in the Sri-Cities on Saturday. (Photo by Gavin McClure/H1 Unlimited)
J. Michael Kelly steers the virtual U-12 Graham Trucking to victory in the Sri-Cities on Saturday. (Photo by Gavin McClure/H1 Unlimited)
Jeff Bernard’s crash on lap four opened the door for J. Michael Kelly to cruise to victory in the virtual H1 Unlimited Drivers Invitational race in the Tri-Cities, Washington on Saturday.

Kelly, driving the U-12 Graham Trucking, spent four laps running deck-to-deck with Bernard, who had won all three of his preliminary laps aboard the U-91 Goodman Real Estate/Miss Madison. But with Kelly on the inside, Bernard needed to take a chance if he was going to win.

Attempting a move one would only try in a simulator, Bernard crossed behind Kelly, surviving his roostertail to take the inside lane. But Jamie Nilsen’s U-11 J&D’s was already in lane one — and had been penalized one lap earlier for hitting a buoy — and Bernard was unable to sustain the force of the J&D’s wake. Bernard’s craft rode the water, forcing him to spin out.

With Bernard disabled and Nilsen penalized, Kelly had little trouble in finishing off his first E-League win, and breaking the Miss Madison Team’s dominance in the process.

“Oh man, my hands are sweaty. It’s hard to keep the accelerator down when your leg is shaking so much,” Kelly said. “That was a crazy final for sure.”

H1 Unlimited is holding virtual races on the same weekends as their originally scheduled races using the HydroSim software created by Scott Pryzbylski. Jimmy Shane won the first two races — at Guntersville, Alabama and Madison — aboard the U-1 Miss HomeStreet/Miss Madison but was a non-factor on Saturday in the Tri-Cities, although he did win a preliminary heat.

It was Shane’s teammate Bernard who looked like the driver to beat in the final. Like he did at Madison, Bernard won all three preliminary heats but ran into trouble in the final, costing him the win.

Taylor Evans, the real-life crew chief for the Bucket List Racing Team, finished second in the U-99.9 Bucket List/Miss Rock while Shane placed third and Bernard recovered from his incident to finish fourth. Aaron Salmon was fifth in the U-440 Bucket List and Nilsen was sixth.

H1 Unlimited is running two separate virtual leagues this summer. The H1 E-League, which features veterans from the HydroSim series, competed on the Tri-Cities course on July 11 with Eddie Kanfoush picking up the win aboard the U-99.9 Miss Rock.

The real-life H1 drivers will be back in action on Sunday with the virtual running of the race in Seattle and will close out the season Sept. 19 at San Diego. The E-League series will compete in Seattle Aug. 15 and in San Diego on Aug. 29. All races can be viewed on H1’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

Former driver Scott Pierce dies

Former Unlimited champion Scott Pierce died after a short illness on Sunday, July 19. He was 64.

Pierce, who was the Unlimited Rookie of the Year in 1981, won seven races in his career, including the 1988 Madison Regatta aboard the Mr. Pringle’s. His best season was in 1991 when he won three races and steered the Miss Budweiser to the National High Points Championship.

After retiring as a driver in the early 2000s, Pierce stayed active in the sport, owning the highly successful GP-55 team in the Grand Prix series. Pierce and driver Jamie Nilsen won the Grand Prix event at Madison in 2018.

Nilsen honored his boss on Saturday just before the virtual Drivers Invitational race, taking an electronic version of the Mr. Pringle’s out for a silent lap on the Columbia River course.