A screenshot of the U-6 Miss HomeStreet/Miss Madison during the H1 Unlimited E-League race on Saturday. (H1 Unlimited)
A screenshot of the U-6 Miss HomeStreet/Miss Madison during the H1 Unlimited E-League race on Saturday. (H1 Unlimited)
The H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Series put on a race on Saturday that may not have been the real thing, but provided a good enough show to satisfy fans’ thirsts until the big boats are able to get out on the water.

There were flips — five of them in fact — and deck to deck racing in nearly every heat as real-life drivers steered virtual boats in a race on a virtual race course in the inaugural H1 Unlimited E-League race on Guntersville Lake in Alabama. Seven different boats picked up victories on the day, capped by Quinton Miller’s win aboard the U-12 Graham Trucking in the winner-take-all final heat.

“There was some shouting when I came across the finish line to be sure,” said Miller, a 25-year-old from Mercer Island, Washington. “I’m super excited (about being the first winner) and I’ve just got thank Rob Graham and all of the sponsors for putting this thing on. I hope this keeps going and we can do this every week.”

With three of the five scheduled races on this year’s H1 Unlimited scheduled already canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic — including the APBA Gold Cup in Madison — everybody in the sport was looking for a way to keep the interest up in the sport while also providing something for fans to get into.

Taking a cue from NASCAR, which ran several virtual races with existing drivers before returning back to action last week, H1 joined forces with HydroSim, a virtual computer game developed by Scott Przybylski of San Diego which simulates the sport all the way down to water conditions and the effects of the wind.

Each of the 12 current H1 Unlimited teams picked a driver to represent them in the first race, all of whom were veterans of the Unlimited Hydroplane League, a series that has been contested on HydroSim. The race itself was run under existing H1 rules, including qualifying and heat races.

Because every boat was the same, the race came down to the drivers themselves, not funding or boat setup. The races themselves were tight with all but two of the eight heats coming down to the wire. The six preliminary heats each featured a different winner with Miller’s win in the final giving the race seven winners in total.

Tim Johnson won Heat 1A, steering the U-91 Goodman Real Estate/Miss Madison to a close win while Cei Bowen steered the U-3 Grigg’s Ace Hardware to victory in Heat 1B.

Eddie Kanfoush, who was the fastest qualifier, won Heat 2A in the U-99.9 Miss Rock, Mickey Washburn won 2B in the U-21 PayneWest Insurance, Matt Johnson won 3A in the U-98 Graham Trucking American Spirit and Kelsey Best won 3B in the U-6 Miss HomeStreet/Miss Madison.

Miss Homestreet’s real driver, Jimmy Shane, served as spotter for Best and the virtual driver gave his real-life counterpart some credit for the win.

“I’ve got an inexperienced guy as my spotter so it’s taken us a few races to get in sync,” Best joked.

After Bowen won the Provisional Heat — the only repeat winner on the day — the field for the final heat was set. Quinton Miller was able to secure lane one with his brother D.J. Miller in lane two, aboard the U-7 Spirit of Detroit. It was a four-boat race for the first lap before D.J. Miller slid out and forced Kanfoush to blow over, resulting in a penalty on D.J. Miller.

Quinton Miller and Washburn battled for the next three laps with Washburn, now in lane two, taking the lead heading into the final lap. But Washburn ran into trouble exiting the first turn and Miller pulled away for the win.

“Everybody in this thing has been playing for a while and racing for a while, so we all kind of know each other,” Miller said. “We know what each other is going to do so I just try to focus on my timing marks and know that it will sort itself out. I try to get lane one and then go racing after that.”

Veteran hydroplane announcer Brad Luce provided the play-by-play while 2018 National High Point Champion Andrew Tate was on hand for the color commentary. H1 drivers Shane, Jaime Nilson and J. Michael Kelly drew heat assignments from their home.

H1 Unlimited said in the lead up to the race that they were hopeful of putting on a full schedule but the time and date for the next race has not been announced.