TOP ROOKIE: Andrew Tate, who was fourth at Madison in 2016, scored his first career win at Seattle, was third in season high points and the sports’s Rookie of the Year. (Courier file photo by David Campbell)
TOP ROOKIE: Andrew Tate, who was fourth at Madison in 2016, scored his first career win at Seattle, was third in season high points and the sports’s Rookie of the Year. (Courier file photo by David Campbell)
Even now when H1 Unlimited rookie of the year Andrew Tate looks back on last season, his first as driver of the U-9 Jones Racing, those memories are both surreal and surprising.

From a newcomer to the Unlimiteds at the season opener in Madison to the season finale at San Diego, Tate progressed about as quickly and successfully as any new driver the sport has seen in years.

He garnered the most points and won the winner take all final at Seattle, ran second and posted the fastest lap in the final at San Diego and made the final heat in all but one stop on the H1 circuit — a consistency that powered him to a third place finish in the National High Points standings.

“It was kind of surreal if you think about what happened — being a first year team or our first year together,” Tate, a fourth generation boat racer with numerous wins in other divisions of the sport, said. “I was pleasantly surprised but I think the crew and the rest of the sport might have been a little more surprised than me which is a good feeling. I couldn’t be happier with the way the year went.”

Tate said there was never any pressure to win — other than that which he put on himself — and he able content sit back, watch and learn, and get to know his boat and the competition.

“At the beginning of the year you never want to be that guy who comes in and thinks he’s further along than he is because that’s when bad things happen,” Tate said. “I made sure and the team ownership all the way down it was very clear that they wanted me to learn and wanted me be comfortable. There really wasn’t any pressure. But at the same time, being a competitor I put the pressure on myself to get better each time I get in the boat. And if I wasn’t doing that — especially being a rookie — and learning something every time I went out then I would consider that a failure.”

At Madison Tate was forced to run from the rookie’s trailer position so winning was not even an option and a broken propeller took the team out of contention at Tri-Cities so his first real opportunity to go racing was at Seattle and boy did he hold a coming out party.

Tate entered the race weekend as the third-fastest qualifier and posted a win and two seconds in the preliminary heats before out-dueling season champion Jimmy Shane and the Homestreet/Miss Madison in the final for his first career win.

“Up until Seattle I had been just milling around and watching the others and learning until a felt comfortable enough to put the boat in there and go racing with them,” Tate said. “Before the final heat at Seattle we spent two hours in between the heats going over strategy and coming up with a plan to get the inside lane to go for the win and thankfully Jimmy (Shane) and J. Michael (Kelly) were more concerned about the two of them than what the new kid was going to do.

“At the beginning of the year I kind of put myself in a position to make sure I wasn’t going to fail. I didn’t fight for the inside, I wanted to continue to learn how the boat handled and how it was going to react, the acceleration rates as far as starting goes and timing the starts. As I did get more comfortable and I felt like I could surprise people a little bit I took advantage of that opportunity to the fullest in Seattle. All at one time I put myself in a position to win.”

Tate said he’s pretty sure his fellow racers and the fans never saw his Seattle win coming. Still, winning wasn’t easy back then and it probably won’t be any easier in 2017 but at least now he’s a fully qualified driver and the team has the boat in great shape including a few innovations that could help push the envelope a little further.

“Looking forward in 2017 and the future I don’t know that we will be surprising too many people anymore. It’s kind of like we’ve put ourselves in a position to maybe be a player in the game and someone that the other teams are going to be looking out for which is a compliment in itself I think for the entire U-9 team,” Tate said.

“I don’t plan on staying out of the way, that’s for sure,” he added. “I guess you could consider me the wild card or however you want to look at it. But I think it’s good for the sport. I think it changes the dynamic and a lot of people’s strategies not only during the final but during the qualifiers as well because points are going to be harder to come by I would say. Hopefully, we are all up and we are all running and putting on a good show for everyone. That’s what we all want.”

Tate and the U-9 team have already tested the boat once this season — a preseason session on the Columbia River at Tri-Cities that was also attended by Shane and the HomeStreet.

“The boat is very consistent to where we where last year — similar speeds in preseason testing at Tri-Cities,” Tate said. “They did make a couple of changes to kind of settle the boat down a little bit and make it a little more drivable. I don’t know if I was flying it a little too much or what, so hopefully we can use all the power we’ve got and keep the thing on the water. I think they’re happy and I know I’m happy and that seat time is more valuable than anything.”

To the untrained eye, the U-9 will look identical to the boat Tate raced here last season, but one of the minute tweaks the team has made — a split canard with a slight offset near the right sponson — has caught the attention of a lot of people in the sport.

Tate said the split and offset are an innovation the team came up with in the offseason to better balance and stabilize the boat at high speeds.

“It’s split in the middle. Basically the right side trailing edge is up higher than the left side. It’s still one wing and it moves as one. It’s one piece but it’s offset due to the way the boat is offset,” Tate said. “A lot of times, most times if you watch video, it’s the right side of the boat that comes up and causes you to blowover because of the offset. So their thinking is a little bit innovative there to try and counteract that. It’s something to play with and something to try. Hopefully it works.

“I definitely noticed a difference when we tested the boat and we’ll continue to make changes and tweak that and play with that,” Tate added. “If we don’t learn what we want to learn and don’t think it’s going to do what we think it’s going to do we have the capability to go back to exactly the way we ran the boat last year which is always nice. But if you’re not trying things to go faster somebody else definitely is. I’m excited about it. Again, innovation is the key. The boats have only changed so much over the past decade or so. I think it’s good that at least someone is trying something different.”

Tate said the team heads into the 2017 season with big expectations.

“As a team we want to win the championship and we want to win the Gold Cup. That’s a very bold thing to say and those are very high expectations but there is no sense in setting the bar any lower than that,” Tate said. “There’s four races here where we can score points and anything can happen in these four races. As long as we remain consistent and we don’t beat ourselves I think there is a good chance going into the fourth race of the year that we should be able to be in the hunt for a championship.”

Tate also said that he and the team fully realize that it takes a lot more than just a fast boat to win in the series and achieve those goals. The race before the race often dictates who can and cannot win before the green flag ever waves and Tate became painfully aware of that last year.

“At times I was a hero. You look at Seattle and everything was great, the team couldn’t have been happier. We won the final and had more points than anyone that weekend.” Tate said. “At Detroit? I won two heats on Saturday and then you come to Sunday and I jump the gun in one of the qualifiers and hit a buoy at the start of the final. So you’ve got to remain centered and on an even keel and not get too caught up in how great you think you’re doing or get too down on yourself when things go wrong.”

Boat racing is weeks of preparation, hours of strategy and minutes of racing. Fall short on either of the three and winning simply comes down to luck and there’s getting to be less and less of that to go around.

“You’ve got to take what you’re given and not force the issue sometimes. And as a competitor that line is something hard to find,” Tate said. “You obviously want to win and you want to push and you want to go as fast as the boat will take you but if you don’t win that race before the start — that chess match before the start — and put yourself in a position to where that’s a possibility, then you need to understand that after the first lap and where everyone is and really understand during the race who you can beat and who you cannot beat. Sometimes settling is the smartest thing you can do on that particular day and in that particular time in that particular heat. Now if it’s the final of the Gold Cup, you might be talking about someone who has no sense at all in their head.”