THE CHAMP’S RETURN: Dave Villwock and the defending National Champion Miss Elam Plus sat out the first three races of the 2008 season in order to concentrate on a series of exhibition races in the Middle East this winter. But this weekend at Tri-Cities , the bright-orange Elam is back and instantly becomes the race favorite. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
THE CHAMP’S RETURN: Dave Villwock and the defending National Champion Miss Elam Plus sat out the first three races of the 2008 season in order to concentrate on a series of exhibition races in the Middle East this winter. But this weekend at Tri-Cities , the bright-orange Elam is back and instantly becomes the race favorite. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
For the first time in the 2008 ABRA Unlimited hydroplane season, the defending National High Point Championship team will hit the water when the Lamb Weston Columbia Cup kicks off Friday in the Tri-Cities, Wash.

Dave Villwock. the winningest active driver in the fleet, returns with his U-1 National High Point Championship Miss Elam Plus team.

Villwock, winner of 55 unlimited races, probably couldn't find a better spot to make his return. The Auburn, Wash. native has won each of the last four races at the Tri-Cites and seven overall.

"The Columbia River is the super speedway course and it pays dividends to the driver who is more precise," said Villwock. "Many of the other courses become more a battle for survival but this course rewards the driver."

The Elam's presence is sure to shake up the field. While the bright orange boat has virtually no shot at defending its national title, it could play the role of spoiler for those still in the hunt.

Currently, Steve David and the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison lead the points race by just 30 over Jeff Bernard and the U-5 Formulaboats.com. Jean Theoret and the U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing is third, 385 points back.

Thirteen teams are expected to hit the water for the fourth stop on the ABRA schedule, but one - the U-7 Formulaboats.com II - will be running with a back-up boat and a back-up driver.

Mike Allen flipped the U-7 at Detroit for the second-straight year and will miss at least this weekend's race. Jimmy Shane, who subbed for Allen at two races last year, will drive.

"Mike is doing well but I think he's kicking back this week and relaxing," said Formulaboats owner Ted Porter. "He didn't even answer his cell phone, so I'm sure he's just kicking back."

Unlike last year, Shane will have a chance to drive a competitive boat. Porter purchased the back-up U-10 USA Racing Partners from Kim Gregory in the off-season to serve as the backup for both the U-5 and the U-7. The back-up hull has campaigned as the Winston Eagle and Smokin' Joe's in the past and won the Gold Cup as recently as 2004.

Besides the Miss Elam Plus, two other teams will make their debuts this weekend. The U-48 Miss Lakeridge Paving, the sister ship to the U-50 Spirit of the Navy, will appear with David Williams at the wheel. The U-17 Our Gang Racing, which is built and co-owned by Nate Brown, will be driven by Brown's nephew, Kip Brown.

The younger Brown will be making his Unlimited debut after winning national championships in both the Pro-Stock and E Racing Runabout divisions.

"Kip is one good shoe who will undoubtedly be important to Our Gang Racing as both a driver and leader," said Nate Brown.

Testing and qualifying begins Friday at 11 a.m. EDT with the first heat of racing set to begin at 6:05 p.m. EDT Saturday. The championship heat will be run Sunday at 7:50 p.m. EDT.

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2008 LAMB WESTON COLUMBIA CUP

Race Schedule

(All Times EDT)

Friday, July 25

11 a.m. - Testing and Qualfiying

12:30 p.m. - Testing and Qualfiying

4:30 p.m. - Testing and Qualfiying

8 p.m. - Dash For Cash

Saturday, July 26

11 a.m. - Testing and Qualfiying

3:30 p.m. - Testing and Qualfiying

6:05 p.m. - Heat 1A

6:25 p.m. - Heat 1B

6:45 p.m. - Heat 1C

Sunday, July 27

11 a.m. - Testing and Qualfiying

2 p.m. - Heat 2A

2:20 p.m. - Heat 2B

2:40 p.m. - Heat 2C

5 p.m. - Heat 3A

5:20 p.m. - Heat 3B

5:40 p.m. - Heat 3C

6:20 p.m. - Provisional Heat

7:50 p.m. - Final Heat