Miss Elam Plus will not race at Evansville, Madison or Detroit this season. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
Miss Elam Plus will not race at Evansville, Madison or Detroit this season. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
Sam Cole admits that he was surprised when he learned the defending national champion Miss Elam Plus was not coming to the three eastern races of the American Boat Racing Association's 2008 season, but the ABRA chairman fully backs what Elam owner Erick Ellstrom is trying to accomplish in bringing Unlimited hydroplane racing to the Middle East.

"We regret that Erick has decided to bypass the eastern races, but we're excited that he is perusing options in the Middle East," Cole said Monday. "We were just a little caught by surprise that it was going to be his total priority."

On Thursday, Ellstrom announced that his bright orange boat - which won the national title in 2005 and 2007 as well as the last three Madison Regattas - was going to sit out the Evansville, Madison and Detroit races. Ellstrom has been hard at work at trying to get exhibitions off the ground in Abu Dhabi and Dubai among other places and admitted that he simply doesn't have the money to do both the domestic circuit and the international one.

"Many of our teams have volunteer crews and it's a question if you want to use your vacation time to go east or to the Middle East," Cole said.

Ellstrom's decision has been the talk of the Unlimited world for nearly a week, lighting up the internet message boards with speculation and rumor.

In Ellstrom's original statement, he mentioned that four boats would make the trek to the Middle East for the exhibitions but Cole admitted he wasn't sure what boats could go. It is assumed that Ellstrom's other boat, sponsored by the Boeing Aircraft Company, would also make the trip.

"The Elam and the Boeing boat I'm sure would go. As for the other two, I have no idea," Cole said, adding, "One Australian we have been working with told me that one of the sheiks is bringing in every form of boat racing in the world for an exhibition so that he can watch them and decide which one to go with."

Regardless of how the Middle East exhibitions will be pulled off, Cole made it clear that Ellstrom's venture has the full backing of the ABRA. In fact, the organization has been working on getting races internationally for some time.

"We have been working with three different entities over the last year about running exhibitions in the Middle East and Erick is working with one of them," Cole said. "Nothing can happen until the ABRA Board approves it, but we are fine with it and we're on board with it."

Ted Porter, owner of the U-5 and U-7 Formulaboats.com teams, is a member of the ABRA Board of Directors and reiterated Cole's statement.

"Going international is a good thing and just being selfish, 10 percent of our business is overseas," said Porter, who serves as vice-president of human resources for Formula Boats. "But it is going to be good for the sport as well and will open us up to some new sites here at home.

"Kudos to Erick for what he is doing. I know it had to be a tough decision to give up the title and the three races, but I applaud him for what he is trying to do over there."

Both Cole and Porter firmly believe that an Unlimited presence overseas would boost the six current ABRA race sites, rather than knock them down. In fact, Cole is looking at expanding the schedule as early as this season, with exhibitions in New Richmond, Ohio, and Chattanooga, Tenn., as possibilities.

"I'm not disappointed (in the fact that there are just six races) at all," Cole said. "I did a study and we have raced at 45 venues in the past 40 years and these six sites are the ones that survived. Some of those sites were one- and two-year events at best because they didn't have a five-year plan. We want to develop new race sites and bring them along and I will be disappointed if next year, we don't have one or two new events.

"Our goal is to keep our six sites healthy. We've had some issues with some of the sites, but we want our six best customers healthy."

With the 2008 season opener in Evansville just four days away, Cole was also excited about the level of competition that will be on display at the 30th Thunder on the Ohio.

"The competition is very exciting. We're not going to have somebody that is 20-25 mph faster in lap speed than everybody else," Cole said. "We have good drivers and we have eliminated the flag start and the lane assignments to put it back in the driver's hands. The race is going to be won on the water, not in the rulebook.

"The door's wide open; let's go racing."

One driver who is looking forward to the season opener is Mike Allen, who won the 2006 National Championship aboard Porter's U-7 Formulaboats.com II.

Allen is considered one of the favorites to pull out a victory and while he laments the Miss Elam Plus' absence, he's just ready to go racing.

"It will be more competitive with the Elam not there, but as I have told people, we weren't going just to run for second place," Allen said. "No less than seven teams can win a final and that's the most exciting part. We don't have one team that is going to win every heat and that makes it exciting."