FOCUSING ON THE PRIZE: Miss Elam Plus driver Dave Villwock, a seven time winner at Madison, closely inspects the Indiana Governor’s Cups and Madison Regatta championship trophies at Thursday’s media gathering. Villwock will race for his record eighth win at Madison this weekend. (Staff photo by Mark Campbell)
FOCUSING ON THE PRIZE: Miss Elam Plus driver Dave Villwock, a seven time winner at Madison, closely inspects the Indiana Governor’s Cups and Madison Regatta championship trophies at Thursday’s media gathering. Villwock will race for his record eighth win at Madison this weekend. (Staff photo by Mark Campbell)
Dave Villwock laughs when he recalls the last time he took an extended leave from driving Unlimited hydroplanes. Without a ride at the start of the 2005 season after the demise of the Miss Budweiser team, he was hired to drive the U-16 Miss Elam Plus three races into the season.

"When I came back in 2005, they said, 'Boy, a lot of the drivers aren't happy to see you driving again,'" Villwock said, laughing at the memory. "I said, 'I wouldn't want to see me driving again either. I would want to see the worst guy out there I could get.'"

Villwock has given competitors plenty of reasons to wish that he would simply retire. From the moment he first sat in the cockpit of an Unlimited hydroplane in 1992, Villwock has done nothing but win championships. His 56 career victories are third only to Bill Muncey (62) and Chip Hanauer (61) and his .500 winning percentage as a driver cannot be matched.

This weekend's 59th running of the Indiana Governor's Cup will be Villwock's first appearance in Madison since 2007. He has seven wins all-time here and carries a personal four-race win streak on the "Wild" Bill Cantrell Memorial Race Course.

Villwock, along with the rest of Elam team, took most of last season off in an attempt to prepare for an exhibition in the Middle East that never came to be. To pass the time, he returned to his roots, dominating the flat-bottom series and even took up flying radio-controlled airplanes competitively, qualifying for a national tournament in October.

But now he's back, and the sport's active leader in wins is ready to climb back into the seat and continue his inevitable march toward Muncey's record.

"It's fun to be back out here," Villwock said. "I've only missed a couple of races, 2005 and 2008, since 1989. It's good to be back."

The sport Villwock returns to has changed a bit since he last competed in a full season. The biggest change comes in the starting procedure, where lanes will be assigned rather than drivers "fighting" for lanes.

Villwock is one of the few drivers who applauds the changes. Having been involved in several scrapes during the milling period before the start of a heat, he has become convinced that the sport was heading in a dangerous direction.

"I like some of the things they are doing with the format and how we're going to qualify," he said. "And I say that, not because I'm trying to talk about a competitive advantage. But what we do need is order. We don't need arguments after the fact saying so and so did this, or so and so did that. It's not good and I think they addressed that."

Like most drivers, he's not sure how the new rules will play out on the water, although he does predict a slew of fuel and N2 engine violations to be called this weekend as team's adjust to the new rules.

What he does think is that the new qualifying format, where the fastest qualifier gets to pick his lane in the first heat, will not necessarily go the way many people believe.

"It's nice that you pick your lane, but there are still blind draws for heats so you're not guaranteed who you will be paired with," Villwock said. "You may be in a heat where it's not necessarily advantageous just because you're the fastest. The second, or the third-fastest guy may be in a different heat and have a better draw."

Regardless of how the format works out, Villwock is just eager to get back to doing what he does best. And that talent has put him on the precipice of history.

Villwock enters the 2009 season just six wins away from tying Muncey's record for wins. Villwock acknowledges that he may have already had the record by now if not for rules aimed directly at slowing him down in the early 2000s, but he also said that he isn't necessarily aiming for the record.

"I feel fortunate that I've been able to sort of get into that area of Bill Muncey and Chip Hanauer, where I've won a lot of races for a long time and still managed to have about a 50 percent win rate," Villwock said. "If they would have left me alone for about three or four years there, it might be a different picture. But I don't know if that changes who is better or worse."

Regardless of where Villwock falls in the ranking of all-time drivers, his contemporaries know that his mere presence makes all of their jobs all the more harder.

"You always want to measure yourself against the best and Dave is the best," said Steve David, driver of the defending national champion, the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison. "That's the team to beat. You love facing guys like that because it ramps up every thing that you do."