J. Michael Kelly
J. Michael Kelly
Jeff Bernard and J. Michael Kelly are separated in age by five years, but the two have grown up in racing together. After Bernard moved to the Seattle area from Detroit a decade ago, the pair competed against each other as they rose up the racing ranks and quickly became fast friends.

This year, the pair will be more than friends, they will be teammates for the Decatur, Ind.-based Formula Boats team. Bernard, the defending Madison champion, will drive the U-5 Formulaboats.com while Kelly will steer the U-7 Graham Trucking.

Having two boats is nothing new to owner Ted Porter, who has fielded a multiple-hull team since 2006, and having two of the brightest young stars on the circuit could give the team a serious advantage.

"Every since I've been with the team, the motto has been 'Two boats, one team,'" said Bernard, who took over the U-5 for his uncle Mike Weber midway through the 2006 season. "It don't matter who wins. Of course, yeah, I'd like to win and Mike would rather win, but if we finish 1-2 it's a win for both of us."

Teammates are nothing new in other forms of motorsports such as NASCAR where car owners can field two, three or even four cars in a single race. But Unlimited hydroplane racing has routinely been a solo sport, with drivers essentially all alone on the water.

There have been multiple-boat teams in the past. The Miss Budweiser and Muncey-Lucero teams both campaigned two hulls in the late 1980s, and for many years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Fred Leland ran a pair of boats.

The advantage of having a teammate in a sport where there may only be three other boats on the water cannot be measured. The late Terry Troxell, Bernard's stepfather, drew the field over the starting line early at Madison in 2001 in an attempt to help teammate Greg Hopp in the U-100 Znetix. Just last year at Madison, Bernard's former teammate Mike Allen helped box-in the favored Steve David and the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison, leading to Bernard's first career win.

Allen, who was let go last month and replaced by Kelly, did not have the equipment to successfully compete against the faster boats a year ago, but the savvy driver still used his skills in an attempt to bolster Bernard's chances.

"Mike was a little off-power last year and they had a lot of motor issues. His boat was not up to par in relation of ours," Bernard, 24, said. "There was a couple of times where we were able to help each other out on the race course. The good thing is if Mike (Kelly) is in lane one and I'm in lane two, Mike can comfortably go into a corner and know that there is going to be a lane there. Because you can't do it with anybody else."

Kelly comes over to the Formula team after three years with the U-13 Spirit of Detroit where he replaced Troxell at the helm. The former Miller American hull was one of the fastest boats on the circuit in its day 20 years ago, but the underfunded Detroit team is a far cry from the former Miss Budweiser boats of the Formula team.

"I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to drive this kind of equipment," said a smiling Kelly, 30. "Not taking anything away from the teams I've driven for before because those guys gave me everything they could possibly give me. But coming over to this team, what a difference. I can't wait to go racing this weekend just to see what it's like."

Like Bernard, Kelly sees the advantage of having a teammate on the water, especially entering that hairy first turn.

"I'm looking forward to it. Jeff did a great job last year and I think with my addition, we can help each other out," said Kelly. "Like Jeff was saying, going into that first turn, if he's on the inside and I'm on the outside, we know we have that room. We'll be looking out for each other. Anything we can do to help each other succeed, we're going to do."

Bernard had a breakout year in 2008, following his win at Madison by taking another win at San Diego in the season finale. Kelly, the 2004 Rookie of the Year, is content on helping his team any way he can, but he would love nothing more than notching that first career victory.

"I've got to get one, one of these days," Kelly said with a laugh. "But if I've got to wait a few weeks, that's fine. As long as I'm taking second behind Jeff, that's all that matters. Of course, one of these days, I want to get a win."