July 12, 2014 at 6:56 pm

J. Michael Kelly senses golden opportunity on Detroit River

Detroit — J. Michael Kelly believes it's his time to shine in the Detroit APBA Gold Cup.

Since his first start in the historic unlimited hydroplane race on the Detroit River in 2005, Kelly has regularly been in contention for the podium.

Kelly has a trio of third-place finishes — all behind 10-time Gold Cup winner Dave Villwock and 12-time runner-up Steve David — in 2007, 2010 and 2012 under his belt, but has his sights set on the top spot.

Now making his ninth start (the 2008 race was canceled due to wind and rough waters), Kelly, 35, is hoping to ride the momentum from winning last weekend's H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Series season opener in Madison, Indiana — his second career victory and first since 2009 — to back-to-back wins and his first ever Gold Cup victory.

“Last weekend in Madison was a huge confidence booster for the Graham Trucking boat, myself and the team. We definitely have just as good a chance as anybody else here to win the Gold Cup,” said Kelly, who works as a finish carpenter back in Bonney Lake, Washington. “There's really good competition here. Basically it's going to come down to keeping the thing in one piece and putting yourself in the right situation when the time comes.”

That's much easier said than done considering the challenging 2.72-mile course features the biggest turn in the circuit followed by the smallest.

Yet Kelly still believes this year's race is there for the taking. Granted, it does help that both racing greats Villwock and David have retired, defending champ Kip Brown is without a boat and there are only eight boats in the field.

But Kelly has been reunited with Team Porter Racing and owner Ted Porter after a three-year break, with whom he has had success with in the past. He won the 2009 Oryx Cup in Doha, Qatar, with Porter for his first career win and he was behind the wheel of the U-7 Graham Trucking boat for the 2009 and 2010 Gold Cup races where he placed fourth and third, respectively.

This season Kelly is driving the U-1 Graham Trucking boat, one of the two boats Porter owns. The U-7 Graham Trucking II boat is driven by Cal Phipps of Sterling Heights.

“I won my first race with Ted Porter and the team. I moved onto another team and just didn't have the success I had with Porter,” Kelly said. “A seat opened up for me this year so I rejoined Ted again and it's where I was meant to be. It showed last week. I'm just happy that I got the opportunity to go back with the team.”

He's even happier to once again be riding in a fast boat with good equipment after failing to reach last year's final.

“My previous boat I drove was brand new and my crew guys that I had on there last year worked really hard. There just wasn't enough equipment to get it up front,” Kelly said. “The (Porter) team I'm with now, we got a lot of equipment. We got a second boat out on the water that is just as fast as our U-1 boat. Equipment is what wins you races.”

Kelly placed third in Friday's qualifying with a two-lap average of 159.334 mph (behind Jimmy Shane's mark of 162.613 and Jon Zimmerman's 160.432) and put himself in good position after the first day of heats on Saturday afternoon.

Grouped with Jimmy Shane in the U-6 Oberto and Jon Zimmerman in the U-9 Team Red Dot/Spirit of Qatar in his first heat, Kelly was neck-and-neck with Shane through two laps and remained close through the third. But Kelly was unable to keep pace with Shane in the final lap, finishing a close second.

Kelly regrouped and took the second heat easily over Brian Perkins in the U-21 GoFastTurnLeft Racing boat and Mike Webster in the U-22 Webster Racing boat. After jumping out to an early lead in the first lap, Kelly steadily widened the margin over the next three laps to comfortably win the heat.

“This year is a really good opportunity for me to see if I can make it happen,” Kelly said of putting his name on the Gold Cup trophy. “If it doesn't, it's not the end of the world. It's just no matter what, I'm going to love this sport whether I win the trophy or not.

“Hopefully I come away with my name on that thing one of these days -- if not this weekend.”

Kelly enters Sunday second in the standings with 770 points. He has a slim lead over Perkins, who has 750, and trails only Shane, who leads the pack with 900.

The third unlimited heats will begin Sunday at 11:20 a.m. with the fourth and final heats starting at 2:10 p.m. The Gold Cup final is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

J. Michael Kelly, right, and Jimmy Shane compete during Saturday's action on the Detroit River. / Steve Perez / The Detroit News