'Truly an honor': Kelly wins first career Gold Cup

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Driver J. Michael Kelly, left in black hat, and the team of the U5 Graham Trucking 1 celebrate after winning Kelly's first Gold Cup.

Detroit — J. Michael Kelly won just one of his heats over two days of hydroplane racing on the Detroit River this weekend.

Jimmy Shane won all of his, and most of them by comfortable margins.

But again and again, Kelly's crew kept giving him encouragement, promising his shiny-red Unlimited No. 5 boat would be plenty ready for the finals of the Gold Cup.

And, turns out, the crew knew exactly what it was talking about.

"My guys told me I was gonna have a fast boat for the final, 'Just wait, be patient,' and they were right," Kelly said Sunday afternoon. "I got a fast boat."

Kelly, 37, won his first career Gold Cup, putting an end to Shane's reign at two years — and he did it most impressively, leading by approximately 20 boat lengths on the third of five laps.

As he came around the tight rooster-tail turn clean on the fourth lap, his crew, decked out in red and black on the docks, started to celebrate.

It was just a matter of keeping the boat on the water — which isn't always a sure thing, especially since Kelly's boat suffered some damage earlier in the day Sunday, and the crew was feverishly working on it moments before the start of the final race of the 100th anniversary of Detroit River racing.

"It's amazing," said Kelly, of Bonney Lake, Washington. "All I could think about is, 'I hope nothing breaks, just let me finish and let me win this Gold Cup.'

"I didn't know if I'd ever win one.

"My name will be on the trophy forever, and that's pretty neat."

Shane, 31, who kicked off his weekend of racing with a thrilling duel victory over Kelly on Saturday and had beaten him in another heat Sunday, took runner-up. Kelly's teammate, Jeff Bernard, 31 and an Allen Park native, finished third, giving owner Ted Porter two drivers on the podium.

Local fan favorite Andrew Tate, 26, who went to Plymouth-Canton High School and now lives in Walled Lake, had a tough finish to his homecoming weekend. The rookie on the Unlimited Circuit who won the Seafair Cup in Seattle earlier this month finished sixth, in last place, in the Gold Cup final after being assessed a one-minute penalty for dislodging a buoy just before the start of the race.

Trying to get position, he clipped the buoy; if it didn't dislodge, it would've been fine, but it did, and he was out of the race before it even began.

"I messed up, that's about it, plain and simple," Tate said. "We were a little bit off of our timing marks, kind of got ahead of ourselves there, and tried to make a lane. And these guys are all good enough and smart enough to not let me in there.

"I took out a buoy instead of another boat, which is the lesser of the two evils, and took myself out of the race.

"I went from being a hero in Seattle to a zero in Detroit really quick, but that's boat racing. It's all about how you bounce back and redeem yourself."

Still, there were plenty of highs to the weekend for Tate, a fourth-generation boat racer who won an Unlimited heat Saturday and another one Sunday, after his final heat was postponed by weather Saturday night. That earned him some valuable points in the season standings, with once race left, in San Diego.

He also did double duty in Detroit, competing in the Grand Prix circuit.

And there, he won his final Sunday to take the Silver Cup, making up a five-boat-length deficit when his main opponent struggled with the tight turns. Still, the goal was the Gold Cup; he was trying to be the first rookie to win it since Ted Jones in 1950.

"A typical boat-racing weekend, a lot of ups and a lot of downs," said Tate, who also was penalized in his final Unlimited heat Sunday for jumping the gun. "The Grand Prix thing is very, very cool, especially here in my hometown of Detroit.

"It's kind of bittersweet right now at this moment, but I'm sure I'll get over that and enjoy it."

Kelly averaged 150.157 mph in the Gold Cup final, more than 4 mph ahead of Shane, who won the Gold Cup in Kennewick, Washington, last year — Detroit lost its funding for a year — and in Detroit in 2014.

For Kelly, the win is even more satisfying, given his disappointment in losing to Tate at Seafair, his hometown race. It's his second victory of the season, to one each for Shane and Tate.

Judging by the tears that streamed down his face after he finished his hugs and backslaps on the dock, this one meant just a little bit more.

"The names that are on that and the guys that won that, it speaks for itself," Kelly said. "To be on that list is truly an honor.

"There's been some amazing guys out there that have come really close and never did it in their career, and you feel for them. I got it. It's pretty cool."