Inside lane unlocks formula to success for Gold Cup glory

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit – In motor sports, much is about the start.

Grabbing the lead on the first lap of an IndyCar race on an oval course in 2018, with clean air ahead, is far preferable to the newly designed cars, which are more difficult to handle, in the turbulence from a car in front.

Seizing control of the inside lane at the start is pivotal in winning the Gold Cup, competitors say.

Some fans of Formula One complain that whoever is ahead in the first turn wins, unless an on-track incident or a mistake in the pits provide a miracle.

In unlimited hydroplane racing, the drivers spend one to five minutes before the start strategically circling the course in a concerted effort to establish position on the inside “lane.”

A driver in a quick boat who times hitting the starting line well and on the inside of the course is tough to beat.

Usually only a mistake, like taking the famous Roostertail Turn in Detroit too wide or an equipment failure, can deprive that driver of the lead.

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“You see them fight for that inside lane,” said Dave Bartush, the Detroit-based owner of Spirit of Detroit. “It’s the short way around. And, it’s difficult to pass from the outside.

“That’s a great part of the race, right there, before the first boat hits the line.”

Before the start of a race with unlimited hydroplanes, a clock counts down from five minutes.

The boats must take the course by one minute before the start.

As they drive laps, the drivers vie for the inside while trying to time their start for the clock hitting zero.

As Bartush sat in his trailer Saturday, 15 yards from the Spirit of Detroit, in the pits, along the Detroit River, his driver, the rookie Bert Henderson, of Brockville, Ontario, talked about jockeying for position with some of the veteran drivers in the field.

Both men agreed the unlimited hydroplane starts may not be as important as for the automobiles in Formula One, especially, and the starts and restarts in IndyCar. But they are critical.

“These guys are professionals,” Henderson said, of the other drivers. “There’s a reason they’re racing unlimiteds, because their good. You’re racing against the best.

“If somebody is starting from the inside and they’re quick and they’re on their start, the only way you are going to get around them is if you beat them to the first turn.

“If you can beat them, and make the turn, remembering that in unlimiteds you’ve got to leave some room, and then get a little jump on them, that’s the only way you are going to do it,” he said.

Before Bartush began racing unlimiteds in 2005, he raced in the five-liter class.

In 1999, in the North American Championship, on the Detroit River, his team became the only team in the history of the American Power Boating Association to win the top three spots.

The Air Force veteran built dragsters, from an early age.

He remembers when the Miss Budweiser team devised a remedy for not garnering the inside lane.

“I’ve seen Budweiser actually have a gear set up for each lane and a prop,” said Bartush, a Detroit Catholic Central High graduate. “They knew they were going to run in the second lane and third, and they had a gear for that.”

Passing is difficult from the outside because the route is longer.

And, passing is also difficult in an unlimited hydroplane because pulling up toward the rear of a boat, before moving around to overtake it, is impossible because of the enormous rooster tail of water produced by the boats.

While the rooster tail of the turbine powered boats is not as large as those produced by the old piston-powered hydroplanes, it is big enough to cause significant damage.

“All of a sudden, guys are in front of you, and you’ve got to take that rooster tail into consideration,” Bartush said. “And, if you get caught in that sucker, it’s all over.

“You’re going to lose your engine, possibly, and you’re cowling (the removable cockpit and engine covering). That’s happened to us numerous times.

“You’re late for a start. You’re trying to catch up and then you get into the wrong lane going into a corner, and all of a sudden that rooster tail comes down on you. And, you’re done.”