Detroit – Former Gold Cup champion Jean Theoret was back on the Detroit River Saturday and showed he will be a factor in Sunday's Unlimited Hydroplane final.
Theoret, the 2006 Gold Cup champ, was thrilled to be back competing in Unlimited competition in the Motor City for the first time since 2008, and he has a strong boat in the U-96 for owner Erick Ellstrom.
Theoret, 53, arguably the most aggressive driver in the field, blistered the 2.7-mile course in the Spirit of Detroit Hydrofest with a run of 161.56 mph in qualifying.
"I'm very happy, 161.5, so we're right in the game," said Theoret of his run in the U-96 Ellstrom Elam Plus in ideal conditions. "The boat's running very well so we're very happy."
Jimmy Shane, who won the Gold Cup on the Detroit River last summer, then won the Gold Cup last month at Tri-Cities, had a run of 159.03 in qualifying, followed by Scott Liddycoat (158.22), J. Michael Kelly (158.02), Cal Phipps (156.179) and Brian Perkins (155.754).
Shane continued to impress on the Detroit River in the U-1 Oberto boat, winning the first heat Saturday evening, taking the inside lane and topping Kelly with an average speed of 153.293 mph.
"We put ourselves in the position we wanted to be, inside the 5 (Kelly) since we knew we were both close on speeds, so having inside position was obviously key and we pulled it off," Shane said. "The boat was fantastic. If it (water conditions) stays like this it (Sunday's final) will be fine, but any more wind than what we got right now will make it really challenging, but everybody has to race on it."
Perkins won Heat No. 2 (147.414) in the U-21 Al Deeby Dodge boat, topping Tom Thompson from start-to-finish with Jesse Robertson third and Mike Webster fourth.
Things didn't go so well for Theoret, who jumped the gun in Heat No. 3, as did two of his competitors -- Liddycoat and Sterling Heights native Phipps -- opening the door for Jimmy King to win in the piston-powered U-3 Home Street Bank boat.
The drivers will each compete in two more heats Sunday to see who makes the six-boat, five-lap final.
Shane knows he will have some tough competition.
"Obviously that adds another great driver with a great team," said Shane of Theoret.
And even though a Gold Cup isn't the prize for the winner in Detroit, Theoret knows the importance.
"It's important since we're running for the championship and every race is important," said Theoret, who won the Unlimited Hydroplane's Rookie of the Year award in 2005. "We're really glad that Detroit's back because it wasn't supposed to happen. We're really happy that they pulled it off.
"Detroit is really a tough race course. It's the biggest corner in the circuit and the smallest corner in the circuit, so it's very hard to do a good race boat set-up because you're either set up for a big corner or a small corner."
The Gold Cup will return to the Detroit River in 2016, on Aug. 20-21.
Despite the 2006 Gold Cup win while driving for Billy Schumacher, Theoret said his ride with Ellstrom is the best of his career.
"I've been trying to race for Erick for quite a while," noted Theoret. "I think this is one of the best teams in the circuit. I was waiting for a good ride.
"The quality of people working for this team, they're very experienced and Erick has put a great team together. It's a brand new boat, the first time it's been in Detroit, so we're trying to make it ride better every time. It qualifies in time trials very well, but in racing conditions we have a hard time cornering a bit so we're trying to fix that up."
It was during that '09 season when Theoret suffered injuries in a blowover accident when his boat flipped at Madison, putting him on the sidelines at Detroit for the Gold Cup.
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9:40 a.m.: Tunnel boat heat
10:10-10:30 a.m.: Grand Prix 3-A heat
10:35-10:50 a.m.: Grand Prix 3-B heat
10:55-11:10 a.m.: Grand Prix 3-C heat
11:20-11:40 a.m.: Unlimited 2-A heat
11:40 a.m.-noon: Unlimited 2-B heat
1:30-1:50 p.m.: Unlimited 3-A heat
2-2:20 p.m.: Unlimited 3-B heat
2:30-2:50 p.m.: Tunnel boat final
3:15-3:40 p.m.: Grand Prix final
4:10-4:30 p.m.: Unlimited final