Teamwork Keeps U-7 Afloat -- Family, Friends, Volunteers Helps Hydroplane Effort


The U-7 lists heavily on its left sponson atop the trailer that pulled it into its home port at 3:30 yesterday morning, looking out of place on the gravel parking strip.

There it is, an unlimited hydroplane berthed between the end of an airport runway and a river.

It is ironic that a boat that borrows so heavily from the aircraft industry, drawing much of its aerodynamics and power plant from airplanes, should call such a place - between water and aircraft - home.

There are no signs; nothing to denote this airport hangar houses Thor Racing, a Snohomish-based unlimited hydroplane racing team. Then again, no sign could convey the volumes of information offered by the boat.

Jerry Hopp and Randy Erb scrub away the accumulation of bugs and road tar the boat collected along I-90 on the road home from Madison, Wis. Hopp is the boat's driver, and a co-owner with Al Thoreson. Erb is part of the racing team's lifeblood: a volunteer who turns in countless hours to help keep the team afloat.

Unlike outfits such as Miss Budweiser, which boasts an annual budget of more than $2 million, paying for a full-time crew and first-class equipment, Thor Racing relies on a different source.

"This is really a family thing," Hopp explained. "My mother and father, and aunt and uncle, my son Greg, my wife and daughter and my daughter's husband all work with us. Plus Al's relatives and friends. And we have a lot of other volunteers that come in and work on engines or on the trailer or on the truck or whatever needs to be done."

The U-7 has been competitive among other piston-powered boats. It is ranked No. 2 in that classification.

But in the age of turbine-powered boats, piston boats are lucky to break into the final heat. The best Thor Racing has done so far this season was alternate in the championship final of the Gold Cup on the Detroit River.

"Here I am in Miami, leading the Bud and the Circus Circus," Hopp said, flipping through photographs. Then he flips to the next picture. "And here I am getting smoked by the Bud and the Circus."

There has been talk of a two-tiered approach to unlimited racing beginning next year - separating turbine boats from piston boats.

While the particulars of the reorganization are discussed, Hopp, Thoreson and family continue the hard work involved in racing.

Yesterday the job was to clean the boat and disassemble the engines. All three working engines were damaged 10 days ago at the race in Madison. For the next week, in preparation for races in the Tri-Cities and on Lake Washington, the team will repair those engines and replace the cooling system in the boat, the cause of the engine damage.

"We're going to get the job done, whatever it takes," Erb said. "It shouldn't be too bad, but it could mean some real long hours."

Shortly after Hopp and Erb finished washing the boat, Greg Hopp arrived, coming straight from his regular job to help his father.

A driver in limited-class boats, Greg said he has been around boat racing since he was one year old and has loved every minute of it.

"I can't think of anything more exciting," he said. "My dad bought me my first race boat, then came back to me and asked if he could sell it to help finance his first unlimited boat. I said sure, what could be better?"

Erb, a truck driver who has taken the summer off to work with Hopp and Thoreson, said the hydroplane community is close-knit. That keeps him in the sport.

"Racing wouldn't be the same without Jerry and Al," he said. "This is like one big, happy family. If someone needs help, everybody pitches in.

"Jerry and Al needed some help this season so I'm giving them a hand."

What Thor Racing has in abundance is experience. Hopp is beginning his second decade driving unlimited hydros. Thoreson has been involved with unlimited boats for more than 35 years and is the most experienced man in the sport - working on the crew of the legendary Hawaii Kai. Even Erb is a seasoned veteran of 11 years on hydro crews - working with the Miss Executone and Mr. Pringle's, and Miss Bud driver Scott Pierce.

What the team hasn't had is a sustained supply of money. The team often races without the money a sponsorship provides.

That may be changing. Bendix Brakes, a national manufacturing company, signed to sponsor the U-7 for the remaining four races this season - Tri-Cities, Seafair, San Diego and Hawaii.

What's more, the company is negotiating a sponsorship for next year that would include financing a new boat.

Hopp hopes the days of racing on a shoestring budget are over - that the coming of a national sponsor will spell major changes.

"First, we need a new boat," he said. "We're heavier than any other boat on the tour, and a lighter boat will be a big difference. If we can, I'd like to switch to turbines and compete with the big boys."

Erb believes all that's needed is the influx of money.

"I've said all along that if these guys had the kind of money the big boys have, they'd be right there with them. They're that good.

"Now we'll see."

. U-7 / THOR RACING. . Home port: Snohomish. . Sponsors: Bendix Brakes, a national company that is interested in financing a new boat for next year; Paddock Pools; Piston Repair Service, a small shop in Snohomish.. . Owners: Al Thoreson and Jerry Hopp. . Driver: Jerry Hopp. . Crew chief: Al Thoreson. . Hull: Originally built in 1981 by Norm Berg for Chip Hanauer and The Squire Shop, but the boat flipped on a trial run and was broken into two pieces. Bob Miller rebuilt the boat and sold it to Thor Racing.. . Powerplant: 2,500-horsepower turbo-charged Allison engine, the same engine used in World War II fighter planes such as the P-51 Mustang.. . Length: 29 feet.. . Width: 14 feet.. . Weight: 7,800 pounds, the heaviest boat racing in the unlimited class.. . Top 1991 performance: Alternate boat for championship final at Gold Cup on Detroit River (Ranks eighth of 10 boats in national point standings with 283 points).