Where in the world is Our Gang Racing?

January 24, 2012

By Christina Corrales-Toy

The Miss Red Dot, driven by Kip Brown, prepares for racing in the Oryx Cup World Championships in Doha, Qatar, in November. By Chris Denslow/H1 Unlimited

Local hydroplane team competes in the Middle East

There’s nothing quite like watching an unlimited hydroplane race.

The sleek boats travel at speeds of about 200 mph, kicking up massive walls of water (called rooster tails) in their wake, all while majestically skipping across the surface waves.

“It’s a dangerous sport, but when it works, it’s like a ballet on water,” said John O’Brien, an Issaquah attorney and a principal owner of Our Gang Racing.

In November, the Our Gang Racing team, along with its boat, Miss Red Dot, visited Doha, Qatar, to race in the Oryx Cup World Championship.

It’s not the first time the team had been to Qatar, a small peninsula that juts into the Persian Gulf. The group is in the third year of a five-year contract to race in the country. The hope is to promote an international following for the sport.

The fastest boats in the world

It was Sheikh Hassan Bin Jabor Al Thani, a member of Qatar’s royal family, who pushed to bring hydroplanes to his country after he watched the boats race during Seafair.

“They are the fastest race boats in the world,” O’Brien said. “So he wanted to bring the fastest race boats in the world to his country as a gift to the people of Qatar.”

The first time the group visited Qatar there was admittedly some concern and hesitancy traveling to a country in the Middle East.

“The first year, everybody was kind of on pins and needles saying, ‘My gosh, we’re going to the Middle East. What’s going to happen?’ We had people changing their wills,” O’Brien said. “But now there’s absolutely no concern, as far as any kind of danger. They are a very nice people.”

Now, O’Brien said he feels at ease in the country and relishes interacting with the Qatari people and exposing them to unlimited hydroplane racing.

“It’s quite an experience, because we don’t speak Arabic and they don’t speak English. But they have such awe at the speed of the boats,” he said. “So we had people coming through the pits with their full traditional garb and they just want to know about the boats.”

Treated like royalty

During the trip, the racing teams were designated as invited guests of the royal family. Whether it was lavish meals, guided museum tours, exotic safaris or a trip to the camel races, Miss Red Dot’s crew and owners were treated like royalty.

“They provided an air-conditioned tent in the pits with chandeliers, linens, waitresses and chefs for lunch and dinner every day, with lamb and all kinds of vegetables, hummus and chicken,” O’Brien said.

This year, the Miss Red Dot crew was joined by two men from the United States Army. With the large presence of American troops in the Middle East, it was coordinated so that each visiting hydroplanes’ crew would receive the assistance of one or two servicemembers.

It was particularly beneficial for O’Brien’s short-handed crew.

“We gave them uniforms and gave them jobs to do,” he said. “We made them work for their uniform for sure.”

But mostly, the experience gave the servicemembers a short vacation from their regular duties.

“Anything that gets them out of their routine is just terrific. So that’s why we tried to make them feel at home as much as we could,” O’Brien said. “They’re alone, they’re over there by themselves. My son was in the Navy for four years, so I know what it’s like for these kids to be away from home.”

O’Brien said the boat’s crew enjoyed getting to know the two servicemen, but more important, the two soldiers cherished their time working with the Miss Red Dot crew.

“The rest of their squad was quite jealous that they were the ones that got to come down to the boat races and work through the teams,” he said. “They’ll have plenty of stories to tell when they get back.”

Disappointing finish, successful year

As for the race itself, the Miss Red Dot came into the competition in second place in the Air National Guard Series National Points standings.

Unfortunately, the team didn’t fare so well in Doha after mechanical issues and a false start prevented it from reaching the finals.

It was a disappointing finish for the team, in what was the last race of the year. But the crew, made up of volunteers who love the sport, had their most successful year since the boat was built five years ago.

“We are competing on the same level as Dave Villwock’s Spirit of Qatar and Steve David’s Miss Oberto, teams with hundreds of thousands of dollars behind them,” said Nate Brown, another principal owner and the team’s crew chief, who lives in Preston. “Not bad for a bunch of volunteers running a homemade boat.”

Despite the disappointing finish, the crew’s successful year did not go unnoticed by its competitors.

“We came into the season with nobody looking at us to do anything,” said Kip Brown, an Issaquah High School graduate, and the driver of Miss Red Dot. “We were easily one of the fastest boats in Doha, and I know for a fact that our team earned the respect it deserves this year.”

O’Brien said he is excited for Miss Red Dot’s future. He has a strong passion for unlimited hydroplane racing, evidenced by the pictures of the boats lining his office walls and the small hydroplane replicas that sit on his desk.

“Back in the ‘60s, there weren’t any Seahawks, Mariners or Sonics,” he said. “The drivers of the unlimited hydroplanes were our sports heroes.”

Christina Corrales-Toy is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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