Bloodied but Unbowed- By Unity Flagstaff
The U.S. A-Team travelled to Viljandi Estonia on July 16 to compete in the UIM (Union of International Motorboating) World Championship in the highly competitive OSY-400 Hydroplane Class. The team, which was this year sponsored by the International Boat Shipping Company Peters and May, consisted of drivers Tony Lombardo from Concord, California and Team Captain Billy Allen from Quincy Massachusetts. Along with these APBA (American Power Boat Association) veteran pilots was the highly specialized support staff of Crew Chief Johnny Wlodarski from Newton, New Jersey, Administrator Rachel Warnock from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Chief Technician Bob Cronin from Candia, New Hampshire, International UIM Jury Member Racer Allen from Bailey Island, Maine and Photographer David Recht from Los Altos, California.
The team looked to be suffering from a collective ulcer when the container housing their boats and equipment was held up in Estonian Customs. After waiting for two full days it was finally cleared and delivered to the pit area on Friday afternoon. Showing their absolute support for the effort that the American team had put forth, the Estonian hosts then rescheduled the OSY-400 scrutineering and practice session in order to allow the Americans a couple of laps on Friday evening. The Kamp Kurz Hull driven by Allen looked fast and was handling well during the practice session but the Bennett Boats entry of Lombardo looked sluggish due to lack of engine power. After the practice was completed the Americans were observed working late into the night applying graphics to the hulls and trying to sort out their last minute problems going into Saturday’s time trials. Also on Saturdays schedule were heats one and two of the four heat feature final. Heats three and four were to be run on Sunday.
The team arrived early to the pits on Saturday morning amid howling winds, occasional rain and whitecaps and it was immediately announced at the 8 a.m. drivers meeting that the race would be put on hold until more favorably conditions prevailed. Showing total professionalism, Officer of the Day Vahur Joala was seen conferring with the Course Marshalls and keeping a constant eye to the sky and he finally announced in the early afternoon that the time trials would begin at three o’clock sharp. At three o’clock every boat was allowed one full solitary lap at top speed to determine the all important stating position on the jetty for heat one. The fastest boat would get the inside or “pole “position. When all the boats had completed their qualifying lap it was local Estonian drivers Erko Aabrahms in first with a lap time of 58.37 and last years fourth place finisher Sten Kalder second with a 58.93. In third was American Billy Allen posting a 59.09 followed by the Polish entry of Michal Swierczynski in 59.40. The other American entry of Lombardo still hadn’t gotten his engine up to potential and posted up in the 16th position of the twenty two finalists with a time of 62.98.
At exactly five o’clock the red light expired signaling the start of heat one. Estonian pole sitter Aabrahms exploded off the dock and, taking the inside lane under the still choppy conditions, led the heat out of turn one. When the pack reached the halfway point of the first lap Polish driver Michal Swierczynski went airborne crossing the starting wakes and flew into a spectacular flip bringing out the red flag and signaling all the drivers back to the jetty for a restart. Although unhurt, Swierczynski would not be seen driving again for the remainder of the competition. On the restart it was Aabrahms again getting the hole shot as he led wire to wire to gain the heat win. Following Aabrahms were fellow Estonians Sten Kalder and Annika Suuk. Finishing in the fourth position after suffering a bad start and battling his way through traffic was the American entry of Billy Allen followed by Slovakia’s Peter Stefanovic to round out the top five. American driver Lombardo was still back in the fray swinging away as he managed to improve his position by one spot finishing fourteenth.
In heat two Aabrahms was unable to get to turn one in the lead giving the hole shot to countryman Kalder who took full advantage and stretched out a big lead to take the heat win. In third was Annika Suuk followed by Algo Kuus in fourth and Slovakia’s Peter Stefanovic, the first non Estonian, taking the fifth spot. Back in the pack it was America’s Allen finishing in eleventh place after his engine failed to start on the first pull sending him to the first turn in last place. Working his way through the rough water Allen was making good headway until a hole was punched through the sponson shoe limiting his success and sending him to the pits barely floating at the close of the heat. Lombardo was still having engine problems and was struggling toward the rear of the pack.
Saturday night was repair time for the Americans as U.S. A-Team Chief Technical Officer Bob Cronin took total control of the situation and with some savvy international diplomacy went scurrying through the pit area borrowing wood, nails, glue and everything else needed to make the necessary repairs on the damaged Kamp Kurz Hull. With that finished he then assisted Tony Lombardo with a complete carburetor rebuild along with a float adjustment. Luckily for the American team the sun shines till midnight in Estonia in July. On Sunday morning the American team arrived back to the pit area bloodied but unbowed for heats three and four of the World Final. When the red light expired to start heat three Allen was seen driving like a man possessed as he slugged his way from his eleventh place starting position all the way up to eighth after four laps and finally to seventh as he came from behind and passed the Polish entry of Bartek Chojnacki at the wire. Lombardo’s ride also seemed to be getting better as he was also able to improve his finishing position by a couple of places. Up front it was more Estonian domination as Sten Kalder, now driving from the pole position, gained the turn one hole shot and never looked back putting a big lead on Slovakia’s Peter Stefanovic with Estonian Erko Aabrahms now reduced to the third spot. The first place finish by Kalder put him in the catbird seat for the Gold Medal going into heat four.
In the fourth and final heat of the weekend it was the Estonians taking the top three spots with Kalder again in first, Aabrahms in second and Algo Kuus with the third. In fourth was The Slovakian Stefanovic who barely beat Billy Allen to the wire as the American roared through the rough water from the middle of the pack to take a respectable fifth in heat four. When the spray had settled and the points were tallied it was Estonian Sten Kalder with the Gold Medal proudly hanging around his neck, countryman Erko Aabrahms with the silver and Slovakia’s Peter Stefanovic with the Bronze. Estonians Algo Kuss and Annika Suuk and America’s Billy Allen, rounded out the top six spots on the stage at the Awards Giving Presentation. At the Closing Ceremony the Estonian hosts once again showed their sportsmanship and good will as they asked the entire U.S. A-Team to step forward to the podium and be recognized for coming so far and enduring so much pressure to compete at this international competition. In an emotional moment the Americans, with Crew Chief Johnny Wlodarski as the proud flag bearer, were shocked and surprised as the awards tent thundered with a minute’s long standing ovation in their honor. It was certainly a moment that this writer will not soon forget.
Unity Flagstaff Reporting