The Strong family disrupts unlimited seaplane racing with two boats that can help keep the sport alive

AUBURN — Owners of unlimited hydroplane racing teams tend to gallows humor when discussing their sport.

Take, for example, this text Darrell Strong received when he and his wife, Vanessa, joined their ranks ahead of the 2021 season.

“Congratulations and my condolences,” it read.

For years, owners have derisively called seaplane ownership the most expensive hobby in the world. And according to Strong, what kind of person would create a hydroplane racing team almost from scratch?

“Someone in serious need of psychiatric help,” he joked.

Continuously dropping checks into a bottomless pit can test one’s sanity.

Self-deprecating jokes aside, the Strong Racing team enjoyed unprecedented success midway through its second season on the H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Racing circuit. The two-boat team swept the top podium spots in their first race. He has won four of his first seven races and even has a national championship in his showcase.

“They make every other team work hard,” said Scott Raney, owner of the U-11 Unlimited Racing Group. “They put a lot of resources and smart people into their equipment.”

The addition of Strong Racing deepened the sport and kept the best boat in the sport – the Miss HomeStreet – from dominating the pack.

“His involvement is certainly appreciated,” said David Williams, executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent and a sports historian. “Especially at a time when the sport needs new blood. Or any blood.

You see, a rising tide raises all thunders. And that’s exactly what Darrell and Vanessa have in mind.

“We’re here to win and keep the sport alive,” Vanessa said.

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How could a marriage like Darrell and Vanessa Strong’s union not include unlimited seaplane ownership, given that their first date was at the Tri-Cities race?

The couple were 15 years old and had no money. Darrell said it wasn’t a problem since everyone snuck out anyway, which they did after church that Sunday in 1975.

This was when boats were piston powered and noisy. Vanessa said when she heard that first boat turn around the corner and thunder right away, she was hooked.

Darrell remembers first going to the Atomic Cup, now called the Columbia Cup, in 1968, the second edition of the race held on the Columbia River. It’s become an annual family event for the Strongs, who have two adult daughters who live in Arizona.

In 2013, the Strongs took it to the next level.

Darrell heard of a racing team, Mike Webster’s U-22, that didn’t have a Columbia Cup sponsor. Sponsorship is the lifeblood of the sport, and a team without a sponsor to cover the cost of racing might have to stay in the pits.

Darrell turned to Vanessa and said he was going to go down to the river and tell the team about his insurance company, PayneWest Insurance, becoming a sponsor.

Ownership came after the 2019 season when the team he had sponsored for several years, Go Fast Turn Left Racing of Greg and Brian O’Farrell, approached Darrell about buying the boat. That deal didn’t work out, but the seed was planted.

And then it was replanted a few months later when they bought a second boat. They’re not the first two-boat team, but…

“We do it differently than everyone else in that we do two No. 1 boats,” Darrell said. “…We want them to be each other’s best competitors.”

Finding the boats was perhaps the easiest part. You need a team to work on it. A shop where the team works. Trucks to transport the boats to the race sites. And then there is the hardware. So much equipment: engines, gearboxes, propellers, the list is longer than your leg, and nothing is cheap.

Strong opened with approximately 18,000 square feet of store in Auburn. Even though he lives in the Tri-Cities, most of the sport takes place around Puget Sound, so you have to be where the workers are.

And they decided to build a different kind of racing team.

“We run it like all of his businesses,” Vanessa said. “It’s like a family.”

Vanessa is determined to be the best team mom she can be.

“I do everything behind the scenes,” she said. “…I take care of the stands. I can’t sit still. I am mother and grandmother.

They make sure the little things are taken care of. The store has apartments for anyone who might need them. Team parties, complete with karaoke, are common, especially on Sunday evenings after the races.

“It’s a team and a family,” Vanessa said.

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Before they even found a boat, they hired Corey Peabody to drive it. Peabody was the sport’s rookie of the year (and also the only full-time rookie) in 2019. He was driving Graham Trucking’s second boat, a former PICO American Dream that had seen its best days decades earlier. It was old. It was heavy. It was not competitive. But Peabody was happy to ride it as it was his first chance in the Unlimited Ranks.

He certainly found an upgrade.

Mike and Lori Jones assembled a team that transformed the hull of the U-9 into a championship boat in 2018 when Andrew Tate interrupted Jimmy Shane’s national title streak. Former Miss Budweiser crew members Jeff and Mike Campbell spent five years transforming the oldest boat (over 30 years old) on the circuit into one of the fastest.

But at the end of 2019, the team was in turmoil and failed to defend its title as it skipped the circuit’s eastern swing. They sold the boat to the Strongs on January 1, 2021.

The Strongs relied on Peabody, who had won titles and set records in the lower classes of boat racing with his own teams, to assemble the team and tell them what was needed. Peabody devised a plan with his friend Brian Hajny, who became the team leader, on how to build a racing team.

Apparently they knew what they were talking about. In Peabody’s third race, at the Columbia Cup, he scored his first victory. Drivers can drive for decades and never win in a winner-takes-all finale. Peabody guided the U-9 to the podium (top three) in every race last season, the only boat to do so.

“He really opened everyone’s eyes to the fact that he’s a good driver if you put him in a good boat,” said Darrell, who considers Peabody a team manager.

To open this season, Peabody won the Gold Cup in Guntersville, Alabama, the biggest race on the calendar.

But it wasn’t perfect. In the next race, at Madison, Indiana, Peabody hit a spot on the racetrack that forced the boat uphill so it caught enough air to blow. But the boat was fast. It was following Shane and Miss HomeStreet. Shane texted Peabody after the race that he was 0.25 seconds off the lap record.

Peabody and the crew could have put the boat together well enough to race it in the Tri-Cities. And there were plenty of reasons to do so, as he was second in the National High Points standings.

But the team is done racing for the season, and the Campbells and Peabodies plan to rebuild the U-9 better than before.

“Everything on their wishlist is on the way,” Peabody said.

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If you can buy one boat capable of winning a championship, why not buy two?

Darrell had gotten to know Erick Ellstrom, who owned one of the fastest boats in the sport. The boat, which was in the store owned by the Joneses, last raced at Seafair in 2017 as Oh Boy! Oberto.

Ballard-based Ellstrom Racing was one of the sport’s top teams, emerging from the post-Miss Budweiser era (post-2004) with three national titles.

The Ellstroms built this boat from scratch after an earlier version caught fire in Doha, Qatar. But the Ellstrom family started racing more off-road than on water.

“I just kept watching it,” Darrell said. “It’s one of the best boats in the sport. And it’s just sitting here unused.

It was apparently the last in a championship line. So who’s driving it?

J. Michael Kelly was a veteran driver with 14 H1 circuit victories, with his name on the Gold Cup and a winner of 13 national titles in various classes. He was also a childhood friend of Peabody’s when they were growing up in Kent. Kelly got Peabody into the sport when they were young.

From near tragedy came opportunity. Kelly’s wife, Angela, suffered a brain aneurysm while in Arizona in November 2020. Kelly, who lives in Bonney Lake, spent a lot of time in Arizona while his wife recovered (which she did completely).

The Strongs have a home in Arizona and Kelly was a frequent guest. He was between contracts with Graham Trucking and uncertain of his future with the team. And the Strongs gave him one of the best boats in the sport.

“I raced against him, and it was really fast,” Kelly said.

Turns out that’s still the case.

Kelly won the National High Points Drivers title in the boat last year, winning the first race of the season and the final in San Diego despite riding with a fractured collarbone he broke while riding a bike with his children.

This was Kelly’s first national title in the unlimited ranks, and he also hopes to have the boat to win the team title (hydroplane races separate their national titles into pilot and boat/team titles because pilots change sometimes seat; last year Shane shared time in the Miss HomeStreet with Jeff Bernard; the boat won the team title).

Kelly hasn’t had the best luck this season, as he didn’t finish in the final at Guntersville and a fourth at Madison. He finished second last week in the Tri-Cities.

He will be the team’s sole driver for the final two races, as his U-8 Miss Tri-Cities will race as U-9 Boitano Homes at Seafair. The U-8 will remain the U-9 for the rest of the season, and points accrued by Peabody will carry over, putting the boat behind Shane in the race for the season.

At the top is where they expect to be now and in the future.

“We want to run these two boats for a long time,” Darrell said. “We want two boats that have always been favorites to win.”

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