Keeping the champ afloat

Holmberg part of crew for world champion Graham Trucking hydroplane

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

Published:

 
photoNelson Holmberg and crew get the Graham Trucking hydroplane ready for competition in Qatar.

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photoGraham Trucking, right, and Oh Boy! Oberto exit turn two and race to the finish line in Qatar.

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A bump with rival boat Oh Boy! Oberto in the second race of championship weekend turned up the heat of the crew for the Graham Trucking hydroplane.

There was a 6-foot gash on one of the sponsons, and damage to several other parts of the 30-foot speedboat.

With an hour between races, the crew had to work fast to get the boat back in race condition. There was no time to panic.

"It was real quiet," Nelson Holmberg said.

A Vancouver resident and the executive director for the Port of Woodland, Holmberg was part of the nine-man crew who supported driver Jimmy Shane during the Oryx Cup UIM World Championship for unlimited hydroplanes. The competition took place from Feb. 8-12 on Doha Bay, Qatar.

Collisions are — fortunately — rare between the boats that travel at speeds above 130 mph. For Holmberg, in only his second race working with the Graham Trucking team, the response was both intense and impressive. Holmberg, 46, helped make repairs to a damaged wing. Three others were on deck replacing a gear box, and four people worked to fix the gashed sponson.

"We were like a championship basketball team," Holmberg said. "Everyone focused on his job and let the others handle theirs. It was probably the best example of teamwork I've ever been a part of."

The payoff came in the next three-lap heat, with the Graham Trucking boat getting to the finish line first.

And the crowning moment came three days later, when Shane piloted the No. 5 boat to victory in the championship heat of unlimited hydroplane racing's world championship event. On choppy water that almost canceled the final race, Shane won with an average speed of more than 114 mph for the five laps around the two-mile oval.

"I think we were more excited than (Shane) was" about the victory, Holmberg said, describing 27-year-old Shane as down to earth.

This was the second time Holmberg filled in for the Graham Trucking boat's crew. His tasks included working on the skid fins that help keep the boat stable through turns.

He said he felt comfortable with each job he was assigned.

"They didn't just tell me what to do, they showed me how to do it," Holmberg said.

In addition to the skid fins, Holmberg got to spray water to keep the tail cool during engine testing.

"I got to do a job that as a fan I would always look at and say 'I would love to do that job someday'," Holmberg said.

The intensity of working at a big-time championship race was new to Holmberg, but he has been a fan and a student of the sport since he was 12 years old and first saw the Miss Budweiser hydroplane during an exhibition event in Vancouver.

Since 1999, Holmberg's hobby has been racing 1/10 scale remote-controlled hydroplanes. Last summer he won the points championship for a league of remote-control racing enthusiasts in Oregon and Washington.

Having contributed to a victory at the premier event on the Air National Guard H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Series, Holmberg said Graham Trucking hydroplane owner Ted Porter, a friend, has invited him to be part of the crew at future races. Holmberg said he doesn't yet know how many of the seven remaining events on the 2013 schedule he will attend.

It helps that three of the races — during July and August — are held in Seattle, Kennewick and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Each of those will be critical to the season points championship. But, even for someone for whom hydroplane racing has been a lifelong passion, it will be hard to top the thrill of traveling halfway around the world to help a high-powered team win the H1 series' marquee event.