Steve David was a successful hydroplane pilot, most recently for Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison. He returns to Seafair this year in a different role, as the chairman of H1 Unlimited, the sport’s governing body.
Steve David has tried to walk away from hydroplanes before.
He retired as a driver in 1999 only to return in 2001 to begin one of the most successful runs in the sport’s history as the pilot of the Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison.
He retired again as a driver in 2013, intending to spend his race weekends on endeavors he’d missed out on through the years.
Instead, he’ll be back in the pits at Seafair this weekend, albeit in a different role, as the chairman of H1 Unlimited, the sport’s governing body.
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It’s not a job he plans to hold long, though. He accepted an invite to take over leadership of the sport when Sam Cole departed last year and hopes to hang around long enough to plug some leaks and then head back to his day job as the CEO of a Florida real estate company — and retirement on boat race weekends.
“This was not in my plans,” David said, noting that he happily spent the summer of 2014 away from the pits and felt he had “gotten it out of my system.”
But David also was long noted as one of the louder voices among drivers about changes he felt were needed in the sport, and says when he was given a chance to help implement improvements “it was time to put up or shut up.”
“I’ll stick with them until they find the right person to take this over,” he said. “I would hope that’s toward the end of this year.”
Until then, David will continue in a job that presents constant challenges.
Seafair remains a strong event, due to its tradition and support in a large media market, but the circuit is in the midst of a season that won’t dissuade the skeptics who wonder if hydros can ever reclaim its glory days of the 1950s-70s.
There are just five races this season after organizers of an event in Doha, Qatar, pulled the plug. Hopes that a race in Coeur d’Alene in 2013 would lead to that site returning to the circuit on a permanent basis also have yet to pan out.
So for now, there are races in the five cities that have long been the linchpins of the sport — Madison, Ind., Tri-Cities, Seattle, Detroit and San Diego.
The Madison race got the season off to a rocky start, however, when issues with the water level led to a decision to go with heats featuring a two-boat shootout.
David, though, saw some positives in that, viewing it as a chance to test an idea he thinks could have some long-term traction.
Specifically, David thinks the two-boat shootouts could become a regular attraction on Saturdays and something that could be a hit with a younger audience, which the sport has struggled to lure in recent years.
“All motor sports are facing significant issues because gearheads are getting older and millennials are into immediate gratification,” he said. “And we are trying to do something about that.”
David hopes there will be more races next season, saying Coeur d’Alene should return and there are plans for a shootout event in Owensboro, Ky. In 2017, he says there should be one more domestic race site added and that the sport continues in talks to add a race in England “or somewhere in the Middle East.”
Finding enough boat sponsors also remains an issue, one that won’t be helped by Oberto’s decision to leave the sport after this season after having been one of the more recognizable boats on the circuit since 1974.
David says the sport needs to continue to “lower our cost to compete and lower the costs of putting on races. We have to scale ourselves to the new market, and the new market is obviously smaller than the market was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.”
David has also guided some other subtler changes, many of which he says have been aimed at trying to improve financial and competitive integrity. H1 has also instituted performance contracts for the boats “so that they will come to races and actually run and not just be trailer queens (meaning, just show up to add to the overall boat numbers without competing).”
Despite his status as one of the more popular drivers in the sport’s history, David has found controversy in his new post, notably with a decision last Sunday to disqualify the U-96 Ellstrom Racing after it appeared to win the Gold Cup. The U-96 was penalized for having gone illegally into the middle of the course prior to the final heat. That handed the trophy to the Oberto 18 minutes after the U-96 had appeared to win the race on the water.
The 61-year-old David defended the decision again in a “Chairman’s Corner’’ article on the H1 website this week, part of what he says is a new transparency he hopes to bring to the sport for as long as he’s involved.
“I’m really pretty excited,” he said. “Really, we are throwing everything at it that we can and if it doesn’t work, we will go down in a blaze of ‘we tried hard.’ But my hope is we are actually going to make it.”