Rookie Thunder

(Top) Eric Christensen, left, and crew member Justin Gray discuss engine strategy Tuesday. Christensen and his crew have been preparing the UL-35 boat for Silverdale Thunder, Christensen’s first-ever race in the boat.  - Wesley Remmer/staff photos
(Top) Eric Christensen, left, and crew member Justin Gray discuss engine strategy Tuesday. Christensen and his crew have been preparing the UL-35 boat for Silverdale Thunder, Christensen’s first-ever race in the boat.
— image credit: Wesley Remmer/staff photos

Tiptoeing around rusty toolboxes and tangled yellow extension chords, Eric Christensen eyeballed his UL-35 hydroplane.

A paint-splattered boom box spit out FM-radio tunes as he wove through a jungle of wrenches, spark plugs and beer cans. The vessel rested on an EZ-Loader trailer inside the airplane hangar at Apex Airpark, the last stop on a winding, dead-end side road in Silverdale.

It was 8 p.m. Tuesday, four days before Silverdale Thunder, and Christensen and his crew were gathered in the hangar-turned-workshop to make last-minute adjustments.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Christensen said, grinning. “But it’s mostly little stuff now.”

The need for speed

Born and raised in Bremerton, Christensen, 27, has lived a life of engines and speed. He grew up watching his father Tom compete in top-fuel drag races alongside Bob Packett, who owns the Apex hangar and is Christensen’s engine chief.

The self-proclaimed “adrenaline junky” knew from an early age he wanted to pursue a career in speed, but he also wanted to carve his own wake.

After volunteering at Seafair in 2000 and 2001 to learn the nuances of hydroplane racing, Christensen decided the sport was for him. He soon purchased a boat — without consulting his father — from a racing friend.

“I told him I’d brought (the boat) home and he said, ‘You need that like you need a hole in the head.’ He was pissed off at me and wouldn’t talk to me for a day,” Christensen said. “But I didn’t have to win him over ... He was impressed that I just grabbed the bull by the horns and ran with it. He was kind of hooked from that point on.”

But Tom became Eric’s crew chief, a position he held for the first two years of his son’s blossoming career. Christensen competed in the 4-cylinder Lighter than Lights class while also working as a crew member for Joe Turner’s UL-18 team from 2004 to 2006. In 2006, he earned the High Points award in the Lighter than Lights class.

That success, coupled with his desire to advance in the sport, led Christensen to purchase a larger hull — the UL-35 — in hopes of competing in the Unlimited Lights class on the Unlimited Light Hydroplane Racing Association circuit.

The ULHRA circuit includes races in Arizona, South Dakota, Montana and British Columbia, as well as Washington’s Seafair, Silverdale Thunder, Thunder Cup (Tri-Cities) and Strait Thunder (Port Angeles).

When Christensen squeezes into the cockpit of the UL-35 tomorrow at Silverdale Thunder, that vision will become reality.

Rookie jitters (bold)

Christensen, who also is a member of the Crystal Mountain alpine ski team, has never driven the UL-35 boat. The 23-foot, 2,700-pound vessel is equipped with an 800-horsepower engine and is bigger and faster than the Lighter than Lights boats.

The ULHRA circuit is nearly complete — Silverdale Thunder is the second-to-last event of the eight-race series — so Christensen is more concerned with finishing and “bringing the boat back in one piece” than winning the race. Heat draws are announced the morning of the race (tomorrow).

“I can’t say it’s going to be a cakewalk, because it’s my rookie race,” Christensen said. “The big thing is to start and finish. There could be some boats that are slower than me, there could be some boats that are right about even, and there are going to be some boats that walk away from me like I was standing still.”

Christensen said it is unlikely, but he would be “extremely happy” to reach speeds between 140 and 150 miles per hour at Silverdale Thunder. Speed is contingent upon weather, engine performance and a driver’s confidence level.

Friends, family and coworkers will attend along with Christensen’s pit crew of Packett, Guthrie Singleton, Justin Gray, Jason Odiaga, Sean Potters and Zach Malhiot.

“I’ll be a little nervous, a little gun shy,” Christensen said. “This is a huge weekend for my team.”

Race day (bold)

Ask Christensen why he enjoys racing hydroplanes, and you’ll receive a simple answer: adrenaline.

“My average day of work? The alarm goes off, I’m dragging my ass out of bed, just moping around. I have to have coffee in the morning when I’m working,” he said. “But race-day morning when the alarm clock goes off, the adrenaline just starts flowing. I don’t need coffee. In fact, I don’t want coffee because my heart would probably explode if I had any.”

Race days begin early — Christensen plans to be at the Silverdale waterfront around 6 a.m. tomorrow — and end late. Heats last about 10 minutes, but the pre- and post-race duties require more time.

Before each race, Christensen walks to the end of the dock — or along the shore — to listen to music, study the water and clear his mind. If there is a heat before his, he studies how the boats are reacting to wind patterns and the water current.

“It’s not something where you just jump in the boat and go,” he said. “It kind of takes balls of steel to jump in a boat like this and just put the hammer on the floor and go.”

After the race begins, Christensen communicates via radio and a headset with his pit crew. He monitors his oil pressure and RPMs and relays the information to the pit while navigating the course.

It’s important to move into Lane 1 — the inside lane — because that’s the shortest route through the course and boats tend to travel faster on the inside. Sharp, crisp turns are contingent on generating torque while reducing pitch. Higher RPM rates increase torque, which reduces pitch, giving the boat more power and speed through the turns.

Christensen said everything will much happen faster in the UL-35 compared to the Lighter than Lights boats he’s accustomed to driving.

“I’m not going out there to try to prove anything to anybody,” he said. “What I’m going to try to prove to people this weekend is that I can start and finish and not get in the way of other racers — and be smart about it.”

The next wave (bold)

The Christensen crew is planning to install a new methanol engine — between 1,200 and 1,500 horsepower — into the UL-35 boat next year. The crew also will add to the boat 1 foot in length and 6 inches in width.

The costs, however, of maintaining and upgrading hydroplanes are “astronomical” and Christensen relies heavily on sponsors for finances.

The octane gas used to propel Christensen’s UL-35 boat costs $9.50 per gallon and the crew will burn through 30 gallons over the course of a weekend. Methanol engines, meanwhile, burn between 20 and 25 gallons per heat, about 10 minutes of racing.

“This is a major, major investment sport,” Christensen said. “I’ve got the champagne taste on a beer budget this year, that’s just the way it is.”

The UL-35 boat is sponsored by McCloud’s Saloon, Peninsula Fire Services, NAPA West Bay Auto Parts and Westsound Dive Center, all of which Christensen thanked. Support from fellow race crews such as the UL-1 and UL-8 teams also have helped Christensen stay afloat, he said.

“All those crews have been nothing but supportive all the way through,” he said. “I really appreciate all their support.”

Beyond the adrenaline of driving at high speeds, Christensen is drawn to hydroplane racing by the camaraderie between crews — both his own and others. Regardless of how much money he makes, or whether he wins or loses, the companionship never goes away.

For that, he sees himself being involved with hydroplanes for many years to come.

“Every team is like one big family together. If a boat breaks down, you’ve got guys coming over from other teams to say, ‘Here’s a part that you need. Let us help you install it.’ We help each other out,” he said. “We’re fierce competitors on the course, we’re battling it out on the race course. But after the boats are on the trailers, we’re out there having a beer together, playing basketball together.”

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