Columbia Cup Memories – The Last Piston Boat to Win It All
One of the greatest attractions of the Columbia Cup is hearing the unmistakeable growl of an Allison or Rolls Royce Merlin or Griffin engine on the river.
While today that's limited to the vintage hydros which parade before the crowds with their open cockpits and ear-splitting roar, years ago it was the staple on the river.
But in the early 1970's led by the U-95, the turbine engine began to emerge. The U-95 made it's first appearance in 1974, and by the late 70's and early 80's more boats began to use the helicopter engines. By 1989, only one team was still using the old WW II-era motors, The Cooper's Express.
But that year, the throwback was the winner. From the H1 Unlimited Website:
"...the piston engine wasn’t quite dead in Unlimited racing. The 1989 Columbia Cup proved to be a bad day for the turbine teams. All but one of them (MISS BUDWEISER) had fallen by the wayside by the time that the Final Heat was run. Everyone figured that the race would be a “shoo-in” for the BUD. But this was not to be.
BUDWEISER driver Tom D’Eath was called for “chopping” another boat and penalized a lap. This moved Mitch Evans and the Allison-powered COOPER’S EXPRESS from second to first-place in the official order of finish and enabled an underdog to grab all of the marbles. This was the first victory in Unlimited racing for the father and son team of Ed Cooper, Sr., and Ed Cooper, Jr., from Madison and Evansville, Indiana. Hec Hancock, columnist for THE TRI-CITY HERALD, described the race as “pure Hollywood. A boat built with lots of sweat and not many bucks beat a state-of-the-art marvel costing almost $500,000.” Although operating on a shoestring budget, driver Evans demonstrated how, in boat racing, a lot depends upon a competitor being in the right place at the right time when opportunity knocks."
The last time a piston-powered boat won a feature event was 2003, but the Cooper's Express won a heat in the 2009 Seafair race in Seattle, crushing the competition - including Dave Villwock.
The boat is no longer active, but was a favorite of many fans, who loved the roar of the engine, and the "little guys who could" beating the money and technology. In fact, in the early 2000's other turbine crews led a "revolt" against allowing the piston boat to compete because he was not slapped with fuel restrictions. Because the Cooper's Express ran a piston engine, it was considered a disadvantage. The turbine boats had to run fuel restrictors (partly to keep their speeds safe), but they found the piston boat was "kicking their butts" especially in 2003.
Check out this classic video of the piston boat smoking the field at Seafair.