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Dicing on Water: the Fast and the Dead : Can Drag Boat Racers--and Their Sport--Survive These Crazy Speeds?

April 09, 1988|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't easy to get the drivers to make changes. For one thing, safety features increase weight and thus reduce speeds. Secondly, a capsule or cage upsets the balance of the boat and changes its driving characteristics. But perhaps most significant is the fact that boat racing, like drag racing and sprint car racing, started out as a macho sport where safety features were for sissies.

Drivers sat up front in their boats where you could see their muscles bulge as they wrestled the wheel while bouncing across choppy water. Hiding in a capsule took away some of the mystique.

The IBHA made it mandatory, however, and one by one the 220 m.p.h. boats began to take on a new look. The drivers and boat designers were left to their own ingeniuity.

Star Wars, a blown gas hydro owned by Ron Hensley of Dallas, was outfitted with the canopy from a F-16 jet fighter plane.

"It's not only water proof, it's also bullet proof," driver Michael Brady noted after running 185.18 m.p.h. to win his class last week in the Sprite Winternationals on Firebird Lake.

Bob Burroughs took a roll cage from a top fuel dragster and modified it for protection on his boat, Plum Crazy.

Fred Bray, owner of the top fuel hydro Spirit of America, designed his own fully enclosed capsule so that if it became submerged his driver would have seven minutes of oxygen to survive while being rescued.

The results of one full season of racing under the new regulations was encouraging. After six fatalities in 1986, there were none in 1987, and observers credit the protective measures with saving the life of top fuel hydro driver Jerry Fulgham when his top fuel hydro, Hillbilly, disintegrated during a race last September at Puddingstone Lake.

Fulgham, the 1986 IHBA champion, lost an arm in the accident when a cable whipped through the cockpit after his boat came apart. He also had a broken neck, but recovered sufficiently to accept his driver of the year award at the awards banquet at the end of the season.

"Fulgham's flip was so severe that had he not had a capsule on his boat, I am sure he would have been killed," Allen said.

Hill's last crash, the one that convinced him to quit drag boats, came at the end of a 217 m.p.h. run at Firebird Lake. It broke seven bones, gave him a concussion and it was a year before he felt normal again. Hill, who won his first National Hot Rod Assn. top fuel event last week in Gainesville, Fla., after a record qualifying run of 288.73 m.p.h., recalls the accident:

"I had just cleared the last marker on an absolutely perfect run. The rooster tail was smooth, there was no bouncing, no sponson walk, no steering problem. When I backed out of the throttle, the boat rose gently out of the water, turned 270 degrees (about three-quarters around) and rolled 90 degrees left so that I was parallel with the water.

"The boat came down on the left sponson and slammed me into the water at about 200 m.p.h. It nearly popped the eye balls out of my head. Fortunately, I don't remember anything about hitting, but when they pulled me out I looked like something out of a Steven Spielberg movie. I had two black eyes and what had been the whites of my eyes were blood red, no white showing at all.

"The whole accident was unbelievable, it was so mysterious why the boat took off the way it did. It was such a perfect run that Ercie (his wife) saw me clear the finish line and turned away to walk to the truck. When she heard the crowd gasp, she thought something had happened to Billy Todd in the other lane. His boat had been bouncing around, but when she looked back, she couldn't find my boat."

That win over Todd gave Hill his second straight World Series of Drag Racing championship.

"I figured that was a good time to get out," Hill said. "When I first got into top fuel, no one was running 200 and toward the end of my involvement, a lot of guys were regularly over 200 and some, like myself, ran regularly around 220, but they were beginning to crash pretty regularly, too. The sport was a lot safer early on.

"It got to where boats were getting freed up and taking off in the blown alcohol, and even the blown gas classes. It was getting awful dangerous."

Presently, protective devices are mandatory only on top fuel hydros, but as their safety factor becomes more apparent, similar features are expected to crop up on boats in other classes.

Speeds of 200 m.p.h. are not necessary to send a boat flying through the air. Peter Horak once jumped a powerboat 120 feet through the air from a takeoff speed of only 55 m.p.h.

Jackie Cunningham, a racing grandmother from Simi Valley, was not going much above 100 m.p.h. when her boat, Midnite Oil, became airborne and pitched her out during a pro gas jet qualifying run recently at Firebird. She suffered only a sprained ankle, although she took a good shaking up when she hit the water.

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