"I don't ever like it to see a boat upside down and a driver in the water," Allen said. "But Jackie's accident gave our rescue team a chance to show just how quick and efficient it is."
Before the spray had settled from the boat's plunge into the lake, a small boat was alongside Cunningham with a diver who went in the water to help stabalize her. Then a larger boat moved in to pick her up and transport her to shore where an ambulance was waiting.
"The second boat has the capability of lifting the boat out of the water if the situation warrants it," Allen said.
On several other occasions, the rescue boats anticipated potential trouble and were moving toward the scene before anything happened.
The two IHBA rescue boats and crews travel to all of the organization's sites, which include Castaic Lake, Berenda Reservoir at Chowchilla and the Sacramento River diversion dam at Red Bluff, in addition to Firebird and Puddingstone lakes.
As long as boats have been built, there has been racing between owners, but the sport of drag boat racing traces its roots back to November 26, 1956, when the Kern County Boat and Ski Club held race on a lake in Hart Park, just east of Bakersfield. Forty-two boats showed up and Darrell Jenkins, in a flatbottom called Vapor Trail, set the fast time of 77.58 m.p.h.
At first glance, the sport appears to be a waterized copy of asphalt drag racing, in which the object is to be the first to cover 440 yards in a side by side race. Drag boat racing, like its earthbound counterpart, has a confusing number of classes, 16 in all, determined by hull design (hydro, flatbottom and tunnel), engine size (565 cubic inches on down) and method of propulsion (propeller and jet).
They range from the 565 cubic inch top fuel hydros which skitter across the water at 220 m.p.h. with only the tiniest portion of the hull touching the water, to the 100 m.p.h eliminators that are like the street stocks of drag racing.
"The most thrilling thing I've seen in racing is when those top fuel hydros race," Allen said. "It's wild, the way they throw those roostertails of water and exert so much power that the ground shakes, just like it does when the cars run."
A day at the races usually means dawn to dusk, with officials often struggling to get the final runs finished before darkness.
Drag races on asphalt are slowed by oil downs, a car's engine letting go and dropping oil all over the strip that has to wiped up and dried. There are no oil downs on the water, but the delays can be as bad. A boat that blows its engine can sit dead in the water until a patrol boat can tow it back to shore.
When a boat sinks, as several boats did during the Winternationals, it must either be removed or inspectors must assure that it won't slowly float back to the surface--or just below the surface where it might be hit.
"You can't be too careful," Allen said. "We not only don't want anyone hurt, we don't want a boat damaged, either. Even the eliminators cost $25,000, which is an awful lot when you consider that there's not much money to be made in drag boats."
Drag boat racing is about where drag racing was 20 years ago, struggling along through the dedication of a handful of hardy drivers, owners and promoters who love the sport so much they won't quit.
The sports is still out of the mainstream, neglected by the media, undiscovered by television and not yet interesting to major sponsors.
Jim Dale, IHBA national technical director, believes that the new safety rules may enable his sport to make the turn toward bigger things.
"Once the new rule takes hold it may allow drag boat racing to surge ahead as a major spectator sport," Dale said.
Although the IHBA is a regional organization at the time, one of several scattered around the country, Allen envisions a day when there will be one overall sanctioning body and a series of 8 to 10 nationally televised events leading to a true national championship.
"Which do you need first, TV or the sponsors?" he asked. "If we get TV, we'll get the sponsors, just the way the funny cars and the top fuelers did. On the other hand, if we could get enough commercial sponsors, we could buy time on TV."
The drag boats still have the old-fashioned names painted on their sides: Madness, Bad Blood, My Boat Too, Alabama Express, Fandango, Sunday Showdown, et al.
"The ink and the fame just isn't there for basically the same amount of dedication it takes to race cars," Hill said. "It has a more relaxed, less formal atmosphere than car racing, but if you want to make a living doing it, it's intolerable.
"I don't want to make it sound all negative. I loved it while I was doing it and I wouldn't have got involved as far as I did if I hadn't enjoyed it. There's nothing more exhilarating than a good run in a drag boat, but it pays a whole lot better in a car."
Allen, who set the world funny car record at 222.22 m.p.h. in 1971 in Vancouver, was asked if he ever felt an urge to drive a top fuel drag boat.
"Never," he said incredulously. "What do you take me for? I can barely watch them, they make me so nervous."