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Danger Is No Longer Their Business : Drag boats: Since the move to enclosed cockpits, drivers are living to tell about going faster than 200 m.p.h.

October 05, 1991|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The changes in drag boat racing during the last three or four years have made it almost a completely different game, according to Ron Braaksma, the second-fastest driver of a top-fuel hydro in history.

"It's not even the same sport," Braaksma said while preparing his 3,500-horsepower Madness for this weekend's International Hot Boat Assn. Fallnationals on San Dimas' Puddingstone Lake.

Braaksma went 227.10 m.p.h. last year on the Savannah River, near Augusta, Ga., and also holds the IHBA capsule boat record of 220.04 m.p.h., set earlier this year on Firebird Lake in Arizona.

The fastest speed was 229 m.p.h. by Eddie Hill, now a top-fuel drag racer, in a lighter, open-cockpit boat in 1984.

"The capsule has made drag boat racing a new sport," Braaksma said. "Before the capsule, our sport was killing itself, literally. For two years, we lost so many drivers that the insurance companies called us 'one of the five most dangerous sports.' Eddie Hill, the most famous driver in our sport, quit because it had become too dangerous.

"Then we developed the capsule cockpit, and our safety record the last three years probably makes us one of the safest."

The capsule is an enclosed cockpit, taken from F-16 fighter planes, complete with on-board oxygen systems in case a boat flips upside down. Before capsules, drivers were often killed when they were thrown into the water and the boat landed on them, or they drowned if they were knocked unconscious.

Since capsules became mandatory three years ago, drivers have survived four high-speed crashes.

"It's something the unlimited (hydroplane) guys developed, but we watched them closely and followed their lead," Braaksma said. "The first time I tried it, it seemed weird because it was so different, but after a couple of races I don't know a single driver who would go out on the water without it. It's a whole bunch more comfortable, and the danger factor does not even come into play."

Capsules are mandatory for the IHBA's three fastest classes--top-fuel hydros, blown-alcohol hydros (190 m.p.h.) and blown-gas hydros (180 m.p.h.). Plans call for at least one new class to convert to mandatory capsules every other year.

"Capsules aren't cheap. They run between $7,500 and $8,000, but that's a far cry from the first ones we tried," Braaksma said. "They ran $25,000, but that's cheap considering the lives they saved."

Braaksma almost was killed two weeks before his team installed its first canopy, when his boat flipped during the final round of an IHBA race at Chowchilla, Calif., in 1988.

"I was in a roll cage, strapped in like an Indy car driver, but with no capsule. I almost drowned. It was the first year we'd tried roll cages, and if I hadn't remained conscious after the boat went over, I'd have drowned for sure. It was the scariest thing I've ever been through. I got off at about 80 (m.p.h.) on a cycle once on the freeway, and it felt a whole lot better than when that boat crashed. When you get off on asphalt, you hit and slide, but water is worse. You not only hit and bounce, but the water grabs you each time you hit. It's a lot worse.

"I had been going about 180 at Chowchilla and was three-fourths of the way into the run. I was declared the winner because parts of the boat triggered the lights at 127 m.p.h. I was struggling to get out, but I forgot I was strapped in. I couldn't figure out why I wasn't able to just paddle away and then I realized where I was.

"The next thing I remember is being carried on a stretcher, and I looked up and saw my wife and all I could say was, 'Did we win?' "

He did, because the engine of Jay Hartunian, the other finalist, in G Forces, failed.

Braaksma's boat was demolished, and the crash cost him the top-fuel hydro championship because he had no backup boat. He had won in 1987 and came back to win again in '89 and '90.

"You can say we've won three years in a row because we're planning on locking up this year's championship at Puddingstone," Braaksma said. "We got beat by Kyle Walker in the Spirit of America last month at Castaic, and it caught our attention. It was the first time we'd been beaten on the water--without an engine breaking or red-lighting--this year, and we're looking for some revenge Sunday."

Braaksma holds a 394-point lead over Walker, 2,648 to 2,254, with Ralph Padilla's Quarterflash still contending with 2,248.

Walker's elapsed time of 5.43 seconds at 199.55 m.p.h. defeated Braaksma's 5.49 at 205.47 in what onlookers said was the greatest final run in the sport's 30-year history. Of nine top-fuel passes at Castaic, eight were quicker than 5.98 seconds, and seven were faster than 200 m.p.h. Walker, from Houston, had the day's top speed of 212.76 m.p.h.

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