1988 Seafair Budweiser Cup
D'Eath Delighted To Be Back
Veteran Hydroplane Driver Sold On Boat's Cockpit Safety Canopy
When he retired from unlimited hydroplane driving after the 1986 Seafair race, Tom D'Eath had tears in his eyes.
No, he didn't win the race; he finished second. D'Eath was crying because he had "beaten death'' and escaped unlimited racing with his life and body intact.
D'Eath loved boat racing, but he didn't want to die proving it.
Now D'Eath has returned to the sport he feared earlier and has won this season's past two races on the unlimited circuit in U-1 Miss Budweiser.
No one put a gun to his head and made him return. But D'Eath, who was happy with his life on the beach, had to be talked into driving again.
After winning Sunday's Columbia Cup regatta in the Tri-Cities, D'Eath's broad smile told observers what he thought of his decision to rejoin the roostertail circuit.
"I'm sure glad they dragged me back,'' he said while standing on a pier at the Columbia Park pits.
They, in this case, means Jim Kropfeld, Miss Budweiser's regular driver who is a close friend of D'Eath's, and Bernie Little, the boat's owner.
"It was the chance of a lifetime, a real golden opportunity,'' said D'Eath of the offer to drive Miss Budweiser, which has won nine national titles since 1969, including the past two.
"I never had the chance to drive a boat as well-equipped and fast as this one. This is great.''
The Bud's driving job became available after Kropfeld was injured in a collision with the U-8 Mr. Pringle's during the championship heat race of the June 5 season-opening regatta in Miami.
"I would not have come back if it weren't for Jimmy,'' said the silver-haired D'Eath, 44. "He asked me to do it as a favor. His family and mine are very close.''
While his rivals may not share his view of this season, they do respect D'Eath's driving skills. Before the start of the Columbia Cup final, U-10 Vantage Ultra Lights driver Larry Lauterbach praised D'Eath as a tough, but fair competitor.
"There's nobody I feel safer running side-by-side with than Tommy,'' said Lauterbach. "He runs hard, but clean.''
The unlimited circuit's youngest driver, Seattle's Mike Hanson, who will drive U-6 Holset/Miss Madison Sunday, said he looks to D'Eath as a role model.
"No one gets to the starting line better than he does,'' said Hanson, 27. "I'm going to stick close to him and try not to let him get away, although that will be difficult with the way his boat is running.''
Although D'Eath said he hasn't changed his mind about how dangerous hydroplane racing is, he said the sport is different.
"The speeds are a whole a lot faster,'' said D'Eath, who will drive the Bud in the Seafair regatta Sunday (qualifying is scheduled Thursday and Friday). "But safety is better. No doubt it's improved 10 times over what it was just two years ago.''
D'Eath ought to know. He was able to walk away from a spectacular blowover during the final heat of the June 26 Gold Cup regatta in Evansville, Ind.
"If I'd been involved in an accident like that while driving the Squire Shop, I would been killed,'' he said. "No doubt about it, I certainly would not be here.''
When he retired, D'Eath was upset about proposals to install canopies on unlimited-class boats and require drivers to wear seat belts.
Now, he's one of the biggest boosters of the enclosed jet-fighter canopies that will be mandatory for all unlimited racing craft next season.
"You have to remember that when I was concerned about the use of seat belts and all that, they didn't have the canopies available today,'' he said. "And the canopies I did see being played around with looked like toys. But I wholeheartedly agree with the way they are doing it now.''
D'Eath said safety features such as canopies, roll bars and seat restraints have turned around the direction of his sport.
"The fans were schooled into thinking that if you flipped an unlimited, you were going to get killed, because everybody did get killed,'' said D'Eath. " But you're seeing a new era in hydroplane racing, where the guy will unbuckle after a blowover and say, `Where's the other boat, I'm ready to go racing.' ''
D'Eath's victory Sunday pushed the Bud to the top of the national point standings. But no matter how successful he is this year, D'Eath plans to be a spectator next season.
The Fairhaven, Mich., veteran wants to remain part of the Budweiser family, but will concentrate on his successful engine and boat-building business.
"I get as much of a kick out watching guys win limited-class races and set records with my equipment as I would if I was in the boat myself,'' said D'Eath. "I'm hoping the Bud guys will adopt me and keep me around at least as a helper next year.
"I'll help set the boat up and be a substitute driver whenever I can, but Jimmy is the Budweiser driver.''
Hydroplane drivers are a macho breed willing to joust with death on its own terms. Despite a plethora of unlimited-class blowovers and accidents this season, there is no clamor among drivers to reduce speeds.
But D'Eath, who isn't afraid to show his emotions or intelligence in public, thinks the next logical step is limiting the unlimiteds.
"I think there is going to be a time when the URC will have to slow them down,'' he said. "Every other motor sport has done it - Indy cars, NASCAR and Formula One.
"We're going to do it here, too. We don't have to run 200 mph down the straightaway to put on a show.''
|1988 HYDRO ACCIDENTS
— June 5, Miami: Miss Budweiser (Jim Kropfeld), Mr. Pringle's (Scott Pierce) collide (Kropfeld injures neck).
— June 12, Detroit: None
— June 26, Evansville, Ind.: Miller High Life (Chip Hanauer) and Oh Boy! Oberto (George Woods) collide; Miss Circus Circus (John Prevost) and Sutphen Spirit (Mike Hanson) collide; Miss Budweiser (Tom D'Eath) flips. All drivers uninjured.
— July 3, Madison: None.
— July 16, Syracuse: Sutphen Spirit flipped, driver Mike Hanson uninjured.
— July 31, Tri-Cities: None.
|TOM D'EATH PROFILE
— Age/residence: 44; Fairhaven, Mich.
— Occupation: Unlimited hydroplane driver and engine builder, boat builder for limited-class hydros.
— Boat: Turbine-powered Miss Budweiser.
— Career victories: Six in 59 races (1973-86, 1988).
— Gold Cups: One - 1976 aboard Miss U.S. in Detroit.
— 1988 victories: Two.
X Syracuse - Broke course record in qualifying with 146.074 mph lap on two-mile course. Averaged 127.119 mph for 30-mile race.
X Tri-Cities - Set world records for 37½-mile race (134 mph) and 12½-mile heat (136 mph); regained national points lead for Budweiser team.
(Reprinted from The Seattle Times, August 2, 1988)