A Driver Tells What It's Like [1959]

I imagine every spectator at a Gold Cup has had the urge to take the wheel of one of the spectacular hydroplanes as it skims over the water; trailing a "roostertail" of spray. But sweeping across the chop of a race course, with control of a 6000-pound racer and 2000 horsepower responding to your bouncing foot is a thrill reserved for the few who have established themselves as drivers in this hazardous unlimited racing.

These men pit themselves against each other, often with a disregard for their own safety, but for some, life has no savor unless spiced with some degree of peril. Add to that the wind in your face, the vibration in the seat of your pants, the personal exhilaration of high speed, and you have the lure of unlimited driving.

These drivers are professionals only in that they have earned the reputation that makes anyone a "pro" in his particular sport. Most are successful men who have found racing an outlet for untapped energy. Because they are never relaxed, they find themselves best suited to racing's quick and varied demands.

They have spent years acquiring the skills of full-fledged unlimited pilots.

What special skill and training does it take to manhandle 30 feet of plywood and aluminum at 150 m.p.h. plus? First, practice makes perfect-it develops reflexes. Rapidity of reactions marks the front-ranked drivers. No one can indulge is this hectic racing unless he is 100% fit both physically and mentally. Rest and proper care of your physical condition is important. In the course of an active six months schedule, your mind and muscles are working at top pressure and a great deal is demanded.

Let's follow an Unlimited driver through one of these races, from the tense hours preceding the event to the end of a day filled with success or, too often, frustration and disappointment.

The night before, you try not to think of the race; try to relax. More often than not, you fret away the hours until dawn. You try to east a good breakfast — there won't be much time for lunch. But, even with the oatmeal, your stomach feels full of "butterflies" as big as blackbirds. You reflect that this nervous tension is what causes athletes to rise above their own abilities and meet a great occasion; maybe this is your day! Still, you always worry about the other fellow. It doesn't pay to underestimate him. Luck plays a part and you can't always have all the luck. Unlimited boats are temperamental, unpredictable. More than once, a three-cent nut has caused a $30,000 boat to go dead in the water.

Therefore, your crew spends the hours before the race looking for any oversight. A skilled, enthusiastic pit crew encourages any driver and gives him confidence. This is a good time to discuss race strategy, usually with the owner and crew chief. The condition of your boat, the opposition, or your national point standings are all considerations. Usually you set your tactics from the results of practice but you might change them in accordance with the way the race is being run, or what other competitors are doing. You may have accumulated enough points during the first heats to allow you to slack off and conserve the equipment in the third and final heat. It's hard to back off, and more than one driver has succumbed to the temptation to show off when the race was already in the bag.

Sometimes, this council of war is interrupted with advice from the owner and crew. "Hit the line hard." "Don't jump the gun." "Be first into the turn." "Take it easy on the gearbox." "Play it safe." If you've been successful in the past, you are expected to go faster than the boat has ever gone before, to outrun superior equipment and other skilled drivers. Everyone expects so much!

Speedboat racing, like auto racing, flying, or even highway driving, is dangerous. The risks are similar because of the high velocities, the possibility of collision, or of mechanical failures. Danger has been substantially reduced by strict physical and oral examinations, boat inspections, and close control over the racing course. While the speeds are high and the accidents spectacular, men like Bill Muncey and Lou Fageol have survived disastrous crashes. Danger can be materially reduced by the use of proper equipment and keeping the cockpit free and unobstructed so that the driver may be thrown clear. While drivers may at times seem overly concerned because of a particular condition, I have never heard one express fear of competitive driving. They always have a hunch that the next accident has someone else's name on it.

As race time approaches, the tension grows. Fifteen minutes before the starting gun, you begin to get ready. The crane swings the boat into the water and you start to put on your equipment. For fire protection, you wear long sleeves and tight cuffs. You remove all sharp objects from your pockets, and things yon don't want wet. A life jacket with sturdy canvas leg straps and a protective racing helmet complete your attire. Some drivers wear gloves, but I've never found that mittens made any difference in speed.

Five minutes to the five-minute warning gun and you step onto the boat and crawl into the cockpit. Your crewman gives you his best wishes, and gives your windshield one last wipe. You pull down your goggles with a silent prayer that she'll start. You know your crew is doing the same. Mag on! Hit the starter! Touch the primer, and the engine catches with a puff of black smoke. Pull back on the mixture control and the powerplant comes to life.

You have assumed what you consider the correct driving posture. While position is highly individual, a straight back with extended arms allows the most relaxed position. The placement of your hands on the steering wheel is again highly individual, but ten and four o'clock seems to offer maximum use of back and shoulder muscles. Unlimited boats, while very good at turning to the left, have practically no response to the rudder in a right turn. All courses are run counterclockwise, and all race maneuvering is with left-hand turns.

As the five-minute warning gun fires, you begin to work into position for the start. One minute before the start, another gun sounds and a large pie-faced clock begins its one-minute swing. Most drivers carry a stopwatch, but only the bravest will lose sight of this blackout clock, after the one-minute gun has fired. As the boats swing to make their flying run to the line, your heart beats a tattoo on the inside of the your ribs. Everyone wants to hit the line right on the gun and at full bore. Timing is important. All great champions have it and timing is the one thing a "would be" lacks. Drivers like Lon Fageol and Chuck Thompson use it to get out front at the start and save themselves a lot of trouble later.

The starting gun sounds and neck-and-neck you sprint for the turn. The boats are close, and their presence on either side can inhibit the most seasoned driver. Here a bit of daring may be in order. You can't be timid, for this is the chance to break into the clear. Being as imperfect as the next fellow, we often end up back in the pack. The smart driver may prefer to hang back until he's in the clear. There's no profit in being drowned out by the roostertail from a slower boat that you can easily pass on the next straightaway. As the orange course markers flash by, you bear down into the turn, and here we separate the men from the boys. Proper cornering technique is something you have to feel, it can't be acquired except from practice. Wild driving, while apparently faster, seldom pays off as consistently as a smooth, unhurried style — the kind generally most successful in any sport.

As the pack of Unlimiteds push into the first turn, traffic thickens and you have the sensation that everything is now happening twice as fast. On some courses, an Unlimited may take only 16 seconds getting through this turn. Seven boats soaring into the turn is an awesome sight. Only the most proficient can control their boats so accurately that they call squeeze through holes and vary their lines of travel. Each turn changes with the presence of traffic and water conditions, but essentially you wish to approach on the proper line and at the speed that will send the boat around in a controlled slide or drift.

To do this, you pick a predetermined "back-off" point, somewhere near the end of the straightaway. A slight lifting of your throttle foot is enough to allow the propeller to walk the stern to the right and to cause your boat to approach the turn at a mild inward angle — this even before you lave turned the rudder. With good position, the boat will enter the turn so smoothly that it appears to be riding on rails. Properly controlled, you slide around, applying power to keep pointed at the apex of the turn and in line for the next straightaway buoy. Your goal is to recover top speed as quickly as possible.

Beyond the start and first turn, there is not much you can do, unless your boat has an exceptional speed advantage. Up the backstretch, you simply stab it and steer. You hold close to the buoy line, check your gauges, and plan for the next turn. You should always he sensitive to instrument readings, vibrations, sounds, or smells that may predict trouble.

But the straight is the straight and the faster boats pick up on the slower ones, no matter how skillful the driver. Not so with the corner, where skill counts. One boat may have top speed but lack the handling or acceleration of another. And stamina may overcome swiftness. Some heavy-footed drivers are real tigers, and while their personal ability may avert disaster, their demand for very ounce of power may overstress the equipment. Sometimes though, you must risk breakdown when those ahead have set a pace too fast for your mount.

There's always something you can try on the next turn. It won't always work, but what do you lose by trying? Maybe you can pass inside, or outside; maybe you call out-accelerate him.

Sometimes clinging to the buoys is not always the best maneuver. Many drivers have had their baptism of racing in another's roostertail as some driver ahead "closed the door." After the first lap, you settle down to maintaining or improving your position. As the race wears on, attention must not slacken. Buoys can drift and errors in judgment on someone else's part can be frightening. You must stay alert, because a spin or flip could catapult some other driver into your path. More than one of us has had the experience of floating helplessly in the water as the field storms tip the straightaway and into the turn. Commenting on my indoctrination into the "catapult club," Bill Stead said that I looked as though I were "standing on a barrel" as I waved in an attempt to attract attention. Time seemed to stand still as boats swept within a few feet, their propellers churning. They all missed me, but I'll still take my Saturday bath in a tub.

Lap after lap of a three-mile course can be tiring physically. Unless you drive to your limit, it's easy to start losing fractions of seconds here and there. At a race average in excess of 140 feet per second, these fractions soon total a straightaway lead. It's essential, therefore, to drive fast to the finish; to press on even when no boat is challenging.

Press on, stick like glue, and make each boat ahead your immediate goal, chopping off opponents lap by lap. Trailing invariably makes the man in front nervous. You can hide behind his roostertail, running so closely that he may not even be able to see you. The chief objection is the danger. A spin or flip by the driver in front could cause disaster, and such tactics are only for the most skillful. Some drivers also engage in the game of "chicken," each refusing to give way upon reaching the turn. In my opinion, this proves nothing in the way of either boat performance or driver skill. The general opinion is that playing the game and playing it safe is no reflection on your courage, but rather confirmation of your good judgment.

Racing craft, traveling at high speed, encounter a variety of resistance from both water and air. The problem is to make the boat withstand this punishment and to make these forces work for you. At high speed, the hull may become airborne, assuming an attitude called "kiting." While highly dramatic and a source of thrills to race spectators, it is usually a less than pleasant experience for the driver. Most drivers keep pretty close touch with the tachometer or water speedometer, aid use these as a yardstick on which to base various maneuvers. All drivers attempt to use a smooth throttle technique. Those with Rolls Royce power plants find that running in certain r.p.m. ranges will give longer life to the supercharger drive, but most will confess driving by the seat of their pants once in a while.

Lap after lap you try your damnedest. Sometimes you try too hard and the equipment gives way beneath you. Sometimes the bad luck results from other mistakes of your own. In the course of time, you get used to these inevitable occurrences and they only whet your enthusiasm for the next race and another chance.

Win, lose or draw, it's been a lot of fun. No matter how many times you've raced, hanging onto that wheel is a new and greater thrill every time. And, as thousands of kids on the bank will agree, you had the best seat in the house.

(Reprinted from Yachting, July 1959, pp.59, 101-4)